Sketch, the latest addition to the huge options of restaurants in the city, has a competently put together platter

Number of staff: Three. Number of customers: Three. Number of muffins: Three.

I have to say the symmetry is pretty at Sketch. It almost makes me wants to sit down and write a haiku. But I’m worried about dessert. (Number of desserts: One) Don’t judge me. It’s a jungle out there. And just one slice of cheesecake. I hover around it like a troubled magpie. The three staff studiously ignore me. One fries chips. The other slices bread. The third seems to be working on his novella. Not that I’m complaining. It’s oddly refreshing to be left alone for a change.

My friends look up from their menus, firmly instructing me to stop hovering and sit down quietly. “But I’d better book the cheesecake before someone else eats it,” I stage whisper. “Look around.” snaps friend One. Her voice echoes in the emptiness. I sit.

Friend Two is groaning gently meanwhile: “Minimalistic. Again,” she sighs. She has a point. White walls, big windows, unforgiving furniture. The Indian interpretation of European café chic. Again. Admittedly, this style of café was fun when it was fresh and innovative, about a decade ago. Conjuring up images of brunch in lipstick and high heels. But cafes around the world have moved on, developing styles of their own. Sometimes it’s sawdust floors, wooden beams and mason jars. Sometimes it’s couches, pop art and comfort food. The key is to fit into a category, and then own it.

Sketch seems to be aiming for the ‘smart café’ category. Hence their global menu, angular décor and open kitchen. It’s not an unsuccessful model. Owned by Apollo Sindoori Hotels, they play on their strengths. A competent bakery, enviable location and years of experience with food. The cakes are reportedly excellent, and there’s a promising shelf by the entrance stacked with sturdy loaves of bread, boxes of crumbly coconut cookies and pale yellow butter biscuits. However, despite all this they don’t seem to be drawing many customers.

Chennai has changed dramatically over the last five years. With the restaurant scene getting increasingly crowded, now customers have a huge range of options when it comes to eating out. Now, even if we’re just planning on grabbing a quick lunch, we flip through a mental Rolodex. Maybe you eat at a restaurant because of a particular waiter-buddy. Maybe it’s because the kitchen makes an awesome ham-cheese croissant. Maybe it’s because you like the couch. You rarely become a regular because of Philippe Starck chairs.

We begin with a mixed platter of vegetarian starters. The platter is competently put together, forming a pretty amalgamation of snacks. The searing hot falafel stands out, crisp with fluffy, steamy interiors. There’s bruschetta: small wedges of crusty bread, topped with cheese and olive-oil laced chopped tomatoes. We eat spinach wrapped in flaky phyllo pastry, slightly soggy at the bottom. The lukewarm cheese balls are vapid, since the crust has gone soft and the cheese stodgy. The chilli-dusted baby corn strips, which have great potential, have also gone cold. We are still the only three customers, so it’s surprising (and unfortunate) that every thing on our plate was not served fresh out of the pan.

Our main course begins with luscious pasta arrabiatta, which proves the kitchen has potential. (After all, it’s the simplest dishes that usually go wrong. I have a friend who judges Five Star hotels by their club sandwiches — and you’ll be surprised at how badly many chefs make them, simply because they underestimate seemingly ‘easy’ food.) This is an India-approved version, slightly spicy with intense deep red, chunky tomato sauce, which has been patiently cooked down. It’s dusted with fresh-minced herbs, and studded with slivers of mellow garlic.

Although they have some interesting salads, including an avocado and beet salad with ‘orange glazed warm beets’— another clue that this is a restaurant capable of thinking out of the box — unfortunately they are out of avocado, so we settle on a focaccia sandwich filled with pesto and roasted vegetables, which is forgettable. It’s followed by Hawaiian pizza, an alluring combination of coloured peppers, strips of sweet pineapple and roasted chicken on a blistering thin crust.

The cheesecake is disappointing. It aspires to be New York, but doesn’t really get beyond Nungambakkam. Now desi cheesecake is not a bad thing at all, with its buttery crushed biscuit base and condensed milk-laced topping. The problem with this version is it’s neither here nor there. That’s also Sketch’s main challenge: finding a unique personality. But till then, there’s still plenty to enjoy. Falafel, cake and — hopefully — that third waiter’s novella.

Sketch is at 41, Ground Floor, Anugraha in Nungambakkam. (Next to Taj Coromandel). A meal for two is about Rs. 400. Call 4206 4306 for details.