Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained?

I’ve been to Sri Lanka once – wandering excitedly between Colombo, breathless with tales of war, and Kandy, heavy with an almost eerie silence punctuated only by prayers from the stunning Temple Of The Tooth. Now, with the promise of peace ahead, i’m looking forward to a story that’s completely different from the following, which was written and published in April 2004. Will things change?
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BEING mistaken for a terrorist can be rather disconcerting. Especially when the distinctly jumpy man accusing you of plotting to kill thousands looks like he’s going to drop all his possessions and run for his life if you do so much as glance at him sternly. “You can’t trust anyone here,” he says, fidgeting with his beer in a quietly smoky bar. “There’s too much at stake.”

Call him what you want: a conspiracy theorist, a melodramatic worrier, even a kook. Then, take a good look at his country — its past, its present and the projections for its future — and you’ll understand why he, and many other Sri Lankans, think the way they do. The troubled island has seen two decades of gut-wrenching ethnic conflict, after all. Two decades that have crippled its people, both financially and emotionally, with scars that will require more than just economic resurgence for healing. And even today, in spite of two years of apprehensive peace, thanks to a cease-fire agreement between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Government, things are still far from “normal” in the island, ironically shaped like a just-shed tear.

Colombo by night gives every indication of being a troubled city in spite of its well-advertised glitzy casinos, raucous karaoke bars and swinging nightclubs. As darkness falls, the city’s veins are cordoned off and buses sinisterly parked across them to supplement rows of barricades. Well-armed policemen patrol these quiet and largely deserted roads on the lookout for trouble. “If they see you doing anything suspicious, they take you to the Fourth Floor,” says a Sri Lankan woman, whose cousin was taken there for questioning because he was caught taking touristy photographs of the harbour. The “dreaded Fourth Floor”, of the country’s police headquarters houses its investigation wing and apparently terrifies Colombo because, as one Sri Lankan says, “a number of people taken in for questioning there never come out”.

On a drive through the city, citizens casually point out sites of recent bomb blasts like they are a part of the scenery — along with the majestic line up of luxurious, largely under-occupied hotels along the Galle Face Road; the vulnerable, bustling market areas and the places of worship, crammed with fervently praying Sri Lankans watched over by beatific images of the Buddha.

In small-town Kandy, famous for its heavily-guarded Temple of the Tooth — one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in the country (attacked by the LTTE in 1998) — the days are crammed with noisily appreciative floods of blonde tourists. But the nights are similar to Colombo’s: Silent roads, occasional nervous pedestrians, an expectant lull in the air. Almost as though the entire city is expecting bad news. “Tourists who come here say it’s like a cemetery,” shrugs one of the town’s many tour guides.

It’s in Kandy that Kelum Chamara Warnakulasuriya, owner of Loco Lanka Tours, admits that Sri Lankans don’t like being asked too many questions — once he’s sure that no one in the Royal Pub, attached to the beautifully restored more-than-a-century-old Queens’ Hotel, is a well-disguised spy for the LTTE.

“You ask a Sri Lankan about our past, he’ll tell you. But if you ask him about the present, he’ll just keep leading you away from the truth. We have many secrets that we have to keep,” he says, adding, “I live in a village where there are two lakes, which supply Kandy with its drinking water. If someone puts cyanide in the water, boom. there’ll be hundreds of people dead.” Kelum adds. “We don’t trust you because we can’t trust anyone. Your guides won’t tell you much. To tourists, we narrate history, but keep the present to ourselves. There are many places not shown. Many stories not told.”

There are also many potential destinations not seen. The north of Sri Lanka, which is largely controlled by the LTTE, is unsafe and difficult to access. The only flights within Sri Lanka operate between LTTE controlled Jaffna and Colombo, and are both expensive and vulnerable. (In 1998 a flight to Colombo “mysteriously disappeared” — reportedly shot down.) The trains are unreliable, according to one tour operator, since the LTTE has “removed large parts of the railway lines to build barracks”. And the road to Jaffna has four check points — two controlled by the military and two by the LTTE.

