Sensational seafood at Stix, HRC

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While Chennai restaurants do serve seafood, it's surprising that for a coastal city, there are only a couple of exclusive seafood restaurants. When the chef from Stix, Hyatt Regency Chennai decided to go fishing, he ended up combining the bounties of the sea with some spicy Sichuan ingredients that resulted in a promotion called "Seafood Sensation with Chef Sun."


Chef Sun has been enjoying the past few mornings at the Marina Beach, picking up fish, crabs, squid and prawns. I had an invite to the promotion and I was curious to see how local seafood varieties would taste, not with the usual South Indian masalas but with typical Sichuan ingredients like chillies, peppercorns, scallions and maybe even doubanjiang or spicy bean sauce.

Mackerel with black bean sauce

Stix serves some delicious Sichuan food but this cuisine is not necessarily spicy. In fact, it's a harmony of spice and salt, smoky and sweet. The mackerel on the menu that evening was tossed through a black bean sauce. Take my word - it's delicious.

Seafood hargow

Crispy prawn in scallion sauce

Crispy prawns in scallion sauce were served in the shell. It lived up to its name - no need to shell them and crisp enough to be eaten whole.

Wok-tossed ladyfish with Sichuan peppers. The combination of fresh fish and piquant sauce is fabulous

Grouper with mushroom soy sauce

Pomfret with pickled chilli sauce

Chinese sauces go so well with the delicate flesh of pomfret. The pickled chilli sauce it was coated with had bits of heat and tang and the fresh, firm-fleshed fish was the perfect way to taste them all together.

Crab in pepper sauce; squid in oyster sauce

With seafood this fresh, light marinades and sauces bring out the sweetness of the meat, as the crab in pepper sauce did. The meat was so succulent; just dig in with your hands as that's the only way to enjoy crab.

Some of the ingredients in Chef Sun's culinary arsenal. Nah, not that spicy!

Chef Sun cooks everything in a wok. As he works, his wok and the ladle become extensions of his arms and it's therapeutic to watch him toss ingredients and catch them all back in the wok. For a man who knows no English and communicates with the help of a translation app on his phone, he knows exactly what his customers want.

The menu depends on the day's catch and there's usually 2 ways that it's prepared. The regular Stix menu is also offered but I think the seafood goes best with steamed rice.

Fried ice cream

Our dessert was fried ice cream with chocolate sauce. This must be one of the best I've had, loved the crisp coating of batter with the faint aroma of coconut. Perfect execution too!

Seafood Sensation with Chef Sun is on till July 2nd. An a la carte meal for 2 would be about 3000/++. 

Kaiseki Zen at Spectra

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There was nothing zen-like about the weather that night. Intermittent rain flooded the roads leading to the Leela Palace Chennai and when we were finally seated inside Spectra, we could see flashes of lightning that lit up the beach. What drama!

Sake - light, delicate and a little sweet 

Slowly, the elements quietened down as if in a bid to provide us with the perfect setting of traditional Japanese meal.

More than mere food, for a Japanese chef, Kaiseki Zen is an art form though which he can express his creativity. Prepared with much care and served in courses somewhat like a set meal, the colour, taste, texture and the arrangement of food is given utmost importance. Each course has a different method of cooking and usually includes a pickled appetiser, sashimi, soup and a grilled dish (there could be more). At Spectra, the meal had been conceptualised by Executive Chef Dharmen Makawana and we had been invited to experience it at the Chef's Table.


The meal started with a salad with two kinds of lettuce, thin slices of cucumber, halved cherry tomatoes and topped with kaiso, a kind of seaweed that had a gelatinous texture and a slightly fishy taste. The dressing was light and delicious - sweet, salty and a little vinegary and it doubled up as a palate cleanser.

