It’s like stepping back into 2017. Everything looks the same: from the quirky portraits of historical figures (look for the one of Emperor Shah Jahan playing golf) to the painted and upholstered furniture, and indoor cabannas with silken drapes. Walking into the soon-to-be-launched Desi Di in Poes Garden feels exactly like walking into the Desi Di premises of Perambur just a few years ago.
“We kept all the [decor] pieces and furniture from that restaurant to use in this one,” grins Chef Aaron Coutinho, back in Chennai after a recent stint in Hyderabad. The chef, who also has some experience under Mumbai-based The Bombay Canteen under his belt, is proud of how much of Desi Di he has managed to keep consistent despite the long pause, and also of the things he has changed.
“I want this to be a space where people have conversations about food,” he says over plates of banana leaf wrapped tawa fish fry and and bhutta (corn) kebab made two ways. To demonstrate his point, he gestures to the fish — soft, pungent with a hint of mustard, but otherwise very familiarly Chennai. “This week, we are using an Indian version of puffer fish for this dish. I chanced upon it at the market this afternoon, in a batch of small fishing boats that had just come in. The catch contained many local varieties that aren’t well-known, and don’t sell much. But that is the kind of fish I want to serve my guests, and explain where it comes from, why they should try it.”
Inspired by India
The mustard in this marination is an idea Aaron borrowed from Bengal. Other dishes are nods to other parts of the country, like the chicken tikka khakhra, which comprises meaty little chunks sprinkled like pizza toppings on a sturdy khakhra. And then there are the two-way corn kebabs: an oh-so-soft potato chikki; and sliced cobs marinated in spicy tandoori masala and, well, ‘tandoored’. “It is corn this week; we’ll change it to some other seasonal vegetable next week. Brinjal has a lot of scope,” says Aaron.
He calls it “adaptive Indian cuisine” — taking flavours from around India and adapting them to the local region. “I either give familiar dishes and ingredients a different recipe, or take something hyperlocal yet lesser known and give it a typical Chennai preparation.”
It’s clear that the chef had his fun when coming up with creations. Take, for example, his Naga chicken curry that is served with dosa. Not the dosa you get when you pour batter on a pan, but what you get when you pour the same batter into a waffle maker. This thick, soft dosa waffles are surprisingly just right for dipping into the thick, rich onion-laced gravy and munching along with soft chunks of boneless meat. But the sugarcane chicken kebabs, on the other hand, are just a game of mix and match. The tikkas themselves are just regular seekhs, if a tad too garlic-heavy, but each is skewered on a sugarcane stick instead of a regular one. So you finish your meat and then chew on the skewer too.
But Aaron isn’t just creative with the big stuff: a large part of his ‘seasonal and local’ plan is focused on the chutneys, dips and sides. “I wanted diners to see that the vegetables we used to hate as children, actually can be a lot of fun,” he says. So the sugarcane chicken kebab is served on a bed of shredded gongurra ‘salad’, sweetened with oodles of honey and made crunchy with crushed peanuts. The mutton boti kebab comes with a smooth turnip relish fit to replace all mayonnaise dips from dining tables. And at the centre of the chicken khakhra sits a dollop of ridge gourd chutney, which looks exactly like its mint version, but tastes greener. As if plucked fresh from a garden and crushed then and there.
Desi Di — Indian Restaurant on Kasturi Rangan Avenue, Poes Garden will be open to the public from July 13 onwards. For details, call 48685999.