The city is bustling with new restaurants that usher in flavours from across the world
I'm a bit of a closet patriot. Especially when it comes to the whole ‘be Indian buy Indian' philosophy. In this age of boisterous multinational commercialism it's admittedly slight twee. But I'd honestly rather buy desi and fly desi. Even if the other airlines have far hotter stewards, resplendent in suits and assiduously spiky hair. Besides, Indian undoubtedly serves the best kebabs for dinner. So there.
Of course this is the most convenient of times to be snootily virtuous about where you exercise your purchasing power. From cosmetics to restaurants, over the past decade Indian companies have proved they can compete with the best in the world. I've always got my cappuccinos from national coffee chains, mentally patting myself on the back for not even being tempted by the Starbucks revolution. After all, our Indian chains were just as good, right? Even if we did have to put up with oodles of attitude, overpriced menus and wildly variable quality.
Then, after a hectic shopping spree at Express Avenue, a friend and I collapsed at the closest coffee counter and discovered Gloria Jean's. Although the little island café was swamped by people, our coffees were made and delivered in less than ten minutes. They were accompanied by a large springy blueberry muffin, just sweet enough to complement my latte. Creamy with a strong backbone, the latte had an interesting depth — a result of carefully sourced and dexterously roasted coffee beans.
My friend's skilfully made piccolo latte, comprising a single ristretto (the first 15-20 ml of the espresso extraction, which tends to be the purest, most intense bit) layered with a dollop of creamy steamed milk was packed with an astonishing amount of flavour. We ended with a doughnut, warm, fluffy and sticky with a coating of dark chocolate. The bill? Less than Rs. 300 for two. The portions are large, so this is pretty good value for money considering the current stratospheric cost of eating out. Let's hope quality stays constant. As for me, I've decided to take my custom to the most deserving establishments regardless of their nationality. Competition's clearly the only way to raise quality and encourage more realistic pricing.
While we're on the subject of competition, the restaurant business in Chennai is getting especially cut throat now with so many new places opening up. Khader Nawaz Khan Road alone has had a rash of new restaurants that opened this year. The city's high street, it's perpetually buzzing, which makes it an ideal location for anyone who wants to target the young and the restless.
Old style cooking
This week Aroma opens here. A multi-cuisine restaurant, it replaces Cedars which in turn replaced le Club, which replaced a generic Punjabi joint. (Phew!) All this over just the last five years or so. It's quiet when we walk in at lunchtime since they're still in the process of opening. The waiter brings us their sole menu card, and stands around nervously, silently willing us to speed read so he can take it across to the couple that just entered.
We begin with a plate of fried prawns, which are tasty if a little overly bright. But then this is relatively old-fashioned cooking. No fusion or dainty plating. Ideal when you're hungry or nostalgic for the days when food just needed to be hot and tasty, instead of arriving brandishing a resume more impressive than yours. (‘Grass-fed, organic lamb sourced from New Zealand' anyone?)
There are hearty pudina parathas, sturdy, nutty-brown and generously flecked with green. We eat them with a dish of chicken which is an unabashed riot of so many spices that you can't tell one from the other. There's also an unusual dish of yam, shaped into little spheres and showered with spring onions and garlic. It tastes a little Indian, a little Chinese. But that's the charm of multi-cuisine food — think of it as a sort of Goan rave party for herbs and spices. Everyone's there: mixing with all the fixings.
Aroma is at 18/28 Khader Nawaz Khan Road. Call 43000535 for more details.