Different kinds of seaweed that went into our meal - kombu; kaiso & wakame

Tamagoyaki (egg roll); scallop; salmon; tuna; hamachi; sushi; pickled radish; pickled ginger & wasabi


It is served on individual plates that are chosen with as much care as the preparation of the food itself because it showcases not just the chef's skill but also the respect he has shown the food. The tamagoyaki was skillfully made, topped with a little mayo and crunchy roe. Each slice of fish was so fresh and delightful - the salmon, striped with bands of fat just melted in the mouth. The hosomaki had fresh tuna as filling, delicious with pickled ginger and the dynamite wasabi paste. The colours, the textures - everything hummed with freshness and flavour.

Tempura

The next course was tempura - eggplant, prawn and ladies finger in a crunchy tempura coating. There was a soy-based dipping sauce to dunk them into.

Miso soup; steamed rice; grilled salmon

The last course was miso soup, steamed rice and grilled salmon. The soup had small cubes of silken tofu and wakame and I found the umami flavours delicious. The dashi stock was not as strong and overwhelming as it is in some restaurants. Eat it with the sticky rice for the whole experience. My favourite was the lightly grilled slice of salmon served skin-on with teriyaki sauce. Simple presentation, simple flavours and a gorgeous slice of fish to end the meal with.

Kaiseki  Zen will be presented at Spectra every day for lunch and dinner till 2nd July. Prices start from 1350/++ onward.


Flavours of Chettinad and the king of fruits

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Phoenix MarketCity at Velachery has a little secret tucked away inside the mall - a hotel!
Design Hotel by j├╝Sta is a 4 star luxury boutique hotel with 26 rooms. I know a lot of folks who are surprised when they learn of the presence of a hotel in the mall.

Annam Cafe 

Annam Cafe is the restaurant located within the hotel. It was my third visit there and what I like about it is that it is a quiet space, a great place to meet up with someone for coffee or a meal rather than in one of the restaurants in the mall.

A group of us had been invited to review the ongoing "Chettinad festival with the King of Fruit". King of fruit - that has to be mango, right? So mango and Chettinad food. What's the connection?

Chef Suresh

We're almost at the end of the mango season  but Cafe Annam still had a few aces up its sleeve. To answer my question, Chef Suresh plonked a small bowl filled with some brown stuff in front of me - ripe mango pulp, a blend of spices, tamarind and jaggery. Sweet, tangy, yummy. He tells us he will be serving some of it with our meal.

Mango juice with a twist

We got mango juice to sip on. It wasn't just mango juice, something else added to the acidity. There were brown flecks floating in my drink and that's when the chef let on that it was lime pickle skin. Of course! Chettinad is famous for its pickles and the line of pickle jars decorating the open kitchen should have given me the hint. It is an apt pairing.

Kozhi varuval; broccoli & cauliflower peratal; cheesy onion stacks

Chettinad spiced kozhi varuval has cubes of tender chicken tossed in home ground spices. Typical aromatic Chettinad spices like fennel, chillies and coriander could be identified but there was one other that intruded into it all - that of tomatoes and it stood out like a sore thumb. The broccoli and cauliflower peratal was mildly spiced and I would have liked it more if it had been cooked a little less. Both starters came with a stack of cheese and yoghurt coated onion rings. That was a nice touch.

Chicken & mutton Chettinad; parathas

Flaky parathas were served with chicken and mutton Chettinad. Both gravies tasted the same; I preferred the one with mutton. The main course was served in brass thalis.

The thali


Chicken & mutton kothu paratha

Some heavy thumping was going on in the background and the reason was soon served to us - kothu parathas. Once again, they tasted quite similar except for the protein. The perfect accompaniment was Chef Suresh's ripe mango chutney that toned down the spice levels in the kothu paratha and added a lovely touch of sweetness.  

Delicious mango chutney; raita


Nadar-style mutton korma; ghee rice

The ghee rice was aromatic and an absolutely no-frills dish. Long grained rice had been cooked to perfection with just the right amount of whole spices and garnished with fried onions - simple flavours and presentation that showed restraint. Nadar-style mutton korma had well cooked cubes of mutton, thickened with ground coconut and seasoned with an aromatic mix of spices.

