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Seasonal Tastes, The Westin, Chennai

ITC Grand Chola, The Leela Palace and The Westin have all opened in Chennai during the last six months. The food scene at the five star end therefore, is changing by the minute, which means that there are many more Sunday brunches to be had! This weekend we decided to try the buffet at Seasonal Tastes, at the recently opened Westin in Velachery.

The variety of food at Seasonal Tastes is stupendous! Live stations feature sushi, dimsum, gazpacho, noodles, pastas, roesti and cold stone ice cream. Salads, some cold cuts, a multi-cuisine main course buffet and an eclectic dessert buffet complete the spread on offer.

The staff are courteous and go out of their way to make your meal comfortable, which is appreciated considering that this, after all, is a buffet. We received a complimentary glass of fresh juice as a welcome drink and then made a beeline for the sushi – both nigiri (tuna and salmon) and maki. I don’t complain too much about sushi in buffets because it doesn’t make great commercial sense to include it in such a format, especially nigiri, and at Seasonal Tastes they’d included sashimi too! I just found the taste of the pickled ginger (gari) a bit odd but maybe it was just my mood due to Tendulkar’s dismissal earlier in the morning. From the salad and cold cut counter, the prune stuffed squid stole the show for me. The Gazpacho was fabulous and worked well as a cooling drink with a savory zing. There was a bit of a zing in the chicken hot pot soup as well, which was a nice blend of oriental flavors. I decided not to choose any of the add-on fruits and flavors on offer with the Gazpacho though my wife did try a portion with some orange and liked what she ate. Maybe, I am a traditionalist in such matters. The dimsum were disappointing. I don’t expect all dimsum to be crafted a la Din Tai Fung but poorly sealed casings that were falling apart definitely made these a miss amongst quite a few hits. The chicken tikka and mutton boti kabab were decent though here’s a suggestion that I have made many a times – restaurants in Chennai who want to make paneer tikka should consider making their own paneer.

In the mains section, I thought Seasonal Tastes extended themselves a little too far. They must ensure the presence of extraordinary wizards in the kitchen prior to being to pulling off a kori gassi (a chicken curry from the Mangalore area) and fish kalia (fish in thick onion gravy). The fish kalia was bit of a blend between a kalia and a shorshe fish (fish in mustard sauce); the dish did appear to be a confused one. Most of the other mains were passable per buffet standards. My roesti was slightly burnt and the bacon topping was completely burnt.

Cold stone ice cream is always a fun thing especially for the kids and it didn’t disappoint us in this instance either. The pecan pie was fabulous albeit a bit too sweet. Even the kamal ke phool which was a chhena sweet with malai topping in the shape of a lotus flower could have done with less sugar in the malai, but the chhena was perfect. The same was true of the guava crème caramel which was an interesting concept in terms of flavors but again, a mite too sweet. Um Ali was mildly sweet and along with the chocolate desserts – zuccotto and shot of chocolate with black pepper – demonstrated the variety and quality of the dessert spread, if only they were able to climb down a notch or two on the sweetness scale for a few of their creations. Fig and macadamia Napoleon with decadent crème patisserie sandwiched between crisp pastries stood out among all the other desserts, which says a lot!

At under INR 1500, this is a fabulous buffet spread, perhaps spread a little thin, which shows in some of the dishes.

 Ed: Cover photo not from Seasonal Tastes, The Westin, Velachery, Chennai

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Al Arab, Mylapore,Chennai

After a day at Chepauk watching Sachin Tendulkar in full flow, who was still at crease at the end of the Day 2 of the first India vs. Australia Test match, all I needed was a fabulous dinner to sign off a fulfilling Saturday. Frequent advertisements of Al Arab in The Hindu City supplement featuring a mouthwatering roasted chicken had already gotten me all excited about visiting the place.

I have paid a heavy price for not heeding to Shakespeare’s advice in The Merchant of Venice that appearances are deceptive.

