Does it add up right?

Girls, the next time you dine out, check the bill before you pay

Girl gang lunches at a posh restaurant. You’ve shredded the lady at the next table wearing — ugh — animal prints. Someone’s pointed out that the guy in blaring yellow seems to have painted his jeans on. Everyone’s been eavesdropping on the couple behind, sniggering madly at their yuckie-duckie terms of endearment.

The bill arrives. One of the girls drops her snazzy gold card into the folder. The credit card slip is signed. And you leave in a final burst of giggles. Probably tripping over poor Ms. Zebra Stripes on the way.What did you forget? I’ll bet this season’s Prada handbag on the fact that not one person really checked the bill beyond glancing at the final number. Unfortunately, as sexist as this may sound, this seems to be a problem that happens more with women diners. I know I do it all the time.

Then, I learnt my lesson. Last week, I was at the routine girly lunch during which we happened to land an exceptionally dense bunch of waiters. Once we finally managed to gently persuade them to take our orders, there was a long, mysterious wait.

The food arrived from the kitchen in bits and pieces, brought in proudly and gingerly like a progression of Egyptian artefacts from an especially obscure — and exceptionally cursed — Pyramid. I was so annoyed that, I — gasp — actually checked my bill. And, in that laundry list of low-fat smoothies and calorie-laden ice cream, there were at least four items that we hadn’t ordered.

A little research revealed that a shockingly large number of restaurants do this to women diners. Remember that every restaurant is under pressure to achieve a certain profit target every month. So, if you think about it, a kitty party crowd of 20, for example, is just perfect for this kind of fraud. Assuming they’re ordering a drink, main course and dessert each, that adds up to about 60 items.

Nowadays, since everyone just splits the tab evenly regardless of who ate what, it’s rather unlikely that any one of the ladies is going to meticulously check the bill. For two reasons that are unique to women. We tend to trust our waiters and restaurants, especially if we’re regulars. And for some strange reason, many of us are vaguely embarrassed when it comes to money.

Asking around, I hear all kinds of stories. The girl who paid a restaurant bill and then discovered they had added an extra zero to the total when she got her credit card statement. (I can only hope that exceedingly wicked move was a genuine mistake on the part of the restaurant.) The girls who got their bill corrected and then found that the restaurant had the nerve to sneak in two more coffees, convinced that they wouldn’t run a second check. The alcohol bills at bars, which are very often inflated by the end of the night because clients (and this applies to both men and women) are too woozy to study the numbers.

Ironically, as I was giving two friends this lecture over lunch, I signed yet another credit card slip, and then realised that I had been grossly overcharged for my meal. When I asked why, I was told that they mistakenly charged me the dinner rate for my dish. Yeah, right. I’ve been a regular at this place for more than five years. I cringe to think of all the bills I’ve paid.

My father taught me to check and double check anything before I put my signature on it. So, I should know better than to cheerfully sign anything put in front me. When I ask friends, they tell me their fathers, husbands and boyfriends always scrutinise the bill, even if it’s at a business dinner for 40. My — admittedly unscientific — survey also revealed that a good number of women barely look at the bottom line.

Honestly, all of you should know better too. Check your bills. Need an incentive? You can use the money you save to buy more shoes.

A New ID

ID. Idly’s nickname in college? You know how it works. Those days of reckless irresponsibility, assiduously ripped jeans and too many Bacardi Breezers. When to be hip is to be alive. (And if that can be translated into obscure Latin, I bet it will find its way onto half a dozen college fest T-shirts.) When Vijailakshmi becomes Vij. Kuppamma becomes Koopsie. And Annaikettiperumal becomes Anster.

Which brings us to ID. Set at Sathyam Cinemas, it’s an unnervingly trendy reinvention of the ubiquitous idly-dosa joint.

To my dismay, however, it turns out that ID (pronounced ‘eye dee’) isn’t really short for idly. It is actually an acronym for Idly Dosa. Bah.

Nevertheless, it certainly is a retreat fashioned for the young and restless. Decorated in slick black and white, the restaurant is intent on working the ‘cool’ factor.

Fortunately, it just about manages to veer away from wannabe thanks to its intelligent cohesiveness of design. The rather surrealist art hanging on the walls for example, which on careful inspection turn out to be close ups golden, gleaming, ghee-laden dosas taken by photographer Sharad Haksar. The interiors are classic Vikram Phadke: clean lines, minimalist design, liberal lashings of austere white. There’s the dosa bar, where patrons can perch stylishly on high stools and watch their meal being put together. And finally the luxury of starched linen, Italian cutlery and attentive service. (A treat when it’s juxtaposed with this genre of food, considering the clash and clang service we’re used to.)

