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TOVO Canteen – The No-Fat Restaurant

Tovo Canteen, Besant Nagar is the third of Tovo’s ventures in Chennai. The concept, like any of the other Tovo outlets is simple – healthy organic ingredients cooked without any added oil or water where the flavours are infused into the main ingredients viz. chicken, paneer and vegetables by marinating them overnight. Add to that a menu that is designed for customisation, giving diners unprecedented control over their meal, and it seems like a winning proposition.

Tovo Canteen – Are they open?

My visit to Tovo Canteen, Besant Nagar with a friend was on a weekday evening and our first impression as we stepped in was… are they open? Low-lighting and absence of any customers or service-staff almost had us turning around. Just then one of the waiters spotted us and ran over to welcome us and explain the Tovo concept and method of ordering. In short: choose your base, choose your stuffing, choose your infusion and finally, top it with regional seasonings. Intrigued by the word infusion, we decided to stay and climbed a floor to the larger and better-lit seating area above. The décor was stark and industrial-grungy – all exposed brick and rough concrete, wooden benches and bare vintage, Edison bulbs. 

Tovo Canteen, Besant Nagar, Chennai, chicken wings, paneer, chocolate, caramel, Chettinad
Tovo Tender Winglets

The food story

For starters, we ordered the Tovo Tender Winglets (INR 245) with a Chilli Peppery Infusion and Mogul Lace topping and the Indian Cheese Tawad (House-marinated fresh paneer cubes tempered with assorted spices, INR 245) with Mogul Lace and Chettinad Zest toppings on the side. The paneer at Tovo is deliciously soft and accompanied by a perfectly paired dill pickle relish. The chicken was almost as good – tender, juicy and incredibly flavourful, almost great except for the fact that it was served lukewarm. By the time we got to the second wing, the infusions and toppings were beginning to congeal and the wings were unappetisingly cold.

Tovo Canteen, Besant Nagar, Chennai, chicken wings, paneer, chocolate, caramel, Chettinad
Tovo Slate

For mains, my vegetarian friend ordered the Tovo Slate (a square bun) with the Veggie Mash, Tomato and Garlic Infusion with Cheesy scramble (INR 330), whilst I decided to try their carb-free option called the Tovo Shell with Chicken Mash Patties, Tangy Cheese and Herb Infusion and Garlic Sauce (INR 335+84). These took significantly longer to arrive at the table, and I wish I could say the wait was worth it. The sandwich was a generous sized square bun stuffed with a filling that was oozing from the sides. It looked inviting and tasted good, though slightly heavy on the paneer. My carb-free Tovo Shell turned out to be a large, crisp leaf of Lettuce encasing the double patties of chicken mash. As I bit in, a strange smell wafted out and the flavour seemed a bit off.  I opened up the lettuce shell to find a gooey mash inside, not the round patties I was expecting. I took another bite and detected a slightly fermented taste and decided to stop right there.

Though it took us a while to catch the waiter’s eye, he readily agreed to take it back and replace it with anything else I wanted. However, by then my appetite for infusions had waned, so I decided to cleanse my palate with chocolate and ordered the Caramelo Fudge Cake (INR 230). The dessert was a slice of dense and gooey chocolate-ganache cake/tart with a sneaky caramel filling between the crust and the ganache. Indulgent and chocolatey, it almost managed to erase the memory of that unfortunate Tovo Shell. However the ‘griping’ memory was to come back and haunt me for the next few days.

Tovo Canteen, Besant Nagar, Chennai, chicken wings, paneer, chocolate, caramel, Chettinad
Tovo Shell

The Tovo Canteen verdict

A point to note about Tovo is that whilst there might be zero oil added whilst cooking, some of the infusions and toppings contain mayonnaise and cream, not to mention the intrinsic fat present in the chicken and paneer itself, so overall it’s neither a fat-free nor a low calorie experience. In fact, in this case, it seemed the reverse. Leaving aside the Tovo Shell incident, I will concede that the food at Tovo Canteen, Besant Nagar is full of flavour, as food cooked in their own juices should be. The service is good, though sometimes a bit tardy and the atmosphere is modern and refreshing. I would go back and give it another try.

