Culinary Voyages with Minnie Menon

A new year invariably heralds new beginnings. What better time to kickstart a new column than the month of January? Hence I am delighted to get off the starter’s block at the newest 5-star hotel on the Chennai landscape, Feathers  located in Manapakkam, a tad off the beaten track. It is the fourth hotel from the Radha group, and their first 5-star property. That they have certainly done their groundwork well is apparent from the moment I entered the serene lobby. A warm welcome from the General Manager Rupam Dutta set the right tone for my voyage of discovery. Feathers Hotel exudes a wonderful sense of belonging  as we walked down the spacious corridors  with the green foliage  on the outside merrily peering in through the glass-panelled walls.

We arrived at Waterside, the All Day Dining restaurant. This cheerful 125-seater has the light filtering in wherever one is seated.

I learnt that Rupam Dutta has spent  17 years with the group and is a graduate of the General Manager’s Executive Program at Cornell University. The Executive Chef Lawrence Amalraj joined us. He seems to specialise in the launch of star hotels in leading chains. This is (yes!) his fifth assignment in a row at the launch phase at a premium hotel. Obviously this Masterchef has been handpicked for this critical role.  Both Rupam’s and Lawrence’s passion and knowledge of food set the ball rolling and we got into an animated discussion on all aspects of  cuisine from comfort foods to the  exotic… to their philosophy on the subject . “Simplicity and freshness and a connect with the customer’s palate” are Chef Lawrence’s ground rules while crafting the menus. “No complications,” added Rupam “…is what the customers  are looking for.” And that’s  exactly what Waterside delivers. This is truly an extraordinary coffee shop.

The wide range of cuisines is only natural because of the diversity of the walk-ins. The Asian section is vast and expanding even as you read this column. The  growing popularity for Japanese cuisine in our city has ensured exotic choices. A tempting sushi counter beckoned. I learnt that a sashimi  buffet one evening was a big hit with Japanese and Korean residents.

An Indian section, where Chef Lawrence changes the visual display for the menu every week between copper, stainless steel and cast-iron pots, is another big draw for those who seek the flavours of familiar staples. Pizzas on order, tempting Tagliolini with porcini mushroom, an innovative variety  of burgers, continental fare, cold cuts, perky looking salads, bread baskets,   cheese platters and a dessert counter all make for a veritable riot of choices. Ample variety for a foodie to freak out on and yet ‘corporate executive-friendly’ for working lunches that can empower a standout presentation immediately thereafter. The health freak in me went straight for the Quinoa served with green peas, carrots and olives and pistachio dressing  decorated with palm hearts on iceberg lettuce. It was the right pacifier for the indulgence that followed. Panko-crusted prawns, paniyarams with a healthy Madras tan thanks to a dip in delicious podis accompanied by a trio of chutneys and my favourite Mediterranean starter Spanakopita, a combination of spinach, feta, pine nuts and fresh crushed pepper wrapped in phyllo pastry. I switched my cell phone to ‘aeroplane mode’ and savoured every bite undisturbed by beeps and ringtones. Sheer bliss!

I learnt however that there is one word that the GM and Executive Chef of this hotel do not have in their vocabulary and that is ‘outsourcing.’ The key ingredients, condiments and preserves so critical to flavour and taste are all prepared in-house under the trained and watchful eyes of the hotel chefs.  Customization is the key and therein lies the tangible difference.

My next course arrived…   a  visual delight indeed – wild  mushroom soup with truffles, mascarpone in a stark white cup, accompanied by a choice of breads. This is an outright winner and so right for this season.

An age old favourite with a new spirit was the Indonesian chicken  satay – flatter, bigger slices of chicken on skewers, infused with a lemon grass marinade and served with peanut butter sauce.

 Another tantalizing presentation followed, very pub-style, on skewers and  in glass tumblers, marinated grilled cubes of King Fish, Shish Taouk, tenderloin, and traditional fish fingers. These are favourites at the Vapor Bar. Foods that pair well with a liquid diet! The eye-catching  desserts are some classic and  current favourites – Tiramisu, salted caramel chocolate mousse and Banoffee pie.

And as the saying goes the proof of the pudding is in the eating ….

I succumbed.

I got a sneak peek into the soon to be opened Skyloft, their rooftop restaurant which promises to be a new beacon of buzz. I can picture myself stargazing  and then looking on to the terrestrial cityscape.

There is so much to be discovered at this uber-contemporary  hotel .  The novelty of being new is hard to beat and reason enough for me to want to visit  Feathers again very soon. There was a spring and a lightness in my step as I sailed out.