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?