We reached Al Arab, which is located just across the road from the City Center mall; two floors for buffet and two floors for a la carte. I requested the staff to allow us to order from the a la carte menu for the kids but they refused, saying that family as a whole would have to choose either. In no mood to argue we agreed and were told to proceed to the fourth floor. Then elevator wouldn’t budge further from the third floor so we took the staircase instead. There was hope that food will make up for these minor inconveniences.

Once the food arrived, we realized Al Arab was a wannabe Barbecue Nation rather than an Arab specialty restaurant. Now I am not a fan of Barbecue Nation either but concede they serve edible food. Here we were served skewer after skewer of things like tough and chewy paneer, mushrooms that had seen better days before reaching the grill, prawns that appeared to be marinated in what I guess as red chili powder, fish that was falling apart even before being grilled, dry seekh kababs accompanied by shawarama rolls with bitter tasting greens within and hardly any meat.

The main course featured a decent dum biryani and many other non-descript curries made of mutton, chicken and veggies. A very unappetizing dessert spread with cakes and pastries of different colours and flavours with hardly any Arab or Middle Eastern character to them. Something that tasted like a runnier version of a fruit phirni with mango being the predominant flavor is what I considered slightly above the threshold of ‘edible’.

When I came out I realized that Al Arab to be a very popular place with more than a dozen people waiting to get in. Maybe the Rs. 495 price tag attracted as them as one can really eat one’s fill of meat for that price. But since I am past the ‘hog till you die’ stage of my life, I wouldn’t consider visiting Al Arab again if possible, and would even feel embarrassed to be identified with the crowd that patronises a restaurant with such poor quality of food.

Even an early dismissal of Sachin the next day when I just had travelled 35 kms to watch him resume his innings, didn’t leave as bad a taste in the mouth as the food at Al Arab did.

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Zaica, Cathedral Road, Chennai

I am not sure how popular Zaica is, considering it is next to a Chennai favourite – Copper Chimney – but it is certainly a value for money offering for North Indian (Punjabi / Muslim) food. Considering there are so few of them in Chennai meeting basic thresholds (Simar, Copper Chimney, Kipling Masala are some others), Zaica is certainly worth a try.

The kabab with chicken marinated in cream was the best. Fortunately, their tandoori chicken isn’t served bright red in color, another problem I have with some of the restaurants in the city. I liked the paneer tikka as well which was soft and mildly spiced. I wish other restaurants in Chennai make their paneer in-house as commercially available paneer in city is just too tough. Veg tikki was tasty so was the veg seekh kabab which due to use of paneer in it did not taste as dry in the mouth as many veg seekh kababs do. Fish fry was simple batter fried fish, something the kids loved. Galauati kabab had a lot more chili and pepper than I would prefer but it’s texture was right and the flavours, besides the chili heat, perfectly balanced. Ulte tawe ka paratha was flakier than supple – something of a cross between ulte tawe ka paratha and Lucknowi kulcha (which is flaky, more like a mille-feuille than a naan)

During one of my visits, as part of a festival, they had a live chaat counter. Pani for pani poori reminded me of gol gappe from my native place. So, a thumbs-up for the cook at the counter.

Other than the biriyani, mains didn’t meet the standards of the kababs. Do-pyaaza is something most restaurants that assemble a sauce and meat shouldn’t try and certainly not with prawns which would cook too quickly for onions to be caramalised and come to the consistency of a sauce. I don’t think any of the vegetarian or non-vegetarian curries were such that I would include them in my ‘to eat’ list. They weren’t a letdown either, other than the methi chicken that can be included in the ‘letdown’ category as I couldn’t taste the methi (fenugreek) at all which is surprising considering how strong the flavor of fenugreek is. But the dum biriyani was superb; delicately flavoured and aromatic, smelling of saffron with some visible strands on top.

I ate jalebi during one of my visits and it was crisp, appropriately sweetened but with a slightly sour after taste. The kheer needed the milk to have been cooked slightly longer so the thickening wasn’t because of the starch in the rice but due to condensation of milk. If you have to have a dessert, I would recommend the gulab jamun.

