Karavalli may well be the world's most famous south India restaurant
It’s been going since 1978 with a menu and décor that are largely unchanged. It has transformed the way Indian restaurants think of black dal (Dal Bukhara has now become a generic term). And any foodie, anywhere in the world, who knows anything about the Indian restaurant scene, knows about Bukhara.
The one you know: If I asked you to name the world’s most famous north Indian restaurant, my guess is that you would pick the obvious contender: Bukhara.
But if I asked you to name the world’s most famous south Indian restaurant, my guess is that you would pause. And perhaps, stumble a little. People in Bombay might say Trishna, believing that crab in butter and garlic sauce was invented in the tiny fishing villages of the Konkan coast. Others will think of the idli-dosa places: Sagar in Delhi, Saravana Bhavan, Woodlands, Dasaprakash, etc.
But for foodies – anywhere in the world – there is only one right answer: Karavalli in Bangalore. It is to south Indian food what Bukhara is to kebabs. Not only is the food terrific but Karavalli’s influence has transformed the way south Indian food is perceived and served.
This is Karavalli’s 25th year (it is younger than Bukhara) and a series of celebrations is planned. There is talk of getting one of the original chefs, Sriram, back from London where he runs the Michelin-starred Quilon (a descendant of Karavalli) and the restaurant has been inviting Bangalore regulars and food writers (including me) to sample a special menu of Karavalli’s greatest hits over the quarter century of its existence.
This is how to do it: Karavalli is to south Indian food what Bukhara is to kebabs. Its influence has transformed the way the cuisine is perceived and served.
To understand the significance of Karavalli, you need to understand a little bit about its background. (And forgive me if you have read this before – it is one of my favourite restaurants so it crops up again and again in Rude Food).
In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the Taj Group had plateaued, both in terms of food and hotels. It had always ruled Bombay. And from the Seventies onwards it had ruled Delhi and Madras.
The opening of the Taj Bengal in the late 1980s meant that it wiped out the competition in Calcutta as well. When it got a long-term management contract for Spencer’s hotels, Bangalore’s West End, and Madras’s venerable old Connemara landed in its lap. It really seemed as though there were no worlds left to conquer.
But because the Taj – in those days – was not the sort of group that sat around feeling smug, its management looked for new challenges. In terms of hotels, the obvious thing to do was to create a budget brand that embodied the best of the Taj without unduly taxing your wallet. That led to the creation of Gateway Hotels.
The first Gateway was a motel on the Bombay-Goa road. The second was a conversion of the old three-star East West Hotel on Residency Road, Bangalore.
Hard as this is to believe now, in that era, the Taj was the market leader in the food space. Oh yes, Bukhara had its adherents but the old Mayur at Maurya catered mainly to wealthy Punjabis (Dum Pukht eventually replaced it).
The exciting developments in the Indian food space were happening at such elegant Taj restaurants as Haveli at the Delhi Taj which popularised dishes that are now menu standards (achaar gosht, for instance) and at Handi which focussed (originally) on a small menu of classic but rarely-found-in-restaurants dishes that were simmered slowly. (This predated Dum Pukht by several years.)
The Taj began re-doing the food at the old Spencer’s hotels. Paradise Island (where Blue Ginger is now located) was created out of a parking lot at Bangalore’s West End and was the first real pan-Asian restaurant in India.
And at the Connemara in Madras, they opened a Chettinad restaurant around an ancient tree and called it Rain Tree. (The original tree no longer exists but three years ago, when I went, the food was as good as ever.)
Both Paradise Island and Rain Tree were created by Camellia Panjabi, then an executive director with the Taj. When the company’s big boss, Ajit Kerkar, tasked her with creating the Gateway Hotels, she decided that she would build a south Indian restaurant in a space at the back of the Bangalore hotel.
I suspect she was inspired by the success of Madras’s Rain Tree and believed that the time was right for a) genuine south Indian non-vegetarian food and b) a more relaxed informal restaurant with outdoor areas without air-conditioning or piped music.
