If you crave contemporary European food served in a French ambience then set your sights on the newly-opened L’amandier
To be honest, I’ve seen enough Grey Suits to last me a lifetime. I’ve even inadvertently picked up tips from an article titled ‘15 mistakes guys make with suits’. (Wearing pleated pants, oversized shirts and un-hemmed sleeves if you must know.) Don’t worry. I’m not going to go all Beau Brummell on you. My interest in grey suits, predictably enough, has more to do with panna cotta than an aching need to be the last word in sartorial elegance for men.
It all begins when I start overhearing conversations about a French Bistro in R.A. Puram, which has seemingly sprung out of nowhere. No one seems to remember the actual name, although a friend helpfully informs me it’s “La Something”. On the plus side that’s a snappier title than what another loyalist uses: “La French Place I Can’t Pronounce”. A loyalist? In a week? Determined to take glowing reviews with a healthy pinch of Fleur de sel (better known as ‘La salt I can’t pronounce’) I drop in for a late afternoon lunch.
The restaurant, incidentally called L’Amandier, is delightful, with breezily chic interiors dappled by lazy afternoon sunshine, which streams in through high windows. It’s packed despite the fact that it’s almost 3 p.m. on a weekday. The clientele is multicultural, the setting distinctly European. Everything is wrapped with the scent of freshly brewed coffee courtesy a hissing cappuccino machine set at the heart of the restaurant beside a blackboard announcing ‘coffee available all day’ in multicoloured chalk.
However, instead of soaking it in, I’m surreptitiously Googling ‘Grey Suit’ on my phone, determined to find an explanation to this mysterious ‘Jack and the Bean Stalk’ restaurant. L’Amandier is attached to a hotel called ‘Grey Suit,’ and hence comes with all the obligatory bells and whistles of a big property, including valet parking, outdoor seating and an enviable location. Much to the relief of my friends, chatty German manager Katherine puts an end to my exasperating fidgeting with the phone by telling us it’s a joint initiative between Ramaniyam Real Estates and Absolute Homes. (Admittedly I try Googling them too, but my research is cut short by my friends confiscating my phone. And a good thing too. All I got were vodka cocktail recipes.)
Since the restaurant is still in its ‘soft launch’ phase, its single page menu encourages you to opt for ‘set meals’ which allow you to choose a soup, starter, main course and dessert. Katherine says they are currently experimenting with their food to determine what works best in Chennai. As with all new restaurants, there are hiccups. The service is friendly, but haphazard. And our food comes very slowly, in bits and pieces. My main course — a steak — arrives almost an hour after we order. The waiter apologises, explaining that the kitchen is struggling with the unexpected crowds that descended on the bistro ever since word got out that they’re open.
Perhaps it’s the joyful atmosphere (L’Amandier feels like a birthday party, sans annoyingly vocal sticky- fingered children). Perhaps it’s their refreshingly cottony caramel-topped panna cotta. Perhaps it’s the promise of bacon for breakfast. (The restaurant opens at 7.30 a.m.) But we’re too mellow to care about the staccato service. We wallow in the lushness of a velvety carrot-coriander soup speckled with pepper. Try buttery sandwiches stuffed with grilled peppers and stretchy cheese. And work our way through a chicken Kiev, which is fairly lacklustre, despite being ably-executed. It’s partly the fault of the ingredients, which include stringy pak choi and insipid cauliflower. Partly because the kitchen still needs to get to grips with the quirks of local provisions and their variable quality. As any chef who’s worked in Chennai knows, nothing is predictable here and recipes need to be tweaked every day depending on supplies.
The meal, on the whole, is satisfying, thanks to the clever mix of classic and contemporary styles in every dish, offering a balance of flavours: An old fashioned steak, for instance, set off with crunchy zucchini fritter. Or fresh figs served with a tangle of balsamic-smeared, parmesan topped arugula. Fingers crossed, they’ll keep up the momentum because even with its rough edges, this promises to grow into a dependable neighbourhood restaurant. Especially because it finally brings the city something we have needed for a while: a smart bistro breakfast.
L’Amandier is at 57, Chamiers Road, R.A. Puram. Call 4282 7882 for details. It’s open from 7.30 a.m. to 11 p.m. A meal for two is roughly Rs. 1,000.