The making of the Reluctant Gourmet

“Shame on u Shonali, u r a saddist … by the way we the people have a misconception of fine dinning in fact there is nothing called fine dinning, its good dinning. Appreciate what’s created rather than sounding to be a saddist” (sic)

(Anonymous hate mail from restaurateur, circa 2009)

I try. After all no one wants to be a ‘saddist,’ which I’m presuming is a crafty mix of sadism and unhappiness. It’s so much easier to be charming. Restaurateurs love you. Beaming chefs unveil complimentary desserts. Cheerful waiters hover fondly, sending occasional flying kisses. (Okay, so wistful imagination runs away with me occasionally.)

It must be admitted, not everyone loves The Reluctant Gourmet (RG). Ironically, in hindsight, that seems to be what makes this column work.

Just as our grammatically-challenged ‘saddist’ friend points out, people do “have a misconception of fine dining”. (But then she said ‘dinning’, which might just be a completely different thing.) As the country’s culinary scene grows at an exhilarating, not to mention bewildering, pace, pretentiousness sometimes overshadows quality. Ambition overrides ability. And, pricing derides common sense.

How does a food column make sense of all this? Especially when its writer is neither a cook nor a restaurateur?

Well, when the column launched, in response to the growing interest in food among Chennaiites, we decided to make it sound like an unabashedly honest friend. The kind of person you call for an opinion on where to eat. Or what to wear. Or to check whether yellow looks good on you. Brutal honesty offered with chatty updates became the RG tone. It worked, and the column eventually went national.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do try. So, instead of preachy lectures, RG canters excitedly into the colourful world of food, tugging its readers along — so far we’ve plodded through muddy vegetable markets, animatedly broken warm bread with baker-convicts at Chennai’s Puzhal jail and nibbled nervously on ‘hashima’ custard, thickened with the ovaries of a snow frog in a hip Singapore restaurant.

Restaurant reviewers have to be tough, because people should get what they pay for. It’s infuriating to go for a celebratory meal only to get lacklustre food, snotty service and a ridiculously high bill. This is my way of fighting for culinary justice. At the same time, I realise fairness is essential. After all, a lot of work goes into every restaurant opening, every menu and every meal. As everything in life, the truth is never black or white, instead, a perplexing range of greys.

Judging by the endearingly friendly mail from readers, this approach seems to work. (On the flip side, the RG tone’s proved so comfortingly familiar I’m called constantly by friends, acquaintances, friends of acquaintances and acquaintances of friends to provide hour-by-hour restaurant updates, food explanations and cocktail suggestions.)

As the opening letter shows, some of the restaurant folk are less enthusiastic. My friends are terrified to eat out with me, because they’re worried about chefs spitting in our food. (For the record, I think chefs are fabulous people. Shiver!) There’s the occasional threat from furious investors. And, after a review that’s less than flattering is published, I tend to stay away from the restaurant for about three months. I figure that’s long enough to ensure I don’t get a steak knife artfully positioned between my ribs. (It would just ruin my lovely Miu Miu evening wear.)

Actually chefs are astonishingly open to criticism. Many even have a reassuringly quick sense of humour. I once referred to a chef as Shylock, because his portions were tiny. The next time I was at his restaurant (after the obligatory three-month wait) with friends, a chocolate cake was delivered to our table. It has just three words across, in happy vanilla icing — “With Love, Shylock!”

In fact, The Reluctant Gourmet works, thanks to the many chefs, cooks and foodies, who’ve patiently explained ingredients, techniques and recipes to me over coffee, hot stoves and meticulous cookbooks. That’s also how it gradually acquired its politics — pushing local flavours, promoting food diversity, supporting sustainable eating. And, of course, its recurring theme — exploring the amazing way food from every part of India is so uniquely distinct. In this deliciously diverse country, food styles vary every 100 km or so, and every single household has an individual recipe for even something as basic as dal.

The restaurant scene changes almost every week in Chennai alone, which is where I’m based. In 2006, we wrote a MetroPlus food guide to the city, which went into reprint after reprint. Today, it would be a very different book. The city now has water sommeliers, wine libraries, and sashimi counters. The same things are happening across the country.

Things can only get better.

Meanwhile, I try to stay incognito to get an authentic experience. Sometimes I fail. So I’ll admit it: my prawns are bigger, my parathas fluffier, my pizzas more generously laden with cheese.

Think that’s fun? You try eating with a dozen hostile men in suits studying you all through dinner, like you’re a particularly twisted lab rat.

Though it must be admitted, drama like that makes for a good story. Even if that does make me — sigh — a bit of a ‘saddist’.

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.

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.

Green Curry meets Chicken 65

Baked beans on toast. Hardly the heights of fine dining in these days of culinary high jinks, where caviar is handed out with all the nonchalance of popcorn, and death by chocolate is more of a steadfast purpose than a menacing threat.

