The dismal 'eating-out scene' in Chennai when it was Madras has distinctly changed for the better though there is much scope for improvement, to put it mildly. There is still a tendency to make red, brown or beige heavy 'curries' all tasting the same but with ponderous names like Gosht Lajawab and Murgh Gulbahar--names that leave you in the dark about the taste, colour or flavour of the dish except for its overcooked protein content.
So if this review appears a trifle over-critical, rest assured it is not--though it is necessarily a subjective stroll through the mine-field of overspiced, over-hyped, over-cooked gastronomic delights or otherwise, with memories of Eno's Fruitsalt, Gelusil and sleepless nights induced by over-indulgence.
Really good food in a restaurant is a memory that stays with you for many years, not necessarily in five-star hotels -- my best memories are those of Pindi Restaurant, Kake-da-Hotel, Kareems of Jama Masjid and Standard at Regal, all from Delhi -- and regrettably I have never managed to duplicate those memories (nay, emotions) of years long gone, in Chennai.
However, with some diligence and ferreting, it is possible to find reasonable places to eat in Chennai. I will describe them geographically, starting with those which are closest to my workplace at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences.
What follows below is, as I have already stressed above, a necessarily subjective (and biased!) view of the eating out 'scene' in Chennai aka Madras. You are welcome to disagree with me but don't tell me about it. However, if you do find a first class eating place, do tell me and I will include it in the next update after checking it out.
For vegetarians and those who like a taste of the South, Adyar has some good south Indian vegetarian places.
Ramprasad in Kasturba Nagar (take a right at the Ceebros traffic light and go about half a km) is a reasonable place for standard South Indian fare like thalis and idlis and dosas and vadas. The food quality is variable and the prices will set you back about Rs. 150-200 for two.
Vaigai Woodlands (formerly Adyar Woodlands) at Adyar junction has some of the best Rava idlis and idlis in this part of town but their A/C 'Hall' is dark, dingy and pretty depressing. Don't go there if you are fussy about ambience. However, you can't beat their idlis and coffee.
Sangeetha next to the Odyssey bookstore is also a great place for good vegetarian food, thalis and snacks and south Indian coffee that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
A similar place is Vasanta Bhavan on Lattice Bridge Road which, I am told, serves decent South Indian snacks and coffee. No personal experience though.
Sanjeevanam on First Avenue Indira Nagar is a pure vegetarian
place with loads of attitude where food is served acoording to strict
Ayurvedic precepts. It's best to take their thali and allow them to
offer you a series of cooked and raw vegetables, salads, ending with red
(unpolished) rice and sambar. You will also get a running commentary about
how these foods have been properly balanced to do your gastric system
(nay, your whole system) a world of good. It's well organised enough to
make you feel like you are already glowing with health by the time you
finish. Not a bad place to take (vegetarian) visitors though.
Ascendas Planet Yumm Food Court: One of the more recent additions to the Tidel Park/CPT campus area, this is a nice food court offering Chinese, Kerala, North and South Indian food, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut etc., along with a fresh juicesi, chaats and coffee parlour. It's run by the same group (Oriental Cuisines) that runs the Planet Yumm in Besant Nagar beach. Take the first right after you pass Tidel (coming from Madhya Kailash) and you will see the huge Ascendas software complex. The food court is inside and is open to outsiders.
Kwality Riviera and Aditya are two restaurants offering generic North Indian/Punjabi fare. In addition Aditya also has a bar.
Food-wise, Kwality Riviera is distinctly superior and offers a no-nonsense Punjabi/Tandoori menu which is good, wholesome and cheap. Dinner for two will set you back about Rs. 250.
Aditya also has a bar called the Black Pearl but it's best to sit at the restaurant and order your drink. This is, in fact, the closest watering hole to the institute.
Another is called, unbelievably, Shastri Nagar Sharks (no, I am not kidding!) and is just a bit less depressing and sleazy than Black Pearl.
What is it that makes 'bars' in Chennai dark, dingy depressing places -- something left over from the old 'speakeasy' days of Prohibition America! Some deep-seated guilt-ridden complex!
On first Main Road, Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, just behind the Bus Terminus a little way up from Food World is Kumarokam, a proper Kerala place with everything from Puttu, Fish Moilee, Appams, Karimeen Fry, Karimeen Pollichatthu and so on -- cheap and good, though they tend to make their Moilee a bit sweet.
Watch out though when the owner takes the mike and starts belting out old Hindi film songs ! He has a pleasant baritone (I suspect he doesn't sing them at all -- just lip-syncs) but the place has neither the ambience nor the space for this kind of entertainment. Prices in the range of about Rs. 200-250 for two. (There is now a 'branch' at Velacheri, past the Vijaynagar bus terminus).
Next to it in the basement below Nuts and Spices is Daawat (Mr. G alas is no more) serving generic India food including kebabs and curries. Very mediocre and last time we were there they had no normal forks but small two pronged ones suitable for piercing cocktail sausages!!
A somewhat higher class of restaurant has finally opened in Adyar -- Crimson Chakra, run by the actor Suresh Menon (husband of Revathy!) from his house on 13, First Crescent Road, Gandhi Road (the road going past Gandhi Nagar Club perpendicular to 3rd Main Road). The idea is South Indian fusion which means kababs and grills with South Indian spices. The idea is nice though some things get to be slightly over spiced.
