Monday, June 1, 2015

Uber Chennai


We do like Chennai. The best places in India are Amritsar, Calcutta and Chennai – in alphabetical order. The rest, frankly, is the boondocks or a traffic jam – and you can add Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore to that.

This was a short 2 nights 3 day break. Yes it was hot, but not much different from Mumbai. We landed booked ourselves a `Fastrack’ cab and were at the ITC Grand Chola Guindy in a scant 20 minutes. My God, what a fantastic hotel. Beats the pants of almost anything in India. Large hotel with 600 rooms and the usual convention rooms, banquet rooms and, as is now de rigueur, serviced apartments. There is a really grand, truly grand central staircase complete with impressive chandelier where good Indians pose to have their photographs taken.

You may ask why we like Chennai so much. You may say, with justification, that we are visitors, we don’t have to live there, so how can we say that we like a place if you stay in a 5 Star Hotel far removed from the reality of day to day living? Yes, you are correct dear irate reader. But I have this to say to you. Is that not how we view cities across the world? Don’t we visit New York, Berlin, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Boston, Nairobi and not do exactly the same? Stay in the lap of luxury and live a rarefied and transient existence? Yes, of course. And, at the end of the visit do you not form your own opinion? I love New York, I hated Delhi, I loved Stockholm and I did not like Nairobi. So how is this really any different?

As compared to Mumbai where we live, and alas, have lived all our lives, Chennai seems open, wider roads, far less people, far friendlier people, far, far cleaner and far less broken down. I know you will take offence at far less broken down. I have a suggestion. Take a drive along the lifeline of South Mumbai – Pedder Road – look around at the buildings. Barring a few, the rest are a shambles. You see what I mean? This is the case all over Mumbai. The roads in Chennai are so much better and smoother than in Mumbai. No visible huts in Chennai. And hawkers? I could not see any. Not like Mumbai where every street is encroached on by hawkers, food stalls and pedestrians are pushed onto the road. I am not knocking Mumbai buy all I am trying to say is as a visitor, I like Chennai in the same way that as a visitor I don’t like Bangalore. I can sit in as good a traffic jam at home in Mumbai, I don’t need to go to Bangalore.

How did we get around? Simple! Uber. Yes Uber. No arguing with rickshaw drivers, no facing a huge language barrier, me speaking in English or Marathi or French or Gujarati or Russian and the driver in Tamil. No getting ripped off by hiring a hotel car with their absolutely ridiculous charges. Uber was available all the time, bloody efficient, and, with peak pricing of 1.6 times the most we paid was Rs. 204 from Radhakrishnan Salai [R K Salai] to ITC Grand Chola Guindy. If you ask me, just as the mobile phone has completely destroyed the rip off phone charges that hotels used to charge us in the old days, Uber is going to kick these hotels and the rapacious car hire charges in their balls. Uber is a real disrupter. The private taxi companies that sold those ridiculous packages of Rs. 1800 for 8 hours or 80 KM packages are slowly and surely going to die. It is the same driver and the same car that is now linked to Uber. Why should he work for these rip off companies when he can be his own master.

As soon as we had checked in at the ITC Grand Chola, HRH the Queen of Kutch pulled up the Uber App on her mobile and got a cab. We asked the cab driver to take us to Saravana Bhavan, a chain of `high quality vegetarian restaurants’. The driver dutifully whisked us to the branch at Ashoka Pillar. Driver Anna said it was air conditioned so deemed it fit for us. Now you must appreciate a simple fact. We were in Tamil Nadu, in Chennai, the birthplace of `Tiffin’. The home of the Dosa, Medu Wada, Idli, Khara Bhaat and so on. This had to be our first meal. Of course the Kannadigas may take offence at the fact that I say Chennai is the birthplace of the Dosa but that is another story. If you go to Bologna you have to eat the Ragu which is also known as Bolognaise Sauce. If you go to Naples you have to have a Neapolitan Pizza, if you go to Delhi you have to have the Butter Chicken. I mean all this food was invented in these places. So why not `Tiffin’ in Chennai?

HRH the Queen ordered a Ghee Masala Dosa which came with 3 types of Chutney and Sambar. I asked for a Kal Dosa which came with 3 types of Chutney, Gunpowder [Mulgapodi] and Sambar. Both the Dosa arrived in large Melamine plates with compartments for the Chutneys. HRH the Queen likes crisp Dosas but she says `not the paper Dosa’. You figure! The Kal Dosa is a sort of thick Dosa somewhat like an Uttapam. I am not a fan of crisp papad or wafer like Dosa; I prefer a crisp moist Dosa like the Benne Dosa in Karnataka or even a soft floppy Dosa. We got what we wanted. The Dosa were excellent. The Chutneys – Coriander, Tomato and Coconut very good, but as far as we were concerned the Sambar was a complete winner. Bombay wallahs will not recognise this Sambar. Jaggery was absolutely not a part of this Sambar. The lurid red oil that we find on top of Mumbai Sambar was absent. This was the real stuff. Sour, thick and with deep flavours. Lots and lots of Sambar Onion in the Sambar. I cannot imagine this in Mumbai. I cannot imagine how much effort must have gone into peeling all that Sambar Onion for this. The absolute rubbish we get in Mumbai masquerading as Sambar is shocking. The `Gujjufication’ of this cuisine in Mumbai is simply ridiculous. While there is no Sambar in Mumbai that I have tasted in a restaurant that comes close, the Dosa that we often eat at Poornima and Swagath in Fort [both owned by the same guy with food cooked in the same kitchen] come close. This was a good lunch.

