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.)

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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.

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November 2018
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