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Five Common Beginner Baking Goof-ups

Baking…universally loved, and almost equally feared. Baking a golden hued, tender-crumbed and fragrant butter-cake might be easy-as-pie to some, but for many a beginner-baker, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Let’s look at some of the most common mistakes made by newbie bakers, and how they impact the final product. 

Not reading, fully understanding or following the recipe

The first step to ensure baking success is to own the recipe. By that I mean, complete familiarity with it. The recipe should be

A) read from start to finish, twice if necessary

B) understood thoroughly – look up any unfamiliar terms and processes to ensure you know what needs to be done, make sure all ingredients and equipment needed are on hand and at the temperature required, and

C) followed to a T.

Baking, cake, pie, baking powder, baking soda, breadThe old cliché that baking is a science not an art, is a cliché for a reason. It’s annoyingly true. Baking calls for precision in ingredients, times and temperatures – so curb that impulse to get creative on your first attempt, and don’t second-guess/change the process. There will be time for that later.

Inaccurate measurement

Most recipes talk in terms of volume – cups, teaspoons and tablespoons, which have specific volumes attached to each measure. e.g. a US cup is 240 ml, a teaspoon is 5ml and a tablespoon is 15 ml. Professional quality baking recipes go a step further and list ingredient amounts in grams so that the margin for error is minimal. Make sure you use standard measuring cups/spoons to measure out your ingredients if going by volume and/or invest in a small measuring scale (preferably digital) to weigh your ingredients if going by weight. You will thank yourself.

Over-beating the batter

When it comes to beating your cake batter, less is more. Most cake recipes call for creaming the butter and sugar in the start, and this is where you can happily expend energy because this process creates the aeration required for a light cake. However, once the flour and liquids are added, resist the temptation to beat the batter to death. Mixing past the point where all the ingredients are combined will only lead to gluten-formation and a tough,bread-like cake.

Baking, cake, pie, baking powder, baking soda, breadNot understanding your oven

All ovens were not created equal, and temperature gauges are notoriously inaccurate. It is therefore important that you figure out your oven, its accuracy and hot-spots, and use this knowledge during final baking. It could be trial and error for the first few times, but soon you will be able to tell whether a recipe that calls for 25 minutes of baking takes 30 mins in your oven or is done in 18 mins. For greater accuracy, invest in an oven-thermometer (easily available on most websites) and calibrate your oven accordingly.

Last, but not least – unwise substitutions

For example, though baking powder and baking soda are both leaveners/raising-agents, they are chemically different and react differently with other ingredients in a cake. Baking soda is alkaline and usually needs some kind of acidic element like lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk etc. to react with and cause the leavening (raising) action in the cake. Baking powder, however, contains the alkaline and acidic element within itself and does not need an additional acidic element. So though they both act as raising agents, one cannot be substituted for the other without compromising on the consistency and quality of the baked item. There is a wealth of knowledge on allowed substitutes available on the net, so if you’re ever short of an ingredient and are looking for substitutes, a quick check will sort you out.

If you are new to baking, let the precise scientist in you run the baking process and then unleash the creative artist when decorating. All will be well. Happy baking!

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East Coast At Madras Square – Old Wine, New Bottle

Old wine is good sometimes, assuming it was a decent wine to begin with and in this context I remember the old place (Café Madras Square) and the old menu being excellent, albeit not always matched in execution or service. Anyway, Café Madras Square off the East Coast Road, with its open-air lawn and patio seating is history now and in its place is a large, air-conditioned, high-ceiling space with white furniture and whiter walls. A wise move by the management, especially since Chennai in summer is no walk in the park and nothing spoils a good meal faster than sitting under the stars and worrying about that warm, extra-balmy sea-breeze dissolving the make-up off your face.

The transition of Café Madras Square to East Coast

As we step into East Coast for lunch, the immediate impression is airy space and calm. We are guided to a cosy two-seater table close to the picture windows looking out onto the lawn. The cane chairs are comfortable, the temperature just right, and I find myself looking forward to my meal with anticipation. When the menu arrives, I notice it’s a pared down version of the old one.

