We watch the sea in the dark. “The winds are changing,” says Chindi Varadarajulu, with a delighted shiver. “It means the monsoon is on its way.” Pelted by fat drops of rain, we reluctantly make our way back into the quiet restaurant.
Encased in glass, L’attitude 49 has the confident air of a restaurant nurtured with love. Its wide, gleaming white interiors are designed to convey a sense of open space, emphasized by French windows, restrained furnishing and stark white tables. A deliberate contrast to Mammallapuram’s usual style of dining: backpacker shacks alive with the music of Bob Marley and scent of frying fish.
However, it’s a space in transition right now, at the heart of a hotel under construction. With sharp white lights forming a dramatic contrast to the romantic buttery lanterns set along the veranda that hugs the restaurant, this feels like a space in search of an identity: torn between extremes: coldly chic and affectionately homey. Nevertheless it’s an interesting place to dine. Especially considering we’re dining with its livewire creator, Chindi Varadarajulu.
Chindi grew up in Singapore, and then moved to Vancouver on a whim when she was in her mid-twenties. “After a few months of bumming around, I ended up working in an American diner,” she smiles, as we try her Gado gado salad: a tumble of tofu, hard boiled eggs and crisp balanced cabbage, beans and carrots. All tossed with rice crackers and a delicate sauce made of toasted peanut spiked with ginger, tamarind and coriander.
“I was 35 when I lost my job in the recession. Frustrated and angry, I decided to open my own restaurant.” So in 2003 she opened Vancouver’s first South Indian restaurant, Chutney Villa. Next came her culinary tours to South India. “I did about three a year, taking 15 people to Chennai, Mammallapuram, Puducherry, Thanjavur… Madurai’s crazy big food markets.” Fascinated by India, she decided to move here in 2010. “I met the family that runs the Mamalla Group of hotels, and they told me about this place. So I sold my restaurant, gave away everything and landed here with just three bags.”
As a tribute to Vancouver, she named the restaurant after the 49th latitude north of the equator. “It crosses Europe, Asia, and runs through Vancouver. We spell it with an extra T. For Attitude!” The hotel L’Attitude is set in Grande Bay, which will have two more restaurants from Chindi. “A coffee shop by the pool, and a speciality restaurant on the terrace.”
We try Kozhi podi varuval, tender strips of chicken encrusted in a crunchy powder of lentils, chillies and garlic, warmed through with cinnamon. Refreshingly, the cheese balls are made from scratch with creamy potatoes, stuffed with cheese and spiked with sliced green chillies. There’s Laksa, rich turmeric coloured soup slippery with translucent rice noodles and laced with fresh lemon grass.
The food is robust and unfussy, relying on freshness and good ingredients for flavour. “We have our own garden,” says Chindi, “So we’re growing Thai and Italian basil. Rosemary. Galangal. And fresh turmeric from Kerala for the Asian dishes.” She’s also thrilled about their recent tie up with two local fishermen. “They call from the sea so we can tell them exactly what we want. It’s so cool. These prawns just came in.” They’re plump and juicy, in a batter crunchy with coconut, and served with a mayonnaise brightened with a surprising hint of orange.”
For the mains, she orders Char Kway Teow, which is nice without being memorable. And her version of the meat loaf, a vegetable loaf made of lentil, oats, ragi, nuts and seeds. Undeniably power packed, but rather dense and monotonous after a few bites. There’s a fish Benedict, grilled Red snapper topped with a rich blend of butter slow cooked with lemon. (Ask for it on the side if you intend to wear your skinny jeans anytime this year.) Served with fluffy herbed rice and snappy steamed vegetables sprinkled with caramelised onion and garlic, it’s one of the evening’s highlights.
We end with Nanaimo bars, Canada’s favourite dessert. Three addictive layers: cocoa powder, chopped nuts, dried coconut and crushed digestive biscuits, held together with melted butter. Then rich vanilla custard. And finally shiny dark chocolate.
Worth the drive? Definitely.
(L’attitude is at Grande Bay Resort, Mamallapuram. A meal for two costs approximately Rs. 800. Call 2744 3060 for details.)