Charmed by Chennai's food and flair
VISITING Chennai in June is a heatstroke waiting to happen, my friends tell me when I inform them of an imminent shopping trip.
Unfortunately, coordinating a trip with a group of people means that sometimes the most ideal time to travel is when the sun scorches with an unforgiving vengeance.
Chennai is a fascinating city where beauty is often juxtaposed with chaos.
Thousands travel every year to a city where reverence for the religious coexists with a blatant disregard for man-made rules. Pictures of Hindu gods, for instance, are plastered on walls to effectively prevent public urination.
So we come up with a plan.
Let's find the oasis in chaotic Chennai, suggests a friend.
GRAND STAY, FUSION FOOD
Sitting atop a knoll in Thygaraya Nagar, or T. Nagar for short, Grand by GRT Hotels recently went through a massive makeover. The result is lush and quirky, with colourful furniture and antique displays.
Each floor of the hotel is designed to a theme, reflected in the art and decor hanging along the corridor.
Stepping out of the lift onto the fourth floor, we are greeted by a life-sized portrait of a Bharatanatyam dancer - with a mirror for a face.
Adding to the contemporary boutique feel of the hotel is an unconventional restaurant.
J.Hind, a speciality restaurant, is located on the first floor of the hotel. I marvel at the ingenuity of the name, which stands for Jugalbandhi Hindu-stani (Jugalbandhi is a duet between musicians).
It replicates the patriotic "Jai Hind" chant (victory to India in English) while also describing the restaurant's menu - fusing the contemporary with traditional Indian food.
Every guest is greeted with an amuse-bouche of mango pulp and yogurt yolks with a sweet shot of pomegranate in coconut water.
The menu is a good read - dishes such as Bottle Biryani (literally, a lamb biryani served in a bottle) and Dosa Pops (thosai batter with nuts and fruit on an ice-cream stick dipped in honey) stand out.
The menu is not the only thing that catches my eye. I notice a waiter pushing a cart and leaving a dramatic trail of liquid nitrogen in his wake.
There are two dishes on the menu that involve liquid nitrogen. One is a frozen chaat dish and the other, a mango lassi sorbet.
In both instances, the waiter makes the dish in front of you, explaining his actions along the way.
Food performances are not limited to the cold variety.
The cream cheese on our red velvet cake is torched at our table, mildly shocking me.
ESCAPING CHENNAI'S CHAOS
To escape the hustle and bustle of Chennai life, Amethyst is an absolute must-visit. Situated on Whites Road in Royapettah, it transports you into a whole new realm of relaxation.
Kiran Rao, who opened the first Amethyst just five minutes away at Gopalapuram, decided in 2010 to restore a granary warehouse into a quaint cafe-boutique.
Big trees offer shelter to a small path lined with little picket signs, plants, stacked pottery and chipped statues.
The path opens up to the veranda of the restaurant - where people sit and dine - but there are tables and chairs in the restaurant and dotting the gardens as well.
Relaxing on the veranda, the cacophony of the Chennai traffic almost seems a distant memory.
The occasional high-pitched truck horn squawks in a jarring duet with the singing birds.
Frogs croak to the rhythm of a different song.
The menu features very interesting takes on food, like Sambar Risotto and Bok Choy and Mushroom Soup. Trying out western food designed for the Indian palette is an experience I'm always up for.
On the second level of the building is the boutique, aptly named Upstairs.
There, you can buy or gawk at one-of-a-kind antique jewellery, labels by Indian designers and a bookshop.
While most items are pricey, doing a thorough search may get you a piece of jewellery or a book at a steal.
Whenever we are on the way back from a holiday destination, my friend and I like to ask each other a question: Given the choice, would you live there?
I've always thought of visiting India as a challenge.
Navigating through the crowds, speaking the language and staying safe have always been some of my top concerns.
However, this trip took me by surprise.
I have to say my answer has changed after this visit.