Perhaps it’s a symptom of the New Year. Cheery new age philosophy. The whole ‘ask the universe and you shall receive’ spiel. No one seems exempt. A friend who proudly claims to be ‘dead inside’ whispers she’s been wowed by Rhonda Byrne’s The Power. I tiptoe through the bookstore’s self-help aisle like an embarrassed cat burglar (but without the cool black stilettos). Trust me, browsing between titles like How To Win Friends And Influence People does nothing for your image. Hard bitten cynicism seems so much more stylish. Nevertheless, subscribing to the ‘nothing is impossible’ school of thought is unexpectedly liberating.
The folks at the new The Leela Palaces Hotels and Resorts have certainly mastered the art of Zen. They waited for this opening for a year and a half. Over mezze at Spectra, their sprawling all-day dining restaurant, French general manager, Pascal Dupuis, discusses weathering the indefinite wait. A sense of humour helped. A year ago, each of the staff wrote down the date they guessed the hotel would open. “I thought a game would get easier,” says Dupuis. Once the licenses were through, they finally officially opened on January 11. Who picked that date? A chef, who chose it because it was his birthday. “We gave him the latest iPod,” smiles Dupuis.
Perhaps the anticipation did them some good. The restaurant bursts with energy, with super-charged staff bouncing about. In a city now jostling with high-end hotels, the Leela’s realised its small details that give them an edge: An extra chair conjured up for your handbag. Alert service, without nervous hovering. Space.
Their biggest advantage, of course, is the view. The Bay of Bengal, stretching enticingly past the big picture windows.
Our mezze features pita bread accompanied by small pots of cool, lush, rich dips. Silky hummus, zaatar-speckled labneh, smoky garlic-spiked baba ganoush and spunky muhammara deepened with red peppers. The surprisingly small portion of pita bread is fairly average. We also try a vibrant salad, with segmented oranges, crisp sliced walnuts and tart chunks of feta cheese, all tumbled between deep green, peppery argula leaves.
The menu’s a refreshing change from the routine coffee shop format, traditionally the bastion of club sandwiches, burgers and the inevitable chicken curry. Rather than give in to the one-size-fits-all multi-cuisine formula, they’ve instituted seven interactive kitchens: Indian, Asian, Japanese, Western, Mediterranean, a Salad Bar and a Dessert Counter.
Instead of seeing the ‘vegetarian section’ as a inescapable obligation, executive chef Dharmen Makawana and his team have genuinely focused on creating vibrant vegetarian dishes that appeal to everyone: asparagus and fresh ricotta pizza, pasta with wild mushroom ragout and white truffle oil, soya bean galouti kebabs… The star of the evening, in fact, is an unassuming polenta. Soft and fluffy, the polenta is topped with lumps of sharp gorgonzola cheese, and a ring of sautéed mushrooms. It sits on a bright red pepper couils, topped with wilted spinach. Despite the complex construction, it’s a simple dish, marrying distinctive flavours and textures. We also try a pretty sushi platter with buttery tuna, coral salmon and dramatic shrimp lined up with military precision. Nice enough, but still eclipsed by the polenta! (And a good thing too, in retrospect, given the stratospheric pricing of Leela’s sushi.)
Dessert’s a chocolate tasting platter and thyme-lemon sorbet. No complaints, but not exactly mind-blowing either. We walk past the cake shop on our way out, to admire pastry chef Avijit Ghosh’s marzipan-style installations — pouting mermaids, cuddly babies and the occasional perplexed unicorn. The menu here is determinedly eclectic. Proudly purple blueberry macroons. Chocolates in flavours like lemon tea, sea salt caramel and chilly honey. And cakes like Pistachio and Red Fruit, Wild Berry and Apricot, Passion and Pink Guava. We’re particularly fascinated by the collection of breads, ranging from German Kraftkorn to Pineapple Curry Baguettes.
Meanwhile, the Indian restaurant Jamavar has opened. Next comes China XO, their Chinese restaurant. And then an Italian specialty restaurant set on the 11th floor with a promised 180 degrees panoramic view of the sea. Also look out for Library Blue, the bar which will open shortly.
Clearly all good things do indeed come to those who wait.
(The Leela Palace Chennai is at Adyar Seaface, 175 Sathya Dev Avenue Extn, M.R.C Nagar. Call 3366 1234. A meal for two at Spectra costs approximately Rs 3,000.)