However, some of the most beautiful parts of Sri Lanka are in these almost-impossible-to-access areas. “There’s tremendous potential in the country,” says P.K. Mohan Kumar, Chief Operating Office, Oriental Hotel Limited, and former General Manager of the Taj Samudra in Colombo. Mohan Kumar was a part of Sri Lanka’s Tourism Advisory Committee, made up of prominent hoteliers and businessmen and set up in 2000 by Ranil Wickremesinghe soon after he was elected Prime Minister, to promote tourism.

“The East coast is beautiful. It has a series of lagoons and one of world’s last stretches of virgin rain forest. That part of the island is also home to the world’s two largest mammals — the elephant and the whale,” he says, adding, “It could pose a huge challenge to the Maldives …. However, since the 1980s the island has been left unexplored.”

M. Shariq, Deputy CEO, Lanka Travel Operators, takes a similar view. “Sri Lanka has variety,” he says, “unlike the Maldives. We have beaches, wildlife sanctuaries and historical monuments for tourists, and places of religious importance for pilgrims.”

“Many tourists travel within the country,” says Kelum. “Kandy, Colombo … then, they go down South, where it’s safe — Gaulle, Hambantota, Matara.” He adds that European tourists go to Sri Lanka’s many languidly pristine beaches to swim, surf, go on underwater safaris, or just marinate in the deliciously warm sun and sand. “We also have tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya: waterfalls and Buddhist temples in Ella; an elephant orphanage at Pinnewala, near Kandy. At Tissamaharama, tourists can go on safaris, and at Yala there’s a national park.”

Sri Lanka undeniably has plenty to offer tourists, even if they’re cash strapped back packers, although the island was originally targeted at upmarket dollar flaunting, Louis Vuitton-toting visitors. “It was a high-end tourist destination until the 1980s and was expected to become the next Singapore, or Thailand,” says Mohan Kumar, adding that all the big hotels chains — the Taj, Inter Continental, Hilton, Ramada — moved in at that time.

Then, in the early 1980s, the ethnic disturbance broke out and everything changed. Occupancy rates plummeted, flights emptied and the economy began to groan. “Tourism is the third largest source of foreign exchange in the country, after repatriates and garments,” says Mohan Kumar. “But, it’s a very fragile industry. It’s security sensitive and image sensitive — especially if your market is in the developed world. And the traditional Sri Lankan market has always been the United Kingdom and Germany.”

“No foreign tourist has ever been injured, or killed, in Sri Lanka,” claims Kelum. “But when the embassy gives warnings to people, saying `don’t travel to the country’ — like they are doing now for elections — they stop coming. (A travel advisory means that medical insurance is automatically cancelled for any tourist who ignores it, so it affects/stems tourism from the developed world.”)

“Between 1984 and 2000, Sri Lanka was reeling under pressure. The tourism industry was on its knees,” says Mohan Kumar. Today, although Sri Lanka is picking up the pieces and starting over, the job markets’ still depressingly bleak. “Nobody in Colombo has jobs. They’re all sitting at home,” says Sharath, a trishaw driver. “Everyone wants to get out of here. Even if children are clever and complete schooling, there’s no way to make money. The only way out is to get away.”

A guide for foreign tourists at the Temple of the Tooth agrees. “The boys here — we call them the beach boys. Their only aim is to catch a lady, catch a man. And go to Europe, Italy, England. Everyone wants to escape. There’s nothing left.”

If Sri Lanka achieves peace, and stability, however, the country has tremendous potential with its numerous natural advantages: a warm climate, irresistible food and people, a line up of beautiful hotels housed in glamorous heritage buildings, and a range of exotic getaways set in the mountains, forests, valleys and beaches.

Now that the Sri Lankans have had a taste of peace, they’re hungering for it more than ever before — although the more cautious among them counsel against “peace at any cost”. However, an agreement of some sort between the LTTE and the army, and now the LTTE and the LTTE is vital. Otherwise, everybody stands to lose.

“Peace will change our lives, and help allay the pain of our past,” says one well-educated young Sri Lankan, waiting at tables in an empty restaurant in Kandy. “We want peace. We need peace …. We need more jobs. We want a future.”