Some of the more interesting sounding local dishes from the old menu have been replaced by standard soups, salads, pasta and pizza options and though the variety of dishes seems limited, the choices on offer sound inviting. To whet our appetites we order our drinks, an Irish Frappe (INR 175) for my friend and a Moroccan Squash (INR 125) for myself. For nibbles, we settle on the Devilled Chicken Sausages with a home-made barbeque sauce (INR 225).

East Coast, Cafe Madras Square, Chennai, Chef at Large, Kuki Ravindran
Grilled Fish Crusted With Curry Leaf Pesto

First to arrive are the Devilled sausages which look red, devilish and inviting enough, but turn out to have a mildly unpleasant boiled rather than grilled taste and consistency. The home-made barbeque sauce is a more a herbed onion-tomato ‘masala’ with none of the sweetness or smokiness you would expect from a barbeque sauce. We wait for our drinks to wash out the tart tomato aftertaste, but they aren’t ready yet and our waiter tells us it will be a few minutes more. Meanwhile, we decide on our mains – Grilled Fish (INR 375) for my friend and Steak and Chips (INR 400) for me with grilled vegetables instead of the chips. Our long-pending drinks are yet to make an appearance.

The restaurant is decidedly short of staff and the pace of food arrival is slow, but the dishes that pass by our table look and smell delicious so we hope that the wait will be worth it. 

Disappointed, yet again

Meanwhile, our mains arrive at the table. The Grilled Fish crusted with curry leaf pesto with pickled mayo and herb rice looks very inviting, though a little dark. Alas! The fish is the ubiquitous Basa – a pity, considering we are in a coastal city with any number of beautiful local fish to choose from. The fish is tender but the coating mildly burnt and oily and after a few bites, my friend decides she’s had enough. The pickle mayo is not especially pickle-ey, but the herb rice is nicely done.

East Coast, Cafe Madras Square, Chennai, Chef at Large, Kuki Ravindran
Steak and Chips

My steak arrives with grilled vegetables instead of the fries as requested and though there isn’t any discernible knob of parsley butter as stated in the menu, though it is possible that the butter melted onto the hot steak. The steak is well prepared and juicy and the grilled vegetables flavourful, with a pleasant bite. Oh, and my drink has still not made an appearance.

For dessert, we settle on the Theobroma (INR 200) that is described as a six-layer Chocolate Mousse Cake and a Banana (Banoffee) Pie (INR 125). The Theobroma looks inviting – layers of white, milk and dark chocolate mousse on a thin layer of chocolate cake, but a spoonful is enough to leave one unimpressed with flavour and consistency (gelatinous, rather than creamy).

East Coast, Cafe Madras Square, Chennai, Chef at Large, Kuki Ravindran, Chocolate mousse cake
Theobroma – a six layer chocolate mousse cake.

The East Coast verdict

East Coast has a serene, laid back vibe with service that matches. The menu though predictable, is full of old favourites like Moussaka (INR 300), Mac n Cheese (INR 325) and Pasta Carbonara (INR 350). The noticeable absence of a Burger option is made up for in SlidersChickpea or Crab (INR250/275) that I am eager to try. The thin-crust pizzas that passed by our table looked and smelled delicious, as did the pasta and stuffed chicken. There is a lot more to try and if they get their service in order (and more desserts on the menu please!) East Coast could well become the place of choice for Continental Fare on the East Coast Road.

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Gotta Go To… Mamagoto!

I am in love. Or that’s what it feels like. The heady euphoria of a fabulous meal at an exciting new restaurant. Those spicy dumplings….sigh!  Can still feel the tingle of the chili oil on my lips. I close my eyes, and the fragrance of a Fiery Thai Shrimp Fried Rice comes back to me, as intoxicating as it was last night. I miss it already. Suffice to say I have a new favourite restaurant in Mamagoto… but let’s start at the beginning shall we?

Pop-art interiors at Mamagoto

Mamagoto is the exciting new entrant to Chennai’s Pan-Asian, or in their words Fun-Asian food scene. In keeping with the name, the menu is fresh, interesting and has some cool twists that give an exciting dimension to trusty old favourites. The waiting-blues, if any, are immediately banished by this cheery, colourful, Japanese pop-arty atmosphere with the buzz of people having a good time and some surprisingly good music in the background.