In those days north Indians thought of south Indian food as idlis and dosas. And even south Indians did not necessarily understand the food of their neighbours. I remember going in the early 1980s to such Andhra restaurants as RR and Amaravati in Bangalore where the locals marvelled at an unfamiliar cuisine. And, if I remember correctly, there were few restaurants that served Malayali or Goan food in pleasant settings in the Bangalore of that era.
The idea behind Karavalli was to serve a menu of coastal food that stretched all the way from Goa to Kerala. This was ambitious enough but Camellia Panjabi went further. She did not want food from local dhabas and restaurants.
Chefs were sent to private homes to try and prise out family recipes. When the restaurant finally opened, it was like no other anywhere in the world. It served the family recipes of the best home cooks on the west coast of India.
As the sceptics had predicted, India was not ready for Karavalli. Unlike Bukhara, which took off from day one, Karavalli struggled. The chefs grew despondent. The outlet-chef Bernadette Pinto faced empty tables as did her deputy Naren Thimmaiah. Sriram, who looked after the Gateway’s F&B operations, was sad but cautiously optimistic.
Through it all, the support from the top never wavered. Even as others in the Taj suggested a few compromises ("would it kill you to put butter chicken on the menu?") the management remained firm. It was Panjabi’s concept so she was reluctant to dilute it. And Kerkar backed her 100 per cent.
Quality control: As Karavalli (above left) turns 25, I marvel at its success. Naren Thimmaiah (above right) is still there, still running the kitchen with the same passionate intensity; Karavalli serves an Alleppey fish curry (top right) alongside other home-style specialties.
At the unit level, the support was overwhelming. On the day when not one person came for lunch, PK Mohan Kumar, the opening general manager of the Gateway, sent the staff a bouquet. You are doing something right, he said. Don’t ever compromise.
In these days of revenue-management systems, that approach sounds bizarre. But in that era, the Taj genuinely saw itself as the custodian of Indian cuisine. In some quirky way it believed it was on a mission to preserve dishes and recipes that would otherwise be lost through the generations.
Slowly but steadily, Karavalli began to pick up. Pinto left and Sriram took over the kitchen himself (with Thimmaiah staying on as his deputy). Sriram is not just one of the Taj’s most accomplished chefs, he is also its most articulate and cerebral.
And so as he talked the restaurant up, guests started flowing in. By the end of the Nineties, it had become the greatest destination restaurant in south India, eclipsing even Madras’s Rain Tree.
Inspired by Karavalli’s success, the Taj launched Southern Spice in Madras (though this was less Camellia Panjabi and more Ajit Kerkar and Shankar Menon working with chef ‘Nat’ Natarajan, one of the Taj’s few remaining genius chefs).
When RK Krishna Kumar took over the company he sent Sriram to London to open Quilon, which followed the Karavalli template with sexier ingredients (guinea fowl, diver scallops, oysters, etc) and won a Michelin star. (If there was a Michelin guide to India, Karavalli would easily get two or even three stars, I reckon.)
As Karavalli turns 25, I marvel at its success. Naren Thimmaiah is still there, still running the kitchen with the same passionate intensity. He is one chef who loves his craft and has no desire to become a corporate chef.
Like the best French and Chinese chefs, he is devoted to this kitchen (and to his kitchen brigade which sees very little turnover). He gets virtually every celebrity who visits Bangalore (just as Bukhara gets everyone of consequence who comes to Delhi), but he remains the simple, unaffected guy I remember from two decades ago.
He really doesn’t give a damn about the celebrities or the praise. All he cares about is the food. (It may help, I guess, that he comes from a coffee plantation-owning Coorgi family and has private means).
And Thimmaiah always seems to me to embody the values that once made the Taj Group India’s greatest hotel chain. He ensures that waiters do not upsell to family groups. (None of that “You must try the crab, we have just received it today” nonsense, where the waiters won’t mention how much the crab costs.) He makes a certain number of portions of the curries. If they run out, then he refuses to serve any more. If they don’t, he gives them away. Nothing is kept overnight.
If you are in Bangalore, do go to Karavalli. You’ll have a great meal. But you’ll also understand why so many people of my generation used to regard the Taj Group as the gold standard of Indian hoteliering. Karavalli is still the jewel in its crown.
From HT Brunch, July 5
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