© Copyright 2000 – 2009 The Hindu

The Flavours Of Freedom

The road to jail is long and winding. And I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. Puzhal Jail, which is Chennai’s jail du jour, is in Red Hills, a good 45 minutes from the heart of the city.

From outside, it looks appropriately forbidding, with high gates, armed guards and soaring sentry towers. Inside, there are astonishingly pink flowers, ironically cheerful ‘Welcome’ signs and a handful of bewilderingly upbeat prisoners walking about in white shorts, shirts and sneakers, their traditional prison gear.

The enormous, sprawling Puzhal jail, holds about 500 ‘lifers’, who are prisoners condemned to life imprisonment (14 years) besides about 250 long and short term prisoners.

We’re here to meet an unusual bunch of bread-baking lifers. Under Chennai restaurateur M. Mahadevan and DGP (Prisons) R. Natraj, seven of them are being taught how to bake by 5 chefs from Hot Breads, overseen by the chain’s Corporate Chef Sundar K. The bread – about 500 loaves and 2000 buns – is distributed at places like The Banyan, Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu, Little Drops and Arunodayam.

With me is successful Californian Chef Craig Ponsford, who speicialises in artisan bread, and is here – on Mahadevan’s request –to study the bread making and then explore ways to enrich the loaves so that they provide a more complete nutritious meal for the many children and adults they feed. (See Box.)

Friendly jailors (there’s an oxymoron you don’t often see) A Anser Basha and K. Sounderaj walk us to the bakery, which is wrapped in the wonderful aroma of crusty, fresh bread. Inside, the lifers and Chefs are sociably gathered a round a big table, rapidly separating and shaping dough. The bakery is calm, spacious and flooded with natural sunlight. Windows are shielded with screens, every worker wears a cap and the entire set-up is spotless, if you discount the comforting veil of flour that continuously settles everywhere softly.

As they begin to stack loaf tins into the gargantuan oven, shimmering with heat, Craig explains why this project titled ‘Freedom’ is so important. “It’s mental freedom,” he states, adding, “Now, when they get out of jail they have a chance to work, to support themselves and stay free.” He adds, “They also know they’re feeding children, and that releases immense positive energy.”

Sunder talks of how reluctant his ‘boys’ were initially to teach the lifers, many of whom are in for murder and drug smuggling. “First they were scared, and reluctant to go. So we told them, just try working there for two days and then decide,” he says, “By the end of the first day they said they don’t want to work anywhere else. Now they all even live on the jail premises, since they are in the bakery for about eight hours everyday.”

Contrary to what you would expect, thanks to melodramatic movies, all prisoners aren’t aggressive, snarling, tattooed fiends in iron handcuffs. The baking lifers are shyly friendly, quietly enthusiastic and slightly bemused at all the attention. They line up excitedly for the photograph, when the jailors tell them – with what seems like fatherly pride – that their families will now see their pictures in ‘The Hindu.’

Basha proudly introduces us a young former heroin smuggler, who now uses his MCA degree to take computer classes in the prison. Then there’s the plumber convicted of murder who just attempted, but failed, his 8th Std exam. “But I’m going to try again,” he says, adding that he studies “after lock-up,” which is at 6 p.m.

They all tell us how many years they’ve been in Puzhal, a number that ranges from 5 to 10, and how many more years each of them has to complete. Pushparaj, who is aims to finish the 10th Std before he leaves says he’s got three more years. “He’s expecting to be released early for good conduct,” whispers Sounderaj, “But cannot be sure.”

While a number of the lifers initially applied for the bakery training just so they could have something to do, simultaneously earning money (prison wages range from Rs. 13 to Rs 18 a day depending on skill and labour) they eventually realised that these are skills they can put to use once they’re out too.

Unfortunately, although Puzhal Prison has the space they don’t yet have the facilities to engage all the prisoners in activities like this.

Travelling through the baking campus, profuse with vociferously bright flowers, in an ambulance open at the back so we get a good view, we pass a series of huge blocks: School, High Security, Condemned Prisoners Cell. Ironically the threatening ‘Gallows’ are followed by a “Meditation Hall/ Rehabilitation Centre’ complete with an area for yoga.

