December 19, 2010

Tantalisingly Teppan

It was the middle of the week and a slow day at work. My colleagues suggested that we try out a new eating place and someone said Teppan at the Benjarong.

My first thought; "Why is Japanese cuisine being served at a place that sounds Thai?"

We headed out anyway and since Benjarong is something of a landmark on TTK road. Our entry to the premises was the only confusing aspect of the whole experience. We were welcomed to Benjarong and for an instant we thought we were mistaken. But then on asking for Teppan we were told that it was a separate section upstairs.

I am a huge foodie and pride myself in experimenting with different types of cuisines. That being said, my knowledge of teppanyaki is scarce at best and trust me when I say, I was NOT prepared for the spectacular show that lay ahead. It started off with the chef who was preparing our starters. He explained how he seasoned the skillet. While waiting for the station to get hot we got to see some nifty card tricks. All good so far. The real show started with the second course onwards. Eggs balanced on spatula  edges, vessels flipped, food tossed and all the fancy hand work that one expects or if a first timer, actually surprises.

We started with a round of mocktails which acted as great aperitifs. My ginger-based mocktail acted as palate cleanser for the predominantly chicken dishes that I was having...the scrumptious chicken teriyaki starter being the highlight. What followed was a tenderloin in wasabi butter and succulent chicken breasts, which were cooked just right with the sake blending in delicately with the herbs. The chef even tossed a piece into my mouth from across the plate as a tester! Abhinav Bindra in the making perhaps?

While Teppan does exquisitely well on meat and seafood, one would but naturally think that Japanese cuisine has nothing to offer for the vegetarians. But I would urge you to think again. Because my herbivorous compadres absolutely loved what was served to them. Heck, even a chicken aficionado like  me fell in love with the avocado and tempura maki rolls.

Sufficiently stuffed, we just about thought that the end was near when the deal was sweetened at the end, quite literally at that. The sugar bar is by far one of the best I have seen and I have seen quite a few.  I am a hardcore dessert freak. I eat less so I can have desserts and I absolutely loved what was on offer here. Chocolates and more chocolates; mint flavoured, white and dark; beautiful pastries that just melted away to nothing leaving only the exquisite flavour, cream and jelly shooters, wafer goodies. Yumm!

Simply put, Teppan is one of those places where you go when you have time to savour your meal, enjoy the ambience and watch some exquisite artistry. Highly recommended!

November 23, 2010

Livin’ La Vida Loca

When David Villa and his band of boys took home the Holy Grail of football thanks to some brilliant footwork by Andres Iniesta’s 116th-minute strike, the entire stadium erupted in cheer with the vuvuzelas blowing loud and clear. Yes, it was the night when the Dutch dream was shattered and Holland cried orange tears.
Far far away, in a land littered with clichés of being called ‘the mystical place of snake charmers, Kamasutra, sadhus and slums’, and further down south in seemingly conservative Chennai there was one quaint little place called Zara Tapas Bar which was celebrating the victory of Spain. Why you may ask? Well, though they don’t really need an introduction, Zara is India’s first Tapas bar and probably one of the best pubs in Chennai. 
As I sat at the pub on a muggy evening watching the finals, nestling my tall glass of sangria (that is my way of supporting Spain, apart from drooling over David Villa) a thought suddenly struck me! As a resident of Chennai and now well into my drinking prime, I have probably spent many a night at this pub drinking, talking, dancing and simply ‘sitting’ night after night with friends, strangers and just about every body. Such is the charm of Zara. Not once will you feel out of place, not once will you be asked to leave, unless of course you beat up the manager (I wouldn’t advise this because he has personally spoken at length with me about his fitness routine).
Truth be told though, if there is one reason I keep going back to Zara, It is probably because I personally think they have the best tapas, cocktails and food. Their Spanish sangrias, which come by the pitcher or glass is made with a combination of chunky tropical fruits and wines, dances like a Spanish chica doing the salsa in front of me. The starters range from the ever popular nachos, to interesting dishes like the jalapeno stuffed with cheese, spicy chicken and cheese, cottage cheese and potato nuggets, shredded crispy lamb with peppers, mushrooms and pimentos in a red wine reduction…the list just goes on!
I have said this before, and I’d like to reinstate that for me, if there is a bar in Chennai that really just lets me ‘be’, it would have to be Zara. The place has become a friend in need of sorts- Monday blues, Tuesday musings, Girl’s night on Wednesdays, retro Thursdays, or the Friday-Saturday weekend partying, there is something for everybody at Zara. It’s like a one size fits all…sigh, if only clothes were like that!

