Chennai meets Madras, at Raintree hotel's restaurants, with distinctive coastal cuisine jostling for space with orchid festooned cocktails
We're ending up at the Raintree hotel bar, Madera, embarrassingly often these days. It doesn't seem particularly ladylike to be on backslapping terms with vodka. But then the cocktails here are so pretty — and so delightfully pink. Mine arrives festooned with an orchid, served on a coaster featuring a caricature of a goonda, all hairy legs and buck teeth. Undeniably charming.
Madera, like the restaurant Madras next door, labours to demonstrate the essence of our city without falling into cliché quicksand. To be traditional without having to go the whole jasmine, kanjeevaram and filter coffee route. Hence they've chosen subtle touches to remind people about the city, weaving them into the global-chic décor. While the bar pounds with Edward Maya's ‘Stereo Love', on the other side of the (no doubt soundproofed) glass, a musician skilfully plays the ghatam for diners. Chennai meets Madras — a tale of two cities, right in one hotel.
We're back for lunch the next day, to try something a little different from our customary liquid diet. (Though the Madera bartenders do thoughtfully send across a frozen margarita, twanging with lime). The restaurant features wicked local caricatures on coasters, plates and menus: chubby women flashing hefty nose rings, men flaunting bushy eyebrows and crisp ghee roast dosas, fishermen with bristling moustaches showing off their day's catch.
Executive Chef Jugesh Arora says the restaurant menu covers the coastal regions of Karnataka, Kerala, Goa and Tamil Nadu, despite being called Madras. Dedicated Chef J. Gopakumar who heads the restaurant kitchen ensures that each cuisine is distinctive, so the food doesn't become one mass of masala, which is what happens in far too many restaurants serving this genre of food.
Every fish we try is fiercely individual — crisp bland lady fish in a rawa crust dusted with fennel, deliciously tart Karaikudi seer fish with plump pods of garlic, white pomfret generously slathered with the salty-spicy-sweet recheado, fragrant with Goan vinegar, garlic and bedagai chillies.
The peri peri squid rings as dangerously addictive as French fries, but more interesting, chewy with crisp edges. I'm less enthusiastic about the Coorg spiced chicken nuggets, which are rather chunky and boringly monochromatic. There's also a simple preparation of sweet corn tossed with semi-ripe mango.
As incredible as it sounds there's more. But bear in mind we ate tasting portions — and intend to spend the next one week on the elliptical machine! We try Mangalore lamb curry, dark and spicy with Kerala parathas. It's alright, but eclipsed by the creamy prawn moilee, which goes beautifully with ghee rice topped by caramelly onions and the skilfully made bean poriyal, which is fresh, crunchy and mellow.
Between bites we discuss the new restaurants coming up at Raintree. In a month or so expect a rooftop North Indian dhaba, offering rustic food under the stars. Perhaps nothing beats lounging on a charpoy at a roadside dhaba and glugging thick lassi while listening to truckers abuse each other. But then this is a slice of the atmosphere without the diesel fumes. Perfect for the homesick as well as nervous food tourists.
Dessert is luxurious bebinca from Goa. The ada pradaman that accompanies it, however, is so overly sweet every other nuance is buried. Fortunately it's followed by coconut ice cream, ingeniously layered with fudgy toasted coconut for texture.
(Madras is at The Raintree Hotel in Teynampet, Anna Salai. Call 2830 9999 for reservations. A meal for two should cost Rs. 1,500.)
Keywords: Raintree hotel