They have a fixed and an a la carte menu. The fixed menu is Rs 450 but is somewhat large (one soup, 2 pieces each of 4 kinds of kababs, chicken and mutton curries, rice/pulao, appams and roti and two desserts). However sharing is allowed since the amounts are fixed.
It presently shares the premises with Cornucopia which has moved from its earlier place on Cenotaph Road (see below). The ambience is very pleasant and it's a nice place for a relaxed lunch or dinner.
Kirky's on 4th Main Road, Nehru Nagar (take a left after the big Nalli Building coming from Sardar Patel Road down Kasturba Nagar Road) is yet another diner which serves the usual pasta/sandwich/pizza menu. (Another is Eatalica in R. A. Puram I have mentioned elsewhere). They also have some nice fresh fish stuff (try their steamed fish with lemon butter sauce and sauteed veggies, I really loved it - the fish was fresh, the vegetables were just that bit crunchy and the lemon butter made it all extremely tasty without being bland). The place seems to be always empty so go there before it winds up!!
On Lattice Bridge Road opposite IMCOPS, is Usilampatti which serves Chettinad style food. Food tends to be extremely spicy and hot unless you order their stews.
On LB Road near the Jayanthi Theatre crossing is the old discreetly situated Japanese restaurant Akasaka -- excellent food and horribly overpriced (you will spend at least Rs. 700 per person (without alcohol) and remain hungry at the end of it).
However if you are really dying for good Japanese food, this is not it. It is Dahlia -- read on.
Mocha is a funky diner on First Main Road, Indira Nagar, frequented by young people (including teenagers!) and women holding kitty parties. The seating is pleasant with comfortable sofas and chairs and the food is eclectic -- a mix of sandwiches, bagels (yes, the only bagel shop in Chennai!), pastas and a collection of unusual juices and coffees (celery and orange, watermelon and guava and so on). Mocha is also worth visiting just for their desserts where they don't skimp on their chocolate. Try their Vertigo, a chocolate dessert that you will swoon over.
There is another branch in Nungambakkam on Khader Nawaz Road. Price for two is about Rs. 400-500.
Finally, last but not the least, Hotel Runs (don't take the name seriously) is a Kerala Muslim 'Irani' like restaurant which has the cheapest and good Tandoori items -- a half chicken Tandoori costs about Rs. 50. But perhaps, if you are finicky about where you eat, you should ask them to pack the food...
Eden restaurant near the Besant Nagar bus terminus is a pleasant pure vegetarian place which serves a wide variety of North Indian and baked (continental?) items -- some quite interesting. For example, they have the vegetarian version of Spaghetti and Meat Balls by substituting Soya Nugget balls for the meat balls. They get full marks for novelty though not all their dishes are a resounding success.
Close by is also the new dandified 'avatar' of Sri Krishna Vilas called Vishranti which offers good South Indian Thalis, Dosas and Idlis and other such snack items at reasonable prices. Worth a visit if you want a nice place to sit and good South Indian vegetarian food and excellent filter coffee.
Another place nearby, close to Eden, is the oddly named Jelly Belly -- it's like a Delicatessen serving vegetarian snacks and desserts (why does Chennai have so many vegetarian 'yuppie' places?). They have grilled toasts, club sandwiches (what's a vegetarian club sandwich?) and a fair selection of strawberry, chocolate and other more exotic items like custard apple mousses. Absolutely delicious!!! It's run by the same family that runs Eden and, if you don't mind the absence of animal protein, they do it quite well.
There is also a Chinese place nearby called Canton Beach Palms -- serving the usual Chinese menu available in so many places. The place is nice and airy and prices are about Rs. 150 per person.
A few other places are worth mentioning. Cake Walk in Besant Nagar is a bakery next to Vishranti and has very nice pastries and Tira Misu. (Avoid their Mousse - much too gelatinous).
And just above is Clay Pot (which used to be Pasta and Noodles and something else before that). This place changes its name so often and also its genre, I sometimes wonder what would happen if they changed the name while you were eating. Would they serve you pasta with mutton rogan josh since you were just at the cusp?. Anyway, as the name suggests, its generic and reasonably standard Indian food of curries and kebabs. Nothing very distinuished and you should come down the stairs to have your dessert at Cake Walk (it's part of the same establishment).
In the same general area and on the same road are Cascade which is a 'branch' of the one in Nungambakkam while Lotus Pond specialising in the 'Balti Cuisine' of England -- to my knowledge, a non-existent category of cuisine, developed entirely in England from a mish mash of Indian curry places -- has disappeared. I am told it has reappeared in Nungambakkam next to the Cascade there but I haven't checked this out.
In the same area is a 'branch' of Karaikkudi already mentioned above. (Karaikkudi now has branches all over the city, including on East Cost Road, Anna Nagar, and Velacheri).
Around the same area and opposite the Nilgiri Shopping Mall is Giorgio which is a sort of all-in-one restaurant with platters from everywhere -- from France to Brazil to the Cameroons to Creole cooking. As for authenticity -- didn't I tell you this was a Madras (Chennai) Eating out guide?
Right on Elliot's beach is a food court called Planet Yumm containing Dominoes Pizza, Sangeetha Bhavan, Wang's Kitchen, Haveli, and Cafe Coffee Day. There is also a nice children's play area and it's pleasant to visit in the evenings and sit outside with the sea close by.