Mango pannacotta; baked yoghurt

Plated desserts - pannacotta and baked yoghurt

A counter separates the kitchen from the dining area and we all stood there watching the chef plate the desserts on large slate tiles. He scraped a blob of mango puree across the centre, added a line of chocolate soil and then arranged chopped mango and blueberry compote in the spaces. On one, he placed pannacotta triangles and on the other, quenelles of baked yoghurt and finished both plates with edible mango-yellow marigold flowers. The baked yoghurt was fabulous.

Chef Suresh's Chettinad and mango flavours did throw up some surprises. In the hands of a competent chef, magic can happen.

The Journey of Chettinad with the King of Fruits is on till June 25th. The timings for the special menu are from 1 - 3 pm and from 7 - 10 pm.

Annam Cafe
Design Hotel by Justa
3rd Floor, Phoenix MarketCity.
9962-349-299/ 044 - 66300888.



Nizami Ramadan Repast at Spice Haat, HRC

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The aroma of ghee wafted across the entrance of the restaurant. At the live cooking stations, chefs were warming up portions of haleem and stirring in a little more ghee before filling small bowls with them. A topping of fried onions, a little chopped coriander and a squeeze of lime juice later, they were served to waiting diners. But my eyes were riveted on the raan. The roasted leg of lamb was covered by a blanket of masala and only the end bones were visible. The chef carved out a few slices, warmed it up in his skillet with some more masala and a spoonful of ghee. It was transferred to another skillet and topped with chopped coriander leaves before it too was taken away, only the aroma lingered in the air.

Haleem

Hyderabadi food developed in part because in the time of the Nizams, cooks worked on other cuisines and incorporated them with their own. This accounts for the popularity and uniqueness of the Hyderabadi biryani and other meat-based dishes the region is known for.
Friends on Facebook have been bemoaning the lack of good haleem in the city. The first time I had haleem was a few decades ago when an aunt's Hyderabadi friend sent some home. That was also the first time I was hearing of this dish that is popular in the subcontinent. Haleem is a stew of mutton, wheat, lentils and spices cooked over low heat for hours and then beaten into a thick paste-like consistency and garnished with fried onions. To call it a stew would be a disservice to all the work that is invested in making it. Calorific and filling, it is ideal for those breaking their day-long fast during the month of Ramadan. Spice Haat's haleem was dense and creamy, the aroma of ghee and mutton was divine. There's also a version made with vegetables for those who do not eat meat.

Dum ki raan

Dum ki raan, on the other hand was luscious. Tender meat and the perfect blend of spices, red chilli and cashewnut paste. Just wow!

Subz shammi kebab; paneer potli; tandoor gobi; murgh tikka; mutton seekh; achari macchi

Of the appetisers, tandoori gobi musallam and murgh tikka kali mirch were excellent - the lingering taste of mustard oil on the cauliflower was the perfect finishing touch.

Kacche ki gosht biryani

Cooking biryani is like a science project - it should either be perfect or the imperfections will be all too obvious. There's another challenge to cooking a kacche ki gosht biryani - the meat used is raw and if any of the proportions are off, it could result in overcooked or undercooked rice and / or meat. The right amount of liquid is crucial to  this method. Chef Surender's was aromatic, flavourful and could give every other biryani a run for its money; each grain of rice was separate, speckled and the meat was fall-of-the-bone tender. Mirchi ka salan, biryani's faithful companion, was equally delicious. The familiar flavours of  dessicated coconut, peanuts and sesame seeds, the tang of tamarind - they were all there. What bliss!

Mirchi ki salan

Dawat e murgh

Hyderabadi subz biryani

All veg: Nizami handi; lauki musallam; paneer do pyaza; dal saat nizam

Rotis & naans

Double ka meetha; kubani ka meetha; sheer khurma

Double ka meetha, the Hyderabadi version of a bread pudding is usually made with slices of sandwich bread but here, the cubes were rather large and was difficult to cut into them towards the centre, The outside was nice and sweet. The kubani ka meetha, the famous stewed apricot was disappointing, tasting like liquid jam. In Hyderabad, it is always served with fresh dairy cream to cut down on the sweetness.  