On our first try, after watching an evening show of ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ (Working title: ‘You’ll never date again.’), ID is packed with the late night movie crowd, delightedly spooning up tomato chutney as they discuss how to lose friends and alienate people. We then spend about half an hour in the car park jammed between two cars whose owners are presumably pigging out on rava dosas as they bat their eyelashes at each other.

Which brings us to the main problem with having food outlets at a complex as busy as Satyam Cinemas. Although there is separate parking for people who are using the restaurants, there will unfortunately always be a couple of bright sparks who clog up the movie line. You can, of course, go in just for the restaurants. Though, we hear the security guys then give people a time limit at the parking lot: and honestly who wants to shovel down a gorgeous tiramisu and steaming latte at Ecstasy in 20 minutes flat?

At ID, however, that won’t be a problem. Dining here shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes for the restaurant is really built for speed, like a gleaming race car. Perfect for a working lunch. Or, given its location, a quick meal just before your movie begins.

The menu card is brief and to the point: idly, dosa, appam, vadai and desserts (which they strangely choose to call ‘pastry’ despite the fact that the list involves chakarai pongal and kasi halwa.) We try the appam, which arrives with a bowl of cold coconut milk twanging with cardamom, a vegetable stew and ullitheeyal. Also the masala dosa, which is made in front of us with the help of a trendy oil-ghee spray bottle. The food is light, fresh and uncomplicated. Portions are small, but the prices are reasonable given the posh factor. (A meal for two is about Rs. 150.) And you might miss the usual glistening, wicked lashings of ghee. But at least you’ll feel virtuous.

The dessert follows the same trend. The fluffy kesari is subtly coloured and sweetened. The payasam is aromatic without being overly rich. But the coffee, unfortunately, is a confused mix between a filter coffee and thick latte.

ID’s philosophy seems to be to take a sophisticated, restrained, responsible approach to a genre of cooking that normally exults in flamboyancy, extravagance and lavish lashings of ghee. In a theatre, where over-the-top is really the accepted way to go, this is an interesting path to take.

Deviancy too? Stand aside Anster. ID’s got all the makings of the coolest kid in class. (Call 43920346 for more details.)

Valentine’s Day for Dummies

The leering pink teddy bears are bad enough. Then there are the furry red hearts that leap out at you from every corner. Not to mention the moony-eyed Levis and lettuce brigade, giggling hysterically over milkshakes, mushy poems and Michael Learns To Rock.

To top it all, there’s the threat of acquiring either a random rakhi brother or a husband over Valentine’s Day. Talk about sticky dinner dates! (Though as an especially urbane friend pointed out, it could just be the quickest way yet to marry a millionaire. “Grab him as soon as he emerges from his Mercedes, and hold on till the priests arrive.” (Eat your heart out, Marilyn Monroe)

And now, to add to all that you need to navigate the rocky restaurant route. Rocky? To all the smooth young men who are suavely sniggering into their lemon yellow Ralph Lauren shirts (‘Because real men wear Yellow’), don’t be too sure of yourselves. I have a story that will strike fear into your blasé hearts.

A friend was recently taken out on a dinner date by one of those sophisticated Young Turks. You know the kind: they seem to spring up everywhere where there’s a shower of sparkling Pellegrino. He airily asked her to pick a wine. And like any nice girl, she pointed to the top of the list and casually asked the waiter to bring her what she assumed was the house wine.

Traditionally wine lists begin with the house wine, which is the cheapest, and then get more expensive as you move down the menu. But, this hotel had their list arranged the opposite way.

They were so pleasantly surprised at how astonishingly ‘drinkable’ this wine was that they ordered another bottle, and took it to the bar to share with friends. Their bill? Each bottle was priced Rs. 65,000. Talk about high-maintenance.

Restaurants have a monthly target to accomplish. And waiters generally get 10 per cent of the bill as a tip. It’s in their best interests to inflate your bill. So, unfortunately, a waiter is more likely to steer you towards spending an obnoxious amount of money on dinner. As far as he’s concerned, it’s his job to make you spend like Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive. It’s your job to stay alert.

Unfortunately, you’re probably at your most vulnerable when you’re on a date.

First comes the nasal recitation of the menu, blanketed with French words and Italian expressions, which is unnerving enough. (Here’s a tip, if you can’t pronounce it, just point and smile.)

Then, comes the Evian, opened with a dramatic flourish. (For heavens sake, it’s just water. If you’re dying to be posh, add a wedge of lime to your Bisleri.) Once you get the wine list, consider ordering by the glass instead of loftily doing an Old King Cole impression, calling for bottles and bowls and all the resident fiddlers.

