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Updated: May 21, 2014 17:22 IST

The Reluctant Gourmet: Mediterranean magic

SHONALI MUTHALALY
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PLENTY ON THE PLATTER At Sirocco. Photo: M. Karunakaran
The Hindu PLENTY ON THE PLATTER At Sirocco. Photo: M. Karunakaran

The commute does Sirocco no favours. Getting out of the city sounds idyllic in theory. All those clichéd images of sangria soaked evenings by the beach. Yet, after an hour and a half of negotiating through a fog of smoke, noise and road rage, this restaurant is a bit of an anticlimax, with its demure proportions and bubble gum interiors.

In the grand old restaurateur tradition of conjuring up ambitiously wishful vistas, its name — Sirocco — is inspired by the warm wind originating in the Arabian desert, which then flows towards the Mediterranean Sea. Camels, sand dunes and Paulo Coelho, anyone? Admittedly, this isn't exactly Alchemist terrain. However, it does have its charms.

The space is warm and welcoming, like the staff. The waiters seem so positively delighted to see us that I'm tempted to ask them for their Skype IDs so we can stay in touch. Okay. I'm being over dramatic about the distance. It's just that this is the perfect ‘let's have a quick breakfast/lunch' café. And my office is too far away for me to drop by for a quick salad. It is, however, an ideal neighbourhood café for people in the area.

The food has been created by Chef Sanjay Matta, who calls himself a ‘culinary consultant and professional chef at-large.' He's at large when we start dinner, but mysteriously appears around the same time as the garlic bread. (Delicious, but drowning in butter. But then, is there such a thing as too much butter? Don't answer this question if you're my gym trainer.)

Chef Matta sips on a Perrier while telling us about his flair for French food, his expertise in Mediterranean cooking and central role in the local Slow Food scene. The menu's ambitious, spanning the Mediterranean like a pack of holiday postcards. The food style is undecided, pop veering on pretentious. Pop Tates with a French accent.

We begin with spiced carrot and apple soup, served with a golden-green drizzle of mint oil – a nice change from the battalion of sweet corn-tomato-mushroom soups plastered across most café menus. And yes, there's a ‘Parisian' potato and leek soup. Perhaps the potato comes in a beret?

The Fatoush salad features crisp pita croutons and tossed garden vegetables, tomato chunks, crunchy cucumber and juicy grapes. Local produce used creatively, and effectively. It's served with a vinaigrette, spiked with ‘Turkish spices' according to Chef Matta, who's now sliding lemon slices into his Perrier. We move on to the chicken skewers next. They're are well cooked but don't taste of anything at all. Chef Matta shrugs and mysteriously attributes the flavour to “Turkish spices”. Another sip of Perrier. Perhaps you need to be Parisian to appreciate it. Fortunately we're distracted by bruschetta. There's the classic tomato with shredded basil, as well as fragrant aubergine with a pesto of basil. My favourite is the sharp, tangy sun dried tomato blended with black olives.

The march of appetisers doesn't end here. We try batter fried Basa fish fingers in pesto. Grilled lamb meatballs served with garlicky hung curd. And zucchini patties. The flavours are delicate, the range is just inventive enough to be fresh without being overly-adventurous. Like the Zucchini patties, faintly exotic without being intimidating.

The pasta and pizza are fairly routine. We try pomodoro, tossed with tomato, garlic and plenty of pepper, and a four cheese pizza. What the thin crust lacks in traditional smoke-and-wood flavour (since wood fired ovens are impossible indoors) it tries to make up in sass, a robustly spiced sauce topped by a demure pool of cheese. The main course is a Moroccan style baked coriander Basa fish, which arrives dramatically whole, surrounded by an army of tomatoes, potatoes and olives. Its flavours are bashful, which might make it tiresome on its own. We eat it with the peppery grilled beef medallions, which are tasty if tough.

Dessert is a shivering, glistening Pannacotta, creamy and refreshing. It's technically served with pomegranate sauce, but our sauce — dribbled in itsy—bitsy cutesy leaf patterns on four edges of the plate — is not substantial enough to impact the flavour.

An enjoyable meal on the whole. Certainly worth a detour, if not a journey. And perhaps, like the Alchemist, the universe will reveal the secrets of Turkish spice eventually…

Sirocco is at 176, 2nd North Main Road, Kapaaleshwar, Neelankarai. Call 90944 44446 for reservation. A meal for two costs roughly Rs. 1500.

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