The city is so much prettier at night. Peeling posters and grubby walls, haphazard buildings and knotted wires, flooded roads and angry traffic — they're all transformed by a glimmering, shimmering cloak of lights.
At Minar, set on top of Savera hotel, we drink in the city. This is old-world glamour. Gilt-laden ceilings as rich as the interior of a jewellery box. Fussily ornate hanging lamps filling the restaurant with a self-satisfied golden glow. Live classical music. To top it all off, the view: Chennai stretched out below us, a carpet of twinkling lights.
So it's a pity the windows are covered with a strange beaded drapery, reminiscent of a school yard production of Arabian Nights. The lead singer, bless his heart, is enthusiastically belting it out like Aerosmith on a good night. It would be perfect at a concert. At a restaurant, which is unfortunately as well miked as the “Mission Impossible” sets, it's rather disconcerting. After smiling politely, while head-banging encouragingly, we realise conversation will be impossible at our current location, right under a blaring speaker. The waiters sweetly relocate us as we wave encouragingly to the musicians with what we hope is a ‘It's Not You, It's Me' gesture.
Our second table, tucked into a corner of the restaurant is much nicer, with an uninterrupted view of the city on one side, and a huge balcony on the other. We're gazing with startled wonder at the swatches of disconcertingly green lighting, reminiscent of jelly beans, “Flubber” and “The Incredible Hulk”, that cuts across the balcony when the starters appear along with A.K. Mohana Krishnan, the hotel's gracious chef. As he talks about how the food's been completely revamped by the Qureshi brothers, we spoon through galawati kebabs, as light as soufflé, melting away with a whisper of cinnamon and the faintest suggestion of clove.
Quick history break. The Qureshi family has been associated with food for 200 years. Brothers Ashfaque and Ifran Qureshi, travel the world setting up restaurants and advising people on the food of royal India. Their family worked for the Nawab of Awadh. Their father started out as a nine-year-old cooking for royalty. That's quite an impressive lineage. And it explains why the kebabs taste so undeniably authentic, smoky and luscious, fragrant with spice.
We try the dora sheek kebab, fragrant with the flavour and zesty with the heat of finely-chopped green chillies. It's followed by Kastoori kebab, spiced with freshly-powdered black peppercorns. And, paneer grilled in a tandoor till the crisp edges are in sharp contrast to the creamy interiors.
The starters are so impressive, they're a tough act to follow. Nevertheless the kitchen gamely tries to top them, with a string of powerful curries, all liberally laced with ghee. There's Lucknowi Nihari, lamb shanks scented with cardamom and saffron. And the intimidatingly lavish Jooje Limbo, chicken pocked stuffed with cheese, mint and onions. There's a dal so unabashedly rich, I half expect it to start throwing thousand rupee notes in the air. Of course, there's dum biriyani, dramatically opened at the table, though its flavours are surprisingly feeble. Though all the food is good, what's stand out — unexpectedly — are the naans, which are soft and unusually fluffy, dusted with a rainbow of spices.
Dessert includes overly-sweet khubani ka meetha, and addictive kesari phirnee, delicately laced with saffron. Be warned. This is food for royalty. It makes you want to order a palanquin, just so you can crawl in and fall sleep. Fortunately, the restaurant is open only for dinner. I doubt my colleagues would react kindly to me snoring at my desk post-lunch.
Call 2811 4700 for more details or reservations.