Rahul Basu's guide to eating out in Chennai
Rahul Basu is our expert on eating out in Chennai. He is a theoretical physicist working at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, which is an autonomous institute of the Dept of Atomic Energy. When he is not working on stuff like HIGHER TWIST EFFECTS IN QUANTUM CHROMODYNAMICS and SUPERSYMMETRY AT NONZERO TEMPERATURES, Rahul does serious research on findin ood restaurants to eat at in Chennai. Here are his views:
There was a time when eating out in Chennai (when it was still Madras) meant the local Udipi hotel, or, if you were a carnivore, the local 'Military Hotel'. Times have changed and now Chennai boasts of a large collection of restaurants in different flavours, price ranges and ambience. What follows is a necessarily subjective overview of some of the hot spots of Chennai for eating out:
Closest to the Institute, C I T Campus, Taramani, Chennai 600113 is Ashok Residency (no relation to the Ashok ITDC group) which is part of the Film City Complex. Go out to the main road (Taramani Road), turn right and walk for about 5 minutes and you are there. The food is bad, the prices inflated and the only redeeming feature is that the ambience is reasonable and there is a bar (a rarity in Chennai) which is quite pleasant though overpriced. Not recommended for reasonable food at reasonable prices but is the only place where visitors to the Institute can grab a beer without having to take an autorickshaw out to the city.
If you can get out of the campus, then Sardar Patel Road in Adyar boasts of quite a few eating places to suit most pockets. Kwality Riviera and Aditya are two restaurants offerin eneric North Indian/Punjabi fare. In addition Aditya also has a bar. Dinner for two will set you back about Rs. 250. For vegetarians and those who like a taste of the South, Adyar has some good south Indian vegetarian places. Khana Khazana in Kasturba Nagar (take a right at the Ceebros traffic light and go about half a km) used to be a good place for standard South Indian fare like thalis and idlis and dosas and vadas. But now, it retains its name but not its cuisine. Its changed ownership and now offers a strange mix of Chettinad, Hong Kong/Chinese/Singapore/Punjabi cuisine (all vegetarian) along with a minuscule selection of the old stuff i.e idlis and dosas - but the quality ain't the same and you don't get filter coffee. Why can't these people leave well alone? The food quality is variable and the prices will set you back about Rs. 150-200 for two. 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 and now with the effective demise of Chutney, is the only place in this part of Adyar to offer good wholesome South Indian vegetarian food and snacks and coffee. 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.
There are a couple of new places in Adyar. Above Food World, the grocery supermarket in Gandhi Nagar, First Main Road is a place called La Princesse. Perhaps the less said about the place, the better. Two or or three visits have convinced me that the food is not just mediocre, its awful. Their so-called western/Continental/Italian/Mexican is just inedible and their Indian is best avoided. They once gave us a fish which had started smelling and they changed it and again gave us another which was equally smelly. Two such changes finally made them confess that their fish had gone bad.
On Lattice Bridge Road (also known by its acronym LB Road - most auto-rickshaw drivers know only the acronym!), opposite IMCOPS are two restaurants - Usilampatti serving chettinad style food and above it Pathankot (yes, as in the place!) serving, no prizes for guessing, Punjabi food. Food at the former tends to be extremely spicy and hot unless you order their stews and the same is true of the latter. Here you can stick to the kababs if you want to cut down on the spice. Portions are reasonable and a meal for two costs about Rs. 300. The food is not particularly distinguished but its ok for a casual lunch or dinner out.
If you are now ready to venture further afield, a whole new world of restaurants awaits you. Dhaba Express on Cenotaph Road (after you come down the Kotturpuram flyover) 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 but somewhat pricey. The buffet is immensely popular with the office going crowd so it gets quite crowded at lunch on weekdays but there is sufficient seating.
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 new Thai restaurant called Benjarong (Five Colours - Pancharanga). 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.
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. Pandiya Nadu, (metamorphosed from Panjim) as its name suggests, offers Chettinad cuisine like so many others and the quantities are abysmal. Duchess claims to serve so-called 'Continental' food and is a place best avoided by people from the Continent, and in fact elsewhere! Further along TTK Road on the left is a relatively new place Stop at Sam's which offers a rather pleasant selection of Indian, Chinese and Continental food of various types. The food and ambience are generically good, though not exceptional (an adjective that can be applied only rarely to Chennai Restaurants) and its also a good place to make a quick lunch of one of their large sandwich platters. They also have Quiches and Moussakas but the few times I have been there, these have not been available.
TTK Road crosses a major Road of Chennai at the Music Academy crossing - its called Radhakrishnan Salai on the right and Cathedral Road on the left. On the left as you get onto Cathedral Road right at the corner is a multiplex of 4 restaurants (the West has multiplex theatres, Chennai has multiplex restaurant complexes). Baahar is (no prizes for guessing) an open air place offerin eneric North Indian and Mughlai fare - the food has remained at a fairly decent level for many years and costs about Rs. 250 for two. 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.
