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AQUA makes a splash

Sun-kissed cocktail lunches, relaxed sunsets and delectably starry nights... Aqua at The Park is all set to become Chennai's favourite lounge

Eating at The Park's newly opened cafe `Aqua' is all about making tough decisions. First, we have to decide whether to sit elegantly in its comfortably air-conditioned indoor restaurant or stretch out lazily on the cane loungers set by a delightfully blue sun-drenched swimming pool. Then, between nervously peering down on Chennai (Aqua's set on the scenic eighth floor) and admiring its semi-kitschy decor we study the extensive menu in bewilderment, wondering where to begin.

Aqua's flamboyant Executive Chef R. C. William's (Willie as his name tag proudly proclaims)cuisine is as refreshing as he is. It's bright, colourful and certainly very different from what the rest of Chennai's Continental cavalcade is cooking up - even without the scrumptious view, which certainly helps the sun-dried tomatoes go down.

Under the New Zealander chef's eagle eye the Aqua crew spreads a vibrant range of food across its bar counter. There's a plate piled with `Poleta fingers, interspersed with sweet peppers, provolone cheese and skewered mushrooms' (Chef William's menu is full of food sentences instead of the usual list of dishes that make up most menus). The Poleta, made of golden corn, is a delicious alternative to the ubiquitous `aloo-paneer' that most vegetarians are forced to end up eating when they dine out. Its grainy texture is set off perfectly by luscious mushrooms tossed with spices and thick stretchy cheese.

While William calls for one of his "guys in pyjamas" (the waiters' uniforms make them look like they're ready for a warm glass of Horlicks and a fluffy blanket) to take away the Poleta, which he insists has not been arranged artfully enough, we sneakily stick our forks into their divinely sticky `Date pudding with cashewnut brittle and crème fraiche'. Warm and caramelly inside with an undercurrent of ginger and topped by a generous dollop of thick sweetened cream, it could parade as the poster dish for comfort food. We're practically knee deep in caramel and blissfully crunching the brittle when William returns and makes us pick up our pencils, sticky fingers and all, so we can get back to the main food.

His `Golden fried vegetable burger patty with spinach, mint, peas and feta on rice bread' is, however, just an artfully draped vegetable cutlet trying to act hip. The Pinenut and saffron couscous with ratatouille and golden fried aubergine and cream cheese, on the other hand IS exotic (and that's not just because pronouncing it is difficult). It cleverly combines layers of steaming well-disguised aubergine bursting with runny cream cheese and accompanied by a pile of subtly flavoured khus khus. Set beside it, the black-eyed bean and spinach salad with hot Jamaican jerk chicken and baked banana is not just interestingly unusual - it's also irresistible. The well barbequed, yet succulent, chicken is spicy in a well-mannered Mediterranean kind of way, while the perfectly cooked baked banana it is set on provides a glamorous, and tasty, backdrop.

William is not very enthusiastic about classifying his food. He wrinkles up his nose at the tag `Fusion', says he's steered away from `Indian' and is far too experimental for the staid Continental label. `Novelle Cuisine', however, might just work.

The menu, as you've probably guessed by now is `all shook up'; and you can dive in anywhere - soup, starters, main course or desserts — and not necessarily in that order. They even have an exotic selection of cocktails, ranging from `Milk and Honey' Martinis to the ever-popular beer-lemonade Shandy.

Judging by its carefully thought out menu and decor, Aqua certainly intends to become Chennai's favourite lounge. And judging by the sample opening, it's got a lot of sun-kissed cocktail lunches, relaxed sunsets and delectably starry nights ahead.

A meal should work out to roughly Rs. 400 per head. Aqua is at The Park, 601, Anna Salai and is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Ph: 5214 4000.


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