September 29, 2010

One steaming cuppa!

Millions of people around the world love nothing more than to start their day with a steaming cup of coffee. The smell, the taste, the caffeine lift and the shared experience of coffee have become a staple of our modern life and culture.
One steaming cuppa is all you need, particularly in South India to kick start your day. It also helps clear the mind and perk up the energy. Of course, too much coffee can make people jittery and even raise cholesterol levels, so food experts stress moderation.
 “When I wake up in the morning, nothing can get me going like a degree coffee can. I love my coffee strong, milky and with just a little less sugar, which gives me an instant lift to get me going for the day. It’s a must for me, if I have to function properly,” says coffee lover Naveen.

Conversation also goes well with coffee. Don’t believe me? Well, nothing would better explain the sprouting of a million coffee pubs all over the city, with a majority of them serving as a place for people to meet and interact. No one can debate that the drink of our parents and grandparents has been dubbed “chic” and “hip” by our children and grandchildren.

Says Aditi Saraf, “I’m not sure exactly how old I was. What I do remember is the aroma. I  t h o u g h t that by drinking the stuff; I would be all grown up. I was a kid. What did I know? Dad would be enjoying his cup and mom hers. I had to try it. They got me a cup, filled it with more sugar and milk than coffee. I was hooked, and have been ever since.”
The eternal love affair with coffee continues, and when the Ink Spots sang “I love the java jive and it loves me” in 1940, they could not have known how right they were.

July 22, 2010

From God’s own country!

It was one of those odd rainy days when instead of wanting to curl up with a hot steaming cuppa, I was in the mood for another kind of steaming kappa; only this one is called tapioca. And when my part Palakkad roots start tugging for attention, I can’t help but give in. To make matters worse, I had just finished seeing Michael Madana Kama Rajan and Kameshwaran and Tirupura Sundari’s kitchen adventures/misadventures were fresh in my memory.

So, being the glutton that I am, I called up two of my fellow musketeers and ex-colleagues, and set a date to feast on some authentic Kerala cuisine. The destination of choice? Well, Ente Keralam it had to be, after all what’s more authentic than a place that translates to ‘My Kerala’ right?

I’ll be honest here. I’m really not one who is rooted in tradition; my loyalty to Kerala lies in my patronage of toddy, my views on the Marxist party and a few Mammootty and Mohanlal movies. But what I absolutely love about Kerala is the cuisine. I don’t know how better to explain it, so I think it would suffice to say that everything tastes fresh, pure and unadulterated.

Anyway, coming back to where it began – Yes, my craving! There I am, standing like a buffoon, rain drenched and waiting for my friends, fuming, my eyes doing a poor imitation of the Kathakali, when the two of the finally arrive, profusely apologetic. Determined that nothing should come between my kappa and me, I brush aside their apology and we enter the warm abode of Ente Keralam. The antique oak wood pillars and fragrant flowers beckon you and the palatial old-style bungalow serves as the perfect restaurant setting, even as ‘chechis’ and ‘chettans’ smile warmly and offer you a seat.

We start of by ordering some banana flower cutlets, karimeen polichathu and chicken fry. All arrive piping hot and while we make a mad dash for crisp, spicy and juicy chicken and cutlets, it was the karimeen that had my Bong friend raving! Three down and many to go, we decided that main course would be Moplah biryani, my revered and beloved kachi more, kappa and meen curry, white rice and mushroom curry. The biryani which arrived looking like a bed of plump white rice sprung a surprise when we found it be decadently layered with subtle spices and meat. While I wolfed down the kappa, my friend went at the meen curry and white rice; her verdict? “If this is not living the good life, then what is?” And not only did the rest of us agree, we decided to be brave, show solidarity and order some more.

And then arrived the creamy jackfruit ice-cream! Now I’m really not a big fan of this spiky guy, but honestly, this is what I love about Ente Keralam. That even the most ordinary and smelly fruit can be made to something so luscious and wonderful! Cheque paid, the three of us sunk into their comfortable seats and sipped on our suleman chai, not talking, but just listening to the music instead. And what do you know, with food so good, even the usually horrible Malayalam rap music was music to our ears!

July 21, 2010

Mistress of spices?

When Penelope Cruz served up the spaghetti with juicy tomatoes and stringy cheese, men world over heaved a collective sigh. She was clearly the Woman on Top as the sexy, saucy and seductive chef Isabella, who had the men lusting and drooling. In today’s world women chefs may be few and far in number, with male chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Anthony Bourdain dominating the kitchen, but TRPs soar when the women preen, pose and stir up a storm.