Yet, in the 1970s, when Spencer Plaza was Chennai’s ‘It’ place, I have it on reliable authority that once of the coolest things to do as a college kid was to stylishly spoon up baked beans on toast.

The ultimate British comfort food? Well, it’s hardly surprising. Wikipedia states that the mall goes right back to British Raj. It was established around 1863-1864 and was really the first departmental store in the Indian subcontinent, comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Hence this quintessentially item, which was
one of many on their bangers-and-mash menu.

Then, in 1983, Spencer Plaza burnt down and had to be rebuilt. Things began to change. By the 1900’s India was accelerating rapidly, and so was good old ‘Spencers.’

Today it’s arguably the best place in the city to take a reasonably tasty culinary journey across a diverse array of cuisines With two bustling food courts and a variety of little stalls and restaurants boasting everything from coconut water to fresh waffles, you can travel from starter to dessert in fifteen minutes – depending on how
fast you vaccume it all up of course. Just don’t go there on the weekend when the all the city’s languid and lethargic people seem to converge into one aimless, amorous mass, which then proceeds to conquer every corridor, lift and store.

On other days Kolkata Chaat’s really the place to be if you like the whole elbow-to-jowl brand of socialising that’s rampant in these kind of joints. It helps that many swear this place makes the best pani puri in the city: crisp outside and deliciously mushy inside, accompanied with a burst of cold, tangy tamarind-spiked pani puri
juice.

Then there’s the ever-popular Thattukada, which already has die hard fans despite being a relatively recent addition, thanks to it’s peppery chicken roast ‘porizha Kozhi’ served with soft chapattis, If you’re feeling more indulgent try the scalding chicken curry that arrived with their signature Kerala parottas, which are simultaneous crisp, flaky and fluffy.

However, what really seems to be grabbing attention now is Su Wai, which is a surprisingly authentic Thai place, set in the midst of the babel, chicken biriyani and filter coffees of the Akshaya Food court in Phase one. Run by a Thai family, the food is cooked and supervised by the owners who are also on hand to serve and explain the food.

We try the aromatic green curry, paired with a astonishingly fragrant pineapple fried rice. The highlight however was the basil chicken, deliciously succulent and laced with the powerful flavour of bright basil leaves. The pad Thai was less endearing, since the ingredients here don’t really pop with that enthusiastic freshness that
characterises most Thai food. However, considering it operates from a tiny kitchen, Su Wai really is quite a remarkable little place. The menu’s reasonably extensive, featuring all the favourites: Vegetables in garlic sauce. Drunken noodles and the intense Tom Kha, bouncing with lemon grass.

The best part? It’s in a food court. So you can pair it with combinations that will make food connoisseurs go white with horror.

Some Ponnuswami chicken 65 for instance. Or maybe a curd rice from Sarvanna Bhavan? 

We’re relatively boring. We go for the Brain Stimulator juice, to deal with some issues of absent-mindedness, and a vitamin C enriched drink. 

I wonder what the new age equivalent for baked beans on toast would be anyway? Organic lima on whole-wheat bread served with a dash of salmon roe? And if it’s Spencer, it will probably come with a liberal helping of masala chaat and sweet-and-sour ketchup.

Globalisation can be quite fascinating. Especially when it plays out in a crowded foodie mall.

