Sunday, 21 December 2008

Destination Chettinad

Anjappar may hit the nail on the basics, but its dishes don’t translate the same flavour, discovers Sneha May Francis

This weekend I decided to take a gourmet journey to the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Chettinad cuisine is the more established fiery flavour of Tamil Nadu. And Anjappar is just an extension of the renowned cuisine, it’s celebrated for its pungent fiery dishes. And at some point in our lives we've all gorged on Anjappar delicacies at its various outlets across India. But for Dubai, this was our first pit-stop.

Anjappar is modestly decorated, minus any luxurious trimmings. This place is only about food and nothing else. So don't walk in expecting a five-star experience. Each of the two floors is packed with tables and there’s a tiny pin-up board, next to the cashier, which features print-outs of the day's specialties.

Though we walked in late on a Friday afternoon, we almost immediately found ourselves a table. But we had to wait a few minutes before the waiters cleared the previous customers’ leftovers! Once seated the waiter was quick to help us with the orders, always prompting us to choose one dish over another. We decided to let him do the honours.

Within minutes, our table was fast filling up with different shaped silver plates, each with an aromatic preparation.

We treated our hungry tummys to crispy Anjappar Fried Chicken, reddish succulent chunks of Chicken 65 and spiced Chettinad Prawn. Each starter brought forward a distinctly different gourmet story, each as enjoyable and delicious as the other. Each dish was presented with a lump of shredded onions, carrots and a lemon chunk. Give a lavish squeeze of lemon on the dishes to give it a twang.

For the main course, the Non-Veg Thali was the most striking to the eye! Round-shaped tiny steel dishes were placed on a thin sheet of banana leaf along a large circular plate. Each dish was filled with an assortment of flavours – Sambhar, Chicken Chettinad, Mutton gravy, Fish gravy, Kootu, Porial, Rasam, Curd and payasaam. A ghee-laden Chapathi and a crispy Appalam was placed in the centre. The Thali etiquettes require you to finish the chappathi before asking the waiter to serve you rice. Being a South Indian and an ardent fan of all kinds of Sambhar, I found the Anjappar version a tad too insipid. That's what I think went wrong. The Sambhar is the unseen flavour that binds all the other dishes, and once this fails, all else falls short. The only saving grace in this kaleidoscope of flavours was the spiced Chicken Chettinad.

The biryanis, both egg and mutton, are nothing spectacular. Their zest doesn't stir anything in their f(l)avour. The biryanis in Anjappar's Indian outlets are far, far superior to its Dubai version. Even the parotas failed to impress and the reddish King Fish Fry was nothing to write home about.

However, the Karaikudi Mutton, the day's special dish, ignited our tastebuds. Named after the capital city of the Chettinad region, this dish did essay the true essence of the cuisine. The riot of spices enveloped the mutton chunks, adding a fiery zing to the dish. Even the spicy Nattukoli Kulambu, named in true Chettinad lingo, was impressive.

The sweet dish (payasaam) served with the Thali was nothing exciting, so we decided to satisfy our sweettooth with scoops of plain chocolate and vanilla ice-cream.

Even though the restaurant follows closely on the Chettinad tradition, with the menu sporting a number of authentic dishes named in the original lingo and serving only a mix of meat and seafood eaten by the Chettiars (the trading community of the region), the food falls short of the original twang. So if you are looking for authentic Chettinad fare, I suggest you give this one a miss!

Bill for 4:
Mutton Biryani Dh18
Egg Biryani Dh13
Kerala Parota (2) Dh5
Non-veg Thali Dh17
Nattukoli Kulambu Dh20
Chettinad Prawn Dh25
Karaikudi Mutton (Special) Dh23
Chicken 65 Dh15
Anjappar Fried Chicken Dh19
King Fish Fry Dh17
Lime soda (4) Dh20
Vanilla ice-cream Dh6
Chocolate ice-cream Dh6
Total: Dh204

Anjappar 043356116

Published in e+, Gulf News (issue dec25-31,2008)

Monday, 15 December 2008

A Cheese-y Heaven

Carino's transports you to a world trimmed with the finest Italian cuisine, discovers Sneha May Francis

What better way to kick off your weekend than with a delectable bowl of creamy pasta. It’s definitely not a healthy option. So we decided to give our diets a pause and indulged ourselves in a cheesy heaven.

As it’s nestled in a paradise for shopaholics, finding Carino's Italian Grill may need some walking around. Once inside, it instantly takes you to a land of herbs and spices. The interiors are an eclectic rush of colours. The walls are shaded with framed black and white photographs, and coloured ceramic pots deck the half walls.

The cool winter weather prompted us to chose the sunny outdoors with the simple décor to the cozy colourful interiors. Our friendly waiter guided us through the menu, emphasising the favourites. And while our order was being prepared, we bit into the soft Italian herbed bread after giving it a lavish dip in olive oil.