Zaica has a reasonably priced buffet for lunch from Monday through Saturday too.

Ed: Cover photo is not from Zaica, Chennai.

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Kolkata Q, T. Nagar, Chennai

Kolkata Q is housed in Hotel Ganga International, just off the Bazullah Road and Usman Road junction, at the foot of a flyover; the location isn’t great.  Heavy brass glasses give it a upmarket feel  but the plastic flowers more than moderate that impact. You can see the wash basins in the corner from most of the tables. But you are not here for the location or the ambience as this is not fine dining in Colaba or Connaught Place.

Now to the business end – the food. Kolkata Q is essentially a thali restaurant with some options to order a la carte. Vegetarian and non-vegatarian thali, both, come with dal, chorchori, posto, aloor dum, aloo-potol, aloo bhaja, begun bhaja  and loochi. The dal is tasty while curries have a home-made taste to them. Jhinge posto (ridged gourd in poppy seed paste) was nice and as was the chorchori (mixed vegetable), spices and oil, both used conservatively. Aloor dum (potato curry) and aloo-potol (potato and pointed gourd curry) were two curries with gravy. Onion and tomato based gravy with a sweet-tangy flavor went very well with loochi (pooris made with refined flour). I am not sure about the freshness of the potol/parwal but I know how difficult it is to find fresh potol in Chennai, so can’t blame the restaurant much. Begun bhaja was a bit a bland and less than warm when I had it but it could be a one-off. I also felt some of curries could have done with some more mustard oil as they lacked punch – maybe, having grown up on food cooked in mustard oil, I have greater fascination for its taste than most others would. The vegetarian thali had dhokar dalna (gram flour dumplings in a gravy) which received a nod of approval from my wife.

The non-vegetarian thali also included a single piece of machh bhaja (fried fish; katla, a fish similar to Rohu and from the Carp family), gurjali shorshe (a mackerel sized fish in mustard paste) and chicken kasa (chicken in onion-tomato gravy). On machh bhaja, my complaint is with the portion – one small piece in a thali made me want more and we ordered additional plates from the menu (which at Rs. 250 for two pieces isn’t cheap). Chicken kasa was the perfect foil for the loochi, but surprisingly, the mutton kasa, which I ordered a la carte, was a let down.  Mutton wasn’t tender and seemed to have been assembled with the gravy on order, a practice more common with Punjabi restaurants. They serve ilish (hilsa) as well, and claim to have the fish flown in from Kolkata every alternate day.

As I had the dal and rice with aloo bhaja (fried potato juliennes), I missed sweet chutney so integral to some of the Bengali meals I remember. To my surprise, the chutney came with the dessert course. Misti doi (sweet curd) was not overly sweet and like most curries here, had a home-made taste to it. In fact it was not even set in the bowl it was served in – something most Bengali restaurants do.  Gulab jamun was the other dish in the course.

For Rs. 300 for a vegetarian thali and Rs. 450 for a non-vegetarian thali, all inclusive, this is a real value for money meal. The Chef is from Bengal who was last purveying his wares in Singapore. Singapore’s loss is Chennai’s gain as it is a welcome addition to the Chennai food scene, that’s if you manage to reach this place.

Ed: Cover photo not from Kolkata Q.

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Copper Chimney, Dr Radha Krishnan Salai, Chennai

My hunt for the best naan-roti-makhani restaurant in Chennai goes on. So I decided to revisit Copper Chimney, one of the most popular restaurants in this genre.

We ordered boti kabab and paneer tikka to start with along with a tomato soup for the kids to share. We don’t take soft, creamy paneer for granted in Chennai, so the tikka scored highly on this count. They used one of the creamy marinades for the tikka rather than the chilli-turmeric variety. Boti kabab was appropriately tenderized and flavourful enough that I asked for a roomali roti to wipe the sauce off. Tomato soups in most restaurants appear to be of standard make, thick and creamy with croutons.