Bring on the food 

We were hungry and so jumped right into ordering our appetizers, a plate of Vegetarian Street-style Spicy Dumplings (INR 239) and a plate of Chicken Old School Gyozas (INR 269). The Vegetarian dumplings came first and they looked beautiful. Plump green wrappers topped with a  deep red chili Sambal and drizzled with Chili Oil.  I remember hoping that they tasted as good as they looked…and they did. Better in fact! The filling was juicy, delicious and crunchy with water-chestnuts, and the wrapper tender and perfect. A far cry from the sometimes soggy and water-logged, sometimes tough and chewy IMG_20160220_222845 (600x800)dumpling wrappers that abound in the city. The Chicken Gyozas arrived shortly after and were as tender, juicy and flavourful as their vegetarian cousins. Pan-fried and topped with a slightly sweet and spicy Momo sauce, they made for a delicious mouthful. I would gladly go back to Mamagoto just for a Fruit Juice ”Cleanser” from their non-alcoholic but interesting sounding Drinks Menu and a plate (or two) of those dumplings/gyozas.

Choosing our Mains turned out to be a big challenge – everything sounded good. Though we were warned that the servings were generous, we had decided against sharing as each one of us wanted something different. Our waiter was a big help through our decision-making process, full of good humour and suggestions that helped us choose well. He even took away special instructions for the Chef to make one dish zero-spice for our Spanish friend who had no tolerance for chili.  When IMG_20160220_225519 (600x800)our dishes arrived, they looked and smelled delightful. For our strict-vegetarian friend, the Stir-fried greens Thai Style (INR 299) – a mix of crunchy Snow-peas, Broccoli and Asparagus wok-tossed with galangal and thai herbs. For the rest of us carnivores, zero-spice Chicken Hakka Noodles (INR 229), Chicken Thai Green Curry (INR369) with Steamed Rice (INR 159) and my order of the Fiery Thai Shrimp Fried Rice with Asian Green Chilli Chicken Ribbons (INR 499) which is one of their signature Rice Bowl combinations.

IMG_20160220_225448 (600x800)And it keeps getting better…

We tucked in and for a few minutes silence reigned supreme. Then there was a chorus of “OMG! You have to try this…so good’’.  My Fiery Thai Shrimp Fried Rice was everything I had expected it to be, and more. Spicy, fragrant, flavoursome, with big juicy prawns and tender chili chicken strips, delicious crunchy prawn wafers for texture, cool strips of raw tomato and cucumber to balance the heat of the dish, and a perfect fried egg to top it all off. I was so happy with it, that I didn’t feel like trying anyone else’s dish…but I was glad when I did. The Chicken Thai Green Curry was the perfect balance of slightly sweet and spicy, fragrant with lemon-grass and galangal and full of tender strips of chicken and bamboo teamed with Steamed IMG_20160220_225413 (600x800)Rice to perfection. The Chicken Hakka Noodles fit the brief. Zero-spice as ordered, and was still a well-executed, faultless plate of flavourful chicken noodles.

Going back to Mamagoto soon

Despite our appetites and the deliciousness of the food, none of us could finish it and sadly, even dessert seemed out of the question. We asked for the balance of our dinners to be packed up and a few minutes later a beautiful Mamagoto paper bag of neatly stacked heat-sealed containers with paper napkins, chopsticks and the restaurant visiting card was placed on our table. Big tick in the attention-to-detail box! Attentive service, an exciting menu, cheery interiors and delicious food at reasonable rates, no wonder Mamagoto is a growing entity in the country. In five cities and nine locations already, and with its mantra of providing a Fun-Asian dining experience at an affordable price, Mamagoto seems to have it’s winning formula in the bag. Do check it out.

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The Top 3 Romantic Restaurants In and Around Chennai

When you live in a city by the beach, especially the second longest beach in the world, romantic venues more often than not will be beach side. Not surprising then, that many of the more dreamy restaurants in and around Chennai are located by the beautiful Bay of Bengal,though there are a few non-beachy notables.

The_Wharf_w

ONE The Wharf: Far (really far) from the madding crowd is The Wharf, located at the Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay, Mahabalipuram. This upmarket sea-side restaurant is built practically on the beach and affords you spectacular views of the sea, apart from fresh, ozonated air and the background music of the surf. The menu is eclectic featuring Lava-stone grills and Pasta alongside Indian Grills and exotic seafood, the service decent, and if air-conditioning is not vital to your romantic experience, then look no further for a memorable meal with that special someone.

