Sunday, February 13, 2011

Christmas Cake in Chennai

This article was published in the Hindu (Retail Plus) on December 19, 2010:

The Christmas season is rolling around yet again, snowballing us with an overdose of Christmas decorations, gifts and general merriment. It is also that time of the year when the Christmas cake is prominently displayed in all bakeries across town, from the local Iyengar bakery down the road to sophisticated cake shops in plush hotels. Deciding that it was time to separate the plums from the raisins, I took upon myself the task of figuring out the best Christmas cakes in town. Weighed down by this chore, and massive amounts of cake, I recruited the help of a few friends. We purchased plum cakes from a few bakeries across town to sample the variety on offer.

La Chocolate Patisserie (Rs.300/500gms): The presentation of this cake (with colourful, and over-the-top, icing) will definitely appeal to the little kid in most people. This cake had good, tart plums which hit just the right spot. The nuts that they used were blended perfectly and added to the texture of the cake. However, the cake could have been richer and added more spice. The icing was a tad too sweet.

Sandy's Chocolate Laboratory(Rs.414/500gms): Sandy's interpretation of the Christmas cake was by far the most interesting. Served with a lovely mascarpone sauce, this light cake had a wonderful spicy aftertaste (which is unusual for most cakes). The cake wasn't as rich and I'm not sure whether the sauce, as lovely as it was, was the perfect complement but somehow it all came together and worked well. This was my personal favourite but if you are looking for a traditional cake, then you should give this the miss. If you want to try something different, then head right over.

Cake Walk(Rs.275/500 gms.): This one is for those with an extreme sweet tooth. This tasted more like fruit cake and was a little too sweet for my liking. It lacked the subtle spice flavour that sets apart great plum cakes. But the texture was great and the cake was nice and rich.

French Loaf (Rs. 249/500gms): Dark, soft and sinuous: this is how God intended plum cake to be. Everything from the smell to the taste was spot on in this one. The cake was dense, rich and not overpoweringly sweet. The distinct taste of spice and alcohol was my favourite bit. If you are looking for good, traditional plum cake that brings back warm memories and makes you feel good inside, then head towards French Loaf.

Of course, all this cake consumption was definitely bad news for my waistline and weight loss efforts.
Have a very merry Christmas and see you next year!
Sandy's is on 42303852; call La Chocolate Pattiserie on 42148183, Cake Walk on 24917022 and French Loaf on 45000779.


Burmese Noodles in Georgetown

This article was published in the Hindu (Retail Plus) on December 5, 2010.

Just when I think I know all of Chennai's secrets, the city springs up another one and delights me all over again. I recently learnt of the existence of Burmese street food in Chennai. Deciding that it was time to sample the same, a few friends and I ventured into Chennai's underbelly. Led by a veteran foodie, we marched into the seedy lanes behind the Madras High Court.

As you walk into 2nd Line Beach Road it is impossible to miss the numerous food carts surrounded by hordes of people standing and wolfing down noodle-based dishes. We walked to the very end, right in front of Indian Bank, to visit what our host indicated was his favourite noodle cart.

Our stomachs indicated noisily that it was time to get eating and we were more than eager to comply. To begin with, we ordered the Atho. These consist of boiled noodles cooked with spices, shredded cabbage and onions. To give the dish a crunchy feel, pejio or otta vadai - a perforated, fried pappad type condiment is added to the noodles. The noodles were soggier than what I expected and a little bland but tasted good.

However, to truly relish the noodles have it with the soup. There is a steaming vat of soup from which you can serve yourself. Submerge the noodles in this hot, plantain stem soup and enjoy, very like a Khow Suey. While the soup is traditionally flavoured with dried fish, the vendors here have modified it to account for local tastes. They also serve fried noodles, simply referred to as Fry. The boiled white noodles or Moinju are fried with egg batter and spices. Shredded cabbage and other veggies are later added. It is spicier than the Atho. Again, try this with the plantain-stem soup.