Again on Kotivakkam beach at the end of Valmiki Nagar is Bella Ciao which is an Italian Trattoria (for want of a bettr description) run by an Italian couple settled in Chennai (why?) who have clearly got the idea that the Chennai clientale will gobble anything if you tell them it's 'authentic' and will be willing to pay inflated prices.
Regrettably mediocre Italian food, but has pork and beef on the menu -- two 'carnis' that are impossible to find in fair Chennai except in five star hotels, perhaps so as not to hurt the sensibilities of hard core Hindus and Muslims. Their white sauce is not a gooey mash of <i>maida</i> mixed hurriedly with water and milk. They do offer, other than beer, some version of French and Italian wine but only by the bottle and at highly inflated prices. All this in a nice garden in an old(ish) house near the Kotivakkam beach. Getting to this place is a bit non trivial so please ask, it's impossible for me to give directions.
Parfait 3 is, as they like to call themselves, a bistro which serves Western style food, from Fried Fish and chips to Spaghetti Carbonara or Arrabiatta, Club Sandwiches and so on. The food is not exactly of the top-most quality, but it's reasonable and if you are in the vicinity it's worth dropping in. The owners are a very friendly bunch and they also have a bakery selling bread, pastries, cakes and so on which are quite good. It's located on the Taramani Velacheri Link Road near the church and Planet Fashion.
There is also a Wang's Kitchen, which is not very good, perhaps just about adequate.
On the 100 feet Bypass Road there are two restaurants now (part of the Oriental Cuisine chain of Mahadevan), Noodle House and French Loaf. Noodle House is a good Chinese eat out with typically minimalistic but aesthetic decor and excellent value for money. Try their Udon Soup (if you don't know what that is, you haven't read your Murakami).
French Loaf, on the other hand, disappoints badly. They have very exotic pastries, cakes and pies most of which have a flavour of dalda (hydrogenated oil) and their breads, of which they have a large variety (whole wheat, multi grain, Swiss pumpernickel, German, baguettes), are adequate at best and definitely not worth the prices (Rs. 45-65). In addition they have preservatives, something at least a French bakery would not have! I would any day choose the bakery at Parfait 3.
Dhaba Express on Cenotaph Road (after you come down the Kotturpuram bridge and past the Cenotaph Road traffic signal) has a good vegetarian lunch buffet which is great value for money at Rs. 51. (You can order non vegetarian dishes separately). It has a large number of items, and while they don't have interesting vegetables (mostly brinjal, potatoes, koftas, couple of salads), they are reasonably made and not, for once, overspiced and there are rustic wooden benches and tables where you can sit in the open air. They also have a restaurant which is reasonable. The buffet is immensely popular with the office going crowd so it gets quite crowded at lunch on weekdays but there is sufficient seating.
In addition, Dhaba Express also offers good hearty, reasonably authentic Punjabi food, including the 'must-have' sarson-da-saag and makke-di-roti. Evenings are also a nice time to go with open air seating (on 'authentic' charpoys if you so desire) and old Hindi songs playing. Nice informal atmosphere.
Opposite Dhaba Express there used to be the rather pretentiously named Cornucopia serving Europen style food, with a South-East Asia flavour (yes, it's really true!), salads and soups including Cous-Cous and the like. This is now part of Crimson Chakra in Gandhi Nagar (see below). They have generous portions, a rarity in Chennai without having astronomical prices. Try their sea food salad which, surprise surprise, is not just Banjaram (Seer) and prawn! It actually has mussels, clams, squid and so on. In general I would try their sea food salads and entrees. Their move to Crimson Chakra has considerably improved their decor too!
The largest number of restaurants though, in terms of density, is on TTK Road (known earlier as Mowbrays Road).
About half a kilometer from Park Sheraton Hotel, on TTK Road itself, is a Thai restaurant called Benjarong (Five Colours - Pancharanga). When I first reviewed it here when it had just opened, I had said "The food is great and authentic Thai since they fly in most of their ingredients, the interior decoration is lovely, and the tables have vases with real orchids. The culinary aspect is overseen by a father and daughter team from Thailand and you will frequently see her in the evening cutting up fruits in beautiful shapes and designs. Portions are reasonable, and a meal for two with soup and dessert comes to around Rs. 700. Try their unusual desserts like Tim Tub Siam - Ruby Water Chestnuts in Coconut Milk. One of the best mid-range restaurants in Chennai today."
Alas, I have to say, that most of the above is no longer true (in other words, it's decayed like all Chennai restaurants that start off well -- what is it - the weather???). First of all, even an ordinary restaurant in Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand will have fresher ingredients, particularly the fish. Most of the time, the fish in Benjarong clearly appears out of a freezer, going by the taste. The orchids are long gone, replaced by the usual Chennai staple of wilting zinnias. The beautiful Thai costumes of the waiters have been replaced by the standard-issue ill-fitting white shirt and black trousers. The food is still reasonable provided you are not fussy and don't compare with food in Thailand. And as usual, as in all Chennai restaurants, 'fish' means banjaram ( i.e seer or surmai) banjaram and more banjaram. They have never heard of anything else.
Why can't chefs in Chennai take that little extra trouble to have a wider selection of sea food? It all boils down to the fact that Chennai diners couldn't care less - banjaram, pomfret, squid, bottle gourd, pumpkin - it's all the same to them!
