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Updated: January 10, 2014 19:20 IST
the reluctant gourmet

Classic yet contemporary

Shonali muthalaly
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At The Yellow Chilli. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam
The Hindu At The Yellow Chilli. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

The varied platter at the newly-opened The Yellow Chilli, part of a food chain owned by celebrity Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, is as interesting as its decor

“First, you have to see the parrots.” Silence. “Parrots?” I stammer. “Yes.” Pause. “But I just have to write about the food,” I say. Shazad Mogrelia, CEO of newly-opened The Yellow Chilli in Nungambakkam, is unfazed. “I understand. Still, come back in the morning and see the parrots.” “Parrots?” I repeat, incredulously. “Yes.” Realising that the conversation is beginning to resemble a slapstick stand-up routine, I give in. Which is why I’m back at the Yellow Chilli less than 24 hours after dinner.

We stumbled into the restaurant by accident the previous night noticing the bright signage. Despite being part of a well-known chain, owned by celebrity Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, with restaurants all over the world from Delhi to Jordan, it’s made a surprisingly hushed entrance into Chennai. They launched in November, but presumably anticipating high expectations, have been quietly working on improving and standardising their food. Hence they only offer tasting menus at the moment.

The interiors are slightly zany — Lady Gaga meets Fred Astaire — barely saved from kitsch by elegant lines and generous windows: Think brushed velvet chairs, brocade upholstery and staff in perky yellow bow ties. As we settle down, our chirpy waiter hands us a battered menu, comprising a print-out sheathed in plastic. (I later learn that customers stole all the original menus in the first week of opening, just for Sanjeev Kapoor’s printed signature.)

As we watch chefs skewering kebabs before sliding them into hefty copper clad tandoors, waiters bring the starters. Juicy Patiala sheek kebabs speckled with red chillies, followed by Kalmi kebabs creamy with hung curd. Opting for the vegetarian menu, I get paneer — of course. Inexplicably, given this country’s wealth of vegetarian food, paneer is the de facto substitute for meat. It’s followed by a soggy fruit chaat, wrapped in chilly paste and dark with depression. I’m so jealous of the non-vegetarians by then that I giggle evilly when their next course flops: basa fish encased in an overly oily crust.

Fortunately, the meal bounces back with our main courses. Emerald palak riddled with soft clouds of paneer for me. A bowl of piping hot yellow dal, generously spiked with ginger. The non-vegetarians revel in meaty mutton rogan, with rich, gently spiced and softly clingy gravy. There’s Lalla musa, creamy black dal that’s luxurious without being overwhelming thanks to 12 hours of soaking, followed by an entire night of simmering on the tandoor. Dessert is gulab-e-gulkand, achingly sweet gulab jamun filled with even sweeter crushed rose petals. We share one. As we pay our bill, Mogrelia, who’s been chatting with customers through the meal, hands us a package with a grin. “Since you were too full for dessert — we’ve packed you some.” It’s a heart-warming gesture. It’s also the reason I’m inspecting parrots the next day.

As we chat, Mogrelia realises I’m at the restaurant for a review and insists I see it in daylight. To appreciate the trees. And, yes, those parrots. Back at the Yellow Chilli the next day, I meet executive chef Avinash Bhavase, who explains why The Yellow Chilli is still technically ‘work in progress’. Formerly the Concept Chef for popular instant food manufacturers MTR, where his main role was standardising recipes, he discusses how the main challenge is not following recipes, but learning intuitive cooking to handle ingredients that change constantly. “The masala we use in Delhi will taste different here because of the water. Tomatoes taste different everyday. As for chillies…” He pauses to sigh. “Chillies are the biggest challenge.”

We gather around their flashy ‘Emperor’s table,’ 490 kilos of amethyst from Brazil, set with glittering crystal ware, as Mogrelia explains how they will soon use it to showcase a Masterchef menu. If you prefer to be less Kardashian, there’s a discreet private dining area tucked into the back. Add the open kitchen, and this is the standard formula for a restaurant targeting a mass audience. However, instead of taking the standard route, with a semi-prepped menu, pre made masalas and routine flavours, they’re working meals that are freshly cooked, without dumbing down individual quirks and flavours of ingredients. This isn’t food that will surprise you. That’s not the intention anyway. The Yellow Chilli, however, does offer a dependable dining option at practical prices.

And yes. They have quite a view: rustling trees alive with — you guessed it — parrots.

The Yellow Chilli is at HM Centre, 3rd Floor, 29, Nungambakkam High Road. Call 72999 23457 for reservations. A meal for two is roughly Rs. 2000.

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