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Mutton chukka is a dish that gives little in the way of apologies.
Uncompromisingly brash, it refuses to be coddled. Its rough-looking appearance, a haphazard array of braised then fried hunks of lamb, bay and curry leaves, and red onion slices, shuns any ideals of culinary charm. Pitiless in the way it forces you to set aside your table manners, it demands that you work at the bone-in chunks of meat to get to their flavor. And when you do get there, there is a heat nothing short of stunning, its intensity coming not from a blistering fury of chile peppers, but from a complex harmony of Indian spices that punish and delight in equal measure.
If you subscribe to this fulcrum of pleasure and pain, then the cuisine of Chettinad, a dry, remote region of the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, is probably for you. Its abundantly spiced food (even to the southern Indian palate) started centuries ago with the Chettiars, a caste of affluent, traveling traders who were as well known for their unique spice blends as for their mansions of Burmese wood and Italian marble.
2814 West Bell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85053
Region: North Phoenix
Chettinad cuisine is difficult to find in the Valley, which makes the arrival of the roughly one-year-old Chennai Chettinaad Palace in North Phoenix reason enough to celebrate. And Sri Lankan-born server and bartender Anthony Felsianes says the restaurant's chef, Sri Dharan, hails from Chettinad as well.
"We gave the restaurant its name to attract customers from the region," Felsianes says. "Chettinad is a certain kind of food in India. Kind of like what a Texas steak means to Americans."
Given the specificity of its namesake's cuisine, Chennai's menu understandably aims wide, offering a selection of about 200 dishes from both northern and southern India lumped together in broad categories.
Most of the Chettinad dishes are labeled as such, some are not, some have been crossed out, and still others are simply not available that day. Do the work and you'll reap the rewards of an India rarely tasted in the Valley. And when it comes to its spiciness, unless you request it, do not expect to be asked for your preferred level of burn.
"We keep it that way not to chase anybody away," Felsianes says, "but to keep the food as authentic as possible."
Excluding, for religious reasons, pork and beef, Chettinad cuisine is decidedly meat-centric. Packed into curries and piled onto plates, lamb, chicken, and various seafood blend with the region's dazzling masalas for highly fragrant aromas that arrive at the table nearly before their serving vessels do.
There is a Chettinad pepper lamb that will make your nose hairs curl, even if you do manage to avoid the accidental consumption of one of the chiles tucked into the arrangement of highly peppered meat. The heat of the chicken Chettinad takes a different route. Put together with tomatoes, onions, and garlic, its spiciness starts out slower, blending with a sweet and smoky flavor before building to a flaming crescendo that sticks around for the rest of the meal. And if you like anchovies, there is the nethyli fish. Fried up with seasonings like red chili powder, turmeric, and coriander, the crunchy little swimmers are supremely salty and spicy, their flavor enhanced with a squirt or two of lemon.
There are very good lamb and chicken curries as well, but for the Chettinad road less traveled, order the egg masala, three hard-boiled eggs rising up from a thick and spicy sauce of coconut, onions, and tomatoes.
On the vegetarian side, there is the Chettinad version of gobi masala, kicked-up cauliflower that can be had in a curry or, better yet, with spicy potatoes slathered inside a crisp dosai, India's version of the crepe. And for a kind of South Indian breakfast-for-dinner, you'll want the vegetable uthappam, a pancake of rice and lentils studded with bits of onion and chiles. Tear off pieces and dip them into accompanying chutneys or a ramekin of sambar, the south Indian vegetable soup, or slather your favorite on the pancake at will.
To lessen the heat, order crisp, tandoori-baked naan lit up with fresh garlic. There is relief on the drink side as well, with a creamy mango lassi or cold and sweet Royal Challenge Indian beer.
At the front corner of a strip mall on the northeast corner of Bell Road and 29th Avenue, Chennai Chettinaad Palace is a grand place. A nod to the region's decorative splendor, its spacious dining room is tidily appointed with corbel archways, marble-topped tables and booths, and colorful patterned fabrics draped not only on the walls, but also from the ceiling, where they collect around a cloth-wrapped pole.
On weekend afternoons, when there is only a buffet, there is rarely an empty table in sight. Nights can be busy, too, especially if a celebration is happening in the adjoining private room. Friendly servers do their best to accommodate their clientele of mostly multigenerational Indian families, usually with a pitcher of water in hand.
At the back of the restaurant is the bar, a large open area set under a dropped ceiling and lit with blinking, multicolored lights. At the moment, Felsianes says he's working on a couple of new Indian-inspired cocktails: a vodka martini with Limca, the lemon and lime flavored soda made in India, and a lively whiskey creation he calls the Thumbs Up Jack, made with Jack Daniel's and Indian Coca-Cola.
Like the Chettinad dishes, they'll be tough to find anyplace else.