The other interesting dish to try here consists of pani-puri type eggs. Boiled eggs are topped with fried onions, a little oil, salt and pepper. The eggs are to be eaten in a single gulp, quite like golgappas. It's definitely a novel way of having an otherwise common dish. The quantities are quite generous. Thankfully, the vendors give you the option of ordering a half portion.

Having satisfied the monsters in my tummy, I turned to ask the obvious question: How did traditional Burmese noodles find their way to street carts in faraway Madras? The answer takes us to pre-independent times. Many Tamils were settled in Burma then and slowly emigrated back here after Independence and the military coup of 1962(much to my surprise I discovered that my great grandparents made this journey too).
The street cart vendors say they are descendants of these Indian-Burmese who brought with them such culinary delights. Some of the vendors have been around for nearly 30 years while others have been in business only for a couple of years.

The next time you are in Georgetown and have a craving for the singular joy that only greasy street food can provide, I suggest you head down to 2nd Line Beach Road and sample some Atho. Those who are excessively worried about hygiene should give this the miss. The area is crowded and it may be best if you go here in a group.

The vendors are extremely friendly and will do their best to modify the dish to suit your personal preference. While you are here, also take a moment to admire the gorgeous view afforded by the lit-up High Court. It is quite breathtaking.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Kryptos by Willi

The idea of a Greek restaurant in Chennai has been the cause of much excitement in my life (says a lot about my life, doesn't it?) and I have frequented this place quite a bit. True to its name, Kryptos (the hidden one) is tucked away in a basement on Khader Nawaz Khan Road. The ambiance is cozy and the warm not-so-bright lighting complements the mood of the place. I like the understated decor.

For starters, I recommend you try the Warm Meze dishes. Cheese lovers will like the Tiropitakia: a small phylo pastry filled with different types of cheese (Rs. 280). While I am generally wary of pumpkin based dishes, the Kalitsounia (Rs. 300) (pastries with a filling of ricotta cheese and pumpkin) was surprisingly good. It had the right sweet-sour mix. My favourite however is the Eliotes (Rs.250)an olive filled phylo pastry. The salty, tangy flavour was spot on and quite unlike any of the other starters. All of these are served with aubergine crisps (like the tamil 'varuvals') and tzatziki dip.

In the main course you can choose from Gyros, Souvlakis and many other traditional Greek dishes whose spelling I shall not butcher. If you are looking for something uncomplicated and filling, then the Gyros (Rs.450-520) are the way to go. These sandwich wraps (the mispronunciation of which led to the American hero sandwiches) filled with meat/veggies, fries, a little salad and generous helpings of tzatziki sauce are a good lunch option. Caveat: they can get messy.

However, when I do make the trip to Kryptos I prefer to order something more indulgent. Grumpu had the Grilled Haloumi Skewers (Rs.580) last time and quite enjoyed it. The sweet peppers stuffed with rice, pine nut and spices (or as they like to call it, the Domates Piperies) has a distinct tangy-tomato flavour and is one of my favourites. I love brinjals and consequently, love the Imam Bayildi (Rs. 450)(slow cooked aubergines with oil, spices and other good things). If you are looking for something healthy (and given my burgeoning waistline, I should be :( ) try the Spanakopitta (Rs.520) : phylo pastry filled with spinach and with barely a hint of oil. They also have a Cold Mezze (Rs.450) buffet in the evenings which is a good value for money option.

Quantities at Kryptos are fairly good and should leave you satisfied. However, don't leave quite yet. My favourite dish here has to be the Baklava (Rs.180). I never leave without ordering this sweet, nut and syrup filled pastry and neither should you. The Kryptos version avoids the sticky-sweetness and dripping-syrup to which so many other baklavas fall prey and for this I am very thankful.

Kryptos definitely livens up the Chennai eating scene. Between you and me, I prefer Kryptos to its much adored cousin: Tuscana. However, quite like most good things in life, it is a tad on the expensive side. So be prepared to loosen those purse strings.

Pricing: Rs. 1200 - 1400 for a meal for two
Location: No.24, Khadar Nawaz Road , Nungambakkam, Chennai