The tradition and the twist exist separately in the relaunched Southern Spice, giving it both distinctiveness and appeal

Closed for about ten months, Southern Spice at Taj Coromandel throws its doors open today to present a new, and somewhat unexpected, face. The basic idea — to showcase food from the four southern states — remains intact; but pretty much everything else has undergone a sweeping transformation, less renovation and more reconstruction.

At first sight, the hybridity of the striking new interiors is a little unsettling. On the one hand, there are the traditional fluted wooden pillars, buttresses, rosette patterns carved into the wooden roof, kalamkari and other traditional art on the walls. On the other, there are the appurtenances of modernity — glass partitions, contemporary muted lighting, Beltrami linenware and voguish tableware.

Striking a balance

Ornate chic may be an oxymoron, but the restaurant wrestles with striking a balance between a certain elaborate decorativeness and an understated elegance – and actually manages to pull it off. The pulls of the traditional and the novel play themselves out in the menu as well. Although about a quarter of the dishes have been retained, this is a very different Southern Spice — one that has tried to widen its culinary net and bring forms of traditional southern cuisine from a variety of places (Thanjavur, Virudhunagar, Vijayawada, Kundapur, etc.) to add a different dimension to the menu.

The Kair katti yerachi kola urundai (minced lamb dumplings wrapped in banana fibre), a speciality from Thanjavur that is a variant of the Maharashtrian Shunti, exemplifies the quest for interesting forms of southern fare. Fried with onions and a spice powder of fennel, cinnamon and cashewnut, it exudes a brown burnt taste in a most acceptable way.

At the same time, it has been bold enough to innovate around the edges. For instance, the paruppu usli forsakes beans for crunchy little bits of fresh asparagus, a switch that works surprisingly well. The Chocolate puranam mousse conceals a filling of coconut, lentil and jaggery, an interesting alternative to ada pradhaman.

The welcome thing is that these and other experiments seem measured and well-considered. The restaurant has resisted drifting towards, as some others have done in recent times, Indian nouvelle and banking on overwrought forms of fusion and the surface appeal of a pretty plated style. The tradition and the twist exist independent of each other in Southern Spice — an important reason for its distinctiveness and appeal.

Distinctly upmarket it is though, with an attempt to lend a dash of fine dining to the south Indian experience, the painted glass dome and the grey stodginess of the old dιcor giving way to the chic chocolate and silver-grey of the new. And please note, that the kari varuval is made from New Zealand lamb chops and the tenderloin kurmilagittadhu is pure and buttery Angus.

I find myself welcoming two absences. First, that of the regulation vadams (fryums), which are invariably placed on tables in pan-southern restaurants as appetite-killing nibbles. Second, the lack of a performance space for conversation-killing music and dance, another south Indian restaurant staple. (I am told though there is a retractable stage, which would do well to stay retracted.) That the Taj requisitioned the help of Chef Natarajan, now corporate chef of the Gateway chain but the man who launched Southern Spice in 1997, could have played a role in the retention of its core strengths. Both he and the sous chef R. Anand talk enthusiastically of the research that has gone into the making of the menu — including visits to the homes of people and quests for the best ingredients. I find myself drawn to the simple vegetarian fare, featured in a regular thali as well as in a special sadya version. It may seem odd to extol something as simple as the delightful arachivitta sambhar in a restaurant with such an elaborate menu, but as it's always with food, the challenge is to get the basics absolutely right.