H_Swimming-Pool

TWO Kefi: Located at the Taj Club House-Mount Road, smack-bang in the centre of the city, this rooftop Mediterranean restaurant is a fantastic option for some delicious food in romantic surroundings. There is the indoor seating option with the classic White and blue colours of the Mediterranean as well as an outdoor, candle-lit option under a canopy. One of the better romantic rooftop restaurants in the city for you and your special someone.

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THREE The Beach Club: Recently opened in Neelangarai, this beach-side restaurant/resort offers couples a super-romantic setting for a meal and spa session together. The view from the first floor restaurant, especially at sunset, is stunning, and the extensive Menu (Continental and Indian) sounds delicious.

Other mention-worthy options that I considered: Kipling café (Akkarai, ECR), Bay View and Upper Deck (both at Vivanta by Taj Fisherman’s Cove, ECR) and Up North (The Raintree, Anna Salai) on a cool evening.

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Jonah’s Meets Chef Willi… And We’re Glad They Met!

Jonah’s meets Chef Willi is the third in the continuing series of Jonah’s Bistros that have been springing up all over the city this past year. Each Jonah’s has a different theme and the centrally-located Poes Garden branch’s is Mediterranean.

Southern Fried Calamari with a Thousand Island Chilli Mayonnaise
Southern Fried Calamari with a Thousand Island Chilli Mayonnaise

It’s a bright, sunny Monday afternoon and as I step into the restaurant, my first impression is cool, calm and comfy. High-backed sofas in plush Royal Blue arrest the eye and happily, they are as comfortable as they look. As I settle in and my friend arrives, a beaming waiter walks over and presents the menu with a flourish. The restaurant interiors are quirky but at first-glance the menu seems a bit conservative and pizza-centric.  We decide to start off with a couple of mocktails and opt for the Lemon and Mint Cooler (INR 90)  and the Virgin Colada (INR 140) along with a plate of the Southern Calamari Fritters with Thousand Island Chilli Mayonnaise (INR 295) to nibble on whilst we catch up.  The drinks don’t take long to arrive, and when they do I wish I had ordered the Lemon and Mint Cooler instead of my Creamy Virgin Colada (goodbye morning workout!). It looks like a minty-green frozen margarita in a tall glass and tastes just as refreshing. My friend and I agree its possibly the best version we’ve had of the mostly un-noteworthy drink present on most restaurant menus.

The cornmeal crusted, crispy calamari is generously portioned and the spicy chilli-mayo dip, piquant and delicious. The calamari itself is good when it arrives at the table, but the coating quickly softens and the rings become greasy towards the bottom of the bowl. As we peruse the menu for our mains, we come across some interestingly hybrid-sounding pizza options e.g. the Cheeseburger Pizza with beef burger chunks, tomatoes, sliced lettuce, cheddar cheese and a tangy  burger sauce (INR 435 for a regular) and The taste of Blue with sliced tenderloin, buttery pumpkin mash, broccoli and blue cheese, (INR 465 for a regular.) There is also a Fish’n’chips Pizza (INR 585) and a Mac’n’ Four Cheese Pizza (INR 365) for the kids. Not so conservative after all!  We finally decide on the Lamb Sausage Pizza with lamb sausage, marinara sauce, feta, black olives, parsley and mint, (INR 515). My friend had initially dithered over a Chicken and Pesto pizza and our friendly waiter offers to add some pesto onto the lamb sausage pizza if we like. We do like. :)IMG_20150727_135833 (600x800)

Since the edge of our hunger has been effectively blunted by our giant drinks and calamari, I decide to order a salad and choose the Moroccan Salad with chickpeas, walnuts, parsley, dates, carrots, lettuce and chicken tossed with a lemon and honey dressing (INR 365). The food arrives fairly fast as the restaurant is more empty than full (not so strange for a continental restaurant on a Monday afternoon) and we dig in. The salad is crunchy, tangy and an interesting combination of flavours and textures. It leaves one feeling satisfied but light. That feeling doesn’t last long though as I decide to try an enticing looking slice of crispy-edged, gooey, thin-crust pizza. The off-menu pesto works strangely well with the lamb and marinara sauce and adds a herby layer of flavour that is both garlicky and delicious.

