Go on a world cuisine trip with these three city restaurants

I gallop cheerfully down the beach listening to Justin Timberlake on Sunday morning. As it turns out, running is hard work. Even in pink shoes. So once I’ve clocked my requisite six kilometres I lurk behind a tree, and ambush the serious runners demanding they take me for breakfast.

Ordinarily, if it’s Besant Nagar at 7 a.m., it’s got to be Murugan Idli. But I’m feeling extraordinarily virtuous, so we jog to Divine Kitchen instead, a charming little space just around the corner, which looks and feels nothing like a commercial restaurant. Kicking off our shoes to enter the cool, calm and homely room, we pop our heads into the spartan kitchen to order breakfast. The meal begins with sweet, dark and steaming hot sukku coffee, a traditional medicinal drink made of dry ginger. It’s followed by spongy ragi dosas, carefully folded over and served with chutney on a gleaming stainless steel plate. The food — like the setting — is simple, but satisfying.

I return to Besant Nagar later in the week to attend a vegan workshop at Ashvita Nirvana, set above the funky Goli Soda store. The little cafe is jam-packed with people, and we sit elbow to elbow learning how to make raw chocolate brownies (blend walnuts, cocoa and dates into a fudge, then freeze) and masala chai with cashew milk. The brownies are grainy and delicious. The masala chai is less endearing, lacking the comforting richness of milk to counter the sharpness of cloves, cinnamon and cardamom.

Since we’re in the zone, we decide to try their vegan menu as well. The cake is a dense wedge of chocolate generously topped with whipped soya cream and bright cherries — no complaints. But their mock meat sandwich, made with stringy soya, is a confused mess of flavours tasting of barbeque and overwrought ambition. We finally go rogue and order cheese balls. Best. Decision. Ever. (Pardon the hyperbole.)

All this (relatively) responsible eating calls for celebration. I pick an old favourite, Aqua at The Park, which has been revamped. Those rather dodgy cabana beds, which forced you to recline uncomfortably in evening wear like an overdressed Oriental king have been removed. I do feel a pang, after all this was Chennai’s first foray into chic louche with its pyjama party meets date night setting. Sitting down at a table seems staid in comparison. But it does make dining much easier — and the outdoor setting is still lovely with a view of the city on one side, their cunningly lit pool on the other and lounge music washing gently over the whole scene.

Chef Rajesh Radhakrishnan, (director, food production at The Park) and Aqua’s Chef Saravanan K. have created a menu of finger foods inspired by world cuisine. We begin the meal with ridiculously cute camembert toasties served on a skewer: Hot, buttery and oozing with cheese. The Alice In Wonderland theme continues with ‘Balti fries’ served in a bucket and prawn popcorn, tossed in curry leaf powder and lemon salt. Both are an interesting blend of familiar and unfamiliar flavours — and have been designed with careful attention to detail. The popcorn for instance is spiked with lemon salt instead of the more conventional lime juice, so it retains its crispness.

An unctuous Bheja (brain) fry is followed by a fairly conventional lamb kebab, and tempura prawns tossed in the spicy tobanjan sauce. It’s an inspired combination: well-loved tempura lifted by the unfamiliar, but accessible flavour, of the spicy Japanese miso sauce.

The meal ends with a gentle breeze. Soaking it up, we try the cooling berry misu, featuring sponge cake soaked in sweet berry syrup. A classic Banoffee, made infinitely more interesting with Nutella. The execution is — as always — competent. But what makes it stand out is the fact that the food is cheeky — and fun.

The meal ends with a cappuccino gelato. We’re finally ready for summer.