Venn Pongal goes places

Young Kurumi Arimoto balances carefully on her toes, and stirs the carrot mundhiri payasam. Maiko Shimizu fiddles with a nifty camera, capturing the moment. Meanwhile, Akemi Yoshii, ponders over translating araithu vitta thakaali vengaaya sambhar into Japanese. In the middle of the kitchen, cookbook writers Padmini Natarajan and Viji Varadarajan simultaneously try explaining everything from ghee-making to how American frozen spinach cubes make for mulagu kootu that’s “out of this world.” Welcome to the new global culinary classroom. Kurumi, the daughter of Japanese cookbook writer Yoko Arimoto, has written one recipe book and is currently working on another. Her fascination for Tamil Brahmin cooking is what led her to Viji’s kitchen and kadais. Maiko is a professional writer, photographer and radio presenter. She runs the website One doodle land (http://onedoodle.jugem.jp/) and is working on recording and collating Kurumi’s culinary adventures in Chennai for a travel-food story, for her website. The link that brought everyone together is Akemi, Japanese translator with a Chennai software company, she’s also a freelance food writer with a Masters degree in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide, Australia. This is their first introduction to home made Indian food. Yet, all three state that while Viji’s cooking is exotic, it isn’t unfamiliar. As Kurumi deftly makes kuzhakattais stuffed with moist coconut and crumbly jaggery, they talk of how similar these are to Japanese wantons, and those ever-popular dim sums found in every chinatown in the world. Kurumi plans to work on popularising this kind of fresh, easy South Indian home cooking in Japan once she’s back, because she feels it fits in well with Japanese traditions. “Our staple diet is rice… and our food taste is also mild and fresh.” Despite Indian food’s reputation for being high on spice and chillies, Tamil Brahmin food relies more on the taste of individual vegetables, cooked gently with carefully matched seasonings, which fits in comfortably with the Japanese culinary ethos. As recipes and kitchen tips are swapped, Kurumi and Viji cook their way through an elaborate lunch. Eventually everyone’s tucking enthusiastically into the sutta kathirikkai gotsu, made with carefully smoked brinjal and twanging with the distinctive flavour of hing paired with fragrant venn pongal. “We don’t eat Japanese food everyday,” says Akemi, talking of the various kinds of cuisine available in Tokyo. “Indian food is our favourite and we even have our own curry!” However, South Indian restaurants are rare in Japan. The few Indian restaurants that move beyond the flaming red curry route tend to limit themselves to dosas. Although chicken tikka and greasy curry tend to represent India in places like London and New York, these cities are also cosmopolitan enough to nurture change. In many of the world capitals, Indian food is ceasing to be defined by the curries, naans and kebabs of North India. Regional food is getting popular, as Indian chefs introduce the world to the likes of Kerala beef fry, Goan prawn balchao and Chettinad chicken. However, the fact that Kurumi’s in Viji’s kitchen, learning how to make a perfect semiya upma is indicative of the fact that we are poised at the beginning of a new wave: foodies travelling the world to learn cooking from individual households, recipe hunters leaving no page unturned in their quest for something new, cooks tracking down each other to swap techniques. Thanks to the Internet, with blogs, You Tube and websites, all this knowledge is quickly available to everyone. Who ever thought a vendaikkai thayir pachadi could travel so far, so fast, so flamboyantly. (Viji Varadarajan and Padmini Natarajan recently won the Gourmand Jury award for their book Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine.)

Kokum

Stop asking me where to go for dinner. I really don’t know. Why should I always decide anyway? And why do I always have to order for everybody?

I’m embarrassingly unimaginative anyway. If I find a new restaurant, I squat there for months, till the waiters start slapping me on the back and asking me to help out on busy days.

Fortunately, this year there’s always been something new.

Now, with MRC Nagar rapidly being restructured, the city is likely to finally have an actual dining destination, buzzing with hotels, fine dining and hip restaurants. Not surprisingly, M. Mahadevan, who’s possibly one of Chennai’s shrewdest restaurateurs, has quietly beaten everyone to the draw and opened Kokum in the heart of this area.

Kokum, which follows in the footsteps of the popular Ente Keralam, focusses on traditional home cooking. Except this time, it expands beyond just Kerala to the four Southern States. Although this is a rather common theme with Southern restaurants, Kokum’s advantage is its attention to seafood, which makes up a significant part of the menu.

Right now, they keep their blinds down, because the view consists of dusty roads, ugly construction and heavy machinery. But you can see that once it’s all done, this is going to be a scenic Singapore-like area. Best of all, between the buildings, there’s the glimmer of the sea.

Which makes the juicy karivepak royyala vepadu, prawns from Andhra Pradesh, delightfully appropriate. Especially when it’s served with spicy kane besule, soft ladyfish slathered in a crisp skin twanging with spices, including the distinctive Mangalorean red chilli.
Focus on specific areas

Chef Regi Mathew, who’s overseeing the restaurant, says the team decided to pick specific areas to base the food on, so the menu wouldn’t lose focus. Otherwise, as any true-blue foodie knows, recipes and food habits can change every 10 km or so in our deliciously diverse country.

Therefore Andhra Pradesh is represented by Nellore, Karnataka by Mangalore and Kundapur, Kerala by Alleppey and the Malabar regions and Tamil Nadu by Chettinad food.

The interiors therefore are carefully unbiased, attempting to convey the essence of the traditional South without getting too hung up on specific cultures. Tranquil, pretty and sedate, Kokum like all Mahadevan’s restaurants is sensibly comfortable without being superbly posh or unnervingly opulent.
Distintive flavours

The food, in keeping with the décor, is good without being extraordinarily elaborate or fussy. Thanks to the fact that they’re being quite obsessive about ingredients, every dish has a distinctive flavour, which is quite a treat in these days of ‘one spice fits all.’

The highlights are the Goan prawn balchao, rich and tangy, teamed with fluffy sanas. Also the spicy stuffed eggplants in a thick gravy redolent with peanuts, copra and sesame seeds. Then there was the red fish curry, designed to go beautifully with steaming rice.