We erred with our main course and that is where the service failed. We ordered Channa Peshawari and Dum Aloo, both of which turned out to have been with similar sauce/gravy. The person who took our order should, ideally, have pointed this out to us. Dum Aloo had large pieces of potato stuffed with paneer in something like a thick version of makhani sauce. I don’t know the provenance of such a Dum Aloo – the Kashmiri version has a thinner sauce and the UP version (branded a Dum Aloo Banarasi in many restaurants) isn’t so complicated. Still, it passed the taste test. The channa failed miserably. For me channa (chickpeas/garbanzo beans) just doesn’t go well with the makhani sauce. The breads – garlic naan, butter naan, roomali roti and lachchha paratha were all well made. Many good restaurants do the lachchha paratha with whole wheat flour but this was either maida or a very refined form of atta. I also ordered a mutton dum biriyani which was neither Awadhi nor Hyderabadi but closer to the ones sold in Delhi as ‘achaari biriyani’ using tomato as an additional ingredient for the sourness and chilli-heat than the Awadhi biriyani.

We finished off our meal with sevaiyon ka muzaffar and kulfi. While the savaiyon ka muzaffar was different from Awadhi original which has a lot more vermicelli, this one was essentially rabdi to which some fried vermicelli was added. The taste was fabulous; largely due to the quality of the rabdi and it would be pedantic to go into its authenticity. Kulfi was also nice and creamy though kept at few degrees lower than it ought to have been. This was not a cheap meal and the dishes were a bit of a hit and miss.

Ed: Cover photo from Cafe On 3, Doubletree by Hilton, New Delhi-NOIDA-Mayur Vihar.

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Peshawari, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai

Peshawari, as many would know, is Bukhara by a different name. Bukhara at ITC Maurya in New Delhi is loved and loathed in equal measure, but with its status in the upper echelons of Indian restaurants, it cannot be ignored. Even the ITC group which has converted Dakshin, Dum Pukht, Kebabs & Kurries etc. into chains of restaurants across its properties, calls its other tandoor-based restaurants Peshawari, ostensibly to avoid dilution of the Bukhara brand. Having eaten at Peshawari at ITC Mughal in Agra and ITC Maratha in Mumbai, I was impressed by the consistency of their décor, food and service, till I had a very disappointing meal at the Peshawari at the Chola Sheraton in Chennai.

So, it was with a great deal of skepticism that I decided to host guests at the newly opened Peshawari at ITC Grand Chola. The welcome extended to us was warm and the staff were well informed, which made things a little easier for me. Then the Tandoori Jhinga won over each of us. Some praise was so exaggerated that I am reluctant to quote them for fear this review sound ‘fixed’. Subtly applied flavours allowed the freshness of the prawns and perfect grilling to shine through. Sikandari Raan is usually a part of my standard order, at least on days when I can afford it without breaking the bank. It did not disappoint on this occasion, just that the huge portion served needs a few helping hands (or mouths!) to finish it. Seekh Kebab was ordinary and nothing better than what one can get at dozens of places in Delhi. The mutton barrah was fabulous; char grilled but not to the extent of being burnt as sometimes happens at Karim’s, another place that’s famous for its barrah. I was impressed by the chicken reshmi kabab. In trying to prove that meat is ‘succulent’ there is an increasing tendency to go overboard with tenderizers. Here however, the chicken hadn’t turned into mush as is usually the case.

Even as I was gorging on the meats, past experience reminded me not to miss the paneer tikkas and they didn’t disappoint either. ‘Fried+grilled’ cooking of Tandoori Phool gives cauliflower a unique flavor and texture and is possibly the best bet for vegetarians. Still, in spite of the best efforts of the chef, the vegetarian menu at Peshawari will always come across to me, as an afterthought.

The breads were alright with the Pudina Paratha better than the others we ordered. The kitchen wasn’t yet geared up to serve the Naan Bukhara which I find to be a touristy gimmick in any case. There’s enough written about Dal Bukhara already so I will just add that with all those kebabs on the table, it isn’t a bad option to dip your naan into.

