Chennai is not the Indian city that comes to mind when you think of global cuisine. I landed here a year ago from Bombay, amid apprehension of journeying into the land of Idli-Dosa. I was wrong and how!
Chennai was in fact ranked amongst top 10 cities to visit in 2015 by the Lonely Plant and BBC Travel, and as one of the hottest food cities in the world by National Geographic. What sets Chennai’s foreign food scene apart is the authenticity and homeliness that the owners bring to their food establishments.
One interesting phenomenon is the number of expat-run places here. A function of the number of MNCs that have set base here.
Here’s a list of my favourite places in Chennai to take a trip around the world.
Japanese at Dahlia, Nungambakkam
Run by a Jap-Tam couple, Dahlia can be frustratingly difficult to find. Housed in the easy-to-miss Kaveri complex, sparse parking can put you off. But persevere, for once you push open that heavy red and black door, a slice of Japan awaits. Mr. Naoki Yamauchi, an ex-seafood importer and his wife Revathi Nagaswami, a former interpreter have been dishing out impeccable, no-nonsense Japanese fare for over 25 years.
Go for the Sushi and Sashimi platter to get a taste of some of the best seafood in the city. My favourite is the fatty tuna sashimi, where the expertly sliced fish melts in your mouth. Also recommended are their set meals of Okkonomiyaki, a savoury Japanese pancake and the sublime fried Tofu, which come with a side of miso (fermented soy bean) soup and a bowl of rice. The shrimp tempura in soba broth is an instant mood lifter. The constant click-click of chopsticks, merry Japanese families and the old TV running Japanese shows further add to the charm. Don't forget to ask nicely for refills of their refreshing barley water.
Korean at In Seoul, Alwarpet
Another hard-to-find eatery, this Korean restaurant is located off TTK Road in Alwarpet. Search for “Global Korean Food” in Google maps if you have trouble find it. Grab a table in the sprawling dining area or a private sit-down cabin, get used to the slim metal chopsticks and hog away. Must-tries include the Spam in broth, bibimbap and the traditional Korean grill, where gorgeous cuts of bulgogi or Pork Belly are grilled right at your table on the embedded gas grill. The wide array of complementary sides, which range from authentic kimchi to pickled octopus will leave you asking for endless repeats as you gulp down shots of Soju, the Korean rice wine.
Belgian Waffles at Waf O’Bel, Nungambakkam
Kristof, a Belgian from Canada landed in the city when his wife started working for the Belgian Trade Commission. He rented out a small corner at the Pizza and Salad joint Eatzaa, imported a couple of impressive machines from Belgium and waffled away. While most prefer the Barry Callebaut and Haagen Daaz dolloped version of the classic Brussels waffle, I prefer the hearty Liege waffles without any accompaniments. Made from leavened dough, these rarities are like the perfect cookies - crisp edges and chewy centres, studded with caramelised Belgian Pearl Sugar. Kristof tells me the magic lies in his prized Waffle Makers, which heat evenly to give his waffles the perfect crispy-chewy texture. In spite of the high quality kitchen gear, the waffles are delightfully affordable!
Italian at Bella Ciao, Kottivakam
My favourite Italian place in town, Bella Ciao is located just off the Kottivakam beach - perfect for dinner, post a moonlight beach walk. The place is run by Ciro Cattaneo and his family, with everyone pitching in. When you see the owner’s family sit down for a meal amongst the patrons, you know you are in good hands. Grab a table in their garden huts and watch your thin-crust pizzas fly out of the huge wood-fired oven. If you are feeling beachy, their Golden Calamari and Seafood Salad is highly recommended. Handmade pastas at Bella Ciao, especially the ricotta stuffed ravioli are the best in the Chennai. Don’t forget to end with Ciro’s Mum’s silky panna cotta.
Iranian at Shiraz Art Cafe, Neelankarai
Located inside the Cholamandalam Art Village, Shiraz is different from the Irani cafes you find in Mumbai and Hyderabad. It serves up what you might eat at a friend’s home in Tehran. Indeed, the owner Nasrin Karimi’s magic lies in the love and warmth she doles out with her food. I recommend gorging on their pilafs and Iranian grills, subtly spiced with mint, saffron and rose water. Nasrin’s Guava granita makes for the perfect thirst quencher on a balmy Chennai afternoon. Shiraz is an art cafe, hence sipping on its version of Irani Chai as you stroll through the beautiful art around shouldn’t be missed.
Russian at Winter Palace, Russian Cultural Centre
Set up in the Russian Cultural Centre, White Palace is the latest addition to this list. I believe it is now the only Russian restaurant in the country after Blini shut down in Delhi. Started by a gentleman with a story as interesting as the food, Sergey Yaroshinsk wandered around with Sadhus in Uttarakhand before opening this place. Tank up on a bowl of steaming Borsch, the classic Russian soup which would have been the perfect remedy to the non-existent Chennai winter. Then munch of the cold cuts of Salo, thinly sliced pork and Stroganina, Russian version of Carpaccio as you down shots of vodka. End your meal of course, with a stack of Blini - Russian crepes slathered in cream cheese and topped with Salmon roe.