There was also a duck roast, though with all the spice and frying it seems overly satiating given the fact that duck is rather heavy to begin with. The mutton gongura is interesting if you like the brisk tartness of the gongura leaf. There’s also an Udipi delicacy, a rather strange blend of plump mushrooms and bottle gourd, which takes some getting used to.
Sample slowly

Although they serve an intimidatingly large thali, Kokum’s variety is best sampled slowly. You wouldn’t rush through four states as a tourist, would you? It makes sense to approach the food the same way, since every cuisine is so defiantly individual. Of course, mixing and matching is the nicest feature of a restaurant that brings together different cuisines. But do it thoughtfully. Fish and rice. Crisp kori roti, a rice flour bread, with Mangalore chicken curry. Delicate neer dosa with, well, almost anything.

A thin payasam bobbing with what tastes like little vadais (pal kozhukattai) is served for dessert. The hot milky liquid is delicious, the spongy solids less so. Instead, I’d suggest their gorgeous banana dosas laced with cinnamon, which are really starters but make great desserts with their fudgy, flamboyant flavours.

Kokum is at Old Number 60, New Number 115, Kasthuri Avenue. Dinner for two should cost roughly Rs. 800. Call 42185462 for details.

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.)

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!

Terroir Uncorked

So there’s this tale about a Brigadier from the Indian Border Security Force who suavely asked for a glass of wine with his meal. “White or red?” the waiter asked, as waiters do. “Red,” he said, adding helpfully, “with ice and soda.”

The story, told by Arindam Kunar, General Manager, at the glittering launch of ‘Terroir: The Madras Wine club” amid sparkling glasses of Kir Royale, fresh oysters and Casino Royale-style dressing, evoked a ripple of laughter. After all, in just about ten years India’s swish set’s moved rather rapidly from the whisky-soda/rum-and-coke route to the rarefied world of oaked complexity, where the finish is crucial and appellation isn’t the name of a heavy metal band. A world where strawberries can be forward, vanilla elegant and in which smoke, minerals and herbs commune within a single glass. Where it’s essential to swirl your glass and use your nose to really savour the romance of a product that manages to capture sunshine, soil and rain, and distil them into a vintage with more than a hundred descriptions, a dozen flavours and a single, distinct personality.

Which is why Terroir is such an appropriate name for a club that’s dedicating itself to unravelling the complexities of wine. Captain Arjun Nair, president of the club, said the club grew out of an informal discussion between friends over glasses of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Terroir, he added, denotes the characteristics that geography bestows on wine. The club, he said, is a loose association of individuals who will be meeting for lectures and wine-tasting to learn, share and develop information on wine.

Over a glass of elegant Chateau Belair Saint Emilion 1999, resounding with big flavours and rich fruits, Sudhir Rao, treasurer, added that the club’s objective is to really develop a culture of leisurely appreciation of fine wine in the city. Secretary Sabu Balagopal, in many ways the catalyst for its formation, hoped that this launch would provide the platform for the club to grow in strength.

After all, as Reva Singh, Editor of Sommelier India, who came from Delhi for the event, pointed out, wine clubs are gaining momentum and popularity across the country. There currently are three in Delhi, and one each in Chandigarh, Bangalore and now Chennai. Some are exclusive, some commercial. She’s even a member of a wine club exclusively for women.

Aman Dhall, Executive Director of Brindco (India’s biggest wine importing company) swirled glasses and compared notes with the gathering, as they flitted between France, Italy, Australia, Chile, Spain and Portugal tasting 37 high-end wine labels, of which 12 were Grand Cru — all supplied by Brindco.

While no one could have possibly tried the entire range, which stood in alluring clutches grouped according to country, under lush decorative grapes, pretty cheese arrangements and suitably swish canapés, it was certainly a fabulous opportunity to compare flavours, pick up some appropriately impressive wine terminology and learn about vintage.

Among the staggering good wines were the two dark and brooding Bordeaux (Chateau Belair and Dourthe AOC Range: Margaux), a stunningly sensuous Pinot Noir (Maison Louis Latour Pommard), a vibrant and fruity Super Tuscan (Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi ‘Mormoreto’) and an astonishingly powerful Amarone (Speri) suffused in the aromas of chocolate and dark spice.

Discussing how India has been opening up to wine over the past ten years, Aman mentioned that India has some 55 wineries apart from well known names such as Sula and Grover.

While some of these players are essentially “dream makers — farmers turned winemakers who don’t really have the technical know how” — he maintains that the best Indians wines can now hold their own in any blind tasting, with entry level international brews.

Have a problem with knowledgably swapping notes on pepper, bark and the feisty spirit of lemons in a glass? Arindam Kunar promised to make wine more accessible by eventually introducing it at the Coromandel, priced like Coke, or mineral water. Which prompted a member to call out, “And can we quote you on that?” Apparently, we can.

Sho-Buzz

June 2017
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