With our plans for international travel foiled for the third year running, the word ‘bound’, for me, has become particularly irksome. It’s no longer only about embarking on a journey, cueing wings and open sails. With countries being out of bounds because of unrest, calamity, prohibitive costs, visa woes and flight delays, I am tied to my own geography for a while, with a bad case of decision fatigue for good measure.
My ideal vacation is one where an elf-like being would go through my mental bucket list, pick a destination, book tickets and accommodation at prices I wouldn’t baulk at, sail my passport through the visa formalities, queue up for me at immigration in the airport, and pick my in-flight entertainment, all while ensuring that the senior citizens in my family are taken care of, and the plants at home are regularly watered. Since wishful thinking can only take me so far, I’ve gradually accepted that I need to find reasonably good substitutes to travel, such as dining experiences in and around my own city.
While we have the best of world cuisine in Chennai, there are cafés, restaurants, and resto-bars situated on the East Coast Road (ECR), in the 45-km stretch between Chennai’s Thiruvanmiyur neighbourhood and Mamallapuram that have always been around, but until now, I had eschewed visiting them in my eagerness to reach Mamallapuram or Puducherry. My only criterion now is the immersiveness of the dining experience and whether it gets me in the headspace of a vacation—in less than an hour from home.
We reach Bayroot and their bar, Origin (Ori‘gin’, get it?), sooner than it takes to reach the railway station or the airport—in 40 minutes. Set amidst the coconut tree-fringed lawns of Green Meadows Resort in Palavakkam, the restaurant has canopy tents in the garden and an air-conditioned indoor space. Also, there are no sea views here to distract you from their thoughtfully plated fare.
Although it takes us a few visits to fully experience the variety of cuisines on offer here, from Mediterranean and Arabian grills to sushi, Indian, and pan-Asian, we like that they also have crowd-pleasers like pasta and pizza, but with interesting touches. Their agnolotti, for instance, is a flavoursome mouthful with sweet, caramelised onions, arugula pesto with a hint of bitterness, tart cherry tomatoes, and a salty hit from goat cheese. The eggplant robata yields easily to the fork and is served with a green pea mash that is, however, more mashed potato than green peas. Among Indian mains, we love the Mangalore cashew curry, served with fluffy bun parotta. The portions are medium-sized but rich, so some nifty order-placing and a leisurely meal are highly recommended. Among desserts, the Bayroot baklava and the Baymisu (their version of a tiramisu) are special-occasion-worthy, but if you favour Indian sweets, their food-coma-inducing gajar halwa is served on a ghewar disc along with rabdi and vanilla ice cream.
Further along ECR, in the Neelankarai neighbourhood with its beach houses and bungalows, I reach East Coast at Madras Square on a weekday afternoon. Many of us apparently have the same idea that it would be a cool cavern-like respite from the beastly humidity that is upon us. The resto-bar is laid out like a residence with a series of interconnected spaces, from the small front courtyard to the verandah seating, from the bustling, spacious air-conditioned bar area to additional tables in a glasshouse. With its indigo blue walls, eclectic décor, and tables made for quick turnovers, East Coast could easily pass for a chic café bar in a gentrified Southeast Asian neighbourhood.
The ratatouille is hearty, the concassé extravagantly flavoured, topped with cheese, and served in a skillet. They are liberal with the cheese here, so the bell pepper chilli cheese toast is more about the cheese than the bell pepper. While the crispy lotus stem is a staple of nearly every restaurant along the ECR, here it is sliced thinner and retains crispiness long after my takeaway for dinner. They have a dedicated pan-Asian menu and the customary pasta and pizza.
The rumour was that Asvah24, a few streets away, hosted rooftop musical soirees on full moon nights. I had just missed one, and it would be a while before the next, so this would just have to be a daytime visit. Asvah24 has a hacienda vibe with air-conditioned dining rooms, poolside seating in the leafy verandah, a glass house that overlooks the small pool, and two terraces with views of the sea, where one can dine by candlelight. They even have a cosy reading room with well-thumbed books, perfect for bibliophiles on a date.
The monsoon menu is a trifle self-important but inventive, has blessedly fewer pasta-pizza options, and is instructive of gluten-free and vegan variations. The food delivers flavour in spades. The promised coffee element in the coffee and tomato broth is subtle, with the parmesan basil ice cream playing a small but significant role. The grilled tofu is served with scallion-and-garlic jasmine rice, and a peanut dip, which works better together as a mouthful. The Peach tartine is deliciously textured, with a base of oat granola, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, layered with a creamy mousse, and topped with sliced peach. The cream of Rabadi is grainy, hand-churned, with a pinch of salt, just the right amount of sweetness, and a subtle hint of spice.