Off TTK road (i.e perpendicular to it in front of the Park Sheraton exit) is St Mary's Road. This now has Chennai newest 'Eco Hotel' run by the Ceebros group. It has an excellent buffet downstairs along with a bar-cum-restaurant serving a variety of foods which are very good -- everything from Punjabi Khana to Lebanese dishes. Very pleasant place to visit without that overpowering Five Star ambience.
They also have a roof top restaurant, Above Sea Level which has a great view of the city and a not-so-great limited menu of (mostly) kebabs and rotis and a sprinkling of 'European' dishes, each of these typically costing around Rs. 300-400. In my opinion, vastly overpriced, for what you get, and no, the view is not a compensation.
The excuse apparently is that most of their meat and fish are imported from places like New Zealand (steaks) to Norway (Salmon) and so on. Well, if you like your food well frozen, do go there.
Still in the general area, on Chamier's Road about a kilometer down from Anokhi is the Cream Centre. It's part of the Oriental Cuisines group thereby guaranteeing some minimal standard. It's a vegetarian place which offers a mismash of Italian, Mexican and Indian fast food (thus, pizzas and pasta, Nachos and Quesilladas, Bombay Ragda Patties and Chole Bhature etc.) all rather nicely presented. The ambience is light and airy and quite pleasant. It's quite popular though and you will have to wait a bit to be seated, particularly during the weekends. Their sauces are suspiciously sweet, leading me to wonder whether they add sugar to them or use some genetically modified over-sweet tomatoes.
Along TTK Road, opposite Sankara Hall, is a whole slew of restaurants of all varieties and varying quality.
Kabul professes to be the place for North West Frontier food but actually is one of those generic kabab and roti places but is not a bad place for such things. Their kababs in fact are rather good.
Duchess claims to serve so-called 'Continental' food and is a place best avoided by people from the Continent, and in fact elsewhere!
Eatalica on C. P. Ramaswamy Road (parallel to TTK Road, R. A. Puram, Third Cross) is one of many new diners that have sprung up around Chennai. It's a pasta, sandwich, burger place and boy, is their naming system weird! All items are a play on Hollywood star names (Bred Astaire, Henzel Washington, Moza Minelli, well, you get the picture) and while they aren't going to get any Michelin stars soon, it's not a bad place to get a quick bite. (They even have the occasional pork/ham, a rarity in Chennai as I have mentioned earlier). The service is quick and friendly, they have free WiFi (still rare in Chennai) and they are open till 11pm.
Baahar (now renamed Roomalli is (no prizes for guessing) an open air place offering generic North Indian and Mughlai fare -- the food has remained at a fairly decent level for many years and costs about Rs. 200 per person. They will occassionally agree to serve you beer in steel tumblers.
Nizam serves (or rather claims to serve) the famed cuisine of Hyderabad but tends to fall flat on its face quite often!
Palki has nice decor and absolutely ghastly food.
Amravati offers Andhra cuisine and is a typical banana leaf place with mediocre food.
In addition Coconut Lagoon serves food from Kerala and is cheap and good.
As you go further up Cathedral Road on the right are three restaurants -- Don Pepe, Copper Chimney and China Town. The first serves Mexican and Spanish food along with some 'Euro-Mex" combos. It's good value for money and their platters are very nice - typical platters are around Rs. 150 and with a salad shared by two, makes for a satisfying meal. Try their Chicken and Avocado Salad. They have maintained their standards for quite some time now. Their Mousse is laced with gelatine and is consequently too stiff. They have recently added 'American' food to their repertoire (did I hear someone say 'What's that?') which means stuff like roast rack of lamb, clam chowder, baked sea bass and so on. However they spoil it by serving prawns instead of clams in the chowder and the only fish they (or, for that matter, any restaurant in Chennai) seem to have heard of is Seer (Banjaram) - so the variety of fish in the menu is quite limited. Their Spanish/Mexican is still the better bet, I think.
(If you live near Anna Nagar, a 'xerox' copy of this place is Picasso with an almost identical menu - not surprising since it's run by the same people.)
Copper Chimney offers again generic North Indian/Mughlai food - good but somewhat overpriced like its cousin in Mumbai.
China Town is a reasonably good Chinese restaurant. In both these restaurants, be prepared to shell out around Rs. 350-400 or more for two.
Next to these three eating places is a new 'Spanish Tavern' -- a Tapas Bar called Zarra -- a rather classy bar with a wonderful collection of snacks (prawn croquettes, grilled lamb chops, grilled fish and prawn all made very well) and a lot of cocktails and beer but alas, no wine as you might expect in Chennai. The music is a bit loud but it's the only resonably priced watering hole in Chennai with a pleasant decor and atmosphere. Beware though -- they expect men to wear shoes not sandals, slippers or loafers though women are allowed to wear anything (I mean on their feet, of course).
Continuing on Cathedral Road, on the left, in the Poes Garden area is a new Kerala restaurant called Ente Keralam which local Malayalees tell me is one of the best Kerala food places anywhere. An easier way to get to it is via TTK Road, to Kasturi Estates, where you make a left turn in front of the Onkyo showroom.
If instead of turning left onto Cathedral Road you turned right onto Radhakrishnan Salai (approaching from the South) then within about a kilometer, there are again a whole host of restaurants.
The New Woodlands hotel on the left is something of an institution here and serves excellent South Indian thalis and the usual run of dosas, idli, vadas and so on. Again, typical of a place of this kind. it also serves excellent South Indian filter coffee.