It’s at this point that the chef/ waiter/ smooth-talking manager will slide over and offer to whip up ‘something special.’ Let’s be clear: Something special almost always means something expensive. In some places it also stands for that-stuff-we-couldn’t-get-rid-of-yesterday-now-served-in-a-white-sauce. (Oh yes. Keep a sharp eye on all white sauce.) Pick something off the menu, unless you’re familiar with the restaurant and its staff. And stay away from those jumbo prawns all waiters seem to love with a passion. The way they’re priced, you’d think each prawn has a personal masseur smothering it with love and garlic butter every hour.

While we’re on the subject of food doused in over enthusiasm, keep a sharp eye on the buffet. In theory it sounds like a great idea. In reality, you’re not going to eat that much. If you do, you’re just going to feel like a blimp once you’re done. A la carte is not just far more civilised on a date (who wants to watch someone plough through Old MacDonald’s farm grilled, steamed and batter fried), but it’s often much tastier since the food is fresh, hot and, thankfully, uncongealed.

And, for heavens sake, keep the coochie-cooing to a minimum. Some of us will be trying to eat. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Innovative touch to tradition

It all began with Louis Vuitton. There’s an urban myth that luxury luggage coyly rubs shoulders with pirated copies of “Slumdog Millionaire” at Burma Bazaar. Talk about smugglers with posh taste! You can just imagine them cheerfully packing kilos of gleaming IPhones, handfuls of electric razors and squishy packets of Tang in the latest Chanel tote, before stylishly pouting their way through Customs.

Which, of course, makes a great story. And that’s how a colleague and I found ourselves wandering down Burma Bazaar, having Oscar nominated movies shoved in our faces. (These guys are with it!) We eventually gave up on Dior and Co. Turns out they’re as hard to spot as the Lochness monster. Tougher really. At least Scotland isn’t awash with virulently coloured, disconcertingly shiny, flamboyantly labelled fake monsters.

So we ended up at a quirky little junction, opposite Burma Bazaar, flanked by Burmese food, a stall selling plump strawberries by lantern light and a restaurant that was titled — to our delight — ‘Zum Zum’ in flaming orange. Unfortunately, the watchman wouldn’t let us in. Apparently there was a swinging party in progress and they wouldn’t countenance gatecrashers. Even if we had come bearing fake Dolce & Gabbana.

And that is how we discovered Hotel Sri Nataraj next door and bread masala dosa.

Everyone who’s whining about Chennai becoming just another colourless, slick, hip global city really should dive into its more individualistic corners. They’re simply magnificent. Like many Chennaiites of my generation, dosas necessarily come from the Saravana Bhavans, Sangeethas and Vasantha Bhavans. Unless we’re being brats and eating them at the Taj.

At Nataraj the waiters are dressed in a delightfully lurid pink that conjured up images of tall glasses of overly sweet rose milk. (You have got to love a restaurant that has the courage to think pink to that degree.) They’re proud of their bread masala dosa here, which our waiter succinctly explains to us is “Bread. Masala. With dosa.” It turns up golden, crisp and ghee-laden, accompanied with startlingly tasty chunks of bread that have been enthusiastically fried and then determinedly overwhelmed with masala.

Don’t you love the way we manage to appropriate even the most British of foods? In fact bread, seen as food for invalids by traditionalists for the longest time, still manages to find its way to the breakfast table in the most unexpected avatars. I’m not talking French toast, garlic bread or bagels. Desi bread’s far less la-di-dah.

There’s the bread dosa, served with either old-fashioned chutney or a dribble of gleaming honey. It’s made by soaking day old bread and then grinding it with rice flour, sooji, curd and salt. Then adding spices like chilly powder, mustard and curry leaves to zing up the batter.

I’ve even heard of dosa-coated bread, which sounds rather iffy. But then I guess you can’t really knock it till you try it. This involves mixing chopped onions, green chillies and coriander leaves with dosa batter. Then you dip slices of bread into it and cook them individually on a tawa.

But one of the most unusual is probably what Lonely Planet calls a Benares butter sponge dosa, covered with little pieces of fried bread. The accompanying picture is determinedly traditional: a well-perforated dosa covered with cubes of deep brown bread, accompanied by steel spoons, plastic plates and little bowls of chutney. All set off with a tablecloth that looks suspiciously like a sari or dupatta. Of course travel experts deliberately hunt down exotica. But then, in the more robust, matter-of-fact, everyday parts of the city, the unusual happens everyday.

Besides, you can’t deny it’s rather charming to eat a dosa that’s three times the size of your face and then bump into a ‘Hogo’ Boss bag at the shop next door. Imagine what a great conversation piece it will make at your next swish party in Paris!