EATING OUT Madaras Kafe gives a modern twist to desi platter

They're so naïve it's sweet. And admittedly a little frightening. Like watching Bambi being released in Masai Mara. It's certainly a refreshing change from the slickly marketed restaurants and cafés of today, where advertising and PR budgets rival investments in the kitchen.

‘Madaras Kafe' at Ispahani centre tries to be many things — sassy, fresh and desi-chic. You know the style — chai kadais instead of yacht clubs. The whole ‘Global Indian' philosophy. Wearing tee-shirts with Patialas to work, drinking Bloody Marys spiked with chillies and coriander in the evenings, dancing all night to yet another Bollywood track featuring Akon. Restaurants are quickly responding to the trend, creating menus that boast strong local roots.

At Madaras Kafe, the whole effort is so indisputably blithe it's almost endearing. Garlands at the entrance, and a menu on the wall that spells out ‘P-o-n-g-a-l.' Untiringly earnest waiters, and a visiting card designed to be hooked on your thumb. In fact, that's how it's handed to me. The lady at the counter says, ‘wait' in the manner of a scarlet-caped magician who's going to pull a fluffy rabbit out of her hat. “Show me your thumb,” she states. A little unnerved, I obey. She slides the card on, like a particularly eccentric cocktail ring, and stands back, utterly delighted. The waiters around her look like they're going to break into an appreciative dance routine to celebrate the moment. It's all very Bollywood-dream-sequence. If only I was wearing more sequins.

Where does Ma-da-ras come from anyway? Well, clearly the same place that Kaapicino originated. Yes. You read that right. Thankfully it's a filter coffee served in the regular steel davara-tumbler set up. Fantastic coffee by the way. Dark, strong and rich with an aroma that hits you afresh with every sip.

In the Madaras website — yes they have a website. Doesn't everybody these days? — the owner claims to have been inspired by the finest chef in France. Oh here we go again, I can almost hear you groan. Michelin, Cordon Bleu, Joël Robuchon… The whole ‘I'm so inspired I could cry' saga. Well, not really. His poster boy is Remy, the — wait for it — rat from “Ratoutille.” Apparently the movie is what inspired him to get into the restaurant business. For all the cynics who are grinding their teeth, he adds “It doesn't matters how it looks to the world, all that matters is how it looks to you…” Rat philosophy again? Actually that's Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky”.

We order the fried podi idlies: The ‘friedli' — a name that may or may not have been inspired by a gifted rodent. They're dangerously addictive: hot, spicy and crisp, served with a chutney of coriander and green chillies. There are Urulai Kuchi Chips, their version of French fries, and you can opt to have them topped with cheese. We choose the spicy vada holes, little fried buns, spongy inside and crisp outside, which arrive liberally dusted with chilli powder.

Up for more ‘fusion'? Try the Barottizzas, their version of a pizza. A fairly cutesy paratha of sorts covered in paneer and served with a couple of papads. You can also choose to top it with potatoes or tomatoes. Or of course ‘Manjurian Chinese.' We try their Vadawhich, their version of a sandwich. Shaped like a bagel, it tastes like the classic pav-bhaji bread, and its spongy interiors are liberally slathered with butter. As with the Barottizza, you can choose you topping. We can't resist trying the Chinese, with crunchy slivers of stir fried carrots, cabbage and onions.

The Barotta roll is neat, but fairly uninteresting. The fluffy potato filling doesn't seem to work with the bland cheese and chappati-style wrap. It's served with sachets of tomato sauce but would work much better with a chutney. Another disappointment is their tomato idlis, a mess of mini idlies with randomly hacked and tossed onions and tomatoes. We skip dessert, and order a choco kaapicino instead. It's restrained, so you get the flavour of chocolate along with the taste of coffee. So much nicer than just dumping syrup in a cup.

Madaras Kafe is in Ispahani centre, 123/124 Nungambakkam High Road. Call 42010809 or 42010838 for more detai

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Shonali MuthalalyMay 11, 2012