Creamy, dreamy Banana Pie
Creamy, dreamy Banana Pie

Whilst we sit back and take a post-pizza breather, our ever-attentive waiter brings us the dessert menu and our ‘ugh, I’m so stuffed’ groans quickly turn to silence as we read through it and choose the final nail in our diet-coffin. To minimise guilt, we decide to share a dessert and unanimously decide on the Tiramisu (INR 215), a Chef Willi speciality. Two minutes later, our waiter is back to say it isn’t available. That should have been our cue to leave, but now, heart set on dessert, we decide on the Creamy, Dreamy Banana Pie layered with Banana mousse and topped with Cream (INR 175). A gargantuan slice arrives, but it’s good, creamy and dreamy as promised with fresh banana and a crispy pie base in a pool of custard.  We finish every last bite and muse about how perfect it would have been with a cup of black coffee. Anyway, too late. We pay up, bid our friendly waiter arrivederci and say we will be back soon. We mean it. There is a lot more to taste on the menu, and with a brand-new menu in the works, there is even more to look forward to.

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Winter Palace…Royal, Russian Repast!

It isn’t often you hear about Russian Cuisine in India, let alone taste it, so the news of a speciality Russian Restaurant opening up in Chennai had my ears and taste-buds both perk up.

Located centrally, off Cathedral Road and within the Russian Cultural Centre Complex, this pretty restaurant is like a teeny-tiny powder-blue ode to the original Baroque-styled Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. A loose and much less grandiose interpretation no doubt, but quaint…and surprisingly evocative.

IMG_20151126_142143 (600x800)
White Orchid – a fruity mocktail

Though there is an outdoor option and it’s a cool overcast day, I choose to sit indoors and take in the Russian setting. As I settle into the blue-brocade chair, I am handed an armful of menus. A large laminated card with the names of the dishes, as well as a smaller pictorial version with descriptions to make choosing easier and some beverage menus. My friendly waiter arrives by my side and asks whether I would like a glass of wine to start with. I gawk at him momentarily, since that isn’t a common query when you’re lunching at a stand-alone restaurant in Chennai. He points down at a single-sheet Beverage Menu and I see that I do indeed have a choice of Wines, Beers and Cocktails to choose from. Even though the sun is setting over some part of the world, I decide to file this interesting piece of information away for future use and order myself a White Orchid Mocktail (INR 120) instead. A fruity melange of Litchi, guava and Orange juice. It arrives soon enough, and is a pleasant, though not particularly exciting or memorable drink.

Glancing through the fairly wide choice of hot and cold appetisers, I wish I had planned better and come with at least two more people so we could sample the interesting variety of vegetarian and meaty starters. My eyes skim over the Salad a la Rus (INR 230), linger longer over the Cured Salted Fish (INR 210) and Calamari and Onion Rings (INR 320) but finally settle on the Mushroom Blini (INR 260), and I order a plate.

Mushroom Blini

The Main Course list includes some familiar names found on most ‘Continental’ Menus viz.  Stroganoff , Chicken a la Kiev and a page’s worth of  Shashlyk (marinated, grilled meat and seafood). There are also some interesting sounding Plovs (Rice and chicken/lamb cooked together – INR230/250.)  I choose the Salmon a la Moscow (INR 590) which is described as a ‘Fillet of Salmon adeptly grilled & baked with tomato and cheese’, and is served with grilled vegetables on the side. I place my order for it and right on cue, my Mushroom Blinis arrive. A blini is a Russian pancake/crepe and can be stuffed with a sweet or savoury filling. The one that arrives is lacy and has the savoury sauce oozing out of the gaps, in little golden droplets. Appetizing to look at, and the promise made to my eyes is fulfilled when I take my first bite. Mushrooms in a creamy béchamel wrapped in a lacy pancake and topped with a blob of sour cream…it is the perfect bite!

