At Kryptos by Willi the food is unpretentious and tasty and the accent is on good ingredients and cooking techniques
Greek-themed restaurants tend to work better in theory. After all the bells and whistles are so much fun. An appropriately picturesque name, probably conjuring up a dramatic Greek god (which is relatively easy, given their penchant for love and war.) Interiors that conjure up romantic islands: golden sand, crashing waves, azure skies — every cliché firmly in place.
Then comes Kryptos by Willi. A Greek Cypriot restaurant, it's set in a basement on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, which automatically rules out any talk of starry nights and cerulean seas. So, although it has the advantage of location, given the fact that KNK seems to be Chennai's high street now, there's also the challenge of redefining basement dining. After all, it's traditionally the abode of cut price clothing and proudly anti-establishment bars.
Their approach has been to cheekily upturn tradition. So, amid all the talk of Aphrodite and Dionysus, Greek temples and marbled columns, they suggest the restaurant involves a descent into Hades. According to legend, this typically Greek hell requires all kinds of ceremony, including being rowed across a river by a fierce penny-pinching boatman.
We take the stairs instead, after a voyage fraught with temptation across KNK's Mac mascara, the Cotton World sale and Barista muffins, just to name a few. Ulysses would have been so proud.
The interiors are cosy, with wood and stone walls. The focus seems to be cheerful family dinners, so it's relaxed and laidback. They've also bravely put in a large community table in the centre, encouraging strangers to share space. When it works, this kind of dining makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. On the flip side, you don't want to be a captive audience to a raucous kitty party in full swing on that table.
Chef Willi swings by to talk us through the meze. The cold meze is set on a long iced counter, providing the restaurant with colour in ways a painting could never have managed. Then there's the hot meze, put together quickly in the glossy open, which gives the restaurant and illusion of space, and dose of energy. Willi's favourite is the halloumi, which is firm, springy and laced with the freshness of lemons. We also try eliotes, baked rolls filled with musky minced olives. “We're working on creating food with character. Your dish should talk to you,” he states.
My arnipitakia, a deliciously moist mince of lamb and tart feta cheese, proves to be wonderful company, and we get along brilliantly till I dump it for crisp calamari rings. Que sera sera. Revenge arrives in the form of kotopoulopitakia, a bizarre mix of apricots, meats and chicken, and as annoyingly pushy as a schoolyard bully. We also try the fried meatballs, which are politely entertaining.
Unpretentious and tasty, the focus is on good ingredients and cooking technique. No conciliatory nods to spice-addicts. So, it can seem a little tame, especially if your taste buds are used to the city's many restaurants that marry tandoori chicken and garlicky mayonnaise to create deliciously greasy shawarmas.
Our gyro consists of a generous pile of beef tenderloin simply cooked with paprika and garlic so you can enjoy the flavour of the meat rather than vacuuming up huge amounts of sauce and seasoning. It's accompanied by warm fluffy pita bread and fries. We also try spinach and graviera cheese stuffed chicken kebabs, which arrive dramatically impaled on prongs. Then, there are sweet peppers stuffed with rice, mint and pine nut, reminiscent of those really boring people you inevitably bump into at a party and end up having to be nice to for hours.
Fortunately, we're not nice. So we send them packing and dive into the desserts. Sizzling dumplings spurting dark chocolate. Fudgy baklava. But if you're going to have just one thing, eat the semolina milk pie, a mix of honey, lemon zest and cherry syrup. It tastes like cheese cake that visited Greece and went native. Something we're tempted to do.
Kryptos by Willi is at Yafa Towers, New No. 18, Khader Navaz Khan Road. It's open for lunch and dinner. Call 044 45038001 for details.