Inside, we bump into Selvaraj, a prisoner who teaches sculpture. His classroom is crawling with startlingly plump imitations of the Oscar statuette. “All over the world getting an Oscar is very difficult,” chuckles Sounderaj, “In jail we’ll give you one for free.” Though I’m gifted a cement Buddha instead. “A prison-made Buddha. So you’ll never forget us.”

It seems appropriate.

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The flour and milk in the US are fortified with all sorts of things like multi-vitamins and iron, says Craig, discussing ways to enrich bread. “My guess is that the kids here need calcium. Also vitamins A and B – to help the brain and bones. They’re getting a decent diet, but I’m sure it’s not complete.”
In LA there’s an annual conference on Functional Food, where an entire section is dedicated to manufacturers who are trying to find ways of making food more powerful by adding things like Omega 3, vitamins or antioxidants. A lot of what they work with is natural– like ginseng, spirulina, taurine (which is what goes into Red Bull.) Craig’s new project is to find manufacturers who can enrich Freedom Bread, making this powerful symbol a complete food.

You Can’t Sink A Rainbow

There will come a time when the earth is sick and the animals and plants begin to die,

Then the Indians will regain their spirit… to gather people of all nations, colours and beliefs to join together in the fight to save the earth.

— `The Rainbow Warriors’, Native American legend.

The time of the warriors of the earth has come. And, in keeping with the prophecy, they have risen from every nation — leaving behind their nervous families and warm hearths, friendly cappuccino bars and swanky malls; waving goodbye to comfortable jobs in the corporate world to swab the deck and fight on the high seas, for the high seas.

Their mission? To save the world.

On board Greenpeace’s best-known and most flamboyant ship, the fiery Rainbow Warrior — which seems uncharacteristically demure, docked in the Chennai harbour — the boat mechanic, Mehdi Moujbani, from Tunisia, squints in the bright sunshine as he firmly says, “Our philosophy is bearing witness. To be the eyes and ears of everyone. After all, not everyone can go into the centre of the ocean, the middle of the Antarctic, the depths of the Amazon.”

The marine-based protest group, which has more than 20,000 activists in nearly 215 countries and gains supporters every day, has spent the past three decades working to save the seas they travel every day. “Because what happens everywhere concerns everyone.”

However, bearing witness comes at a cost.

In 1985, when the original Rainbow Warrior protested against French nuclear testing, French agents bombed her when she was in the harbour, sinking the ship and killing Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. “After the first blast, the crew realised the ship was going down and abandoned it. And, while everyone else was running out, he went back down to get his camera,” says Moujbani.

But, as time and events have proved: You can’t sink a rainbow.

So, while the original warrior was buried at sea in the deep blue waters of the Pacific at Matauri Bay, New Zealand, with a full Maori ceremony, Greenpeace used the $8.159 million the French Government paid them in damages (after two years of international arbitration) to support its ships campaigning for a nuclear and pollution-free Pacific — and to buy a new Rainbow Warrior.

“This was originally a fishing vessel,” says Mehdi, heading towards the centre of the diminutive ship. “It was first expanded, then sails were added to save fossil fuels. However, to keep up with speeding polluting vessels, and document what they are doing — for example, a ship dumping toxic waste — we also need motors. Unfortunately.”

Documentation isn’t all they do. Greenpeace activists firmly believe in what they call `direct action’ or `creative confrontation,’ which means putting themselves out there and physically stopping environment-unfriendly activity. “It’s not just about confrontation. But, we aren’t going to simply turn into a report-producing organisation,” says Sanjiv Gopal, campaigner, Greenpeace India. “We do it to prevent another Bhopal and the thousand other Bhopals happening across the country.”

“Sometimes the rules should not stop you from expressing yourself… from making a difference,” adds Moujbani, recalling how he and the other eco-warriors “stopped a factory in Sweden from burning toxic waste by sleeping on the conveyer belt — with their masks on.”

“But before direct action we do lots of research. There’s learning, discussion, negotiation,” says Anant Padmanabhan, Executive Director of Greenpeace India. “Our reputation is the most important thing we have. We will stand up for our convictions, with all that we’ve got.”

