Chennai Revisited (2)

Christmas in Chennai, and that too a Sunday. I was looking forward to meeting up with a San Diego friend who was visiting his family, and catching up on all the news. Late morning, I found myself at Amethyst, an upscale outdoor cafe cum shopping paradise. An old heritage house with a huge and very beautifully landscaped garden and a couple of fountains, and plenty of outdoor and patio seating, I had heard a lot about this place from friends and also family in the US who had rendezvous-ed there. It lived up to all the hype, and I happily wiled away a number of hours there, both with my friend and then alone, enjoying the ambiance in the actually bearable, decent weather-it was gloomy and windy and not sultry, a rarity for Chennai. The flower store downstairs was small but had lovely fresh flowers, and the jewelry/clothing/accessories and gifts store on the 1st floor was filled with gorgeous stuff, but was frightfully expensive. I managed to walk away empty-handed.

Back at the eatery, I ordered the French Onion Soup and Pear and Gorgonzola salad, with some trepidation, since my previous local experience with French Onion has been blah at best. And no pear I’ve tasted here has had much flavor. Luckily, the soup tasted authentic and was flavorful and fragrant. The salad had excellent blue cheese and was served chilled, but as feared, the pears, while crisp, were completely tasteless. Still, it was an enjoyable time, though I must point out that the service was mediocre and the waiters were extremely uppity. This is a place that is fancy-shmancy and caters to quite a few foreigners, so I was confused as to the blase and barely civil behavior! I had to actually ask for water, and the waiter took his own sweet time reappearing with a bottle (yup, no question of whether I wanted mineral or regular, and oh, no glass either!).

My Sunday night meal was planned well in advance…I had called from Bangalore and made a reservation for Christmas dinner buffet at Sparky’s, the American owned and run diner in Chennai. Not being able to go there for Thanksgiving dinner last month made me super sad, so this was supposed to be the way to make up for that and instill a little Christmas spirit into the proceedings. My friend who was visiting from Singapore (and who used to live in San Diego when I did) was looking forward to this evening, as I had talked it up big time. Well… we hung out and caught up and merrily made our way there for our 7.30pm reservation, only to find the place encased in darkness, firmly and tightly shuttered! The watchman informed us it was a Christmas holiday, which was extremely bewildering to me, since I had called and specifically made a reservation for the 25th. The person on the other end even asked, Xmas Eve or Xmas Day?! To say that I was sore and we were both disappointed is an understatement.

After some major thinking and moaning on my part, we finally ended up at Dynasty, a Chinese restaurant at the Harrison’s Hotel. This is an old Chennai standby that has been around since my childhood and the waiters are all very old world and proper. The food is good ol’ Indian Chinese, and really good. We were lucky to get a table on Christmas, and though the food took a little while to come, it was worth the wait. Plus we managed to keep hunger at bay with mugs of cold beer and a chicken starter item. For dinner, we went old school: Chicken in Black Bean Sauce and Hakka Noodles with chicken. Lots of poultry, yes, but my friend does not eat red meat. Else I would have gone for the Crispy Lamb, which I had the last time I was there and which was divine. The surprising highlight of our meal? Caramel custard! My friend ordered it while I went with date pancakes and ice cream. Thus far, I have not found caramel custard like my mama makes, anywhere outside, in India. So to get it with the right taste, flavor, color, and consistency in Dynasty?! Hello, color me impressed! My friend and I joked that we were being typical Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas-eating Chinese food! But the place had a red and white decor and a cheeriness that made us feel somewhat Christmasy! Our total was Rs. 1100, making it a non-expensive festive meal. All in all, other than the disappointment of missing the decor and feel of Sparky’s, I think I had a most enjoyable Christmas in Chennai…

Ed: Front page picture is from Taste of China, Connaught Place.

Natasha Ali

Natasha's first foray into food writing has been with Chef at Large. Who knew all those years spent eating food, reading about it and looking for the next restaurant to try or watching cooking shows would have left such an indelible impression?! She's back in India after having spent over a decade in the US where she studied as well as taught in academia and now works as a content writer seeing as she can write about pretty much anything. Movie mad, obsessed with the English language, and never one to turn down a glass of good wine, cup of tea, or a good book, she's open to trying any dish once, she enjoys a variety of cuisines with favorites being Ethiopian, Thai, and Lebanese. Natasha covers Bangalore for Chef at Large and can be reached at natasha.ali@www.chefatlarge.in