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14.03.2017

The hashtag #AmitMedia may have its provenance in this prescient 2010 tweet, but it really came into its own as a criticism of Delhi media’s coverage of this year’s jallikattu protests in Tamil Nadu. Depending on where you stand, the hashtag taps a rich vein of either prickly Southern pride, or genuine frustration with the intellectual laziness that still marks this city’s engagement with anything ‘Madrasi.’ 

Cue Thalaivar, which has created a sensation on our culinary scene. Ordinarily anodyne food-bros Rocky and Mayur triggered a full blown regional war this weekend by tweeting favourably about the restaurant’s bizarrely mislabelled “medu vada”. The ensuing social media conflagration, complete with Star Wars inspired DPsplenty of Pun(n)jabi and a day of trending on Delhi Twitter, is already the stuff of online marketing legend.

Tamil-ton The Musical

On our own Madras check of this divisive vada, the comforting strains of A.R. Rahman’s ‘Mental Manadhil’ put us at ease as soon as we enter Thalaivar, despite the mismatch between fun Rajinikanth art on the walls and bland, pastel café décor and furniture. A startling segue to Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills,’ however, is the first discordant note, and a portent of things to come.

Delhi’s expanding mid-market restaurant scene has seen a welcome effort to transcend the catch-all ‘South Indian’ label over the last couple of years; diners are expected to know they’re eating Malayali food at Mahabelly and Kannadiga at Carnatic Café. Despite the avowedly Tamil name, however, Thalaivar’s menu features a healthy dose of food from Kerala and Karnataka as well. Fine, we think: we can work with pan-South Indian even if it does seem to give Andhra a miss altogether. 

On our own Madras check of this divisive vada, the comforting strains of A.R. Rahman’s ‘Mental Manadhil’ put us at ease as soon as we enter Thalaivar, despite the mismatch between fun Rajinikanth art on the walls and bland, pastel café décor and furniture. A startling segue to Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills,’ however, is the first discordant note, and a portent of things to come.

Like the first fight scene of a Tamil action movie, we anticipate creative punches from the intriguingly named Nanu Podi Chicken – a generous helping of succulent boneless chicken strips covered in finely ground house-made gunpowder. While we expect heat, our palate is instead greeted by a strange, coconutty sweet-sour mix overwhelmed by the taste of jaggery, and impossible to place within the culinary range of any specific southern cuisine. Cut, please!

Drinks help allay our momentary disorientation: rasam is comfortingly flavourful, and the accompanying appalam is clearly fresh and perfectly fried, a surprising rarity in Delhi. Cold coffee turns out strong and not overly sweet, made just like at home, with the decoction blended with some cold milk. (Hot tip: ask to leave out the ice-cream.) 

Vada’s Love? Baby Don’t Hurt Me

The controversial ‘medu vada,’ when it arrives, turns out to be, simply put, the best masala or dal vada we have eaten in Delhi – perfectly crisp and crunchy on the outside, with a soft interior packing a spicy kick. It pairs beautifully with smooth, herby coriander chutney: we are mystified that a restaurant capable of creating something so perfectly authentic can mislabel it on the menu. (Thalaivar boasts a ‘vada with sambar’ that happens to be a true medu vada.) 

Having defied expectations with its most notorious dish, alas, the restaurant sets about confirming gloomy suspicions with a vengeance. Appam with mutton stew arrives looking promising and generously-sized, but the appam is let down by its batter, which could have been better fermented. The stew has little of the dish’s subtle, complex flavour: it leans too heavily on coconut milk for effect, and the mutton chunks are tasteless and appear to have been added as an afterthought. 

Mysore masala dosa is lazily constructed, with the red chutney tasting of raw chilli powder instead of the fragrant obligatory garlic; worse, an overly smooth potato masala that has none of the chunky, onion-flavoured goodness that means everything to the dosa’s texture. Crucially - and surprising no one - Thalaivar commits the cardinal sin of serving lacklustre sambar, with sundry vegetables swimming in a watery, largely flavourless broth. 

Our meal ends with serviceable filter coffee, but leaves us unable to shake the feeling that this is the culinary equivalent of #AmitMedia work – lazy and inauthentic fare packaged in the outer casing of sexy southern stereotypes. Delhi deserves better – this Thalaivar movie raises expectations, but delivers a Yenna Rascala.  

Getting there: Thalaivar, E-25 A, Main Market, Hauz Khas, New Delhi. A meal for two will cost approximately Rs.1550. 

Accessibility: The restaurant requires one to climb up a flight of stairs, with no elevator access.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals. 

This review was contributed by Vinay Kesari, a self-confessed Peter living in South Delhi. 

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