We hardly had any appetite left for desserts but as an Awadhi national, I fell for the I am from Kanpur and trust me that the gulab jamun here is superb sales pitch of our waiter. The stuffed dumplings were melt in mouth soft, and so not a bad recommendation but never forget, it is meat from the tandoor you are in Peshawari for.

Does Peshawari have the best tandoori chicken, the best mutton barrah, the best raan etc.? The answer is an emphatic No. But is there any other place which does all of these really well and as consistently? The answer again is No.

Ed: Cover photo not from Peshawari, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai.

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Bay View, Vivanta by Taj – Fisherman’s Cove, Chennai

I ceased being a fan of the highly popular Bay View at Fisherman’s Cove many years back. In fact, I prefer Upper Deck, a Mediterranean restaurant at the same resort. Since Upper Deck is closed on Mondays, the five of us decided to dine at the Bay View. A view of the full moon floodlighting the Bay of Bengal greeted us and we instantly knew the food isn’t necessarily what everyone was here for.

Our meal started with one disaster after another. We were served Seafood Fritti Martini, batter fried seafood, which we hadn’t ordered. It turned out to be the only dish with passing grades in our first course. Bouillabaisse with tender coconut water sounded interesting in the description but turned out to be flavourless. Similar was the case with the grilled prawns where the fresh prawns were let down by the lack of flavor and seasoning. The grilled calamari more than compensated for the bland prawns; they came drenched in red chilli paste and tasted overwhelmingly of raw red chilli powder. The platter of vegetarian starters wasn’t even half finished by the vegetarians giving it a unanimous vote of no-confidence.

The mains were far better. Fish manga charu was the show stealer with the tanginess of raw mangoes in perfect balance with the sweetness of coconut milk. The Prawn moilee was good and so was the lady’s finger curry. Flaky parathas, fluffy idiappams and rice all were duly employed to polish it all off with another portion of fish manga charu promptly ordered. The grilled ‘fish of the day’ ordered by one of the diners was a letdown, though, with the raw chilli paste of the calamari making a repeat appearance in this dish.I should clarify here that even when the dishes were not executed well, the freshness of the seafood was never in doubt.

 

[quote type=”center”]even when the dishes were not executed well, the freshness of the seafood was never in doubt.[/quote]

 

The chef came over to apologize but emphasized that the marinade/rub was fresh and authentic.

While we were preparing to order dessert we were served kulfis with compliments from the chef. This was the best kulfi I’ve eaten south of the Vindhyas and possibly the best ever dish served gratis.

Would I visit Bay View again? Yes for the view and sea breeze and I’ll stick to the curries next time.

Ed: Cover photo not from Bay View, Fisherman’s Cove.

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The Madras Pavilion, ITC Grand Chola, Guindy, Chennai

ITC Grand Chola has the potential to change the culinary landscape of Chennai with its half a dozen eateries. As of now, only three have opened – Café Mercara (coffee shop), Madras Pavilion (multi-cuisine buffet restaurant) and Peshawari. Not keen on the coffee shop and worried about carryover of Peshawari quality from the old Chola Sheraton, I chose Madras Pavilion for my lunch. (I bumped into Chef Manjit Gill of Bukhara fame during my lunch, who assured me that the Peshawari at Grand Chola has kitchen staff from Bukhara and would meet the same standards).

Madras Pavilion has the look of an expensive, upmarket restaurant but once full it felt a bit crowded. That it was full so early in its life must be a delight for the hotel. The staff were very friendly and efficient.

For me the pièce de résistance was the charcuterie. Speck and Parma ham along with Milano and Napoli salami were good enough for me to make a second trip to the cold cuts counter. The salad counter alongside it had a variety of hummus, olives and fresh mozzarella of superior quality.

Chicken dumpling soup with soft chicken balls in lemon grass flavoured clear broth was light and flavourful. Good enough that I would have ordered it for an a la carte dinner.

There was a central live station dishing out something that looked like aloo tikkis which I didn’t taste and superb, plump, juicy prawns with wasabi. Like in most buffets, the ‘roast’ has a pride of place here as well and the roasted leg of lamb didn’t disappoint. The buffet included chaats which I gave a miss.