Shortly after, my Salmon arrives and it looks even better.  Melty cheese, vibrant vegetables, crisp lettuce and a beautiful fillet of Indian Salmon. I pray that it tastes as good as it looks…and it does! The fish has a nice crust and is tender and juicy inside. The flavours are clean and uncluttered. The cheese and tomatoes are hot and bubbly and the vegetables, grilled and herbed to perfection. My only wish was that the beautiful crisp lettuce had been dressed rather than being served au naturale.

IMG_20151126_144930 (800x600)
Napoleon Cake

For Dessert I order the Napolean Cake (INR 150) and a cup of Black Coffee (INR 45) to wash it down. The cake is a version of the French Mille-Feuille (thousand leaves) Pastry aka the Napolean, which is many layers of pastry held together by vanilla pastry cream.  I find the flavour one-dimensional and the consistency a tiny bit dry. I am glad I ordered the coffee, even though it’s more hot than strong. It is a mildly disappointing end to an otherwise satisfying meal but not enough to keep me from coming back. There are many more delicious sounding Russian delights that I am keen to sample viz. the Borsch (cold Betroot soup – INR 170), the famous Varennikhy aka Pierogi (Stuffed, boiled dumplings – INR 150), the large variety of Shashlyks (grilled meats/seafood – INR 450-1600) and the famous Chicken a la Kiev (Chicken fillet stuffed with herbed butter and then crumb-fried- INR 345).

Winter Palace is a pretty restaurant, with an indoor as well as outdoor option that would be lovely during the tiny window of pleasant weather Chennai gets at the end of the year. Service is competent and the food has the advantage of being novel as well as well-made. A little more attention to detail could take it from being moderately good to excellent.

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Traditional Wholesome Meets Urban Eclectic

An oasis of calm in our urban jungle, Mahamudra offers up an interesting Vegetarian menu, skillfully combining Traditional and Modern recipes to woo all palates and age-groups! 

It’s taken me two years to get here and all I can say is, better late to the Mahamudra party, than never! Located  in Mylapore, the cultural heart of the city, this fine dining vegetarian restaurant is the brainchild of Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Foundation, or Sadhguru as he is more affectionately known. It is the flagship restaurant of the Foundation and was designed to take forward Sadhguru’s philosophy of a healthy mind living in a healthy body.  However, as Meena Thenaappan (R&D Head- Mahamudra), is quick to point out, the food is healthful, with an accent on traditional recipes,  grains and cooking methods, but not necessarily health food. Sounds good to me!

Pepper Pina and Ging-o-mint
Pepper Pina and Ging-o-mint

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Mahamudra menu, is its refusal to take itself too seriously or be put in a box.  The menu, which is both eclectic and extensive does draw inspiration from traditional South Indian fare but is not restricted to it and has sudden multi-cultural surprises like the Bunny Chow (INR 195), a South African stuffed-bread speciality as well as some fun, fusion food like the Humpty Dumpty (INR 110), mini-idlis topped with sauce, vegetables and cheese (INR 110) and grilled to melted perfection. There is something for everyone, and much to try!

I decide on a tea time visit and start off my journey through the menu with the Pepper Pina (INR 110) a tangy, sweet Pineapple juice that is spiced up with a bit of Tabasco hot pepper sauce.  The sweet and spicy combination, my personal favourite, is refreshing and a tantalising start to the meal.

DSC_0323 (800x530)Next up are the Vazhaipoo Cutlets (INR 90) and these banana-flower delights are everything you want a cutlet to be – crisp, hot and flavourful with the added advantage of being low-carb, in case you’re counting. The Dosa Ballapur (INR 130) with fenugreek leaves and organic turmeric powder added to the batter, is served with a fresh herb green chutney and sambar, and is a crisp, satisfying snack.  This is followed by a plate of Sweet Kozhukottai (INR 85), artistically formed steamed rice dumplings stuffed with a jammy coconut-jaggery filling. The slightly salty casing with the chewy sweet filling is a dreamy match, and I had to force myself to stop with two. The Maddur Vadas (INR 100), the flat disc-shaped vadais from Maddur in Karnataka, made from Rice, Rava and Maida with fine strings of onion are a tad hard and dry but the chutneys they are served with are fresh and flavourful and almost make up for that dryness. I round off my tea time visit with a cup of Masala Chai (INR 45) that is fragrant with spices and made to perfection.

