The Skinny On Lattes

I avoid skinny lattes dusted with cinnamon. I look askance at caramel macchiato. When a tall cappuccino slithers past me in styrofoam, I merely nod coldly. Global coffee is convenient no doubt, but it’s also completely devoid of romance.

Coffee shops have traditionally been the refuge of writers, thinkers and colourful troublemakers. Today they’re more about Rihanna than revolution. More for slick investment bankers than grungy poets. Containing more Armani suits than flowery Give-Peace-A-Chance bandannas.

These chic chains have been taking over the world. Once upon a time, you travelled to experience new cultures — for adventure, personal growth and novel experiences. Today, you can boat right into the heart of darkness, like Conrad’s Marlow, and then, instead of muttering “The horror, the horror”, just hop off and order a Brazil Ipanema Bourbon coffee “popular for its mellow, pleasant notes of cocoa and almonds” and “as light and lovely as a classic bossa nova tune.” It gives a whole new twist to living dangerously.

I did make an earnest attempt to boycott all chains for a while. I figured that if a reasonable number of people do that, it means the small, quirky and — most importantly — local coffee shops would have more of a chance of survival. It worked brilliantly in places such as Edinburgh, where locals and tourists exult in cafes with character and names such as Under The Stairs, The Witchery or Loopy Lorna’s Tea House. You wouldn’t expect less from a city where even love is deliciously wacky, judging by a recent gum tree posting: “Guy with light Asperger Syndrome seeks girl in Edinburgh that lacks social skills?? I like coffee shops, scenic places, folk music, art galleries…”

However, finding people and places that are this fiercely individual is getting increasingly difficult in Chennai. Especially now, with the city getting determinedly international and hip, as fast as it possibly can. Which means that it’s hard to find a cafe where you can have a conversation, read a book or write a poem, without being subjected to Ricky Martin, the fashion police in the form of skinny girls in skinny jeans and a menu that bristles with Italian coffee and French terminology.

Fortunately, the few places we have, such as Amethyst and the Eco Café, are so popular with the locals that they’re inspiring other restaurateurs. Such as Shafee Ahmed, who has just opened Beanstock on Anderson Road. It’s obstinately old-world, with antique furniture, pretty hanging lamps and bamboo. Set beside a decidedly edgy new boutique called Ambrosia, the café’s designed to be a space for a quiet pause.

Shafee calls it his “garage café,” since it sits beside a house, under a roof of pretty Mangalore tiles. Everything’s low-key here. There’s no air-conditioning; so, the café relies on its canopy of trees to keep it cool — which is working well, so far. There’s a funny little passage that connects the main part to another seating area, which feels a bit like a secret garden. And the cakes aren’t perfect, thank goodness. “I didn’t want a very nice-looking cake,” says Shafee, pushing forward a plate piled with moist blueberry and apple-cinnamon muffins, “I want food that looks like it was cooked at home.”

That’s why he’s got a supplier who bakes everything at her house (with real butter, if you please.) Right now, Beanstock is still working on its menu, so it’s rather basic with sandwiches, milkshakes and a couple of pastas. They have ambitious plans though, including a huge Beanstock in Kottivakam, next to Bella Ciao and Chennai’s latest addiction, the Paintball grounds. Maybe, it’s the beginning of a trend.

Here’s raising a toast to coffee shops where you can drink filter coffee cross-legged in delightfully frumpy pyjamas and write really bad poetry. Or, a really good book.

Beanstock is at 31, Anderson Road. Call 42188181 for details.

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Sho-Buzz

April 2009
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