by Shantanu David
published in Indian Express
While restaurants in Hauz Khas Village usually tend to flash their signs and hoardings in the market louder than a garage rock band in a cul-de-sac, The Toddy Shop flouts the norm. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the hipster hub, the sole sign to the restaurant is in the form of a discreet star. Following it like the three wise men (more of the James Blunt variety than the biblical original), we find ourselves in a cool, yellow-lit space sparsely set with framed vintage Indian magazine covers, a photography exhibition by Amit Sharma, a small stage area and a few potted palms.
The menu, a trim single sheet glossy document, laps around the Malabar coast and tends to favour the red dot more than the green — all the better for us. There are family recipes aplenty with traditional stews, fries and sides, clearly marked ‘goat’ (not the generic lamb so beloved of most city restaurants) and seafood preparations dominating the options. At this particular party almost everyone is wearing Banana Leaf, and coconut, of course, is king.
Deciding we’ll sample the vegetarian fare on a Tuesday or any day when so many meats aren’t crying for our attention from so many spots on the menu, we start with Kutty’s Fried Chicken (or KFC, if you prefer) and the Pothu Erachi Varattiyathu, more simply known as the spicy beef fry of yore. The chicken, unlike its conglomerated counterpart, is simple-y winning, simbly winning even, comprising slightly larger morsels of chicken marinated in the owners’ secret spice mix and deep-fried with torn curry leaves. The beef fry comes enmeshed in curry leaves, fragmented coconuts and caramelised onions, the degree of doneness varying from as tender as Amma’s dulcet delivery to as tough as Mammootty’s glare. Though some of the pieces really make you work, the dish is wonderfully flavoured and we dispense with it post-haste.
Having partaken of the bounty of Kerala’s land for our starters, we dive into the sea for our mains, ordering the Toddy Shop Aila Mulakittathu (a spicy mackerel curry) and the elegantly alliterative Kayal Konchu Curry (backwaters prawn curry cooked with cocum in a spicy, thin gravy) along with the vital appams. The mackerel curry comprises a whole mackerel, tail up, in a consommé-thin red gravy and far more brackish than the fish in it, which is soft and flaky though lanced throughout with wiry bones. Though light and spicy, the noticeably nautical flavour of the curry will probably make it more palatable to those who prefer their seafood to actually taste of the sea. The prawn curry on the other hand is pure unadulterated, brow-mopping, tissue-reaching spicy and makes a splash with the appam. The unique flavour of the dried cocum berry, so soil-like in taste and texture, adds volumes to the dish, like a secondary character in a good book. As an aside, the appams at The Toddy Shop are textbook, ephemeral on the outside, substantial and filling in the centre. Stuffed to the gills as we are, we beg off dessert. We’ll be floating by soon enough anyway.