Forget hushed rooms bristling with slick butlers, degustation menus and baccarat crystal. Here are two restaurants in Chennai — Chop by Sandy’s and Soul Kitchen — that offer intimate spaces with gourmet dinners

There’s no dignified way to act out The Hound of the Baskervilles. We’re playing dumb charades at a dinner party, and I scamper around the restaurant barking vigorously. I’m most offended when a friend guesses ‘Paris Hilton’s poodle’. So much for ferocious faces! Fortunately we have the restaurant to ourselves. I can’t imagine any of you would take too kindly to having strange women galloping around when you’re trying to eat.

This is why Chennai’s latest ‘private dining restaurant’ trend is so brilliant. For the more la di dah among us, that means hushed rooms bristling with slick butlers, degustation menus and baccarat crystal. But what’s more fun are the casual small format restaurants, with chef-driven menus, live cooking and laid back dining. Chop by Sandy’s really started the trend. Self-taught chef, Sandesh Reddy, opened it as an experimental kitchen. A place where he could play with flavours and techniques for a small audience: the space holds just about 15 people. Over the six months or so that it’s been open, Chop’s evolved into a compelling ‘Greasy Spoon’ diner style restaurant, with epicurean overtones. The intimate space is fuelled by a steamy kitchen, which puts together everything from a sophisticated compressed watermelon salad, punctuated by crisp caramelised walnuts and sharp chunks of feta to a slap-up burger. The walls are covered with a blackboard, and if you ask nicely, Sandesh will let you play Pictionary on them. In fact, his plans include sit-down Pictionary dinners with five-course degustation menus.

You have got to love new age dining. All the frills of going gourmet, without having to change out of your sneakers! While they function as a regular bistro, you can book the entire restaurant if you are a group of 15, and the kitchen will create a five-course tasting menu for you, for roughly Rs. 1,000 per head. The menu will, of course, be tailored for you, taking into account your guests’ food preferences and allergies. So you can take the comfort food route, or go posh with hot and cold appetiser, (think a confit of Scottish pink salmon, with lemonade foam, and crab cakes with jasmine salad) steaks, strawberry sorbets and deconstructed lemon tarts.

The new kid on the block is Arnav Bajoria. A fashion designer-turned chef, he graduated at NIFT, and then ended up at the Marriot hotel kitchens. “I didn’t have a culinary degree, but I just wanted to be trained.” After that he moved to Azzuri Bay, and simultaneously started experimenting with food from a tiny 400 sq.ft. space on R.K. Salai. “At first was just a place to brush up my cooking skills: poaching, grilling, making stock…” He’d practise on his friends, “it was rustic community dining. Eight to 10 people, all just standing around with their plates…I did everything from sandwhiches to a suckling pig.”

He then decided to start taking bookings for private dining. The space is admittedly primitive. We climb unprepossessing flights of stairs and wait for dinner in a room noisy with the sound of traffic. Downstairs, Arnav’s rapidly plating food, satisfying hefty plates of deep fried ravioli, stuffed with tomato, ricotta and garlic. Shrimp in butter sauce. Pork sausages topped with a coriander sauce. Tart strawberries with grilled parmesan. The food’s pretty, constructed with great attention to detail, but sometimes needlessly over-embellished. His smartest move now will be to perfect the basics. After all food doesn’t need to be clever to be satisfying. Think deep dish pizzas, pork ribs and roasts. However, there’s certainly a charm to dining in a little room, with your very own chef cooking for you. It makes you feel very ‘rock star’. And you can gallop about unhindered!

Chop by Sandy’s is at 238, T.T.K Road, Alwarpet. Call 044 42068416 for details.

Soul Kitchen is at 67, R.K. Salai, Mylapore. Call 98412 65591 for details.