Stop asking me where to go for dinner. I really don’t know. Why should I always decide anyway? And why do I always have to order for everybody?
I’m embarrassingly unimaginative anyway. If I find a new restaurant, I squat there for months, till the waiters start slapping me on the back and asking me to help out on busy days.
Fortunately, this year there’s always been something new.
Now, with MRC Nagar rapidly being restructured, the city is likely to finally have an actual dining destination, buzzing with hotels, fine dining and hip restaurants. Not surprisingly, M. Mahadevan, who’s possibly one of Chennai’s shrewdest restaurateurs, has quietly beaten everyone to the draw and opened Kokum in the heart of this area.
Kokum, which follows in the footsteps of the popular Ente Keralam, focusses on traditional home cooking. Except this time, it expands beyond just Kerala to the four Southern States. Although this is a rather common theme with Southern restaurants, Kokum’s advantage is its attention to seafood, which makes up a significant part of the menu.
Right now, they keep their blinds down, because the view consists of dusty roads, ugly construction and heavy machinery. But you can see that once it’s all done, this is going to be a scenic Singapore-like area. Best of all, between the buildings, there’s the glimmer of the sea.
Which makes the juicy karivepak royyala vepadu, prawns from Andhra Pradesh, delightfully appropriate. Especially when it’s served with spicy kane besule, soft ladyfish slathered in a crisp skin twanging with spices, including the distinctive Mangalorean red chilli.
Focus on specific areas
Chef Regi Mathew, who’s overseeing the restaurant, says the team decided to pick specific areas to base the food on, so the menu wouldn’t lose focus. Otherwise, as any true-blue foodie knows, recipes and food habits can change every 10 km or so in our deliciously diverse country.
Therefore Andhra Pradesh is represented by Nellore, Karnataka by Mangalore and Kundapur, Kerala by Alleppey and the Malabar regions and Tamil Nadu by Chettinad food.
The interiors therefore are carefully unbiased, attempting to convey the essence of the traditional South without getting too hung up on specific cultures. Tranquil, pretty and sedate, Kokum like all Mahadevan’s restaurants is sensibly comfortable without being superbly posh or unnervingly opulent.
The food, in keeping with the décor, is good without being extraordinarily elaborate or fussy. Thanks to the fact that they’re being quite obsessive about ingredients, every dish has a distinctive flavour, which is quite a treat in these days of ‘one spice fits all.’
The highlights are the Goan prawn balchao, rich and tangy, teamed with fluffy sanas. Also the spicy stuffed eggplants in a thick gravy redolent with peanuts, copra and sesame seeds. Then there was the red fish curry, designed to go beautifully with steaming rice.
There was also a duck roast, though with all the spice and frying it seems overly satiating given the fact that duck is rather heavy to begin with. The mutton gongura is interesting if you like the brisk tartness of the gongura leaf. There’s also an Udipi delicacy, a rather strange blend of plump mushrooms and bottle gourd, which takes some getting used to.
Although they serve an intimidatingly large thali, Kokum’s variety is best sampled slowly. You wouldn’t rush through four states as a tourist, would you? It makes sense to approach the food the same way, since every cuisine is so defiantly individual. Of course, mixing and matching is the nicest feature of a restaurant that brings together different cuisines. But do it thoughtfully. Fish and rice. Crisp kori roti, a rice flour bread, with Mangalore chicken curry. Delicate neer dosa with, well, almost anything.
A thin payasam bobbing with what tastes like little vadais (pal kozhukattai) is served for dessert. The hot milky liquid is delicious, the spongy solids less so. Instead, I’d suggest their gorgeous banana dosas laced with cinnamon, which are really starters but make great desserts with their fudgy, flamboyant flavours.
Kokum is at Old Number 60, New Number 115, Kasthuri Avenue. Dinner for two should cost roughly Rs. 800. Call 42185462 for details.