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.)

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.

Sho-Buzz

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