Vasco's and Est at The Hilton burst with not-so-unfamiliar international flavours in starkly different settings
Saturday night, and we're at the same old watering hole. In the mood for a change of scenery, someone suggests checking out The Hilton's new bar. But we're too comfortable to move: wedged between a crowd liberally spotted with familiar faces, shimmying to Edward Maya's Stereo Love over Long Island Iced teas rattling with ice cubes. Most hard-core Chennaiites secretly enjoy the city's over-crowded pubs, clubs and cafes, so familiar that they have the bartenders and DJs on Facebook. Besides, this way we're almost guaranteed to bump into old friends and end up at an after party in someone's drawing room, discussing the more salacious details of acquaintances' ‘secret' love lives over coffee.
Yet, one week later I'm on my way to Ekkaduthangal to check out The Hilton on a Saturday night. We enter through a graceful lobby, as ornate as an old-fashioned jewellery box. While there are no obvious Indian elements, the overall effect is familiar and welcoming. A huge chandelier featuring a starburst of little pink and blue lights dominates the lobby, which is framed by sheets of dull gold links. The staff, alert and friendly, walks us through the hotel, which is currently so quiet it feels like a secret getaway.
We peep into the Vintage Bank, specialists in wine and cheese — done up in wood and leather, it feels like a staid businessman's bar. (I don't say businesswoman, not because I'm sexist. It's just that this seems too deliberately staid to appeal to any of the number-crunching Manolo-wearing women I know.) Though it does have a pleasingly ponderous retro feel, ideal for a meeting with clients. The all-day diner here is Vasco's, bright, colourful and amiable. Its buffet, the highlight, is spread across the entire restaurant, offering customers the opportunity to happily pick and choose their favourite genre of cuisines, whether it's Indian, Chinese, Continental, or just a platter of dim sum, sushi or dessert.
We end the evening at Est, an elegant café set in the lobby boasting ‘casual contemporary' dining, sandwiches and salads accessorised by chi-chi teas and a flight of fanciful cocktails. Although it's about 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, prime clubbing time, the lobby and café are so quiet; it feels like the hotel is our personal property. The food menu's short and likely to appeal to dash-and-run lot and cappuccino customers rather than people in the mood for a sit-down meal. That said, if you like gourmet sandwiches this should work for you. There's smoked salmon on a bagel with cream cheese, Reubens with pastrami, grilled vegetable foccaccia...
Our grilled ham and emmental cheese sandwich is basic, moist and buttery. We also try the deftly constructed club sandwich, a tower of roasted chicken, cheese and twists of wonderfully crisp bacon, adding a salty crunch. They're served with an army of fries and a forgettable Blue drink they proudly call Dirty Pool. The Melon soother, zippy with mint and pineapple juice is much nicer. However, dessert is where Est really comes into its own. Courtesy Mukesh Rawat, their enthusiastic pastry chef we're coaxed into trying the Crepe Suzette, an average crepe lifted by a delectably bitter-sweet orange sauce made with caramel, orange juice and bright curls of orange peel. It's served with ‘home-made' ice cream, flavoured with vanilla beans and fresh oranges. The other signature dish here is a chilly sorbet, which surprises you by leaving a kick in your throat.
We end with Chef Mukesh's handmade chocolates — almond rocks and rum and raisin. Finally, Chettinad Chocolate made with a few dozen spices including the distinctive Marathi Mukku and Kalpasi, besides potent black pepper. It's an unusual flavour, and takes some getting used to.
International, but familiar in an almost primeval sort of way. These are flavours you know, and have always known — but their setting is starkly different. A little like The Hilton, completely new to Chennai — and yet strangely familiar.
The Hilton is at 124/1 J.N. Salai, Ekkaduthangal. Call 044-222-55555 for details and reservations.