The fragrant spice of Chettinad cuisine draws us to this Ruwi establishment where home-style South Indian food is the star of the menu.
Ask any foodie and they’ll tell you that the search for a restaurant that can emulate home cooking the way their mother or grandmother would prepare it is pretty much never-ending. There may be those establishments that come close, swinging the bat between memory and the masses yet, every once in a while, there’s the rare restaurant that simply knocks it out of the culinary ballpark.
And Woodlands Restaurant is at the plate.
This long-time favourite locale in Ruwi’s CBD district has been offering up a taste of home for the capital’s large South Indian community for decades, undergoing a full interior renovation and overhaul along the way – but always remaining true to its culinary roots of true-to-form Chettinad cuisine.
It’s 7.30pm on a Wednesday evening when we make our inaugural visit and the restaurant is quiet as we enter – but come 9pm, nearly every table is full. We’re greeted by the welcoming staff and escorted to a secluded booth towards the back of the restaurant. The ambience is warm and cozy, with soft South Indian music piping in through the sound-system, wood beams overhead, and hanging basket lanterns that remind us of lounging on the deck of a houseboat plying the backwaters of Kerala.
And, while there are some Keralite favourites to be found in Woodlands’ expansive menu (and even a selection of North Indian dishes as well), it’s the restaurant’s signature Chettinad cuisine that it’s known for. Chettinad food, from the state of Tamil Nadu, defines itself from other South Indian regional cuisines through its distinctive use of freshly-ground fenugreek, cumin, tamarind, bay leaf, fennel, and clove to name a few.
Our appetites chomping at the bit, we tuck in with a portion of starters – a portion of Meduvada and a Mysore masala dosa. Both arrive in short order and piping hot. The vada – pillow-y doughnut-shaped fried savoury pastries made with gram flour, curry leaves, and chilies are nothing short of spectacular. Fresh from the pan, they’re crisp on the outside and deliciously soft on the inside. Dipping them in the accompanying fresh coconut chutney there’s utter silence at the table as we devour them eagerly.
The Mysore Masala Dosa (which is a variety that actually hails from Karnataka state), was a triangulated slice larger than the entire plate and filled to bursting with a fragrant mixture of onion, potato and veg; tossed in a tomato and chili base of spices that give it its distinctive orangey colour. Another winner with a side of chutney and lentil sambhar.
For our mains we couldn’t help but indulge. As South India is known for its incredible fresh seafood and fish curries, we had to go down that route (when in Rome? When in Chettinad?)! We order up a Prawn Biriyani to share, and a portion of their Chettinad Nandu Masala – a richly-fragrant curry of sweet crabmeat stewed in lush spices and coconut and curry leaves; and a portion of their signature Chettinad Mutton Curry.
Arriving fresh and piping-hot in various copper tureens to our table, all our dishes are an assault on the senses; from their fragrant aromas, to show-stopping levels of heat and depth-of-flavour. Digging in with our hands, we gently tease the delicate melt-in-your-mouth crabmeat from its slow-cooked shell. It’s richly spiced with an underlying level of sweetness from the fresh-grated coconut and delicate ginger-garlic emulsion with the addition of cinnamon and cloves to the gravy. It’s hands-down the best crab curry we’ve had in Muscat and we enjoy its depths along with the biryani which is more delicate in flavour and peppered with plump, fresh prawns throughout – no skimping here!
The Mutton Curry is another revelation on the palate – the stewed meat is fork-tender and imbued with a lush, smoky depth of flavour. The gravy is lent a sweetness by tiny, whole purple shallots that have been tempered with the masala so as to draw out the full effect of their juices. Cooked to a perfect translucency they add the perfect textural element to the masala. We mop up the mutton and gravy with an additional serving of Appam – fluffy at the centre and perfectly crisped along the edges.
Finishing up what has been a standout meal, we kick ourselves for not having Woodlands Restaurant on our radar until now. Leaving with our parcel for takeaway, we’re already planning a return trip for the following weekend and, maybe, just even the weekend after that…
Bank Street, CBD area, Ruwi
Contact: (+968) 2470-0192
Vibrant South Indian fare with an impeccable knack for balancing spice with depth-of-flavour at prices that don’t sell its menu short.
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