What is it exactly that has women chefs scoring over men when it comes to TV? Ask any guy and he will simply say, “When Nigella Lawson gets on TV and teaches me a thing or two about how to chop onions, believe me I have my eyes glued. She is easily one of the hottest chefs I have seen and is it any wonder then that I’d rather watch her than a constipated Gordon Ramsay?”

We live in the golden age of chefs. Between your Batalis and Bouluds, your Vongerichtens and Riperts, your Masas and Morimotos, the arena is brimming over with cooking legends who not only practise world-class gastronomy, but also manage to turn themselves into million-dollar mega brands and names to reckon with. But sparing the occasional mention of a Martha Stewart or a Betty Crocker, the new range of celebrity women chefs seem to rely more on their glamour quotient to sell food. It is no wonder then that famed English chef Nigella Lawson has constantly been under the scanner for her flirtatious manner of presenting, and has been titled the ‘queen of food porn’ by critics. Also named as one of the world’s most beautiful women, Nigella has been accused of relying heavily upon her attractiveness and sexuality as a device to engage viewers.

When ex Lady Rushdie, Padma Lakshmi exploded on to the cooking scene; the viewers just couldn’t make sense of what they were seeing. Here was the ultra glam, highly sexy supermodel, who one would believe couldn’t make a proper cup of tea, telling us how to splutter mustard seeds in order to make the perfect sambhar! I’m sorry but when I think of Padma Lakshmi telling me how to cook the perfect meal, I just can’t take her seriously because these women only seem to sell their food through their fab looks and perfect 10 bodies. Hell, give me a Sanjeev Kapoor any day!

Also joining the bandwagon are chefs Anjum Anand and Rachel Ray. While yummy mummy Anjum’s well spoken Indo-Brit accent and flirtatious manner have led to her being dubbed the Nigella Lawson of Indian cuisine in Britain, Rachel Ray's foxy manner of presentation with her oohing, aahing and lip-smacking, has the men cheering loudly.
Lets face it - the women seem to be able to sell themselves mainly due to the glamour quotient; it helps when we have a scantily clad Padma Lakshmi talking to us about the merits of peanut oil, or when a voluptuous Nigella Lawson tells us how to make the perfect molten chocolate cake. It would be fair to say then that these women are primarily TV personalities and chefs later. That being said, I don’t see the men complaining; they may whimper, but it’s certainly not out of remorse!

July 20, 2010

Flavours of the Orient

They say that all girl children are the apple of their daddy’s eye and all guys are mamma’s boys. In my case though, it is exactly the opposite. I’m my mother’s daughter and can safely say that whatever I am today - good, bad, ugly, the credit/discredit should go directly to her. My mother was a rebel in college and organized one morcha after the other; I spent a majority of my time outside class, playing marbles with the watchman and protesting parking ticket fee hike.

While my dad and brother would much prefer their ubiquitous north Indian, south Indian, East Indian (basically all things Indian) cuisine, mom and I are the experimental foodies in the family. So when Benjarong opened ten years back on TTK road, about two streets away from my house, the radar immediately went up. Off we trudged, cheerily, my mother and I, to discover the ‘Lingering taste of Thailand.’ There has been no looking back since.

I fell in love with the delicate, fiery, subtle, spicy and sensual experience that Benjarong embodies to me and can say with full gusto that it is a love affair that has continued over a decade; perhaps my most long-lasting one. I always try, and fail miserably every time when I try to point out that one special feature that makes this Thai restaurant a magical experience for me.  

Maybe it’s the décor…nah can’t be; sure it is nice, but that’s not what lends this place the midas touch. I could argue that it is possibly the amazing staff that makes you feel like you belong, but then again, no place survived on good service alone right?

Benjarong to me is special because it is unpretentious. It is simple, plain, sometimes rustic even when it comes to the food, but I guarantee you one thing – the chefs here do no cook because they have to, they cook because they want to; because if they if they did not serve you that perfect thick, creamy red curry with succulent pink prawns, or a bowl of glistening stir-fried greens just right, they would not be able to forgive themselves. The passion shows, the loves overpowers that.

So when I came to know that Benjarong had completed ten long years in the fine-dine business, my mother and I set off to be part of the celebrations, this time with me at the wheel (I was 15 then so I did not have a driving license) and promised to relive our first meal, only this time, we swore that it would be chopsticks all the way.

