Is the world’s next great Indian restaurant in Malaysia?

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (CNN) — Once you let the meaning of the word simmer in your mind for a while, you’ll realize Indian restaurant Nadodi could have no better name.

A word that translates to “nomad” in a couple of South Indian languages, it harks to the journey the people of that region took to faraway lands, such as Malaysia, where this eatery is located.

It’s also laden with history; forced migrations of laborers by British overlords, opportunities sought by intrepid traders or movements of civil servants seeking new pastures.

It’s still happening today. In place of the white dhotis and bare backs of estate workers, you now see the checkered shirts and starched khakis or business suits of the modern-day nomads who make good as professionals in foreign countries.

Nadodi is also a story of how food itself travels — how generations of migrants and travelers bring their culture and cuisine to alien lands, contributing to the melting pots of the nations they become part of.

And, it’s the story of the founders of Nadodi themselves — South Indian nomads who, as children, were away from their ancestral lands, growing up in places like Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi; and who, as adults, found their travels eventually landing them in Kuala Lumpur.

Kartik Kumar, the restaurant’s brand director, recalls how he and chef de cuisine Sricharan Venkatesh and mixologist/operations manager Akshar Chalwadi initially wanted to call the restaurant “Cinnamon.”

“But when we arrived in KL, and started to eat street food and dishes in restaurants, we realized the names [of the dishes] were very familiar — we had eaten them in the southern part of India, in Kerala, Tamil Nadu – even in Sri Lanka,” he says.

“All these things inspired us to think about how this happened and how this food arrived all the way in KL.”

And so, in 2017, Nadodi was born.

Nadodi is a fine dining restaurant that focuses on South India cuisine. In this dish, Hokkaido scallops are served with Baduga spices inspired by the region's Nilgiri tribes.

Nadodi is a fine dining restaurant that focuses on South India cuisine. In this dish, Hokkaido scallops are served with Baduga spices inspired by the region’s Nilgiri tribes.

Courtesy of Nadodi

The Gaggan connection

Nestled in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, in the shadows of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, Nadodi is possibly the only restaurant in the world that could claim to be the spiritual successor to Bangkok’s iconic Gaggan, which will be shutting its doors for good next year.

But the trio that forms the heart and soul of Nadodi would be the first to shy away from that comparison — despite the fact that two of the three used to work at the restaurant under the tutelage of chef Gaggan Anand. (Kartik used to be the operations manager while Sricharan cut his teeth in Gaggan’s kitchen.)

However, Kartik and Sricharan both credit Anand, whose restaurant is frequently listed as the best in Asia and among the best in the world, for changing the way they think about food.

“We have a lot of love and respect for Chef Gaggan. When I joined Gaggan, everything changed for me,” Kartik says, citing the Bangkok restaurateur’s use of fresh produce, experimental gastronomy techniques and plating as inspirational to his own growth.

“There are so many Indian restaurants out there doing Indian fine dining, but none exclusively focused only on South Indian food.”

Nadodi operations manager Akshar Chalwadi

The influence is clear in Nadodi’s approach to dining: they source their crockery from an artisan in Kuala Lumpur and their produce is supplied by hand-picked farms around the city; the restaurant’s latest discovery is a farmer who raises milk-fed goats, which they plan to use in future dishes.

It’s an approach that has already won them numerous accolades, including Tourism Malaysia’s coveted “Most Innovative Restaurant” gong.

A meal to remember

The former drummer, now top chef, tells CNN’s Saima Mohsin how his childhood in Kolkata influences his cooking.

But the Gaggan influence comes through most clearly in the food itself. On the day of this interview, Sricharan’s menu starts with “Red Kari” a riff on a traditional Sri Lankan beetroot curry, minus the curry.

Instead, what appears on the plate is a vision of loveliness — a sweet beetroot sorbet, pickled beets, roasted peanuts, dehydrated beetroot powder and a curry-flavored foam base.

That’s followed by Baduga Scallops. The Badugas are a tribe in the Nilgiri district of the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, who’ve probably not had many culinary interactions with Hokkaido. But Sricharan’s skilful combination of the Baduga spice mixes with the sweet and tender scallops, served on a bed of seashells and dry ice, is sheer poetry.

It’s the same with the rest of the meal — the lamb chops are fine Iberico flavored with habaneros, mint… and South Indian mango pickles.

Nadodi’s take on fish head curry — one of the most popular South Indian curries — is a foam made of curry aerated with nitrogen on a base of steamed red snapper. It’s closer to chawanmushi than the typical fiery, rustic bowls of steaming hot fish head curry you’d expect in South India.

Akshar’s drinks are no different — the base is gin or vodka, but the rest of the drinks are pure South Indian and more reminiscent of the region’s soups than of any traditional cocktails. His gin cocktail is seasoned with Vadouvan spices — a Puducherry spice mix hugely popular in France — and moringa leaves, while his vodka cocktail is simply called Rasam, after the classic South Indian tamarind soup that gives it its flavor.

But while an experience at Gaggan is the culinary equivalent of a rock concert — all about Gaggan’s ebullience and force of personality — eating at Nadodi is closer to attending a symphony orchestra — sheer class, from the gorgeous photographs adorning the walls to the wait staff’s attention and service.

Elevating South Indian cuisine

Yet, Kartik and Sricharan both insist that what makes Nadodi truly different from Gaggan — or any other Indian restaurant — is its focus on modern, progressive South Indian cuisine.

“Our flavors and profile are South Indian. Our presentations are South Indian. There’s no comparison [with Gaggan],” Kartik insists.

“Nagodi is a different concept, which does only South Indian food. I’m not doing the chicken tikka or the naan over here. I’m giving you rasam, I’m giving you crab curry… this is true to the place we belong to and that’s what Nagodi will stick to.”

Elevating South Indian food is a particular mission for Kartik, Sricharan and Akshar.

“There are so many Indian restaurants out there doing Indian fine dining, but none exclusively focused only on South Indian food,” says Akshar.

“Even in India, it’s usually just dosa [rice flour crepes] or vadai [fritters].”

Kartik feels the perception of South Indian food needs to change.

“With European food, they have taken a lot of pride. I personally believe with our cuisine and culture, we are too hungry to feed ourselves. We never cook for others,” he says.

“But you tell me: fermentation, our forefathers were doing it. That’s how we got idli [steamed rice flour cakes] and dosa. What is poppadom? It’s dehydration. What are the pickles? Those are preservatives.

“So we have been taught preservatives, fermentation and dehydration long ago. But we will excel and take the pride of our techniques and present it to the world.”

The southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram boasts a beautiful Hindu temple as well as access to some of the best beaches in the state of Kerala.

South Indian fine dining in a street food paradise?

But if it’s the elevation of South India’s rustic fare that is Nadodi’s mission, then surely Malaysia — a street food paradise, but not among the world’s top fine-dining destinations — isn’t the best place to be?

What does the country need to do to get to the level of regional fine-dining hubs like Singapore and Bangkok?

“KL is still evolving and is a small market when it comes to fine dining,” admits Kartik. “Few people appreciate fine dining. The support from the consumers over here in KL, that needs to be brought up.

“And probably an initiative needs to be taken by Tourism Malaysia to support restaurants trying to make KL a destination for fine dining. In terms of (food) varieties, Malaysia has plenty. But It has to be packaged and presented well.”

But one thing’s for certain — if Kuala Lumpur does indeed become a fine-dining hotspot in the future, the restaurant built by nomads will certainly be standing proud among the city’s best.

This article originally appeared here