The 20-year-old city restaurant is back serving its old favourites and some new dishes
When I was in college, nobody ate sushi.
According to contemporary food buzz, we're now a global city. Yet, despite all the hype, the truth is, not much has changed. Sure, the number of thrill-seeking foodies has gone up. But they're still a minority compared to the mass of people who just want some regular old fashioned ‘Chinese-Indian-Conti'. Buttered and battered, resplendent in oil/ ghee/ cheese respectively. Food that doesn't require an advanced knowledge of geography, politics and phonetics. Not to mention skill levels in cutlery, chopsticks and cocktail glasses, that would make James Bond baulk.
Which brings me back to college, when my classmates favoured a fairly dodgy bar, where the beer was cheap and the patrons loud, gruff and moustachioed. Once, under the impression that we were heading to Amethyst for civilised cappuccinos and carrot cake, I made the mistake of getting into a friend's car — only to be hijacked. We ended up at this bar, with me seated among ten boys, all classmates from journalism college, all embroiled in a heated political discussion, while waiters gave me the evil eye, sniffing disapprovingly as they offered me orange juice. I might as well have worn a scarlet letter around my neck.
A far cry from today. Last week I was at Zara with Chef Aji Joseph, who was testing his new paella pans. Beside us a girl sat alone, drinking vodka and talking on her iPhone. Eventually her mother called, presumably asking where she was. Because she trilled, “Having coffee with Prema.” (So that's what they call a double vodka on the rocks these days.)
Late nights in college were necessarily followed by dinners at Coconut Lagoon. Appams and stew, fish fry and rice, thick sweet payasam. A part of the Shyam Group, Coconut Lagoon is just one of many restaurants from the chain that has had a long and enduring love affair with this city. Think of Amravathi, Kabul, The Dhabha, Coastline…
And that is how I find myself in Duchess this week for a review. In our desperate search for new restaurants, we miss out on a lot of old gems. Besides, Duchess recently moved premises, so it's new — in a way, despite 20 years of history.
As we enter, we're transported back to a time when restaurants like this were de rigueur for an evening out. Hopelessly outdated music: the theme song from Titanic, followed by — hold your breath — Toybox singing ‘My name is Tarzan, I am Jungle-Man/ The tree-top swinger from Jungle-land.” We're ushered in politely and seated with such quick efficiency that Toybox has only got to the second stanza by the time we're given menus. “Tarzan is handsome, Tarzan is strong/ He's pretty cute and his hair is long.”
The menu's ‘Indian-Chinese-Conti,' listing dishes I haven't seen in about a decade. It's like a revival of hot pants and big hair, Wham and Culture Club, 9 p.m. deadlines and dinner parties featuring Russian salad: the late Eighties all over again. Chicken Hawaiian salad, Vegetable au gratin and carpet bag steaks, stuffed with prawns. The place mats are large, shiny masterpieces of kitsch, featuring big bouquets of flowers. The setting's conventionally square: mirrors, paintings, sofas. It's like discovering a time machine in your backyard.
We begin with baby corn and broccoli in a cheese batter which is delicious, if shamelessly deep fried. It's crunchy outside, and fudgy inside with emerald broccoli and chunks of semi-melted cheese. For the main course, we experiment with vegetable fried rice, which is fluffy and perfect, tumbled with plenty of julienned vegetables and served with bowls of sauces. Since Duchess is best known for steaks, we try a beef fillet. It arrives well done (as is the norm) on a sizzler pan, juicy and blanketed in sauce. There's a touch too much thyme, making it taste faintly medicinal, and a very stingy helping of fries. Endearingly, I'm given a dinky cheese knife, with ‘c-h-e-e-s-e' written along the side and a forked end to eat my steak. Calling this cheesy would be too easy. So let's just move to dessert. Caramel custard, of course. Cool, silky, perfect.
Duchess is at No 1/200, Royapettah High Road. Call 2467 2424 or 2499 6762 for details. A meal for two costs approximately Rs. 800.
Keywords: Chennai restaurants