Double ka meetha

The Nizami Ramadan Repast is on till June 25th, 7.30 pm onwards and is priced at 1450/++ per head.

Strawberry lassi

Flavours of Chicken at the Punjab Grill

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How many ways can you cook a chicken?

As a protein, chicken readily lends itself to almost all methods of cooking. Masterchef Vijay Sethi of Punjab Grill has curated an heirloom menu, "Flavours of Chicken" that presents chicken 9 ways, from soup to starter to main course. If you love chicken, this is one celebration that you need to try out.

Punjab Grill

The few times I've been to Phoenix MarketCity, the mall has been too crowded for comfort. But I've just discovered the best time to be there - on a Tuesday evening.

Aamras; kesar pisteywala lassi; mattha

The restaurant is a bright space, orange and cream-coloured upholstery give it a good vibe. Because there are no walls within, it gives the impression of being a large room (it probably is). Black table mats have printed golden motifs; the logo - the stylised head of a lion, is prominently displayed at the entrance, on the mats, on cocktail stirrers and even etched on the plates. Invited to review the new menu, we were asked first to select our drinks. We ordered half glasses of golden-hued Kesar Pisteywali lassi and Mattha - refreshing buttermilk with ginger, coriander and green chilli. We also sipped on a tangy Aamras which needed a little more of the masala. The lassi was delightful and came topped with a khoa peda.

Sliced onions & mint chutney; murgh shorba 

The Murgh Shorba was mildly flavoured and could have done with a little more barley. It's healthy, right? There were tiny bits of chicken in the broth and these 2 ingredients gave the broth a lovely texture but I couldn't understand what role the sliced beans had in the scheme of things.

From left: murgh ki chaampein; murgh dalcha tikka; tamarind tandoori wings; charga kukkad

Chef Sethi has given a slight twist to some of the classics - Tamarind Tandoori chicken wings is one of them. In a south-meet-north encounter, tamarind is used to give a hint of acidity to the tandoori masala; a bit more tamarind would have added oomph to the meat. Tender, boneless Murgh Dalcha Tikka was definitely a star, the paste of mashed lentil and spices covered the beautifully cooked meat in a velvety coat. Murgh Ki Chaampein was the best among the starters. It had been marinated in a perfect blend of spices and yoghurt and then baked in a tandoor. Far too often, meat cooked in the tandoor comes out charred but whoever was cooking these obviously had an eye on them and didn't let them burn. Not all the starters were cooked in the tandoor - Charga kukkad, a Lahore speciality, had been fried, the meat was succulent but bland.

Top: Murgh kofta; murgh roast fateh wal; churchur naan; aloo murgh ki tehri; raw mango chicken curry

Of the mains, Raw Mango Chicken Curry was unusual. We loved the slight sourness of raw mango and heat from green chillies, a delicious accompaniment to both naan and rice. The sole rice dish, Aloo Murgh ki Tehri is a layered pulao with chicken and baby potatoes. It too was light and mildly spiced; grated carrots gave the aromatic rice a little crunch. For me, it was a nice change from the usual biryani that's heavy on spices and oil.

Churchur naan; chicken and gravies

Chur Chur Naan (love the name) was stuffed with finely chopped cauliflower and apricots. The dough was a mix of semolina, rice and wheat flours and had been rolled out thick so as to hold the filling and was crisp when cooked. I did wonder if the apricots had been left out inadvertently.

Lime pickle-based Acharoska; Chakunder kanji masala. That Acharoska - mmm...

Phirni; litchi ki tehri

For dessert, we were asked to try Phirni and Litchi ki Tehri. Both were stunning but the litchi won hands down. The milk had been thickened and tasted like condensed milk - now who doesn't like condensed milk?


"Flavours of Chicken" at Punjab Grill is an interesting concept but needs a little tweaking to amp up the flavours. The menu will be served till the end of June and a meal for 2 is priced at 1700/++.


 
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