Fifty shades of paneer

With its bizarre décor and good food a meal at Kaidi Kitchen is one experience you are unlikely to forget

April 03, 2014 04:34 pm | Updated May 21, 2014 03:51 pm IST - chennai:

The paneer tikkas are soft, fresh and perfectly crusty on the sides. Photo: R. Ragu

The paneer tikkas are soft, fresh and perfectly crusty on the sides. Photo: R. Ragu

Apparently you can’t reserve a jail cell on weekends. (Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.)

When I call newly-opened Kaidi Kitchen to book a table, a surly waiter firmly tells me they have a strict — ‘first come, first jailed’ policy. So I round up my friends frantically: and trust me, it’s not easy. “Hurry up and get ready. I want my own set of handcuffs.” “Huh?” Not to mention the fact that Saturday night at a prison-themed restaurant throws up a host of unexpected sartorial questions. Would wearing stripes be too obvious? Are we allowed to keep our belts? And why can’t I find a YouTube video to guide me through prison-appropriate make up?

Nevertheless we manage to stagger in at 7.30 p.m. The giggling begins when we see the ostensibly intimidating prison gates that guard the restaurant, then explodes into full-fledged hysteria when we enter. Kaidi Kitchen is broken up into two levels of chillingly authentic jail cells, each accessorised by cunningly positioned sets of dangling handcuffs. It’s a disconcerting scene, served up with such glib cheer that the whole effect is surreal. Add solemn waiters dressed as jailors or convicts (presumably depending on seniority) and the whole effect is mind-boggling.

All this to explain why I collapse with laughter when I suddenly see an earnest jailor at my elbow brandishing menus. He rolls his eyes but doesn’t crack a smile. Since I can’t talk, my embarrassed friends quickly jab at the multi-page menu, randomly choosing food from each section. Then, as we wait, we watch the scene unfold with morbid fascination. At a neighbouring jail cell a pretty young thing is posing with handcuffs on for her enthusiastic iPhone-brandishing boyfriend. A child with squeaky shoes runs up and down the stairs, deftly dodging jailors. Two convicts chat busily in a corner. Then someone presses the ‘red button’ (set in each jail cell to call waiters) and a massive light begins to flash energetically.

“The most amazing thing is…” whispers Friend 1, leaning forward, “They’re not even being ironic!” Friend Two shakes her head, tut-tutting sadly, “It’s so bizarre. I can see it working as a hip nightclub, or underground bar. But a vegetarian, multi-cuisine, family place?” She has a point. With the handcuffs, cells and lighting, the space has a distinct ‘50 shades of Grey’ feel to it. Eating paneer makhani between pint-sized squealing children in this setting does feel uncomfortably dissolute.

Nevertheless, as far as theme restaurants go this one is undeniably interesting. Besides, there seems to be a burgeoning market for these morose culinary experiences. In Spain the ‘Disaster Café’ specialises in “quality dining and tremors.” In Singapore you can chill on a wheelchair and drink shooters from a syringe at the Clinic Bar. ‘The Lock Up’ in Japan is a ‘haunted prison-themed restaurant’ offering customers dark, damp prison cells to dine in.

By the time our food arrives, the restaurant is packed. The food is surprisingly good. So much for our images of prison slop served in steel bowls. Our meal begins with Litti Choka, which arrives on a portable stove wrapped in the steamy fragrance of mustard. Popular in Bihar and Jharkand, these crisp little balls of dough are stuffed with roasted chickpea flour, then doused in warm ghee at the table. Eaten with an aromatic bowl of mashed potatoes, it’s an indulgent — if overwhelmingly heavy — start. Next come the paneer tikkas, which are soft, fresh and perfectly crusty on the sides.

The main course involves garlic naans served with a rich kofta curry. We also experiment with their Kashmiri naan, a playful amalgamation of wheat and bright tutti-frutti bits. As we work our way through dinner Friend Three pokes me energetically with her fork, whispering, “I have an idea for your review.” We look at her expectantly. “You can say…” She pauses for adequate drama. “It’s criminally good food in a criminally ridiculous setting.” Groan. I should have seen that coming when she read aloud from the menu, boasting “opulent prison cells” and an “imprisonment of indulgence”.

There’s no respite from the ghastly jokes after that. Dessert turns out to be an unimpressive, and disappointingly hard sizzling brownie. “Psssst,” whisper the friends, hacking away at it vigorously, in unison. “Maybe there’s a file inside?” I glare. “What? You know it’s important to complete a sentence.” They slap each other on the back in delight. Then one holds up a plate and announces, “Did you know a clean thief always makes a stainless steal.”

Kaidi Kitchen is at 20/3, Bishop Wallers Avenue, Mylapore. A meal for two is approximately Rs. 1,000. Call 42009701 or 4200 9702 for details.

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