A look at the city’s newest watering hole and a pizza place that serves homegrown flavours

We drive to Illusions: The Madras Pub, the city’s newest watering hole for the young and the restless, at a suitably ‘cool’ time. The bouncers look us up and down suspiciously. Clearly I’ve been away from the party scene for far too long. I think wistfully of my clubbing days, when I was on back-slapping terms with all bouncers, and prepare to shuffle home for a hot glass of milk. Old age: here I come. Then a third bouncer comes out, and recognises me. I’m back in the game! Woop, woop. And we’re inside.

The familiar faces at Illusions are thanks to its manager and business head Arasu, who was formerly at Zara, and has moved along with key members of his team and a bunch of loyal customers. While Zara is still arguably the city’s most popular watering hole, Illusions seems to have created an alternate space, offering the same relaxed vibe, high-energy service and pounding pop music, at significantly cheaper prices. The interiors are inexplicably muddled. Graffiti and psychedelic lighting, alongside traditional pictures of filter coffee, presumably to convey the ‘Madras’ motif. Our food is delivered straight to the dance floor, thoughtfully equipped with a little table in the corner. So we groove to Guetta, between bites of potato croquettes, flambéed sausages and juicy steak on toast fingers.

Later that week, I go back to try the food again, sans the influence of multiple mojitos. Lunch is mercifully civilised, quiet music, quick service and an intriguing global menu courtesy Chef Kaushik, who calls himself ‘The Mad Chef’. While the food is standard pub grub-heavy, spicy and unapologetic carb-laden — it makes an attempt to incorporate unusual flavours. Some dishes are better in theory. Our paneer with a ‘thai chilli jam’, for instance, is flat, boring and orange. However, when it works, it’s gratifying: the Phuket fish with Samurai sauce is dark, peppery and flaky. The Hunan beef is tasty, with its generous blanket of smoky sauce.

While we’re on the subject of home-grown flavours, let’s take a look at Pizza Republic. Eight months, five outlets and 1000 pizzas a day. They must be doing something right. I’m unexpectedly charmed by my visit to their new Egmore outlet. They don’t even pretend to be an Italian-style pizzeria. The air is thick with the scent of onions and garlic. The décor is unabashedly basic. And the staff wander in and out of the open kitchen to ask you how you want your pizza made.

Straight talking CEO Ramakrishnan, aka Ramki, says the basic idea is to “cut out all the drama”. (Actually he used another word, but it’s unprintable.) “We just concentrate on good fresh food,” he says, discussing how they cut down drastically on overheads: No central kitchens, no cold storage. Each Pizza Republic buys it own ingredients and makes its pizzas every day. This means they can afford to be generous with toppings and still make a healthy profit.

I walk in just at they’re getting started and the air is stinging with the scent of chopped onions. My ‘Chika Chik’ pizza is proudly desi: chicken and mushroom on a spongy crust. It’s slathered with sauce generously laced with garlic. Their vegetarian pizza is piled high with olives, corn and chunks of pineapple. Straight out of the oven, the base is warm and crusty. Since the main idea is to ‘empower people’ there’s no judgement here. You can ask for your pizza extra spicy, or ‘extra juicy’.

Clearly, if you’re fanatic about delicate thin crust pizzas topped with buffalo mozzarella, then this is not for you. It’s a pop pizza created for a local audience. Even the menu is tongue in cheek: Squid pro quo, Prawnongraphy and Fishwa-roopam (topped with king fish, onion and garlic.) Sounds like a curry on a pizza. Well, as Ramki would say, “Why not?”

Pizza Republic is in Taramani, Adambakkam, Mogappair, Ambattur and Egmore. The Perambur Pizza Republic will open in a couple of days, after which comes an outlet in Besant Nagar. A 9 inch pizza costs between Rs. 145 and Rs. 380. Call 99415 01826 in Egmore. Or call Ramki on 089401 29124.

Illusions – The Madras Pub is at 105, R.K. Salai. Call 4214 4449 for reservations. A meal for two is approximately Rs. 500.

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