The Savera hotel on the left has Minar which serves Mughlai food and is highly overpriced. The Piano is a multi-cuisine restaurant -- always a danger in Chennai since it frequently implies a lack of understanding on the part of the cooks of any of the cuisines. Piano has its share of Chinese, Continental and Indian dishes. It's continental fare smacks, as with many restaurants in India, of the Raj era with its collection of Chicken a la Kiev, Chicken a la King and so on. Unfortunately the fare is on the heavy side, much of it laced with garlic, cream, mayonnaise used with a heavy hand. The sea food salad, which could easily be made light and tasty is doused with huge amounts of mayonnaise making it cloyingly heavy. The a la Kiev has the butter reeking of garlic. Overall the place has good potential but is spoiled by the lack of a light and sensitive approach to spices and fat. About Rs. 450 at least, for food without alcohol. Piano also has a fairly reasonable buffet in the evenings.
Cilantro in the same hotel is a low oil, low spice health food place. Malgudi in the same hotel serves food from the four Southern states and is better than similar restaurants elsewhere. However it's not cheap and a meal without alcohol can cost anything between Rs. 400-500.
Leaving Savera behind and moving on, we reach the Karaikudi complex. This has three main restaurants. Karaikudi provides good Chettinad food from the region of Karaikudi in Southern Tamil Nadu. For those of you who think eating non-vegetarian Indian food outside means Tandoori Chicken, kababs and naans, this is the place to try for something different. The food and ambience are refreshingly different and definitely worth a visit -- about Rs. 250 for two. A popular item amongst most of our visitors in the Quail (Kadai) roast.
Shogun is a generic Chinese place but also has a sprinkling of Thai, Singapore, and Malaysian cuisines.
Coastline is a pure fish place -- a bit cramped but their fish is fresh and their fish salad and Malabar Fish Curry are worth trying. They have recently expanded their bill of fare and have a fairly large variety of sea food. Their mixed sea food platter is quite nice but very expensive -- the full platter varies in cost depending on availability -- the last time we were there it was Rs. 1500 and enough to be shared among 3 people. They also have large crabs but again these are very expensive. All these places are in the same price range otherwise for the standard items.
On the right hand side, facing the Karaikudi complex (almost!) is Saravana Bhavan Fast Foods. Saravana Bhavan is something of an institution in Madras and specialises in Thalis and other fast food items. Regrettably, my personal opinion in this matter is somewhat contrary to that of the general public -- I think these Saravana Bhavan chain of restaurants is highly over-rated and there are numerous other places in Madras serving better Thalis and Idlis and dosas.
Further down, closer to Marina Beach, on this road (R. K. Salai) is a brand new Mall in faux Saracenic style the Chennai Citi Centre. This has now various reasonable restaurants.
On the third floor is Zyng - Asia Grill, a Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai/ or generally South East Asian restaurant with a rather pleasant minimalist decor and an interesting menu of dishes from the above regions. A typical meal is about Rs. 400 but the portions are large and satisfying, though there is a tendency to use soya sauce with a heavy hand, particularly in the Chinese dishes.
On the mezzanine floor above is a very noisy food court filled with bawling children and adult shoppers making equal amounts of noise while stuffing sustenance into their mouths prior to embarking on their next round of shopping. (What is it about Indians that makes then gravitate towards any eating outlet irrespective of whether they are hungry or not (and with scant concern for their already over-extended girth) maybe some primeval reaction, a throwback to the days when India had many (more) starving people).
But I digress. Go up another half floor to the fourth floor and you reach LV4, an entertainment centre cum dining area where the food is a mish mash of Thai, Chinese, Chettinad (or was that Kerala?) cuisine. Not exactly a gourmet dining experience but not a bad place to snatch a bite to eat. Typically Rs. 400 per person.
Opal Inn, which is part of Hotel Ranjith is an old haunt for all types of cuisine - Indian, Continental, Chinese. The food is unremarkable but if you are in that region and want a reasonable place to grab a bite, you could try it. Ranjith Hotel roof top boasts a kabab place which is very good and, unusual for Madras, serves beer.
Just in from of Ranjith is Aiwo, a Sushi bar kind of place but vegetarian -- you pick up a host of choices from a moving conveyor belt. Rather nice. Their a la carte menu has non veg items, though.
Further up is Cascade, a Chinese place which again offers some South Eastern cuisine like Sapo and Satay. Not too authentic though -- they tend to substitute lemon for lemon grass -- but if, like most Chennai residents, you don't know the difference, then it's not a bad place to eat. The food, after all, doesn't taste bad! Their Steam Boat, in fact, is rather good and is a good satisfying meal for two. There is now a copy of Cascade in Besant Nagar so you might want to try that since it's closer to the institute.
Nungambakkam also boasts (?) of Pizza Hut in Chennai in the Gee Gee complex along with one in Kasturbai Nagar, Adyar, and has its 'desi' version too -- Pizza Corner.
Facing the famed bookstore of Chennai, Landmark, (on Nungambakkam High Road) on the other side of the road is the new 3 storeyed snazzy Ispahani shopping Centre. Here there is Marrybrown, a fast food place reviewed further down.
On Khader Nawaz Road, off Nungambakkam, you will find the 'Chennai chapter' of the famous French Restaurant of Pondicherry Le Club. I haven't been there yet so can't vouch for the food but I suspect that the 'Chennai effect' will be in operation there <i>viz</i> no wine or any other spirits and poorer quality food than that available at its Pondicherry cousin's.