For starters, we decided on the Sicilian Fire Sticks. These are, by far, the most unusual looking starters I've ever had. The pinkish cylindrical cones were artistically placed in an inverted cone-shaped dish. Each bite into the crispy crunchy tortilla wraps burst into a cheesy blend of beef sausage, grilled chicken, bacon, tomatoes and jalapenos. I suggest you give up on your table manners and give the fork and knife a skip. Give it a lavish dip in the spicy marinara or cool ranch sauce before taking a huge bite.

For the main course, we picked the tried and tested Homemade Baked Lasagna. It melted in our mouths, teasing our tastebuds with the right blend of cheese and minced beef in a scrumptious meaty sauce. And for those with spicy cravings, a dash of tabasco sauce would do wonders. The Spicy Shrimp and Chicken was a creamy mix of flavours. The cayenne pepper and romano cream sauce with chunks of sun-dried tomatoes perfectly complemented the succulent tiger prawns and slices of grilled chicken. Another favourite was the Chicken Milano. The tender chicken breast was sautéed to perfection, baked with layers of cheese, ham and sprinkled with fresh basil. The creamy fettuccine alfredo was the perfect accompaniment.

The only disappointment was the Grilled New York Strip, which is "new" on the menu. Even though the waiter recommended the Tuscan Ribeye, we decided to go with our choice of steak. The meat was insipid, the bunch of sautéed green beans and crunchy red bell peppers didn't do much for the dish. Among the drinks, the Sicilian Sea Breeze (a tangy cranberry mocktail) was refreshing, while the Catalina Sunrise (a melon, orange and mango juice concotion) was syrupy sweet.

At the end of our meal, a dish of tiramisu was tempting, but our meal left us wanting for more tummy space! The helpings were lavish and was a struggle for poor eaters like me. So if you have a tiny appetite, I suggest you share a dish with your pal.

All in all, it was a perfect beginning to our lazy weekend. So the next time you head to the festival city, make sure you keep some free tummy space for Carino's!

Bill for 4:
Sicilian Fire Sticks Dh45
Homemade Baked Lasagna Dh48
Grilled New York Strip Dh66
Spicy Shrimp & Chicken Dh49
Chicken Milano Dh48
Sicillian Sea Breeze Dh18
Catalina Sunrise Dh18
Coca Cola (2) Dh16
Total: Dh308
Carino's, Dubai Festival City042325744

Published in e+, Gulf News (December18-25,2008)

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Bangalore to Dubai

Sneha May Francis takes a nostalgic journey to find out if the restaurant retains its Bangalore flavour

No trip to the Indian city of Bangalore is complete without a night stop at the bustling Empire restaurant. Its legendary butter chicken and ghee rice have fed many a party-goer and left its mark on the Lonely Planet pages. And hoping to recreate the same magic, the hotel group has opened its first branch in Al Qusais. Being a true Bangalorean, I decided to do the litmus test along with three other true-blue Bangaloreans.

As we walked into the Bangalore Empire restaurant, we were greeted with the familiar hustle-bustle. Not a single table was vacant, each filled with people of different nationalities. So we waited a few minutes before being taken to our table. The waiter handed out the menu and we immediately scanned it for our favourites and weren’t disappointed.We decided to kick-start our nostalgic journey with the famous chicken kebabs and Tandoori chicken. The crunchy reddish chicken kebabs and tandoori chicken were as delicious as we remembered them. A bite into the succulent, spicy pieces of chicken left us craving for more. The meat was presented on a modest white plate with a pile of threaded onions, topped with a large lemon slice and a dollop of ginger pickle.

For the main course, we ordered the customary ghee rice and butter chicken. The mildly flavoured spiced rice, cooked with just the right amount of ghee, complemented the tender chunks of meat cooked in a rich buttery tomato gravy. The restaurant promised more than the usual. The Chicken Tikka Masala, succulent pieces of chicken cubes cooked to perfection with a host of spices in a tomato base, tingled our tastebuds. The Mutton Varaval was another discovery, each bite of the juicy mutton pieces left a burst of coconut-infused flavours that lingered in our mouths. However, the Prawns Dry didn’t quite live up to our expectations. The sweet meat was overcooked and the flavours didn’t blend. For the vegetarians, Paneer Butter Masala (chunks of cottage cheese cooked in a thick, organish sweet gravy) is a winner.

We ordered biryani rice (lightly flavoured basmati rice), Tandoori Roti (soft bread cooked in the tandoor oven) as accompaniments. The Kerala Parota (round, flaky south Indian bread) was a tad disappointing. The Chinese dishes also needed some improvement. The Chicken Fried Rice was oily with haphazardly chopped vegetables tossed with insipid chicken chunks.

The Idiyappam Chicken set meal was a stunner. The soft laced appams (a South Indian delicacy) were cooked to perfection and complemented the coconuty Chicken Stew and spicy Chicken curry.

