Annalakshmi started life in Malaysia in 1984, before branching out to Singapore in 1986. The culinary arm of the intriguingly named ‘Temple of Fine Arts’, it’s a non-profit run by a dedicated team of staff and volunteers. The volunteers are gracious and helpful in their service, and the vibe is one of quiet solicitude. It’s popular with Indian families, especially during the weekends. Book ahead if you plan to visit with a large group.
Annalakshmi is known for two things: its food and its pricing philosophy. In terms of food, it’s a south Indian vegetarian eatery with both buffet and a la carte (weekday evenings only) options. The buffet dishes are usually fairly consistent, with some slight variation in the curries offered. Special mention should go to the selection of drinks on offer – the sweet lassi in particular is thick and delicious.
In terms of pricing, the amount you pay is up to you. This means that you can pay as much or as little as you want – a novel concept that is attractive in theory, but always evokes a bit of a moral dilemma at the cashier. Well, it does for me at least. Reminiscent of the Hare Krishna ‘Food For Life’ distribution programme in London, I always find a trip to Annalakshmi to be a slightly nostalgic experience.
1. METHI PILAV: Beautifully aromatic – the dominant flavour was cardamom, the fenugreek and star anise were more subtle. Very tasty, nicely presented and not too oily. Verdict: 8.3/10
2. IDLI: I’m not much of fan of idli, as I usually find the sourdough taste a little off-putting. Not a problem, as these were dry and bland. Verdict: 3.9/10
3. ROTI: Not quite naan, but not quite chapati – I decided ‘roti’ would be the safest descriptor. Deliciously chewy, and with a pleasantly charred taste. I ate a lot. Verdict 7.9/10
4. POTATO PODIMAS: Great colour and texture, unfortunately the taste was a little bland (the flavour from the mustard seeds and curry leaves was barely perceptible). The potatoes were well-cooked and gently mashed, although quite cold and, therefore, lacking flavour. Verdict: 6.1/10
5. VEG FRITTERS (PAKORA): Again, I’m not much of a fan of pakora as I usually find them a little too stodgy. These were more crispy than oily, and yielded a very satisfying crunch as I bit into them. The batter could, however, have been better spiced. Verdict: 7.1/10
I always think that dhal is the best barometer of good Indian cuisine. Done well and it can be a satisfying meal in itself, done badly and it can send you to sleep. This was more of the latter; very bland and watery, it lacked richness and texture. A shame, because it was a nice colour and looked a lot more interesting than it tasted.
To be honest, I have never been much of a fan of rasam – I find that drinking it is a little strange, and yet it is often too watery to eat with starch. Fussiness aside, this had a strong peppery taste and good-sized chunks of tomato and carrot inside. Undoubtedly a good rasam, I’m just not much of a fan.
SWEET & SOUR BRINJAL
One of the best curries on offer. Deliciously thick and creamy brinjal, with a pleasantly sour taste thanks to the tamarind. I’m not sure if it was the slight sweetness itself, or maybe just the name, but I couldn’t help but think that this dish tasted a bit Chinese. Bizarre. I would have preferred it to be more spicy than sweet.
Along with the brinjal, this was one of the thickest curries available. It looked immensely promising – the vegetables (carrot, tomato, onion…) were nicely diced and plentiful. When eaten they were fresh and crunchy but, again, a little too bland for my liking. A heavy dose of garam masala would have helped galvanise the ‘buds.
CHOW CHOW SAMBAR
Chow chow (not the dog…) is a member of the gourd family and, accordingly, has a bitter taste that is tempered by cooking. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to be cooked enough, as the bitterness completely overpowered all other flavours except the tomato, which added a sharp kick. Not for the fainthearted. Or me, for that matter!
The star performer! Incredibly smooth and creamy to the taste, the cardamom added depth and complexity to the sweetness of the condensed milk. The vermicelli was plentiful, and there were a few cardamon pods that added small and unexpected bursts of flavour. I had two helpings, but could easily have scoffed ten.
Annalakshmi is a comforting place that serves good south Indian food at – literally – the perfect price. I found the starch options to be very, very good, whilst the curries were a little lacklustre. The payasam was delicious – one of the best I have had. Definitely worth a visit; it’s a (vegetarian) cause worth supporting.