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June 10, 2007 - Jason Overdorf has reported from India for NEWSWEEK and other publications since 2002. With his in-laws based in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), he’s had the insider’s introduction to the unofficial capital of southern India many times over. Forget fine dining, he says. The good news for foodies is that the best joints to tuck in are dirt cheap. One place near the railway station even sells dosas, idlis, lemon rice and tamarind rice for 6 rupees—20 cents—a plate. Here are some places way off the five-star tourist’s beaten path.
Sarvana Bhavan (77 Usman Road T. Nagar, Phone 2434-5577). Locals swear by this no-nonsense, diner-style restaurant, which offers the full list of vegetarian Tamil staples and has opened branches as far away as California. Traditional South Indian grub comes in two basic categories in Chennai, “tiffin” and “meals,” and Sarvana Bhavan offers both. For tiffin, try a combo of idli, dosa and vada, all of which come with a spicy tamarind-lentil curry called sambar and coconut, tomato and mint chutneys. Idlis are fluffy steamed rice cakes, dosas are slightly sour pancakes made from a fermented mixture of rice and lentil flour, and vadas are tiny, spicy doughnuts. For “meals” (i.e., curry and rice), your best bet is the thali or “dish.” It comes with four different vegetables, sambar, rasam, rice and puffed fried bread called puri. For full style points, eat with your fingers—right hand only!—from a banana-leaf plate.
Anjappar (#7/2, J.P. Towers, Nungambakkam High Road, Phone : 825 6662, 8217200). Founded as the Anjappar Chettinadu Military Hotel in 1965 (“military” because it serves the meat soldiers crave), Anjappar has risen to the top among Chennai’s many restaurants specializing in food from the Chettinad region of southern Tamil Nadu. There’s a veg and nonveg side to the place, but only a Brahmin would eschew the incredible spicy meat gravy and delicacies like “country chicken” (pheasant). Make things easy on yourself and order the all-you-can-eat nonveg “meals” (don’t worry, it arrives in the singular despite being ordered in the plural). If you come in a crowd, order one “meals” each and ask your waiter to recommend some interesting side dishes. He won’t suggest veggies. Not for the chili-impaired.
Kumarakom (AB 105 4th Avenue, Shanti Colony, Anna Nagar; 4261-1877). This restaurant serves food from the neighboring state of Kerala, which you must not leave India without sampling. Your best bet here is to order a la carte. Try the karimeen pollichathu (pearl spot fish that is stuffed with spices and grilled in a banana leaf). This dish is to Kerala what crawfish etoufee is to Louisiana or chili crabs to Singapore. Don’t miss it. Other good bets include the prawn fry (which isn’t what you expect) and beef olarthiyathu (yes, beef!). For veggies, get an order of avial—a melange of root vegetables and green beans cooked in a coconut and green chili paste.
Zara’s (74 Cathedral Road, Mylapore; 2811-1462). Pretty much the only bar worth visiting in Chennai, Zara’s serves Spanish-style tapas with an international twist. Depending on the whims of government, you may or may not be able to order imported booze. But the bartenders can mix a good cocktail even when forced to resort to I.M.F.L. (Indian-made foreign liquor), the crowd is as chic as Chennai gets and noticeably short on red-eyed mustachioed marauders glowering over their whiskeys. And if you go heavy on seafood, the tapas are as good as any you’d find in, say, Cleveland. A few tapas and a couple drinks may run you $25-$40, so carry more cash than you needed at the other joints.