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Romance of the Raj

Ali Baba meets P.G. Wodehouse at Casablanca, where the food is uniformly good and where a lounge bar is scheduled to open shortly

Baked crab... deliciously familiar. Pic by K.V. Srinivasan

ALMOST EVERY restaurant worth its salt, and pepper, strives for the `exotic,' but few actually manage to pin it down. Casablanca on TTK Road, however, does manage to get a setting that's quite out of the ordinary.

With warm lighting, assiduously whitewashed walls and sprays of little blue lights floating above its entrance, Casablanca - the latest player to take a bow on Chennai's burgeoning eat-out stage - is exotic, in a deliciously familiar sort of way. It's Ali Baba meets P.G. Wodehouse; Morocco meets Pondicherry and hummus meets steak-and-kidney pie - all in one venue.

A dimly lit pool covered in bougainvillea hugs the restaurant's rather provincial exterior, but inside, it's British Raj all the way.

Where you can relax

K. Zainudeen, the proprietor, says that Casablanca is an attempt to create a space where people can relax and get a good meal, without having to pay five star prices, or shake the mothballs off their tuxedos. Eventually, he says, Casablanca patrons will be able to sit back and enjoy dinner with wine, or nifty cocktails, once Zanzibar - a lounge bar scheduled to open shortly - throws open its doors.

The restaurant is endearingly snooty in the ol'-British-club-turns-desi way that most of the country's oldest clubs are. It's got the atmosphere perfectly: the gleaming floors, the impeccable but plain crockery, the carefully laid silver cutlery and waiters in those ubiquitous green uniforms favoured by most of the stiff-upper-lip club brigade. The food here is uniformly good, especially keeping in mind the surprisingly reasonable pricing. The meal began with prawns on toast and vegetable croquettes. Generously dusted with sesame seeds, the toast was layered with spicy seafood and went beautifully with the croquettes, a medley of vegetables covered by well-browned batter.

As we sat back enjoying the old-world ambience, the strains of country music in the air, the sleepily courteous service and deliciously warm bread rolls, the main course appeared in a bouquet of aromas: a steaming vegetable au gratin and resplendent baked crab.

The au gratin, a pot-pourri of beans, carrots, peas and broccoli was smothered with a sizzling stretchy cheese. It's counterpart — the chicken au gratin is equally good, and both are served piping hot. The baked crab, which made a dramatic entry, set in a huge shell, is a blend of crab meat, bright steamed mushroom and cheese, all lolling in a rich garlic sauce. If you're not really into fish though, you might find wading through it a bit overwhelming.

The meal ended with caramel custard, which was nice, but really nothing to write home about. The coconut pudding that accompanied it, on the other hand, took tender coconut from just a beachy accessory to a snooty gourmet's dream come true. They whip up a mean apple pie too, steaming with the flavour of cinnamon.

A meal at Casablanca costs about Rs. 200 per head. Call 52074994 for reservations.


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