Westin Hotel’s new restaurant EEST explores the flavours of South East Asian cuisine

We stand in a solemn circle sniffing towels. Beside me a man holding a heavy silver salver gravely recites: “lemon-cinnamon-star anise.” It’s suitably dramatic, almost like a pagan ritual, except for the fact that general manager Shrikanth Wakharkar and his team are in dapper designer suits. And we’re nowhere near Stonehenge.

This is the Westin Hotel’s new South East Asian restaurant, EEST. One month before the official opening, the team is busy fine-tuning the space, service and food. To demonstrate how a new restaurant is born, they suggest I drop by. Which brings us back to those towels.

Following the Westin’s ‘all-natural’ theme, which prescribes fruit-infused water in the lobby and lemon-scented Perrier in the coffee shop, there’s an intense discussion on how to perfume cold towels, handed to guests at the beginning of every meal, with the fragrance of spices without resorting to artificial perfumes. Then room temperature, music volume and lighting are discussed in detail. It feels a little like being Goldilocks in the house of the three bears. Not too much. Not too little. Everything has to be just right.

When we finally sit down to eat, the chefs send out everything on the menu. Yes. Everything. After 20 dishes, we just stop counting. As each dish arrives, everyone takes one spoon of it and tastes thoughtfully. Then, depending on the verdict, a bright yellow sticky note is attached to the serving bowl with comments. Every once in a while, when the verdict is unanimously positive, director of Food and Beverage Animesh Barat carefully draws a smiley.

One month later, when the restaurant opens I’m back for dinner, albeit without the sticky notes. (Much to the relief of the chefs, no doubt.) We inspect the menu over crisp prawn crackers served with a set of proprietary sauces, created in-house, which include a sweet soy tossed with roasted chilly flakes, a red sauce spiked with sriracha and pungent sweet vinegar.

Instead of experimenting with South East Asia’s more unfamiliar flavours — which are getting increasingly popular with stylish restaurants across the world — EEST chooses to take a safe ‘tried-and-tested’ path by sticking to cuisines that they know will work in the Chennai market: Chinese, Japanese and Thai. However, in a bid to keep things interesting, they go beyond familiar oriental staples, exploring regional food.

Exuberant flavours

We eat juicy pan-fried pork and chive dumplings, generously spiked with garlic. There’s buttery salmon sushi, served with a powerful sphere of wasabi, followed by flavour-packed chicken, fried in knots of emerald pandan leaves. All the starters — with the exception of the raw papaya salad, which is soggy and confused — are skillfully made, showcasing South East Asian food’s greatest strength: exuberant flavours.

The highlights of the main course include smoky chicken teriyaki deepened with the caramelly flavours of patiently browned onions, plump prawns in a dark pepper sauce and rich lamb curry, thick with coconut milk. There’s also fluffy cotton tofu wrapped in an addictive sweet chilly sauce that’s brightened with basil. The steamed fish, a stodgy hunk of Basa, which overwhelms the light, aromatic sauce it’s served with, is less successful.

However, on the whole, it’s a satisfying meal mainly because the chefs clearly understand the ingredients. With South East Asian cooking the main challenge is to balance a wide range of powerful flavours without allowing them to become overwhelming, and the Westin kitchen pulls that off. The food is more sophisticated than flamboyant, with all the quirks and edges carefully smoothed down. So don’t expect the raucous flavours and fire of South East Asian street food. This is a quieter version.

The meal ends with velvety sago pudding, intriguingly familiar yet exotic thanks to its faintly grainy red bean paste. It’s not too sweet, or too rich. As Goldilocks will agree, this too is just right.

The restaurant is at The Westin Hotel, 154, Velachery Main Road. A meal for two costs approximately Rs 2,500. Call 71737185 for more details. The restaurant is open only for dinner during the week but serves lunch too on weekends.