Monday, June 30, 2008
A Date with Sushi
(No, I am not getting kinky!) It might surprise most of you who (well, ok, like me) think of Chennai as a small outlying provincial backwater as far as eating out goes, that it has one of India's oldest Japanese restaurants Dahlia - and I am talking of a standalone restaurant and not an appendage of a five star hotel. Dahlia has been around for something like 14 years and till about 8 years ago, when one more Japanese restaurant Akasaka came up, it was the only one. (Of course it is a provincial backwater - as also the only coastal city in the world with no traditional of high quality sea food - but that is probably the subject of a future post). And so, it might surprise you even more to learn that even though I have been maintaining a Eating out Guide to Chennai for the last 10 years or so, I had, surprisingly, never visited Dahlia. We decided to remedy this defect this weekend and finally 'did' Dahlia. The first challenge is to find the place. Even though it's in the centre of town, off Nungambakkam High Road inside Kaveri Apartments, neither the restaurant nor the apartment complex seems to have found the need to put up a sign anywhere indicating its presence. To compound the problem, some imbecile has marked it on the wrong side of the road on Google Earth. The old traditional method of asking people seems the only way. After making two futile rounds of the area we discovered Kaveri apartments only because we were told to take the left turn next to a 'Calcutta Pan Shop'. Having crossed this first hurdle, there was no indication that there was at all a restaurant on the premises. Finally walking along a narrow corridor of shops we stumbled upon an entrance with Japanese lettering and bamboo mats hanging over the door which told us where to enter. Nowhere anywhere is there a single sign announcing the existence of this place. Truly indeed for the cognoscenti... Dahlia is the quintessential Japanese Udipi restaurant. Its a no-frills, no-pretensions eat and leave place with spartan furniture and decor, catering almost exclusively to the Japanese expat crowd who come direct from office (they even had their jackets slung over their chairs), to eat and go. In all the time we were there, there was just another Indian couple. Catering to the office crowd, there were predictably no Japanese women either. The advantage of all this is that you get a proper hearty Japanese meal shorn of all frills, pretensions, bells and whistles of a typical five star meal. In fact the informal atmosphere is a major attractive feature. If you are unfamiliar with Japanese food, it's best to stick to the set meals - they have combos like the classic Nigiri Sushi (various fish slices wrapped around sticky rice) which come with Miso soup, pickles, ginger slices and Wasabi sauce. There are also Tempura platters and Udan soup bowl servings all of which make more or less a meal in itself. With a bit of sake to wash it all down, the bill comes in the range of about Rs. 1000. (Amusingly enough, all the Japanese were drinking Kingfisher beer, we were the only ones having sake). The service is friendly without being cloyingly deferential as in high end hotels and restaurants. A word of warning, since I am in Chennai -- I am not sure that this is a place for vegetarians to visit. Apart from the ubiquitous smell and taste of fish in everything, there is very little point in replacing fish slices with sweet potato and pay Rs. 450 for it.