If there ever was a model restaurant city in India, it would have to be Chennai. It has always been thought of as uber traditional, but in the last three years, the number of hotels, their grandeur and the sheer wealth of food and beverage concepts puts every other city in India to shame. One reason could be that all Chennai’s hotels are new and they showcase the very latest trends. By comparison, hotels in, say, Bangalore or Mumbai have hotels whose concepts date back ten years and more.
The Leela Palace, ITC Grand Chola and Park Hyatt being among the newest hotels in the city, have some of the most stunning restaurants. For sheer dramatics and dynamism – if one can use the term in connection with a restaurant – The Flying Elephant will be a tough act to follow. The whole Park Hyatt Chennai has a rather charming back-story, with some part of the hotel being considered the domain of the old parents, the gym and spa being the realm of the fitness-minded daughter and The Flying Elephant the purview of the son. It so happens that art has followed life, and indeed the son, whose name is Amit Mahtaney majored in Theatre Studies at Duke University, North Carolina. The upshot is that The Flying Elephant is as much drama as it is dining. Though it has a lift to connect all the floors, it’s a good idea to walk the ramp that connects all levels, from the sunken bar to the semi-private den. All the elements of the restaurant are more or less as they would be in a bachelor’s pad, except for the plethora of grills and ovens. There is a tandoor, a robata grill, a pizza oven and a vertical spit for Turkish street food. The whole idea of this eclectic menu is to have variety within a specialization, so along with succulent roast ribs, there’s an extremely authentic version of Indonesian rendang too.
Chennai is not primarily a wine drinking city: straight drinks are more the scene. “That’s why the wine list for The Flying Elephant includes easy drinking labels from the New World,” explains the Food and Beverage team. “We intend to have a series of wine dinners with the wine makers, the better to explain to our guests about the variations within the regions.”
You will see wine on the menu at ITC Grand Chola’s path-breaking all-vegetarian restaurant Royal Vega, but more than that you’ll see port and sherry! “Once we have our stocks completed, we hope to have an inventory of over 30 labels of various labels and vintages of ports and sherries,” says Samir Pandita, EAM Food and Beverage of this enormous hotel.
Royal Vega is an emerging new trend of which it is the most high-profile: the all-vegetarian restaurant in a luxury hotel. Hitherto, every restaurant in the country has had a component of vegetarian dishes. Those eateries that serve vegetarian food tended to be grouped around the lower end of the market, like the snacks at a sweetshop. Never before was cognizance taken of the sentiments of many of the captains of Indian industry who eat no meat whatsoever through their lives – there were no dedicated vegetarian restaurants for them at the luxury end of the scale.
That is why the conceptualization of Royal Vega (soon to be replicated in other cities as well) is such a game changer. The restaurant is the most glamorous and well-appointed of all those in the ITC stable. Antique look-alikes adorn glass cupboards at the entrance of the restaurant and the air of grandeur associated with royalty is palpable. No detail is too small to be lavished over: the cloche that covers each dish is reminiscent of a turban, complete with bejewelled aigrette, except that it is made of metal. The runners that bring the order to each table do so with an enormous metal tray with intricate bas-relief.
The menu has a pan Indian representation and most, if not all, the ingredients are used in Ancient India. “We have a dish on the menu that has gone on to become a best-seller,” announces Executive Corporate Chef Manjit Gill proudly. “It is Shatwari Poorva and because shatwari is the Sanskrit name for asparagus, we know that the vegetable was used in ancient times.” Some of this wisdom is hardly known to the regular diner; other lentil-based dishes will be more familiar. Speaking for myself, I can scarcely make the connection between a vegetable that has come to symbolize modern European plate decoration and medicinal usage in ancient India.
Royal Vega stands for all that is luxurious in fine dining and some of its philosophies may never even reach the diner, such as the decision to employ only vegetarian chefs in its kitchens “So that they understand the nuances of this type of food” says Chef Gill. I can hardly wait to return to sample some of the sherries with my Maharaja Thali.
Leela Palace Chennai is the only one of the hotels in the city to face the sea. There’s no denying that on a hot summer’s day, the sight of the sparkling blue sea does at least as much to lower the temperature as the hotel’s air-conditioning system does. The hotel boasts of a large airy cake shop with irresistible displays, an Indian restaurant – the Leela brand Jamawar, the multi-station Spectra and a Chinese restaurant, China XO. The presiding chef in China XO is Jovi Cheng from Hong Kong, which more or less gives away the menu for the restaurant! Through the length of all the islands that make up Hong Kong, seafood, optimally cooked, is the star of the show. It is no different in China XO where the fragrance of Hong Kong’s signature XO sauce wafts around the restaurant. Though it is made with dried seafood (shrimp roe, scallops, chillies, garlic and several other strongly flavoured ingredients) it doesn’t overpower.
Chef Cheng’s signatures include a full-bodied Scallop with XO sauce, teriyaki prawns on ginger-soy sauce, crisp pork belly and Fukkien crabmeat fried rice topped with seafood stew that is guaranteed to transport you to the back lanes of Wanchai in Hong Kong, so pure is its taste. For at least some months in the year, the sea-facing alfresco dining of the restaurant will be open so that its similarity to Hong Kong is heightened.
The general consensus among the food and beverage fraternity in Chennai is that the city is divided into two: travellers from overseas – whether tourists or business travellers – order wine without being prompted to do so. Locals, on the other hand, have been drinking whisky and cognac with their meals. White spirits, wine and cocktails are only now beginning to make their mark. Says G Subba Raman, Restaurant Manager and in charge of the beverage and wine portfolio of Leela Palace Chennai, “Our local guests do not cavil at spending Rs 1,500 per glass on wine with the food; it is more a question of switching over from straights to wine with the meal.” The hotel is attempting to break out of the chicken-and-egg situation of exposing the guests to only entry-level wines by the glass by having Enomatic wine dispensers. “That way, we can offer our guests fine wines by the glass from, say, Burgundy, yet maintain them in a non-perish environment for upto ten days.”
In conclusion, one can recount the famous marketing guru’s story about two salesmen from rival shoe companies who were sent on a scouting mission to a remote island. The first one returned in disgust after two days because the “natives don’t wear footwear”. The second one stayed on for a week and then sent a flurry of emails to headquarters “Send 200,000 pairs of slippers asap. Virgin market just discovered”