At the helm of the Rainbow Warrior, a beautifully carved oak dolphin called `Dave’, the team’s mascot, looks out at the Indian sea of troubles. “It is human nature to protest… to respond to wanton, mindless destruction,” says Padmanabhan, leaning over the ship’s railing and pointing to pictures of dead marine life being put up at the Crocodile Bank stall at the port.

Their mission in India is to work as a platform to bring together conservationists, scientists, activists, fishermen and State representatives. Their targets this time? The proposed Sethu Samudram canal and the thermal power plant in Tuticorin, which are direct threats to the biologically rich Gulf of Mannar Biosphere reserve. They are also heading to Orissa to document the mass-nesting destination of the Olive Ridley Turtles, which are threatened by the new port at Dhamra, offshore drilling and illegal fishing.

Eco-warriors battle on

“This used to be the fish hold, now we call it the theatre,” laughs Moujbani, continuing his tour. “In Iceland, when we went to protest whaling, we weren’t allowed into port. So we brought all the journalists here by boat, and had the press conference here… Oh, and don’t touch anything or you’ll get grease all over you!”

The ship, which is almost five decades old, is creaky but compact with neatly packed and labelled sections holding everything a modern-day ecological warrior could possibly need: rows of bright neon jackets, fire equipment, lifting gear, bicycles, banners, tarps, eye shields, air tools, pliers, spanners, screwdrivers, twine and `ping pong stuff.’ “We also have a washing machine and drier because there are about 15 of us and (pause) sometimes, we need them,” grins Moujbani, leaning against a wall bearing a host of posters, including a picture of the earth with `Save it, don’t pave it,’ blazed across.

At the quietly dignified bridge, leaning against the Captain’s table, which is covered with a map of the Chennai harbour, pencils, glue sticks and three cheerful beady-eyed toy turtles, Helena, from Sydney, Australia, discusses her job. “I’m a deckhand and an activist. So I maintain the ship, cleaning in the morning, maintaining it, finding rust… It’s an old ship, so it needs a lot of maintenance… . It’s physical work, but because you care about it, it’s fun.”

The Warrior’s obviously been captivating imaginations from all over the world. The current crew has people from Holland, Russia, Spain, England, Germany, New Zealand, India, Australia, Argentina, Tunisia and Canada.

Oscar Macian Zorba, the ship’s Spanish First Mate, says he left the Merchant Navy to get on board. Leaning against the railing and looking out at the quietly restless waters of the harbour, he says he’s never been happier.

Taking on the heavyweights of the world, the governments and corporates with deep pockets might be a tough and sometimes intimidating battle, but, he says, “I’m happier trying than not. We DO change things. It’s slow, it’s difficult, but it happens… And if you believe in something, it’s not an effort.” And could he do this for the rest of his life? “This is what I want to do. I can’t say about the rest of my life, but for now… for sure.”

“Well, I suppose we will eventually go back to living our lives,” says Moujbani thoughtfully, “But other people will take our places. For, the war, the work… It must go on.”

Famous encounters

1978: Launches whaling campaigns against Iceland and Spain. Intercepts a British ship attempting to dump nuclear wastes. Prevents the massacre of 6,000 grey seals at Orkney Islands, Scotland.

1980: Blockades a ship disposing chemical waste in the North Sea. Continues its whale campaign in Spain. Authorities seize the ship and remove parts. Replacements are smuggled in, and the crew escapes.

1981: The seal campaign continues in Canada. Activists are arrested for spraying green dye on seal coats, making them useless for fur and, therefore, safe from hunters.

1985: The crew evacuates the Ronglep islanders after the island suffers from the nuclear fallout from French testing in the Pacific. During the campaign against the French nuclear testing, French secret agents bomb the ship. It sinks and a Greenpeace photographer dies.

1989: The Rainbow Warrior II is launched, specially fitted for campaigning, thanks to French government funds paid as compensation.

1995: When France ends a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing, the Rainbow Warrior races to Moruroa. As it enters the exclusion zone around the site, a French tug rams the ship, commandoes break in and the navy tows it away.