Did we use chopsticks? No. Did we eat the same meal that we have ten years back? No. But what we did have was some of the best, if the not the best Thai cuisine ever, with the stewards egging us on to try some new dishes on the menu. Well, there may be additions and a few subtractions from the menu, but like my mom said, “The heart and soul that goes into the food still remains the same.” And who am I to disagree? After all, ‘Thai’ (read: mother in Tamil) knows best right?

July 17, 2010

Aamchi Mumbai!

They say Mumbai changes you forever; the sights, sounds, smells, people, pick-pockets…everything is an integral experience that makes this place ‘Maximum City.’ Born in Mumbai, but a true blue south Indian at heart, I much prefer my ‘thayir sadham’ to the ‘aloo gobi, gobi aloo, paneer butter masala’ category. That being said, my heart skips a beat and my tongue starts drooling when I think of Mumbai street food/junk food.

Yeah! Bring on the chaats, pile on the vada pav and serve me some piping hot channa bhatura please! But sigh! In a city where chaat is most commonly thought of as a form of communication (think ‘chat’) between young boys and girls, it is not very often that one can find an authentic place that rustles up this kind of food with ease.

And then I discovered Kailash Parbat .Yes, yes, It’s the famed Mumbaiyya chaat place that I have loved and longed for in namma Chennai. Nestled in a quiet corner on Harrington road, Kailash Parbat (KP as I now fondly call it) is your one stop shop for all things tangy, masaledar and yummy. We started off with the crispy corn basket – plump niblets of corn sitting pretty on a bed of tomatoes, onions, a sea of spices and papdi. Topped with crisp sev, a squeeze of lime and multitudinous chutneys, it set the mood for things to come.

Next on the menu was a delightful sizzler, surprisingly authentic and tasty for a chaat place, with generous portions of chilli paneer, vegetable Manchurian, hakka noodles, rice, fries and so much more! But the piece de resistance was the heavenly cheese channa bhatura. With creamy cheese that oozes out of a crisp golden bhatura, spicy and piquant channa, a pickled mirchi and some salted onions, could one genuinely want more?

Well, I did and so with much reluctance, my colleague agreed, and I smiled in glee as the steward brought on the kulfi falooda. There is something really childishly exciting about eating a dessert that possibly has all colours of the rainbow; what’s more, it was delicious too! Supremely satiated and thankful that I was not wearing ‘fitting’ clothes, we walked out of Kailash Parbat with a promise to come back for more. And all this while, my head was singing…yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan!

June 24, 2010

Take in the Tapas

When you enter a bar/pub/nightclub, you seldom look for anything to wolf down when the munchies strike late...and that’s probably because most pubs, in most cities hardly have what you would call a bar menu. And especially in Chennai, when the ‘snack items’ solely consist of peanut masala, and potato chips, one longs for something that fills the stomach and doesn’t burn a hole in the pocket!

I’ll agree and tell you straight off that I’m a big fan of Zara, the tapas bar in Chennai, but honestly, I have always gone here more for the alcohol and ambience…with the food usually taking a backseat.

So, after a particularly long night of drinking, and being hung over so bad that I swore never to drink for the next six months, I found myself cluelessly sitting with a bunch of friends at Zara on a Saturday night. Unfortunately, while they are wining (read wine-ing), I’m reduced to whining and cribbing about the demerits of alcohol (these phases come once in a blue moon, otherwise I’m out protesting every TASMAC strike).

With nothing better to do, I decide to do a quick dekko of their fancy bar menu and settle down comfortably after ordering a couple of tapas; I’m going to get high on food you see! What hits me as I order is how everything seems strangely ‘foreign’, which must mean they are authentic right. The manager quickly explains to me the concept of Spanish finger food and even throws in some unpronounceable names for my benefit.

Mighty embarrassed, I decide to start off with something they call pinchos. Simply put, pincho is the blood relative of a bruschetta (flat pieces of crisp toast with a host of toppings). Trying to figure out what the actually difference between the two was, I approached Sebastian (their bartender who is a native of Espaniol) and he sat me down on what seemed like an education lesson; of course the fact that he gave me food to stuff my face as we spoke only made it better.

Pinchos (spelled pintxos in Basque) in Navarre, the Basque Country, gets its particular name because many of the tapas in this region are held together with a pincho or toothpick through them. The toothpick is used to keep whatever the snack is made of from falling off the slice of bread it is attached to and to keep track of the number of tapas the customer has eaten. While I much preferred the regular tomato and basil one, my friend couldn’t stop raving about the crab and prawn meat version.