The mains have four sections – Oriental, North Indian, International and South Indian (that’s my description; the restaurant may have described it differently). Vegetable noodles and fried chicken dunked in a sauce would have fitted better with the buffet at your neighbourhood Chinese. Disappointing. The International section wasn’t much better. No classy restaurant should have pasta on a buffet (unless there is a dedicated live station) as it starts to dry out very quickly. Chicken dum biriyani is the best I have had in Chennai, and you can choose any of four types of raitas as an accompaniment – I went for the burani. Paneer makhani and mutton qorma were perfectly done. Indian breads included tandoori roti and naan, neither of which went well with the qorma but I loved it nevertheless. The south Indian mains section had a mutton biryani, a chicken and a mutton curry, half a dozen other dishes including rasam along with poppadoms and pickles. Puli-sadam got passing marks from my Iyengar wife with an expected qualifier ‘it is no match for an Iyengar puliyogare’. Due to the strong flavours in this section, it is best to keep it for last.

Desserts were a bit of a hit and miss. The White chocolate fountain is sure to appeal kids and many parents while the Kheer was disappointing; something that we in Awadh dismissively call  doodh-bhaat (rice and milk). Maybe the Peshawari staff should lend a hand with the Indian desserts. The Profiterole were tasty and sinful as only profiteroles can be. Among the assorted cakes and tarts, I particularly liked the honey and nut tart.

It must be years since I had a mocktail, but I loved the kiwi fruit mocktail on offer and even asked for a couple of refills.

At under Rs. 1500, this is quality food. The spread may not be as lavish as some other buffets, with fewer live counters and limited seafood, but makes up with quality ingredients. If some chinks can be ironed out, it is certainly worth a visit, or two!

Roast Leg of Lamb
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Burgundy’s, Santhome, Chennai

The concept of an all day buffet restaurant isn’t very popular in India but with our penchant for ‘all you can eat’ buffets, it’s time has probably come. Burgundy’s in the upmarket neighbourhood of MRC Nagar, is a restaurant that follows this concept.

Burgundy’s comes from house of Vipin Sachdev  and Chef Willi who also manage Kryptos, a Greek restaurant and two Tuscana outlets, is housed in the same building as Somerset  Greenways Apartments (close to the new Leela Hotel)  that also has a bar and a proposed Chinese restaurant.

Diners are welcomed at the entrance with coconut water to encounter the lavish spread within. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian salads form two ends of the buffet and include some interesting dips. The hummus would do any specialty restaurant proud. Salads also pass muster. The central spread has soups at two ends, a live appam counter and a grill station in the center. Beef, chicken and seafood are offered from the grill. During our first visit, we had the option of choosing our seafood and then having it grilled to order with marinades of our choice. The grills were a disappointment during our second trip with pre-marinated seafood, mostly with very spicy marinades. What was more irritating was that they refused to do a simple grill with olive oil and salt for my son who loves seafood but doesn’t eat spicy food. Appams are nice and accompanied by sweetened coconut milk, they also form the perfect dessert for me.

Pizzas are amongst the best I have eaten at a buffet. Having eaten at the two Tuscana restaurants, I think Chef Willi has done a commendable job in standardizing the quality of pizzas. Unfortunately, their oven wasn’t working during our second trip and lack of regret or an apology was a bit unprofessional.

I generally give the curries, biriyanis and some baked dishes a pass and having tasted bits and pieces, I don’t think I have lost out on much. Shawarama and sushi extend the multi-cuisine theme. The sushi is mostly rolls of average quality and one shouldn’t expect nigiris in a moderately priced buffet. The shawaramas was decent with even the bread baked freshly in their pizza oven. Dessert spread is similar to what you would find at most 4-star buffets. Burgundy’s also has a good choice of ice creams.

Good spacious interiors,  a lawn outside and a small play area to keep the kids occupied, priced at about Rs. 1000, Burgundy’s is good option for a leisurely weekend lunch.