That Madras Place is where you can just be yourself. The good food and the ambience add to the charm

Where can we read? Curling up in bed is ideal when you’re armed with Asterix comics. (It makes it so much easier to work your way through a jar of peanut butter without getting disapproving looks.) But sometimes you just want to flip through magazines in a civilised way. Or have a quiet gossip with a friend. With coffee, biscotti and waiters. Unfortunately, despite our rash of cafes, Chennai has surprisingly few conversation-friendly ones. Too often you’re assaulted by a rasping sound system hurling out Christina Aguilera. Or a sad-eyed man strumming on an un-tuned coffee-shop guitar. Or the clatter and clang of impatient waiters.

Hence That Madras Place was born. Of course, ‘coffee and conversation’ is the biggest cliché of this decade. You can’t throw a cookie without hitting a café that is trying to create that ‘laid back’ summer holiday mood. Yet, this space stands out. Not just because it’s cute. But also because it reminds you of old sit-coms, first dates and songs from the Sixties. The décor is a cheeky mish-mash of ideas: Walls teem with neat cartoons, conjuring up images of Mario Miranda’s tongue-in-cheek murals at Mumbai’s iconic Café Mondegar. There are deliberately mismatched chairs punctuated with kitschy cushions. The waiters look like they’re perpetually humming a favourite song in their heads. The whole effect: Mad Hatter’s Tea party meets Marina Beach. It’s difficult not to be charmed.

That Madras Place aims to blend casual European food with the spirit of Chennai. Mathangi Kumar, the chef and one of the three founders, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in London last year. When she returned to Chennai, she first started a gourmet cooking school called ‘The Flour Box’. But a restaurant was always on her mind. “I did an MBA, but that was more like a back-up plan,” she says. “I wanted to create a place where people could just go and read. Or sit. Or do their college projects. Even if they’re just having a cup of tea. But I also wanted it to serve good food.”

The menu, in keeping with the space, is simple but brave. They offer all-day breakfasts with all the frills: From French toast with caramel sauce to classic sausages. Then there are the eggs. You can have them as omelettes, from old school masala to cheese-jalapeño. Or eat them scrambled, classic or cheese. Even fried eggs have options: regular or crispy garlic with olive oil.

We flip through magazines over the first course. A comforting, hearty, emerald green broccoli soup. Then put the glossies away to work through the appetisers. The popcorn shrimp is addictive, beer-battered and juicy. The chicken schnitzel served in four chunky pieces, instead of one flat slab, is slightly overdone, but determinedly ‘crispy,’ in response to customer requests. There’s colourful bruschetta, let down slightly by the stodginess of the bread. Also French fries served with a clever topping of crunchy fried garlic and parsley.

The main course, Aglio E Olio pasta, is tasty but surprisingly spicy thanks to minced green chillies. Instead of classic Aglio E Olio, the kitchen has toned down that distinctive flavour of fruity olive oil and sharp cheese, by marrying them with more familiar Indian flavours. We also have chicken sandwiches which would have been better if they weren’t smothered by an avalanche of very average bread. The meal ends with fudgy brownies, which are just the right amount of sweet.

On the whole That Madras Place shows great promise. Right now the menu is still being tweaked to find a balance between the chef’s vision and clientele demands. There’s a danger in being too obliging. You can’t always make everything crisper, spicier and cheesier. Yet, it’s endearing that they’re untiringly trying to keep everyone happy. Somewhere there’s a middle ground. It’s just a question of time before they get there. Till then I’m quite happy to read a book, order shrimp popcorn and soak in the atmosphere.

That Madras Place is at Kasturbai Nagar 2nd Main Road, Adyar. A meal for two is approximately Rs. 800. Call 42614380 for more details.

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