The new restaurant, Veneto, aims to make Italian food accessible by capturing its more egalitarian flavours

Alsa Mall used to be the kind of place that demanded lipstick. After all, you never knew who you would bump into. As students this was the perfect venue for giggly first dates, girly lunches and ‘accidental' encounters with gangly boys.

Those were the days of Shania Twain, afternoon discos and purple hair mascara. Of midnight rain dances on the East Coast Road. When eating out usually meant eating Chinese. And pasta in tomato sauce was chic Italian. Good times.

Much has changed since then. It's like we're living in another city.

Veneto: the Pasta Bar, newly opened at Alsa Mall, might not be able to help us regain our youth (sigh) but it sure is a great way to remind ourselves of how far we've come. Chennai's biggest eating-out issue is the fact that nice restaurants tend to cost a kidney-and-a-half, while cheap ones are dine-and-dash.

Veneto's biggest advantage is that it's appealingly glossy, and still astonishingly reasonable.

With neat wooden tables, sunshine yellow walls and bright photographs, this 36-cover restaurant is cute without being cutesy — thank heavens.

In neighbourhood café tradition, they have a breezy espresso bar complete with a blackboard listing the specials.

Our meal opens with luscious bruschetta, crusty bread generously piled with minced mushroom tossed in fruity olive oil and smothered with garlic. The menu has been designed to feature food that is popular and tasty, without being fussy, difficult or time consuming. Hence there's plenty of quick fried food, ranging from potato wedges to ricotta fingers.

Think of this cooking as a sort of pop-food version of Italian trattoria traditions. A world away from the fancy restaurants, but capturing highlights of their more egalitarian flavours. I'd say fast food, if it didn't have the connotations it does today: conjuring up triple chins, florescent lighting and heartburn.

A heavy bowl of roasted aubergine, liberally layered with gooey mozzarella announces the main course. It's a soothing blend of familiar flavours cautiously perked with sharp parmesan. And here lies the Veneto difference. The food retains an edge without breaking the bank because quality ingredients are used, but used judiciously. It's a careful businessman's approach to food instead of that of a maverick chef.

Not surprisingly, owner Vinod Sharma says this outlet is a part of a much bigger plan. He eventually plans to open 26 Veneto restaurants across South India, all operating with the help of central kitchens to ensure consistency.

While this plan has many merits, chiefly the fact that Italian food will finally be knocked of its rarefied pedestal and become accessible to everyone, standardisation does involve compromises. Food often needs an intuitive approach since ingredients differ so wildly from day to day. Hence a one-spice-fits-all won't work all the time. My grilled fish, for instance, is stodgy despite lashings of good olive oil and near-perfect searing.

Veneto also needs to focus on its side dishes: the vegetables accompanying the fish are insipid. They're teamed with mashed potatoes so grey they could double up as a politician's conscience.

However, the menu does offer a range of enticing options — so if you're willing to overlook the hiccups, you're likely to have a satisfying meal. This is the kind of restaurant that will attract crowds, and keep them if they manage to maintain quality. Young chef Rajesh Adhamoolan and the bevy of waiters are friendly and obliging, more than willing to explain ingredients, techniques and dishes.

Portions are sensible. And at about Rs. 200 per head, prices are delightful.

Put these factors together and it's easy to be forgiving. Especially when you're tucking into a retro bread pudding: creamy, fudgy and piping hot.

Expect the next Veneto in about two months in T. Nagar, followed by four more across Chennai. As it turns out, change is inevitable. It's also good. Especially when it involves tiramisu.

(Call 04442145534 for reservations.)

Keywords: VenetoEateryrestaurants

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