A PLATE FULL OF MEMORIES
Step into Ninan’s Restaurant that serves you age-old recipes with a dash of history
Ninan’s Restaurant is like stepping into another world. It is a space with 20-foot-high ceilings, that transport you back to the British Raj.
The building that houses the restaurant, YMCA, Esplanade, is 120 years old and the restaurant has been operating here since the 1930s. It was first an Iranian restaurant and then became the iconic Ninan’s in 1956.
It is now 1.30 pm and the restaurant is filling up fast; mostly executives from nearby offices and lawyers from the neighbouring High Court. Turbaned waiters, dressed in white with blue cummerbunds, scurry back and forth, carrying plates of steaming hot fish curry and rice, mutton
and Ninan’s signature dish — caramel custard.
Ninan Jr, the founder’s son, who has been running the place since 1981, shows me to a table by the side and we sit down to talk. I ask him how it all started and he replies, “That is a long story.”
There are a couple of ceiling fans dangling from high above, moving at an unhurried, stately pace, that reminds me of a time gone by when time itself seemed to flow a bit more slowly. The sight is strangely calming and I tell him I have all the time in the world for a long story and he begins.
“My father KA Ninan stumbled into the restaurant business. He
:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: had come to Chennai in 1933 and had joined Spencer’s. After a few years, he was put in charge of running the Connemara Hotel in Madras, the West End in Bangalore, and the Savoy in Ooty, which were owned by Spencer’s at the time. In 1950, at a dinner, my father met Dr RV Rajan, the first Indian Dean of Madras Medical College, who said he was having trouble running the canteen at Madras Medical College and asked my father if he would be interested in taking over the contract for the canteen at MMC. My father agreed and here we are six decades later in the same business,” he smiles.
“My father hired one of the senior Connemara chefs, Kuppusamy, to run the MMC kitchen and all our recipes over the last 60 years have been handed down and have remained unchanged.”
“In 1956, when the Parsi who had been running the Iraglish nian restaurant at YMCA Building, wanted to exit the business, my father bought over the restaurant,” shares Ninan.
Being situated opposite the High Court meant a majority of Ninan’s clients were lawyers and judges. One of them, Supreme Court lawyer TM Kumar reminisces, “My father used to haunt the restaurant during his medical college days. That is how Ninan’s became a household name in our family. This was the place I first tasted caramel custard as a child.”
In the 60s and 70s, Ninan’s EnEntering Breakfast was a favourite among office-goers in Parry’s and the many bachelors who lived at YMCA. The breakfast, consisting of fried or scrambled eggs, toast, corn flakes, milk, English tea and filter coffee, is still served every morning.
Asked to recall a few interesting incidents over the years Ninan, talks of a time they were catering to a State dinner where Prime Minister Nehru was the chief guest. “Our manager Aravindan noticed that Nehruji was fond of chicken legs and got a separate plate of just chicken legs and kept it next to Nehruji’s plate, who then looked up at Aravindan and thanked him.”
Food from Ninan’s kitchens was also served to ministers of Kamaraj’s Government and at State dinners for visiting dignitaries like President Nasser of Egypt. “Those days, we catered buffet dinners for over 3,000 people and formal sit-down dinners for 500 people at the Senate Hall and 700 people at Rajaji Hall,” shares Ninan. “Some of these events would last three to four days and we had to provide the food, cutlery, crockery and service for lunch and dinner for that duration.” He adds, “My son Tarun joined the business last year. When I eventually pass on the baton to him, I hope he will carry on the legacy left to him by his grandfather.”
Dr Jacinth Cornelius, retired Professor of ENT at Stanley Medical College, says, “In 1976, when I was doing my house surgency in Stanley, I was staying at the Catholic Centre near Parry’s and came to Ninan’s to have dinner every day. I make it a point to drop in there for a meal. The fish fry and caramel custard still taste the same as it did 40 years
In this fortnightly column, we take a peek at some of the country’s most iconic restaurants