Nadodi is a place of wonder, and culinary wander-ment.
Even before its gunmetal elevator doors slid open to the public in March, Nadodi had already sparked whispers among KL’s gourmands – of tradition revisited, envelopes pushed and ambition on fire.
Those whispers were – and still are – often punctuated by comparisons with Gaggan, at the head of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and No.7 on the corresponding global list.
These comparisons seem to have arisen simply because both restaurants wear the culinary cloak of Indian cuisine (and Sri Lankan, in Nadodi’s case) and both are progressive. But such broad comparisons are hardly useful, since both restaurants obviously have their own distinctive visions, style and substance. And there is more than one way to be progressive.
KL is ideal for such modern Indian cuisine, according to executive chef Johnson Ebenezer.
“There are more banana leaf restaurants here than we have back home in Chennai!” he says. That means palates are primed for familiar flavours, reimagined and re-presented.
Nadodi takes up the whole first floor. The distinctive monochrome marble walls that have always lent such an air of elegance to the space (which once housed il Lido and La Scala) remains, this time accented by cool brown and taupe.
While the ambience remains one of understated luxury, little details indicate a gentle sense of humour: a cluster of fabric curls in the central dining room mimics cinnamon quills and pays homage to the spices central to the cuisine, while the private room known as the Chef’s Table is called such because of an LCD screen that can hide or reveal the inner workings of the kitchen at the press of a button.
This is where Ebenezer and chef de cuisine Sricharan Venkatesh (fresh from the aforementioned kitchen of Gaggan) explore the culinary curiousities of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka.
“Nadodi means ‘wanderer’ or ‘nomad’ in both Malayalam and Tamil,” says Ebenezer.
“There was frequent travel among these areas, along what is known as Adam’s Bridge.”
Thought to once be a limestone bridge between India and Sri Lanka, it is now more channel than bridge – but the fable of fluid connection, interchange and camarederie remains, to capture the imagination.
Within Nadodi’s degustation menus, they revisit the collective and individual pasts of each area, dip into their own memories, and fearlessly plot a culinary trail into the future.
A meal at Nadodi is structured as a journey – whether it is of seven miles (courses), 11 or 14 is up to the diner. A completely vegetarian degustation is available for each.
These menus will change every two months, and start at RM250 (for the vegetarian option) or RM280, both without wine.
Other decisions you can make – to go with the recommended wine pairing, or with distinctive cocktails from mixologist Akshar Chalwadi.
These cocktails don’t just conjure familiar tastes, but experiences as well – Magizchi’s cardamom-infused vodka with saffron, and a preserve of rose petals and betel leaves conjures images of fragrant incense smoke rising.
The chefs anchor their dishes firmly in tradition, underscored by a solid bedrock of meaning – there’s a reason behind every dish. Sometimes, traditional flavours from more than one dish are recombined.
But their fearlessness in forging these creations provokes much contemplation of identity.
What exactly is avial, that delectably thick mixture of vegetables, curd and coconut, so integral a part of Keralan cuisine? At what point does it take on its identity – in the grinding of cumin, coconut and chilli, or the moment that the vegetables are added?
Nadodi’s Malayali Trade has the familiar flavours in a sauce, under a rectangle of fried puttu – in its steamed form, another staple of all three areas – dotted with carrot, pumpkin and coconut purees, crisp peas on the side.
The usual suspects are all here, albeit in different forms, and the result is a glorious, flavourful mouthful, toasty and delicately spiced, familiar yet not.
Is the South Indian curd rice of Tamil Nadu – comfort food to legions – only itself in its conventional form? What if it were turned into a rice cracker, sprinkled with curry leaves and yoghurt powder, to melt alluringly in the mouth and immediately bring curd rice to mind – as the Destroyed Staple, one of the early courses.
Because one of the beautiful things about Nadodi’s food is that while each dish is woven with stories, it doesn’t leave you guessing, puzzled about what you just put in your mouth.
“The main thing for us is to remain authentic to the dish and the region, even as we apply modern techniques and different perspectives to our food,” says Ebenezer.
Sailing smoothly through a sea of flavours, diners will also see themselves navigating a way through a myriad stories – of trade winds blowing spice-laden ships, of how briyani is everywhere in Chennai (“We have it for births, deaths, marriages!” says Ebenezer), and how the advent of Christianity brought beef to Indian tables.
For me, this is a few steps beyond the current convention of explaining only the provenance of the produce on your plate, and it means so much more.
I very much enjoyed Sricharan’s reminiscences of late-night snackage at the masala liver stalls that mushroom near bars, leading to the Detox Liver, a mouthful of the smoothest, creamiest, most luxe chicken liver mousse I have ever had, trapped in choux pastry and freshened with iced raspberry.
There was Ebenezer’s story of Indian mothers staving off the potential colds of the monsoon season with a comforting rasam, as he created a new Nadodi ritual with a hot infusion siphon and an intense, spiced broth infusion made from American heirloom tomatoes, Japanese momotaro and local vine tomatoes, poured over ghee-spiced lentils and spice oil.
And on the day that he got his visa to come and work in Malaysia, Ebenezer found himself walking across Chennai’s Marina Beach – and distilled the sound of the waves, the lady selling cotton candy, the scent of dried ginger tea into a moreish, ethereal bite of dessert wrapped in playfulness.
If I have one criticism to make, it would be the disparity between the smaller courses and the suddenly larger one.
Although you can rely on the fact that you won’t leave the meal hungry, a more gradual bridge would make for a seamless experience.
Who will best enjoy Nadodi? The diner who appreciates the layers of thought, memory and meaning imbued in each dish, who enjoys a subtlety of spice and a fine – and delicious – meal of stories.
183 First Floor
Off Jalan Yap Kwan Seng
Tel: 03-2181 4334
Open 6 to 10pm