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It is now de-rigeur for restaurants to blare out their existence through every means possible. If it is not carpet bombing your social media feed with ‘bloggers’ table’ photos, then maybe a pesky SMS thrice a day? This is after sponsored ads, radio jingles and newspaper space.
Once a while I come across eateries who make no effort to catch your attention outside their plates. They probably decided to invest their budget into better food rather than an Instagram manager. In fact, some of them are so out of the way that you will have to genuinely scout them out.
Here are Chennai’s top 5 hidden food spots -
Jannal Kadai, Ponnambala Vadhyar Street (off the Kapaleeswara temple)
Jannal means window in Tamil and this place is almost literally a ‘window-in-the-wall’. A peek inside reveals a man squatting against the grill, holy vermillion on his forehead, and a plate of potato and onion bajji beside him. Toasty aroma points to a bubbling kadai somewhere beyond the window. The Bajjis are crisp on the outside and spongy on the inside with a slightly yeasty note. Remarkably, they are not oily at all and I have often gone back for seconds.
Rayar's Mess, off Arundale Street, Mylapore
If you have been reading my trends long enough, you would know my fondness for Rayars Mess. It is a 6 by 6 family run establishment with manic devotion to quality. Everything is prepared fresh and nothing is served cold. It is either fresh off the kadai or come-back-another-day. Ideally turn up around 7 AM on a weekend for breakfast and by 5 PM for evening snacks. On most days, Rayars churns out the best Vadas in the world. They are resolutely crunchy and then moist and cotton-ey.
Shri Rajasthani Dhaba, C40, 2nd Avenue, Anna Nagar
Why Shree Rajasthani Dhaba remains a neighbourhood/community secret isn’t quite clear. Sure it is located in an arcane complex mostly housing IAS coaching centres. The name board is angled away from a motorist’s vantage and Anna Nagar is like the Goregaon of Chennai. However, it remains the best Rajasthani (also North Indian vegetarian) Thali in town. Run by a fabric trader from Bikaner, the touch of love shows up in everything from Patli Dal to Gatte ki Sabzi. Daal Baati is a weekend special and their Homemade Kulfi and Malpua are worth every calorie.
Aeseo, 15, East Avenue, Kesavaperumalpuram, Raja Annamalai Puram
This snazzy Korean barbecue is so elusive that it is not even listed on popular restaurant directories. Aeseo is quite content being patronized by the city’s small Korean expat group and Bibimbap fans. The tables are bright, cheery and fitted with a coal barbecue. You can choose cuts of imported meat for tableside grilling or maybe simmer a Budae Jigae (a delicious Spam stew). Feel free to ask for repeats on the Banchan. Aeseo may be elusive but it is gregarious.
On the Rocks, Crowne Plaza Adayar
The ground floor is a swish cocktail lounge with a great wine collection and deep couches. Climb up and it is a whole new space. Fine dining covers with hot lava rocks. These lava rocks are superheated and retain it long enough for you to grill a T-bone. There is a safety warning and optional toque. You can also enjoy some braised lamb shanks and flaky John Dory from Chef Devakumar’s kitchen.
Pro tip - There is a smart smoking room to enjoy the cigar collection on the ground floor.