Friday, 20 September 2013

CHENNAI CHRONICLES: Gastronomic Tour of Five States in One Meal at Cafe Mercara Express

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

Cafe Mercara Express at the ITC Grand Chola has the look
of an opulent gentlemen's club, but its jukebox, milk shakes
bar and eclectic menu set it apart from the competition
A WINE, it is said, is as good as the intention that goes into making it. The word ‘grand’ in ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, expresses one such lofty intention — the intention to be bigger and better than the competition. Being bigger is the least of all challenges — it’s the job a builder of buildings can accomplish with the help of an architect’s drawings. Being better is what sets apart builders of institutions.
I will have plenty of opportunities to discuss the architectural marvels of the ITC Grand Chola, but I must begin with my impressions of Café Mercara Express, where I had a grand lunch in the company of the hotel’s Vice President and General Manager, Philippe H. Charraudeau, Atul Bhalla, who has moved to Chennai after serving as General Manager, ITC Windsor, Bangalore, and my dear friend, Richa Sharma, who’s the General Manager, Media Relations, ITC Hotels.
We conversed like old friends, with Charraudeau, Atul and I exchanging notes on Dubai — Bhalla had worked in Dubai in 1994-95, Charraudeau was at the Burj al-Arab in the early 2000s (he still remembers a young Rishi Raj Singh, now the F&B chief of ITC Maurya, as a newbie at Dubai’s landmark hotel) and I had been to the emirate with my Delhi Gourmet Club co-founder, Atul Sikand, to attend Gulfood 2013 in February. As our conversation at Café Mercara Express, the 24-hour restaurant that looks more like a fashionable gentleman’s club, veered from Chennai and Dubai, lubricated by a Gewurtztraminer from Chateau Ste Michelle at Columbia Valley in Washington, USA, selected by Wine & Beverages Manager Shaariq Akhtar, the food just kept coming in, wowing us with every bite.
Mercara is the old name of the lush green hill station now called Madikeri, and like the place it has been inspired by, the 24-hour restaurant has a languid pace. You can be there for hours and not know how time has gone by. Its tables have amusing decorative pieces with multi-coloured frolicking cows (including one splayed like a pasha in a tub spilling over with chocolate). That’s because this is one restaurant that takes its milk shakes seriously. But we weren’t there to have milk shakes. Our meal had a representative dish from each of the five southern states — and what a treat it was!
We started with the Madras Fried Chicken (juicy, slightly hot and deliciously reminiscent of Chicken 65) and Meen Varuval, or griddle-fried kingfish marinated lightly with red chilli, lemon juice, ginger and garlic (a delicately flavoured beauty). With the two getting our gastric juices racing, we couldn’t just wait to have the Mangalorean fish curry (gassi) that arrived on a bed of rice-batter string hoppers (idiappam). Believe me, I have not had a better gassi in a long time — not that you get anything half-way decent in Delhi, not even at Swagath.
Immediately after the gassi, Shaariq produced a 2008 E. Guigal Crozes Hermitage from the Rhone Valley — this plump red wine, critics say, is getting better with age; it’s certainly great value for money. Its peppery notes and spicy nose were just right for the trio of dishes that followed — Chemeen Mapas, prawns in a luscious coconut milk and green chilli curry from Kerala, which I couldn’t stop licking; Venchina Mamsam, the dry lamb preparation from Andhra Pradesh, which left a sweet and tangy aftertaste because of the caramelised onions; and the Keeral Kootu, a silken urad dal with spinach.
The wine danced with the food, but then came the surprise of the meal — a Indochine liqueur from Domaine de Canton prepared from baby Vietnamese ginger. It was a palate cleanser, Shaariq informed us. Well, it certainly set us in the right frame of mind for the divine Elaneer Payasam (sweetened coconut milk simmered with pods of cardamom). And for the evening, which promises to be even better (if it’s possible!). You’ll have to read my next blog post to find out about it.