My next visit to Mahamudra, almost embarrassingly soon, is the very next day to try the Navratri Special Menu for lunch. (INR 550 for Adults, INR 300 for Children and INR 445 Plus tax for the Thali.) The generous spread includes  Ragi Thattu Vadais (crisp and onion-y), and Keerai Vadais (soft and delicious), as starters. A mild and soothing Drumstick Soup follows and then a mind boggling  variety of main/side dishes, notable amongst which were the Samai Thayir Sadam (Millet Curd-rice) with Mango Pickle, Godhi Bisi Bela (Bisi Bela Bath made with wheat instead of rice), Chettinad style Vegetable Biriyani with Raita,  Akki Roti and Ragi Roti with Kaalu Saaru (a kind of Lobia Beans Kurma) and a lip-smacking Thogayal (chutney made from Chow-chow peels), apart from salad and assorted accompaniments.  My favourites were the crisp but tender Akki and Ragi Rotis and the perfectly spiced Chettinad Biriyani. We finish off our meal with a piece of Coconut Burfi and a bowl of Pirkingai Payasam that is light and not tooth achingly sweet as many restaurant payasams can be.

Special Navratri Menu Thali
Special Navratri Menu Thali

The food at Mahamudra, unlike most commercial restaurants is low in oil and does not have an overdose of spice. Subtle flavours and an almost home style way of cooking seem to be its trademark. The freshness of the food was evident on both my visits, as was the glorious absence of the ‘restaurant style mother gravy’!

If you’re looking for wholesome food made from quality ingredients, a choice of traditional fare as well as innovative urban cuisine, in surroundings that calm and soothe the soul, look no further.

Mahamudra is here, and here to stay!

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Absolute Thai… Sawadeeka!

For one of the most popular cuisines in the world, it’s surprising that in Chennai, Thai cuisine has had only singular representation in the form of an exclusive restaurant all these years. Fortunately the monopoly is all set to be broken this week, when Absolute Thai moves out of soft-launch phase and opens its doors to hungry Thai-food lovers in the city.

From the Foodies Kitchen, the boys who brought you Sushi in a Box (home-delivered sushi), comes their second and more ambitious venture, Absolute Thai. A stand-alone, exclusive Thai restaurant located in the heart of town, Absolute Thai ticks all the boxes in terms of location, décor, and menu.

Stir-fried prawns with Thai Chilli and Herbs.
Stir-fried prawns with Thai Chilli and Herbs.

Within seconds of being shown to our table, two shot-glasses of an interesting, liquid amuse-bouche (literal translation– mouth amuser)  were placed in front of us. The slightly spicy, somewhat sweet, ginger and lemon drink was a tasty, refreshing palate-tickler. The pictorial menu makes choosing both easier and tougher as everything looks good, so to avoid unnecessary debate and decision-making, we settled on  the Absolute Thai Combo Platter (INR 750) which had 4 pieces each of Royal Money Bags (Vegetarian), Thai Fish Cakes, Chicken Spring Rolls and Prawn Tempura.  Served piping hot with a sweet chilli Sauce, each appetizer was fresh and flavoursome. The Royal Money bags were little pouches of delicate pastry encasing a finely minced and beautifully seasoned filling of crisp but tender veggies. The Tempura Prawns were crumb-fried rather than tempura-battered, but the perfect marriage of crisp, crunchy coating with tender, juicy prawns was delicious! The Chicken Spring Rolls were good, competently executed, but not memorable. The piece de resistance of the platter however were the Thai Fish Cakes, they were light and bursting with flavour.

Water Chestnuts in Coconut Milk
Water Chestnuts in Coconut Milk

By now, we were pretty full but decided to soldier on and order dessert – Thai Coconut Pumpkin Custard (INR 225) and Water Chestnuts in Coconut Milk (INR 175). The custard was smooth and paired with a creamy coconut ice-cream making for a sublime dessert. I enjoyed the Water Chestnut dessert more though- the perfect, soothing end to a spicy, delicious meal.

Absolute Thai showcases the best of Thai food – spicy, sweet, sour and savoury experiences in a multitude of fresh and colourful dishes. It is a long overdue second option for Thai food lovers in the city and I look forward to going back soon.