Casa Piccolo of Bangalore fame has an outlet here and, expectedly, not as good. They never have the beef in the menu so one is stuck with more chicken and lamb (which is mutton). Their fish is also limited and, yes, you guessed it, it's mostly Banjaram (Seer) and prawn.
Tuscana on Wallace Garden Road (turn left from Khader Nawaz Road, and it's next to Apparao Galleries is probably the closest you will come to genuine Italian food in Chennai, with pizzas made in wood ovens. It has a really exhaustive menu, everything from pastas, pizzas, calzones, gnocchi and the works, and it has toppings ranging from camembert, feta to asparagus, rare items in Chennai. Their salads are extremely fresh (try their sea food salad) and it's the only restaurant in town where every table is supplied with grated parmesan, oil and vinegar. Not cheap, main courses are typically Rs. 400 - 500 but worth it.
In the same general area around where Haddows Road meets Nungambakkam is Little Italy -- a wonderful little eatery for (you guessed it!) Italian food but purely vegetarian!
If you go further up Nungambakkam High Roadi, there is Dahlia -- a Japanese restaurant and one of Chennai's oldest -- it's been around some 14 years! Finding it is a major hurdle to cross - it's near Hotel Ganpat and inside Kaveri Apartments, neither of which are labelled! In fact Dahlia has no signs anywhere until you are almost about to enter! The only landmark is an entrance just before Calcutta Pan Shop that comes after ICICI bank.
The decor is unpretentious, and the food down to earth and aimed at the local expat Japanese community. None of the frills or bells and whistles of the five star sushi joints. In fact the informal atmosphere is a major attractive feature. If you are unfamiliar with Japanese food, stick to the set meals -- they have combos like the classic Nigiri Sushi (various fish slices wrapped around sticky rice) which come with Miso soup, pickles, ginger slices and Wasabi sauce. There are also Tempura platters and Udon soup bowl servings all of which make more or less a meal in itself.
With a bit of sake to wash it all down, the bill would come to about Rs. 1000 or so for two. And most definitely worth it. I would not recommend it to a vegetarian though -- the preponderance of fish is overpowering as with most South Eastern and Far Eastern cooking, and though they are cooperative, there isn't much point replacing fish slices by sweet potato. Do make a booking though because the place is always crowded, mostly with Japanese executives.
Where Nungmbakkam merges into Valluvar Kottam Road towards Egmore, there is the Red E Food Court -- a food court as its name suggests, offering a variety of cuisine like Thai, Mexican, Indian etc. Reasonable value for money and for some reason, kids love the place.
The Copper Point serves Indian food including the not-so-common South Indian dishes like Fish Moilee and the like. About Rs. 400 per person. (I think this is one of the best general purpose restaurants to take say, visitors to, since the food and the price are both reasonable, you get good North and South Indian food at the same place and you also have the option of having beer or other spirits).
The old Oriental Pearl has been replaced by a high-end Mediterranian place Azulia serving Greek, Lebanese, Turkish and Italian cuisine presided over by the friendly Lebanese Chef Joseph Chahine who will even recommend various dishes for you. Very nice ambience, excellent starters, main courses and desserts (including the ubiquitous Baklava) and, in keeping with the theme, fairly high prices -- around Rs 1500 including alcohol. They also do a 6 course lunch from 6 countries in 60 minutes (!) on weekdays.
Barbeque Nation on North Usman Road (it's off N. Usman really, on Hanumantha Street in Hotel Devi Park, between Joyalukka and Murugan Idli Store) is an interesting place where they bring a charcoal grill to your table along with a collection of skewers with various meats, fish and vegetables and you are invited to grill your own kababs. The meats are lightly cooked so that you don't have to spend too much time grilling, and they also provide a set of basting sauces. The kabas are unlimited and you then get a buffet spread of biryani, salads, vegetables and desserts -- all this for Rs. 425/- . Being part of a hotel means you can also order some alcohol with the food. Something like a somewhat lower end Kabab Factory. I thought the Kebabs were a bit stringy and overdone, but this is probably a Chennai phenomena since I am told those in Pune and Delhi are quite good (they have 24 branches all over India). Definitely worth checking out.
Note: La Madeleine also featured here in this area has now closed and like the Arab in the story, folded up its tent and stolen silently away. In its place is Ente Keralam, a Kerala restaurant which I have not visited but have heard from local (and reliable) Malayalees as being one of the best Kerala places in town.
There is a place which deserves star billing, though it's a trifle expensive. This is the Great Kabab Factory at the Hotel Radisson on GST Road on the way to the airport (just before Trident). This has a fixed menu of 5 types of kababs (2 chicken, 2 mutton, one fish) which are served freshly made at your table with a selection of speciality breads (Sheermal, Bakarkhani Roti, Kulcha..). Their Galauti Kabab is a delight and is made with literally melt in the mouth mutton mince. You are allowed second servings for each though I doubt you will have space for them. They also serve, at the end, two types of Dal, vegetables and a wonderful Chicken or Mutton Biryani but most of the time I have had no space left for any of this. The bad news is that it costs Rs. 440 per head which is steep but, IMHO, worth it.