Now armed with a mission to try all things that sounded alien to me, we ordered a host of other tapas like prawns and pasta salad, chorizo and chick peas, lamb meat balls and mushrooms in red wine. Now that I have been educated, I must tell you that 95% of the dishes on this menu are extremely true to its Spanish original. And that’s why the food stands out. Because you will find no chicken tikka masala, chilli chicken type nonsense on this menu.

While I’m not a big fan of beans, the way it was combined with the tart chorizo really made me beg for more. The mushrooms though, were by far my most favourite dish – succulently cooked in a red wine reduction and laced with garlic and pimentos, I was so taken by this dish I threatened the management for the recipe. There are certain things on this menu that are absolute fan favourites – like the amazing Manchego cheese platter, which is served with toast and olives; or the prawns with chilli flakes and olive oil – quite a crowd pleaser because it comes in the same pot it was cooked in!

Like I said before, I’m a huge Zara fan…that being said, I also know that there are things on the menu I won’t probably try again, but it was worth a shot the first time around. Suitably stuffed and extremely satisfied I turn to my drinkers friends and sigh!  How I would kill for that perfect glass of sangria now! Aperitif anyone?

June 16, 2010

Flavours of the coast

Nestled in a corner of MRC Nagar, Chennai, Kokum is a restaurant that glimmers like an uncut diamond to the trained eye. Forgive the flowery description, but one look at this quiet, simple, rustic yet gorgeously stylish place and you will echo my sentiments exactly.

The beautiful exteriors are well complemented by a faux pool of gilded marigold flowers, roses and ornate carvings. The traditional ‘kuthuvilakku’ or brass lamp, which finds pride of place at the entrance, brings back memories of a house in Kerala.

The sight that greets you first as you enter this delightful abode is that of warm, smiling stewards and cheerfully plump women making snow cloudesque milky-white appams, sinfully soft paniyarams and more. The whiff of fresh seafood and tender coconut leave a lilting aroma through the air. And then there are the sculptures that adorn the restaurant. Replete with carvings from Kerala in the form of a catamaran, Kokum also houses art work from Karnataka and Mangalore.

Okay so enough already about the interiors already...let’s get to the food shall we? By now, you should have guessed that Kokum serves coastal cuisine from the south. The menu is extensive and has the description of key spices and what properties they hold. Quite an interesting read when you are waiting for your food and do not have table conversation to make (At least this is how I leveraged the menu to benefit me!)

Spend some time with the master chefs here and they will patiently explain every single dish and what goes in to it with lots of love and care. There are also a host of signature dishes such as the Sannas (Goan idlis), Chicken Xacuti, Prawn Balchao, Gongura Mutton, Karimeen fry etc to choose from.

As we made our way to the table and sat down for a bit of banter and whole lot of food, we were greeted with an array of chutneys and podis that were placed at the table. Then, we were served complimentary banana dosa that melted in our mouths and made us hungry for things to come.

Our order at Kokum comprised Murungukkai (Drumstick) soup, Appams, nadaan kozhi curry, Non-Vegetarian thali with chicken curry and veg thali.  The Murungukkai soup was heavenly with instant clearing properties for a sore throat. The thali was served on a shiny silver platter with a banana leaf and consisted of a Kerala parotha, Vegetable Kurma, Cabbage kootu, Beetroot Poriyal, Papads, Pickle, Vengaya Vella Poondu Kozhambu (onion and garlic curry in tamarind sauce) and potato gravy. While the dishes are common to both thalis, the non-veg version comes with the option of either a chicken or fish gravy, both of which are simply divine. The thali also comes with Sambhar, Rasam and heaps of rice. The best part? Everything is unlimited…ever heard of too much as a good thing? Well, this one only keeps getting better.

One delightful aspect about the food here at Kokum is that you know everything is prepared with a lot of care. The appams, which is what my colleague ordered, was served piping hot and the chicken curry that went along with it was a silken treat. A special mention must go out to the pineapple pachadi - fresh, piquant and absolutely delightful, this one is a must have! Stuffed to the gills, my companions politely refused dessert, but me being the glutton that I am, I shook my head profusely when the steward approached me. And boy! I wasn’t disappointed. The ada pradhaman (jaggery, coconut milk and rice flour slow cooked to form a kheer) was a delightful version of namma chakkara pongal.

My final hypotheses? Kokum is a great place for a business meal or if you want to introduce expats to coastal cuisine. It is also an awesome place to take your family and friends and enjoy fare that is cooked to perfection. If this is what coastal food tastes like then maybe, just maybe I should think of relocating?