2003: When Iceland intends to resume commercial whaling, the Rainbow Warrior sails there to inform Icelanders about alternatives. Then, it heads to India to visit its toxic ship-breaking yards.

2004: Visits the tropical forests of Indonesia to document illegal logging. Heads to Chennai, from where it kicks off a mission to save the turtles and the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere reserve.

(Inputs from the Greenpeace Web site www.greenpeace.org)

http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/life/2004/11/19/stories/2004111900130300.

Designs on Dum Alu

“We recommend you dress smart. Even our waiters wear Manish Malhotra.” Shockingly, despite the advertisements, there are no ball gowns or tuxedoes lunching at Influence, Chennai’s latest ‘designer’ restaurant.

Instead there’s the usual smattering of laid-back couples, big families and children skipping around sqeakily, watched over fondly by friendly waiters in the aforementioned Manish Malhotra outfits. Admittedly, cold hauteur would probably have been more appropriate to their designer togs – full sleeved shirts with gold detailing along the collar – but from the looks of it Influence dreams of being far more uppity than it really is.

The restaurant’s press release coyly coos that the “building is a landmark with its resplendent glass exteriors playing up the lighting exotically”. While shimmering glass buildings look impressive in theory — very Manhattan and very stylish — the reality is that they’re quite impractical in India where the sun is relentless. Hence Influence gets overly bright and a little warm since the air-conditioning is constantly battling the onslaught of the sun. The unprepossessing view of Poonamallee High Road, complete with roaring traffic, grimy walls and peeling movie posters doesn’t help. Even with designer sunglasses on. So, go there for dinner.

Inside, Influence is beautiful. Done in cream and gold with dark wood it coveys a feeling of deliciously blatant luxury. Emphasising this are tables laden with heavy silver cutlery, gorgeous gold-laced crockery and towering wine glasses for water. In keeping with the whole ‘designer’ tone, there are a bevy of waiters at your service, and the meal begins with an independent starter and drink menu. We try the Bharvan Dahi kebab, which is excellent — crisp and tangy, bursting with thick, slightly sweet yoghurt.

Also the spinach and chickpea salad, fresh, healthy and glistening with lemon. On the downside, portions are far from generous. And the drink, a ‘pineapple, pomegranate and lemon’ juice resonates with some dreadful artificial flavouring.

Since this is determinedly-fine-dining-designed-by-(hold your breath!)-Manish-Malhotra, there’s another decorative wait, for the main course menu, then the food. Languid dining works at a restaurant where you can languorously sip wine between courses. At Influence, it means you spend twenty minutes contemplating the meaning of life while listening to loud determinedly-trendy decidedly-new age Indian lounge music that would probably be more at home in Goa, but is deemed appropriate for the designed-by-Manish-Malhotra (lest we forget) concept here.

The main course is stylishly miniscule. We mistake the exotic bakarkhani, an Indian bread made with dried fruits, for nachos, as it arrives in four little triangles. The accompaniments, a deliciously creamy methi makai malai and very average Kashmiri dum alu, come in bowls more appropriate for a chip-dip. The Kashmiri dum alu has a grand total of two baby potatoes. Perhaps, that’s how designers eat.

It’s certainly a very ‘super-model-size-zero’ style of cuisine. The spinach crepes are more generous, served with a tasty cream sauce. All the food is styled carefully, and arrives at the table with impressive flair.

The menu includes food from all over the world. It’s surprising that Influence chose not to specialise in a specific cuisine, considering it plans on targeting the ‘fine dining’ crowd. Multi-cuisine, after all, is associated more with coffee shops and clash-and-bang restaurants. Unfortunately, in India people tend to think of ‘vegetarian’ as a genre all by itself. So while the non-vegetarians get to eat Mexican, Thai and Chinese, vegetarians get stuck with paneer masquerading as Mexican, Thai and Chinese, like a culinary Mata Hari, master of disguises.

The dessert menu is short, but includes all the favourites: carrot cake slathered in mascarpone, chocolate cake infused with Baileys and kulfi. We choose a slice of cheesecake, light and fluffy on top, on a sweet, crumbly base. The bill, works out to Rs. 2,000 for two.