Bay6 in Akkarai has perhaps the best sea view on this list. The ground-floor restaurant is open along its breadth on two sides, and there is a rooftop overlooking the sea. They also have air-conditioned garden cabanas that can seat about eight people. It’s a treat to reach here early in the evening, spend some time on the beach, and head to the rooftop with its toned-down tiki-bar vibe. Foodwise, this is the closest to dependable Indianbar fare, with an array of starters like bruschetta, grills and kebabs, meze and satays, an extensive pan-Asian menu including pad thai and thai curry that they deliver well on, and enough Indian options for when the paratha-curry craving kicks in. The menu thankfully doesn’t claim to be experimental, nor seeks to reinvent classics, and has enough pasta and pizza varieties to keep motley groups happy. Desserts are disappointingly staid. The place is ideal for groups, if booked ahead.
Idlers’ Farm Shop and Café is a short detour from Mamallapuram and seems popular with bikers on this stretch. This is an exposed brick structure, reminiscent of a rural homestead, with a U-shaped courtyard, flanked by the kitchen and the shop, with seating in the verandah. Open only for breakfast and lunch, the café’s farm-to-table menu is based on the day’s fresh produce—seasonal, local and organic—from their farm, located five kilometres away. We sample a small seasonal platter that includes, among other things, slivers of papaya with just a blush of impending ripeness and roasted okra with a peanut crumble filling, ragi-kambu millet crackers, black rice dumplings, and pumpkin blossoms.
The lunch thali we share has a portion of hand-pounded mappilai samba red rice with a lovely nuttiness, accompanied by Karamani (long beans) sambar, and Ponnanganni Keerai (dwarf copperleaf) poriyal. The millet dosai and the banana flower vadais are crisp and flavoursome, served with mild peanut chutney. But my personal discovery is the narthangai (citron) that substitutes tamarind in a garlicky rasam. For someone so loath to eat citron, I carry back a bottle of the citron pickle and some that is sun-dried and salted, from their shop. I end my meal with a dense chocolatey emmer wheat cake, where the sweetness is where it rightly belongs—mainly in the frosting.
Brød Bakery is closer to the city, in Injambakkam, but it features at the end of this list as a pocket of calm to look forward to on your way back, to prolong the vacation-headspace experience with a cortado or an espresso accompanied by Scandinavian-inspired bakes. Brød is ‘bread’ across Scandinavia, and the space is serene with clean lines, white and wood with minimalist black. I walk in to find Billy Joel on the speakers, and I’m taken in by the limited menu that’s a relief from the decision fatigue that has dogged me all week. Functionally, 80 per #cent of the space is the actual bakery and displays, with limited seating that I’ve always found occupied.
Cinnamon is a popular spice in Scandinavia, and the gifler is a spongy cinnamon roll that is surprisingly light enough as an after-meal treat or to accompany coffee. As is the Tosca Cake, a light sponge with a topping of caramelised sliced almonds. However, I think the coffee goes best with their cookie, which has just that touch of chocolate to make the ride home sweeter.
I’m yet to visit other spaces on this stretch that I’ve heard about, such as The Mayflower, Kipling Café and Surf Turf. As it happens with vacations, some things are best left unfinished as a lingering reminder to return. I hope to return to these establishments to sample other eats, like East Coast’s grilled figs and goat cheese with pomegranate reduction, Asvah24’s new Southern Winter menu, Idlers’ pizza made from an ancient grain called paigambari wheat, and the gooey chocolate brownie-esque kladdkaka from Brød Bakery.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India September-October 2022. Get your copy here.
Green Meadows Resort, 4, 364, Anna Salai Rd, Palavakkam Kuppam, Palavakkam, Chennai 600041.
Open 12 p.m. – 11 p.m.
2/520, Sandeep Road, Neelankarai, Chennai 600041
Open 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
24, Blue Beach Road, Neelankarai, Chennai 600041
Phone: +91 861 022 5381
Open 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
No 202 Seashore town, 6th Avenue, SH 49, Panaiyur, Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600119
Open 12 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Tamil Nadu 603109
Phone: +9194452 78967
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
200, East Coast Rd, Injambakkam, Chennai,
Tamil Nadu 600115
Phone: +9198845 80858
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Saritha Rao Rayachoti loves stories, afternoon naps and wild goose chases for vegetarian food in strange lands. During the pandemic, she is known to have scratched her travel itch by living out of a pink suitcase called Rosie, named after the character in R.K. Narayan's 'The Guide'.