Finally one should mention a Lebanese/Mediterranean place called Cedars which used to be in Kotturpuram but has moved to Nungambakkam on Khader Nawaz Road, in the Wallace Garden area. Nice ambience, good food (they make their own Kabooz - a kind of Pita) and have lots of different kinds of Kebabs. Try their appetisers like Hummus and Eggplant dips. They have recently added other Mediterranean items to their menu which makes it much better and real value for money. They have Falafel which few places in Chennai seem to have heard about, considering the city is so vegetarian in its outlook. About Rs 350 per person. Their new updated menu even has Baklava but, this being Chennai, it's usually not available and when it is, is not even a pale imitation of the original! They also have a buffet lunch I believe on weekdays, for Rs. 275 but I have no experience with it. They will even prepare a authentic hookah with exotic tobacco for you so that you can puff your way through dinner! Pity they are so far -- they used to have a nice Sunday breakfast/brunch.
The Dakshin at Park Sheraton serves cuisine of the four southern states.
The Peshawari at the Chola Sheraton serves North West Frontier food and is very good; however you better go there with a fat wallet, or plastic money (with no worries of paying the bill when it comes) or with green-backs which automatically give you a 50:1 advantage!
The buffets at the Chola Sheraton at the Mercara and Sagari are of course worth the money if you are a large eater - they typically cost around Rs. 400. But watch out -- all these 5-star places slap a 20on your bill which can be a substantial increase in your expense.
The Raintree at the Connemara serves Chettinad food under a huge raintree and is also worth a visit.
Hip Asia in Taj Coromandal hotel is a new South and Far East Asian 'hip' place. Spartan decor, a Teppanyaki bar (where the chef will dish out your choice of Japanese food, chopping, mixing, arranging, beautifying your order, while you watch your dish tranform, under his expert ministrations, from a chrysalis to a beautiful butterfly). Their Thai food is also excellent. The Teppanyaki bar is around Rs. 1200 per person without alcohol and the a la carte menu will cost you around Rs. 800 per person. Recently they have introduced a Rs. 375/Rs. 350 (non-veg/veg) lunch deal which is excellent value for money and gives a selection of Appetisers, Soup, two main courses, rice or noodles and dessert, in a choice of Vietnamese, Malaysian or Thai cuisines. They frequently have special deals -- recently a Bento Box lunch for Rs. 750 which was quite good, though the Sushi/Sashimi content was pretty minimal.
Lotus is a Thai place at The Park hotel which has made quite a name for itself. It's small so book in advance but the food is good and the service discreet. The Park is just at the beginning of Nungambakkam High Road. It also has a 24 hour coffee shop called 601 which people tell me is very good.
Taj Fisherman's Cove at Covelong Beach, around 20km from Chennai off the East Coast Road is another place that deserves star billing, just for their Sunday Brunch Buffet at the Sea Gull Restaurant. It has the most wondrous sea food salad bar with items which would be 'normal' in any other coastal city in the world, like fresh clams, mussels, prawns, squid but which you be hard put to find in Chennai! You can gorge yourself just on the sea food in the salad bar and give the Makhani Murgh and such like a complete miss. It comes with complimentary Sparkling Wine (some little known German brand) and Indian beer. All this comes to Rs. 900 plus taxes but I believe it's worth it once in a while -- far better than any of the Rs. 500 buffets you get in the city's five star restaurants.
The new rather infelicitously named Taj Mount Road which opened recently on Club House Road, has a Saturday/Sunday brunch buffet in Club House which is different from the standard fare that is dished out in buffets in other hotels of the city. While the fresh sea food selection is nowhere as varied as at its sister hotel Fisherman's Cove, it has some unusual items (unusual in Chennai, that is) like salmon topped with caviar in the cold cuts section, a decent selection of cheeses, Gruyere, Brie, Camembert and even more surprisingly, fresh oysters on the half shell with lemon and an interesting sauce of onion, red wine and vinegar, served on a bed of ice. This is the first time I am seeing oysters served anywhere in Chennai and I suspect that they won't last too long, along with the salmon. Most Indians seemed to avoid it ("what, no masala, no jeera dhania just plain, almost raw?"), and so did the foreigners ("watch out for these so called fresh sea food in these third world countries!"). The salmon didn't fare much better, so my advice to people who would like to sample these, is to go soon. They also have a selection of sushi both veg and non veg (though their Wasabi sauce is strangely very runny), as well as Dolma (various condiments and vegetables wrapped in grape leaves).
The ambience is nice -- a long banquet hall like structure with a raised wooden platform, flooded with diffused natural light from a transparent sun roof. Saturdays and Sundays, 12.30 to 3, Rs. 950 per person + 12.5VAT and includes sangria, a selection of cocktails and beer. It was very crowded when we went but that could be the novelty effect, but it's best to reserve a table in advance.
The roof top Kefi in the same hotel serves food from various Southern Europe/Mediterranean countries -- Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Spain. For that, it's a bit surprising that there is absolutely no couscous on their menu. Moreover the sea food Paella I ordered was quite soggy -- more like a Risotto with an overabundance of calamari and little else. Overall the price range is around Rs. 1000 per head with moderate intake of alcohol.
I would however place Azulia way above this place, including for its ambience.
Taj Mount Road also has another restaurant called Beyond Indus serving precisely that -- food from Lahore, Rawalpindi and so on. There is a large menu with lot of choices and a 'Indiyaki' menu where you can mix and match the curried items. This does not always work so well. If you ask for lamb, and also for leeks and paneer, they try a mish mash of all these in an Indian gravy which does not quite work. So choose what you would mix and match carefully, since they don't quite explain things too well.