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. Its 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 satisfyin eal. 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 its 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. If instead of turning left onto Cathedral Road you turned right onto Radhakrishnan Salai 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. Its 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 makin t 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. Malgudi in the same hotel serves food from the four Southern states and is better than similar restaurants elsewhere. However its not cheap and a meal without alcohol can cost anything between Rs. 300-400. 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 Karaikud n 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.
On one of the main arterial roads of Chennai called Nungambakkam High Road (recently renamed Mahatma Gandhi Salai but nobody, least of all auto drivers, will know that name) there are a few restaurants which are reasonable. 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. I am told that the Ranjith Hotel roof top boasts a kabab place which is very good and, unusual for Madras, serves beer. However I have not tried it myself. Further up is Cascade - a Chinese place which again offers some South East Asian 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 its 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 satisfyin eal for two. There is now a copy of Cascade in Besant Nagar so you might want to try that since its closer to the institute. Nungambakkam also boasts (?) of Pizza Hut in Chenna n the Gee Gee complex along with one in Kasturbai Nagar, Adyar, and has its 'desi' version too - Pizza Corner.
If you go further up Nungambakkam High Road where it merges 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.
On Thyagaraja Road (Pondy Bazar Road) just after turnin n fro ount Road is the GRT Grand Days hotel (a part of the Days Inn group in the US). This has good value for money restaurants and also a decent buffet for about Rs. 250. The Copper Point serves Indian food including the not-so-common South Indian dishes like Fish Moilee and the like. About Rs. 250-300 per person. The Oriental Pearl serves Thai and Chinese food in the same price range and has a fairly wide variety of items. A small sprinkling of other South-East Asian dishes fro alaysia, Japan etc., are on the menu but are sometimes not available. A nice starter is their Chicken Satay. Good value for money and though not cheap, far lower than five star places.
Here is a sprinkling of a few other places you could try in Besant Nagar near the beach (called Elliot's beach). 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 to Eden is a small place called Bella Ciao serving (no marks for guessing) Italian cuisine. Its actually run by a Italian couple and has the usual run of Ravioli, Fettucini, and the like. Its good for a change but the prices are inflated, the portions tiny (4 small slices of garlic bread costs Rs.25!) and its definitely not value for money. Its also extremely cramped and its not pleasant to have your elbow continuously di nto another diner's ribs (or worse, vice versa!). You get Italian wine but then, I wouldn't want to have mediocre Italian wine at their prices! They of course serve Italian coffee (Espresso, Cappucino and so on) but its made very light and watery and the coffee is not of the highest quality. (For such things go to Coffee? mentioned below). Their Tira Misu is quite disappointing. I have noticed however that different people have different reactions to Bella Ciao so I would suggest tryin t once and deciding for yourself. 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 - its 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 mousses. Its 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. Right on Elliot's beach is a food court called Planet Yumm containing Domino's Pizza, Sangeetha Bhavan, Wang's Kitchen, Haveli, and cafÃ© 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.
Five Star Places:
I can't afford most 5-star places so this list will necessarily be very selective. 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 44:1 advantage! The Raintree at the Connemara serves Chettinad food under a huge raintree and is also worth a visit. The buffets at the Chola Sheraton - Mercara and Sagari are of course worth the money if you are a large eater - they typically cost around Rs. 300. But watch out - all these 5-star places slap a 20% tax on your bill which can be a substantial increase in your expense.
A new place on Greenways Road near Pizza Time called Coffee? is a coffee parlour inspired, no doubt, by Starbucks and offers other than the usual vegetarian snack items, a wide variety of coffees from around the world - Thai, Italian, Colombian, Turkish - you name it. All of them cost Rs. 30 and its a popular hangout for the (very) young yuppie crowd - on the whole a nice and cheerful place (if you are not too conscious of your grey hairs) run by a couple of very friendly youn uys. They even have a few books and tank tops on display and sale!! In the same vein, there is a very yuppie joint called Qwicky's in T. Nagar on G. N. Chetty Road. Coming from Panagal Park, pass the Van ahal Circle and its almost immediately on your right. They have numerous brands of coffee and snacks and is a favourite hang out for college kids. If you are on the wrong side of 30, you are going to feel like a grandfather, in there!!
Ice Cream parlours:
These are becoming really popular in Chennai. 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 showroo s 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 best avoided - the prices are high and the ice crea s not very good.
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, good Tandoor tems - 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...
Fast Food Places:
There are suddenly a lot of fast food places in Chennai. 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, 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. Its located along Kamaraj Avenue wherein you turn right from Sardar Patel Road at the Ceebros Arcade on the Kasturba Nagar side. 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). 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 fro alaysia, I am told, but its chicken burgers and fried chicken are even worse than KFC's. Their french fries are like matchsticks. Even McDonald's would be better. However 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.
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, but should be.