We ended our meal with a chocolate fantasy ice-cream. The strawberry syrup smeared chocolate-vanilla ice-cream combo was plain and no competition for other sundaes, reminding us that this is just a fast-food eatery, not an ice-cream parlour.

And if you are one of those who’d like to try out different dishes without having to order the entire menu, try out the set meals, which are on offer during lunch. The restaurant has a wide range of value meals with a host of dishes that are easy on your wallet.

Talking about the pocket, this is a value-for-money restaurant. Unless you order the entire menu, you can’t possibly go over Dh50 per person.

And this is no luxury restaurant, so don’t expect royal service. This is a humble place where good food takes prominence over all else, be it décor or food presentation. And for us Bangaloreans, the journey was worth it. It was just like we remembered, taking us back in time, feeding our hungry stomachs the way only Empire did and leaving us licking off our fingers.

Published in e+, Gulf News (Dec 11-17, 2008)

Dreams on wheels

Sneha May Francis puts a few readers in the driving seat and lets them zoom on in their fantasy cars

It’s hard to resist these mean machines – the sheer sound of their power can make you go weak in the knees. I’ve always wondered what makes men go ga-ga about a car, even when there is a beautiful woman standing next to it. Guess these machines have a way to a man’s heart, incomprehensible to many. I, for one, am not clued in about engines, but having come to a city that’s choc-a-bloc with the world’s super cars, it’s hard to turn a blind eye. So I take a back seat to see what’s really driving our dreams.

Dubai may be the only city that lets you own your dream car. Mubarak, a UAE national, owns the super Nissan GT-R but has his eyes on the next model, a GTR Spec-V. “It’s the improved version. It’s better, faster, lighter. It’s much more superior to other super cars coming out this year.” Mubarak says his Nissan GT-R has everything he needs. “It’s fast. And when I say fast, I don’t mean only speed. I mean it drives fast around turns, yet it makes you feel safe. And when you are not speeding, you can cruise along as well. It’s got the sophisticated four-wheel system and gives excellent mileage.”

For Noel Ebdon, who hails from Britain, his dream machines are the Suzuki GSXR 1000 for two-wheelers and the Ferrari F430 among the four-wheelers. “The Suzuki GSXR 1000 is the best all-round bike, it’s got the perfect looks and amazing performance. And I believe the Ferrari F40 is the best super car ever to be built”. Noel drives a Range Rover. “I have a weakness for Land Rovers. It’s spacious and powerful.”

Chaitanya Joshi, an Indian project manager who moved to Dubai three years ago, is dazzled by the stunning Bugatti Veyron and hopes to drive it some day. He’s smitten by the car’s ‘batmobile-look’! “This is the fastest commercial vehicle and is completely custom-made,” he says. Joshi, who prefers German engineering to American, claims there are only three people in Dubai who own a Bugatti Veyron, and dreams of being the fourth. But till then he prefers to drive a Honda Civic. “It’s total value for money and has a neat sporty look,” he says. When it comes to everyday driving, Joshi feels the Japanese cars have lots on offer without pinching your pockets.

Usman Khan moved from Pakistan to Dubai over five years ago. He finds it almost impossible to pick a favourite. He names a long list. “From Porsche Cayenne Turbo to Range Rover Sports Recharge to Dodge Charger to Ford Mustang, I like them all,” he says. Khan feels that each car has something different, but the one factor that combines them all is the power. And till he acquires his power, he’s content to drive a Honda Accord. “I think it’s an economical car and easy to handle.”

Walid Mahmoud Abou Khodeir comes from Egypt and has lived here for over seven years. This 37 year old is a fan of Ferrari. “It’s got amazing power, not only on the road but also enough to get you all the attraction! It’s simply the best sports car ever,” he says. For now, Khodeir has to drive the Infiniti FX35. “It’s easy to drive and it has comfortable interiors as well.”

It’s the Aston Martin DB9 that does the magic for Graham Hughes, who moved to Dubai from Britain over a year back. “It’s cool, sleek and full of style. It’s a good combination of power, smoothness and design,” he says. And when he’s not dreaming, Hughes drives a Mitsubishi Pajero. “It’s understated and a comfortable safe drive.”

Gautam C Sreedharan moved from India two years ago. Apart from the good lifestyle it was the love for cars that led him to this city. He eyes the Porsche Cayenne for its looks and powerful engine. “The 4.8 litre gives amazing stability,” he says. His machine now is the Honda CRV, which is “value for money and offers a comfortable driving experience”.

The sazzy Lamborghini Spyder is what leaves Jalal Al Saadi on edge. “It’s about style and power on the roads. Not only does it look super cool, it’s also got a powerful engine to match.” In the real world, the man drives a Mazda 6. “It's a fancy car that can be modified internally and externally,” he says.

Published in e+, Gulf News, Dubai (Dec 11-17, 2008)