Society

More than a journey

“Drive straight, till you hit the beach, and then turn left.” Exactly the kind of sentence you want to hear on a Saturday morning. Tired of the city’s blistering chaos, my friend and I have clambered into a clunky old Ambassador, driven by a sweet-tempered chauffer whose tousled grey hair betrays that he’s about the same vintage as his cab. We are headed down the ECR. Our mission is to re-discover the road, once the abode of grimy chai shops, oil-stained biryani shacks and an ever-present smattering of languorous cows. Despite the rash of restaurants, and occasional emergence (and inevitable fading away) of nightclubs for the IT crowd, the ECR has remained relatively untapped over the years, especially considering its enviable proximity to the sea. Till now.





Over the past few years, it’s quietly emerged as a stylish and intriguingly cosmopolitan destination thanks to a set of unique and proudly individual spaces. Instead of just using the road to get to more interesting destinations, such as Mahabalipuram and Puducherry, Chennaiites are finally embracing the ECR as part of the cityscape, heading here on the weekends, and even during the week, to surf, swim and jog, as well as rest, eat and party.



Waving goodbye to the helpful auto driver who gave us directions we thunder down the road, simultaneously listening to David Guetta and cross-checking Google Maps from my rapidly dying phone. However, at the end of the road, our car shudders to a halt. There’s nothing but sand in front of us, and the Ambassador visibly quakes at the very thought of off-roading. “Beach,” shrugs our driver. “Go right,” says my GPS. The car reluctantly turns onto an excuse for a road, practically covered in sand. And there it is: The Beach Club.



As locations go, this one seems unbeatable. Producer turned restaurateur Suresh Menon, who earlier launched Crimson Chakra and Azzuri Bay, comes out to say hello, along with Chef Anand, best known for his intuitive fusion cooking, where he tweaks and teases local produce into Mediterranean –inspired menus.



Perhaps it’s because of Guetta, still on loop in my head – but The Beach Club has an almost Ibiza-like vibe. Stone benches overlook the beach, and sea. As we watch the waves tirelessly change colour in the sunshine from the restaurant’s balcony, Menon talks of his plans for the space: a day spa, beach volleyball, water sports. Even Xboxes for the kids. “In the evening, it’s very romantic here,” he beams, “The entire place is lit by candles.” Right now, they’re serving a buffet lunch and dinner, but Chef Anand promises his menu will by up and running in about a month.



It’s still blazing hot outside, so we drive down to Shiraz Art Café, even though it’s just a short walk away. Owner Nasrin Karimi is relaxing over a tall glass of her signature barley water, tulsi seed and fruit granite when we enter. She springs up with delight and dispenses affectionate hugs, calling out to her brother to come by and say hello. Chennai’s only Iranian restaurant, Shiraz is special for a number of reasons. The food is alluringly exotic, yet faintly familiar, flavoured with dried mint, rose water and saffron. The space is delightfully old-fashioned, with elegant wallpaper, rows of antique crystal glasses and heavy vases filled with fresh flowers. Combine that with Nasrin’s indefatigable warmth and you’ll understand why her customers are loyalists. Shiraz always feels like a homecoming.



Cooked mainly by Nasrin, the food here is delicate, woven with a few, cleverly used herbs, spices and ingredients in unexpected combinations. Chicken with apples, for example. Or a Persian noodle soup crammed with fresh mint, cilantro and spinach. Or orange peel cake spiked with Iranian rose water. She sets big mugs filled with golden lemon tea in front of as we chat. It’s hot, sweet and calming. “People drive all the way from Nungambakkam with big flasks for this,” she chuckles, as she discusses her plans to add more cakes to the menu, as well as burgers and pakoras. Pakoras? “The cook here makes them really well,” she smiles. She lets us leave only after we promise to return for her massive Sunday brunch next week. “There’ll be Iranian biriyani,” she promises, waving good bye.



Maybe it’s the Kenny Rogers that was playing at Shiraz, maybe it’s sitting in the back seat of that wheezing Ambassador, or maybe it’s just driving by the beach: but the ECR starts bringing back floods of memories. We chat about trips to the beach as kids in our grandparents Ambassadors, resting sandy spades and buckets on the car’s expansive seats, and wishing on sunsets in an age before selfies. Just before my phone dies, I manage to send an e mail to Arun Vasu, the high-powered business man behind popular Covelong Point Surf school. I decide I like him instantly when my formal e-mail, apologising for running late, is replied to with a “No worries. Take your time” followed by emoticons of a surfer, a smiley in sunglasses and a palm tree.



Predictably enough, we lose our way to the Surf School. Vague online directions, which include “Dharka Backside Beach,” don’t help. And after getting some strange looks, we stop asking for “Backside beach.” After stopping and physically moving a couple of badly-parked bikes off the road to make space for our FrankenCar, we finally arrive and are greeted by fisherman turned surfer Murthy and four delighted puppies, all of whom bound to the front gate to say hello with equal enthusiasm. Murthy’s a local legend: after teaching himself to surf, he started encouraging the boys from the village to do the same and now they take classes for locals and tourists. Backed by Vasu and Yotam Agam (of EarthSync) – both of whom are skilled surfers – Murthy started the school, which just moved into a gorgeous new setting right on the beach.



The smart new building offers a set of compact rooms with dramatic views of the sea for surfers to stay overnight, making it easier than ever to hit the waves by 6 a.m. There’s also a restaurant, run by an Italian couple Giuliu and Enrica from Auroville. Lunch consists of flaky grouper, served with creamy lemon butter sauce and crunchy stir fried vegetables. There’s also a lightly seared tuna steak, a spicy chicken salad and a bowl of deep red arrabiato pasta. Over lunch Giuliu talks about how they source their fish from the local fishermen, thus ensuring it’s unbeatably fresh. Arun adds that the whole idea of the project is to involve the village, so all the staff at Covelong Point come from Kovalam. Most of them are surfers as well. “It can be a little difficult sometimes,” chuckles Giuli. “Look at your waiter, he’s gazing at the waves instead of serving food.”



The day ends at Kipling Cafe’s sprawling compound, which encases three spaces: a garden lounge bar, Kipling Masala and the air conditioned Firenze. Admittedly it can get rather warm here, especially when there’s no breeze, but in spite of the sultry weather, the space is charming – deliberately dimly lit, and lush with plants. Fortunately all three menus are available, regardless of where you sit, so you have a choice of cuisines, from Mediterranean to Thai to Italian. And then, of course, there are the kebabs. And cocktails. Neat hand-breaded calamari rings, spongy mustard-laced paneer kebabs and fragrant basil chicken. All followed by a just-baked lave cake, oozing chocolate, and an old fashioned martini: Most relaxing Chennai sun-downer yet.



This is the new ECR. Finally, the journey is the destination.



The Beach Club is at 4/33, Beach road. Neelankarai. Phone 9300877195.



Shiraz Art Café is at 27, Beach Road, Kapleshwar Nagar, Neelangarai, East Coast Road (ECR). Phone: 9840572126.



Surf Turf is at Covelong Point, Dharka Backside Beach New Point, Ansari Nagar, Kovalam. Phone: 098409 75916



Kipling Café is at 16, L Jey Avenue , Akkarai, East coast road. Phone: 073052 20330

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 1:47:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/drive-down-east-coast-road/article7259944.ece

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