Endearingly, they charge one paisa for the Vijayshanthi mineral water, which is served if you opt for ‘regular’.

Complementary dark chocolates end the meal. We’re not sure if they’re in designer packaging. Should you be? Well, there’s always the danger that someone will imperiously ask you to recite the evening specials.

The waiters, after all, are in — yep — Manish Malhotra.

(Influence is at No 91, Egmore, Poonamallee High Road. Call 42974455 for reservations.)

Finding Neverland

“Have you placed your water order yet?” Water? When did Chennai get so la-di-dah?

Though, to be perfectly honest, ‘On The Rocks,’ the swish new restaurant at the Park Sheraton, is really a world away from everyday Chennai.

Which is nice — after all everyone needs their Neverland.

Clearly, for some, designer water is where it all begins. Throwing caution to the winds, we ask for the water list. After all you only live once, right? And what could be more deliciously reckless than a wild night of water?

Matt, wine-turned-water sommelier at On The Rocks continues, “Well, we have Perrier.” (But of course.) “Evian.” (Which will go delightfully with the fish, no doubt.) “Qua and Himalaya.” Matt pauses dramatically. There’s a reverent hushed silence as we make our choice. After much agonizing soul-searching we pick ‘Regular’ – a cheeky little number that’s delightfully down-to-earth. The French call it Eau-de-Tap. Okay, not really. But they could. It would look so grand on a glossy menu.

On The Rocks is so terribly posh it’s dangerously close to being intimidating. Set in what was once the well-loved, boisterously-swingy, perpetually-packed Gastby disco, and then the much less memorable Provogue Lounge, this restaurant manages to completely reinvent this space, much to it’s designer’s credit. The look is now sophisticated, cosmopolitan and – most admirably – fresh.

With discreet lighting, well-spaced seating and a small but classy wine library, On The Rocks rises a couple of notches above mere swish, by Chennai standards. The suave staff speak in those hushed tones peculiar to cathedrals. The food is beautifully styled, and arrives with appropriate fanfare. Matt, who turns out to be a perfectly friendly Aussie bloke, is on hand to help you pick your wines. He matches our starters with a lush Margaret river cabernet sauvignon. It all feels very ‘Lifestyles of the rich and famous.’

There’s plenty of culinary drama, thanks to Chef Nikhil Nagpal, who tirelessly styles every dish to degrees that would make Victoria Beckham insecure. The food is almost bewilderingly exotic, gathered from all over the world.

We try creamy baked camembert, sweetened with a rich honey reduction and twanging with the gorgeous flavour of roasted garlic. Chef Nagpal’s strength is his decisive pairing of unexpected ingredients, which works best with simple dishes. So the white chocolate squares crusted with rosemary and pepper, and served with paprika cheese are spectacular. But the fussy grilled zucchini muffins with herbed cheese, kalamata olives and English cucumber result in a confusion of textures.

The highlight here are the rocks: Australian lava stones heated to about 400º and then set on your table. Remember meat generally cooks at about 280ºC, so this is seriously hot. This is where the magic begins. The chefs pop raw meat on the stone, and you watch it cook in an astonishing matter of minutes. A prime tenderloin, for instance, begins changing colour in a matter of seconds, is done in six minutes and well done in eight. The meat, sourced from Brazil, is excellent and cooks with nothing more than a thin dusting of salt to prevent it from sticking to the stone. It comes with fancy marinades, ranging from an orange ginger sauce to a Wasabi demi glaze, but really tastes the best plain.

Our meal ends with a pretty almond clafoutis with marinated baked plums, a crunchy crumble and maple cream. There’s also the intensely sweet Vidal ice wine, made from frozen grapes by the Niagra.

The menu changes every two weeks, so be prepared to experiment.

This restaurant will work for you if you like flamboyant culinary capers, daring pairing and unabashed luxury.

It does however teeter on the verge of becoming a refuge for the snooty and jaded with it’s rarified atmosphere, which borders on cold.

Perhaps if they added our local water packets to their Eau De Menu? Hmmm… Don’t hold your breath…

On The Rocks costs about Rs 2000 per head, not including alcohol. Call 24994101 for reservations.

Sho-Buzz

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