Kochi has a new prime destination attracting seafood lovers in droves. The place, aptly named after the city's signature feature, Chinese fishing nets, earned its name and fame within a short time.
'Cheenavala' seafood restaurant, located near Edappally signal junction, is being showered with praise by patrons. ''We remembered the cooking of our late parents after savouring your dishes. Thank you for the taste and excellent service,'' wrote an American non-resident Keralite family in the guest book of Cheenavala. This comment makes one recall a dialogue from the foodie film 'Ustad Hotel.' ''Any cook can fill a person's stomach, but the ability to conquer the heart of his patron is what makes him special,'' Kareem-ikka tells his grandson Faizi in the film.
Cheenavala is one such place where the customers can have a stomach' s fill as well as satisfy their hearts. The restaurant is always full with local people seeking the most tasty seafood items and travellers out to explore the culinary attractions of the city.
Edappally can be considered the most crowded place in Ernakulam where people from all directions pass through. The Cheenavala restaurant is also situated right next to the junction – the exact spot is about 100 m from the signal along the service road heading to Vyttila.
The board of the restaurant appears prominently in ocean-blue colour and there is ample parking space outside. Anyone heading there for the first time can easily identify the place as it is always crowded, akin to the real Chinese fishing nets which are teeming with fish. Everyone is eager to rush into the restaurant and find a place to savour the different tastes on offer. Almost an equal number of people wait outside the eatery as there are patrons on the tables.
The spacious interiors are designed with ocean as the theme. All the walls are decorated with shells and other trinklets from the sea. During lunch time, every table would be occupied. Specialities at this time include 'thali' meals with 10 types of fish dishes, preparated in traditional earthenware and seafood platter made with rare catch from the sea.
A breathtaking variety
The managing director of Cheenavala, Shajan Antony, says, ''We serve Continental, Chinese, Thai, North Indian and all other major cuisines. But our specialities are traditional Keralite dishes prepared in earthen vessels and grilled fish. They are the most popular items too.''
A glance at the menu would give an idea of the seafood options available at Cheenavala. Fish is an ingredient of soups, salads, starters, platters, local dishes, and pasta. The tag line of the restaurant says, 'Every fish in the sea is available here.' The menu proves that it is true.
Patrons often get confused over the choices. Some among them are reminded of the 'Fish rock' song of the band Thaikkudam bridge which referred to a 'menu sea' where fish danced. Sreekumar, executive chef of Cheenavala, is ready to guide patrons. He would take them to the ‘most happening place’ in the restaurant – the live kitchen.
Live kitchen beckons
The live fish and live kitchen counters adjacent to the main kitchen are always ‘live’. On one side, selected varieties of fresh fish are arranged neatly in glass shelves. They include ‘chemballi’ (red snapper), amur, shrimps, 'eri' (emperor fish), 'kalanchi' and 'avoli' (pomfret). Right next to them are live crabs.
Customers can choose the fish they like and wait for the chefs to prepare the grill, curry or platter they had ordered. ''Fish are priced according to their weight. We charge customers per 100 grams of fish they order and serve the dishes within 30 minutes,'' said chef Sreekumar.
There are several patrons for grilled fish items prepared with four types of masalas – signature spicy flavour, red chilli, green spice masala and teriyaki, a cooking technique used in Japanese cuisine.
The live kitchen is headed by chef Venu, a veteran with four decades' experience. He loves preparing jackfruit-mango fish curry and shrimp with tapioca. Another highlight of Cheenavala is the earthenware cuisine prepared by him. Even a customer who is totally ignorant about cooking will realise that Venu artfully engages in his work at the restaurant.
Thali dripping with fish
Among the most commonly ordered items at Cheenavala is 'full net thali' meal. Ten types of fish dishes are arranged neatly around red rice. They are, 'chemmeen pachadi,' 'kakka thoran,' 'koonthal theeyal,' 'choora' pickle, fish 'aviyal,' crab 'rasam,' seer fish (neimeen) curry, 'meen vattichathu' and seer fish tava fry. In addition, tapioca, jackfruit 'puzhukku,' 'payasam,' and fruit salad are served.
Another lip-smacking dish at Cheenavala is 'chemballi' grilled with teriyaki masala. Its ingredients include ground green chilli, 'kanthari' (bird eye chilli), and shallots. There are several other special traditional items too, like 'chembu manga' fish curry, Kumarakom fish curry, Malabar fish curry, 'naadan' crab curry, crab 'mappas,' 'naadan' crab fry, tapioca-shrimp 'thoran,' 'meen chembu thoran,' and 'chattimeen mappas.' Many customers have described the experience as similar to visiting several houses where the housewives are master chefs for a single meal.
No wonder, people rush to Cheenavala again and again, as they can hardly taste even a small part of the extensive menu with a single visit.