The closest to the Institute is the one above Adyar Bakery on Sardar Patel Road called Shakes and Cream -- very nice and reasonably priced -- though their interior decorator should be fired!
On the other side on First Main Road, Gandhi Nagar, near the Bata showroom is Baskin Robbins which is also good but with the Fatherland connection, feels justified in charging high prices.
There is Chill Thrill in Kasturbai Nagar opposite Khana Khazana Restaurant (mentioned above).
There is another in Besant Nagar which is supposed to be good but since I have never been there, I have forgotten the name!
Baskin Robbins at Adyar Circle is quite reasonable with a scoop costing around Rs. 35 and rather good.
In Adyar itself, there's Pizza Corner at the start of LB Road, with bad pizza but I believe with some specials which include bottomless Pepsi.
Further down is Domino's (yes, again the original) whose pizzas are far better than those of the home grown variety and, in fact, better than Domino's own pizzas in the US!! Also cheaper than Pizza Hut (a regular with 3 toppings is Rs. 79) and you can order them from the Institute (1-600-111-123 toll free).
Also in Adyar is Pizza Hut (yes, the original) with nice ordinary and pan pizza, a salad bar, spaghetti and so on but fairly high prices for a fast food joint - around Rs. 300 for two. However they occassionally have special deals advertised in newspapers and those are good value for money. It's located along Kamaraj Avenue wherein you turn right from Sardar Patel Road at the Ceebros Arcade on the Kasturba Nagar side.
There is also a Pizza Hut in the Gee Gee Emerald complex on Nungambakkam High Road where also, opposite the Landmark bookstore, is the Ispahani shopping complex. This has MarryBrown, a Kentucky Fried Chicken clone from Malaysia, but its chicken burgers and fried chicken are not bad at all. They have now expanded their menu with some Malaysian stuff like Laksa, which is a broth containing noodles, hard boiled eggs, chicken and other sundry stuff which is rather good and filling (makes a nice lunch) and some chicken/rice platters which are also fine for a light lunch. Among the better fast food places in Chennai in this class.
Just above on the first floor is the Coffee Day coffee parlour -- good coffee, nice ambience and a pleasant view from the large glass plate windows. Not much to eat though and the noise, both from the chattering yuppies and the loud music can get on your nerves.
If you don't mind driving a bit a lot of reasonable places have sprung up on East Coast Road -- this is the road that goes towards Mahabalipuram.
So to name a few there is the pretentiously named Buena Vista, a resort in Neelankarai (follow the signs) right on the beach with a beautiful location, and completely wild architectural design! Their sea-food is good and fresh but as usual smothered with spices so ask them specifically to keep in down.
Between about 5 and 10 km down from here on ECR are Basera, an open air restaurant next to the Prarthana Drive-in Theatre, where there are actual tree houses where you can climb up and and have your meal there. Below you might occassionally encounter some geese wandering around among the foliage. Good place to take kids, prices typically around Rs. 300 per head. The food is generic Indian/Mughlai/Tandoori. (I am told that while you eat, the mosquitoes in turn feed on you but I have no direct experience of these culinary habits of the mosquitoes).
A little further up, on the other side of the road, are Kebab Korner and Bell Peppers which are reasonable for Indian (and specifically Awadhi food or so they claim) and Italian food. Kebab Korner's Pasanda is rather good and worth trying.
Further up is the Farm House which is multicuisine and therefore generic Indian and Continental food but has a nice ambience with lots of greenery, an aquarium, an artificial pond around which the seating is arranged and even a cow to lend verisimilitude to the Farm House ambience!
The best and cheapest is Moonraker on Othuvadai Street near the bus stand. The ambience is non existent but they bring you the fresh fish on a platter and you can choose what you want and how to cook it -- it's absolutely fresh. Beer, another rare commodity in Chennai, is available.
A similar place is Luna Magica. Price for two about Rs. 500 with beer.
If you want fresh sea food and ambience, there is absolutely nothing to
beat the Wharf at Temple Bay Radisson at the entrance to
Mahabalipuram. This is not their standard restaurant near the entrance
but the one near the beach. In fact the restaurant is almost right on the
beach as it were and a better setting with the waves dashing against the
rocks you will not find in this part of the world. Strongly recommended
are their squid lightly batter fried and their catch of the day which you
should ask them to lightly grill without too many spices to smother the
natural flavours. The place is not cheap but is worth every penny --
Rs 800 or so each without alcohol.
Finally, many of you have written, pointing out good eating places in Chennai which I have not covered. Thanks for your comments and while I cannot reply individually to all mails, I definitely will keep these recommendations in mind and will make it a point to visit them when I am near those parts. I am sorry I cannot include them without visiting them, since that would not be in keeping with the strong subjective nature of this column!
This overview will get updated at irregular intervals so watch this place. The views expressed here are my own, and not shared by others in the institute (who are much less critical), but should be.
There is now a Metro Plus Food Guide available at bookstores, reviewing most of the major restaurants of Chennai. However, it's brought out by The Hindu newspaper and is therefore their version (or rather, their reviewers' version) of good food! Need I say more?
For some useful tips, see a new web portal on matters related to food www.malli.in , though I wouldn't take their ratings too seriously.
Rahul Basu, Last updated 9 February, 2010