Ghee Masala Dosa

Kal Dosa

The fantastic Sambar with the Sambar Onions

While on the way to our restaurant for dinner, this is what I saw. Should make those who know London chuckle.

Anjappar was our choice for dinner. This along with Poonuswamy and Dindigul Thalappakatti are the bigger Chettinad cuisine chain restaurants in Chennai. This cuisine, contrary to popular belief is non-vegetarian. The Chettiars do not eat beef and pork but all other meat are popular – Rabbit, Quail, Emu and Crab being some of the more exotic ingredients. The food is spicy, distinctly South Indian in flavour and very aromatic. They use a lot of Fennel, Star Anise and what Maharashtrians call `Dagad Phool’ in the food – all these being aniseed in flavour.

To start we shared a Nenjelumbu Soup or Mutton Rib Soup. Delicious, a really flavoursome broth made with ribs. This was a good start, whetted the appetite. For our mains we had Mutton Varutha Curry and a Chicken with Coconut which was not on the menu. With this we ordered a Mutton Ceylon Parotta and Mutton Kothu Parotta, not really knowing what would turn up. When it did we were as pleased as punch. Both were different and both delicious. The word ‘Kothu’ means that the wheat based bread is shredded and stir fried with onion, chilli, the obligatory Kadipatta, lamb and egg. Really tasty food, spicy and aromatic. Only one complaint, the main courses were cold. Obviously prepared well ahead. Ultimately an enjoyable meal.

 Nenjelumbu Soup or Mutton Rib Soup

Mutton Varutha Curry

Chicken with Coconut

Mutton Ceylon Parotta

Mutton Kothu Parotta

The next night, which was our last, we went to Malgudi. This is a wonderful restaurant in the Savera Hotel on Radhakrishnan Salai [R K Salai]. We were introduced to this place a few years ago by my cousin, another Stonethrower. Malgudi serves the cuisine from the 4 Southern states – Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The food is good, the staff very knowledgeable and courteous. An advantage is that you get booze. The disadvantage is, that is much more expensive, however by Mumbai standards it’s still cheap. This restaurant is a class up from Anjappar. I ordered a beer and this is what I got. Thankfully the label was a lie. It was normal beer as the label on the back said.

First up, Kozhi Rassam or Chicken Rassam. Yes folks Chicken Rassam, also available Crabmeat Rassam. Very good, hot and peppery, however, the Rib Bone soup at Anjappar was better. This was shared by us – `One by two’ – as they say in Indian English. After that it was Aattu Eraiche Veruval Dry. This was a dry Mutton dish. Kadipatta, and spice. Absolutely wonderful. We thought the dish would be served with the staples but, since it was dry, it was served as a starter. The aroma of this dish was quite something. In fact as I type, after multiple hand washes, my fingers still smell of the spice from the dish. After that high level of spice, HRH the Queen of Kutch wanted to have something milder so she ordered a Kerala Mutton Ishtew with String Hoppers or Iddiappam. I ordered my new favourite Egg Kothu. Once again very good food. The Iddiappam soaked the mild Ishtew and the Egg Kothu with its spice was blunted by the mild Ishtew. All in all a good combination, even though the Kothu and the Ishtew were from different states.

Paniyaram and UFO - Unidentified Fried Object 

 Kozhi Rassam or Chicken Rassam

 Aattu Eraiche Veruval Dry

Kerala Mutton Ishtew

String Hoppers

Egg Kottu Parotta 

I believe that it is a crying shame that the cuisine of the 4 Southern states Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh are so under-represented in India. The clichéd Idli-Dosa-Vada restaurants [more often than not owned by Shetty’s or restaurateurs from Udipi] are from Karnataka and not Tamil Nadu. In Mumbai, Andhra food does not exist. Many years ago RR the Andhra restaurant opened on Lamington Road, but downed its shutters in a very short while. The food from Tamil Nadu simply does not exist. Food from Kerala is available in a few downmarket restaurants catering to the migrant hawker community, or is available at a stray Indian restaurant in a 5 Star hotel. Yes, the non-vegetarian food from Karnataka has become popular in Mumbai with the Mahesh Lunch Home, Apoorva, Trishana and others of this type opening and popularising the food. Mind you, contrary to popular perception the food from the Southern States is not vegetarian. The food is as spicy as North Indian, does not have to be coconut based and does have a lot of deep fried dishes. Chicken 65 a completely bastardised Chinese/South Indian dish combining Soya Sauce, MSG and Kadipatta is a delight to eat. Honestly. It is one of life’s mysteries why the cuisine of the 4 Southern states is not more popular.

So folks. All in all, a great short stay in Chennai.

Fully recommended.

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