Express Avenue's food court is filling up quickly with restaurants. Take your pick from Indian regulars or exotic platters
Appams and chilli chicken? Well, to be fair, you can also have them with chicken Manchurian. Of course there's mutton curry available. But who would be so square?
Nalas Aappa Kadai, one of the first few outlets to switch on their stoves at the new Express Avenue, seems constantly swamped with people frantically ordering their Chinese-Chennai combos. We start with it not just because it's one of the first outlets to start rattling it's kadais in the new mall. It's swamped with people, its food patchwork is insidiously appealing and, most importantly, it's genre of cuisine is vintage food court fare.
There are plenty of disadvantages of this kind of dining, of course. Crammed with restaurants, each offering abbreviated menus, food courts in big malls are a recipe for indecision and confused food choices. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, all thrown together with gallons of cola make for a meal that's as far from gourmet as wine in a carton is from a Barolo. Nevertheless, sometimes, it's fun to drink wine from a straw: Think sunny Goan beaches, Bob Marley playing from the beach shack speakers and sizzling French fries. Great meals are all about context.
And, a food court is a great context for shopaholics, mall walkers and people watchers. Not surprisingly Express Avenue's sprawling space is filling up quickly with enthusiastic diners, even though not all the planet restaurants are operational.
This food court has the usual suspects — Sangeetha, Thattukada, Ponnusamy, Wangs, Subway. There's also a Curry House and Mughal Express for your naan-curry-kofta fix. We try Arabian Hut, since it's drawing huge crowds courtesy its dramatic display of 12 glistening slowly roasting chickens. The portions are generous, and the chicken's been grilled deftly so it's crisp and salty outside, and juicy inside. The kuboos, however, is cold and tasteless, and the garlic mayonnaise smells rather suspicious.
Popular city restaurant Benjarong runs Ruan Thai, which dishes out reasonably priced, piping hot Thai meals, besides the usual staples of papaya salad, glass noodles and pad Thai. We experiment with their minced chicken, which is wickedly spicy and bright with strands of emerald green basil.
For something more unusual, try Bee's Kopitiam, run by ‘BeeBee', who was earlier involved with the Nine Feet High ocean bar in Neelankarai. The food is exotic, yet simple. It introduces a range of largely unfamiliar Malaysian and Singaporean food, all delicately flavoured with the hand of a home cook rather than that of a hurried chef.
Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have a wonderful culture of vibrant quick meals, served on the street and in small coffee shops. Bee's Kopitiam (which translates as Bee's Coffee Shop) is an attempt to introduce this idea of fresh, hot and relatively-healthy everyday food to Chennai. We try the Nasi Lemak, a mound of rice topped with a dollop of velvety chilly sambal. It's scattered with crisp anchovies and plump roasted peanuts. Like a chaat, individual flavours and textures work together, changing with every spoonful. The result is, in turn, surprising and addictive, without getting boring. There's also Fried Bee Hoon, a comfortingly familiar mound of mildly spiced vermicelli jazzed up with crunchy vegetables and slivers of chicken. Specked with scrambled egg and drizzled with a red chilli sauce, it's a great way to combat monsoon sniffles.
In an attempt to encourage people to try every part of the menu, BeeBee says she plans to introduce dishes and drinks slowly, and in phases. This week, there's lemon barley water and rose milk. The barley water doesn't really taste of anything. The rose milk is so sweet it'll give Taylor Swift a run for her money. We're looking forward to the snacks and desserts she promises to introduce next: steaming sweet potatoes, bite-sized steamed sweets and voluptuous kaya toast.
Right now, the entire food court, like the mall, is rife with promises. The next big food openings are the Rajdhani chain, loved for its generous Gujarati meals, and the Italian Café Pasculli. We'll keep you updated.