The spectacular Leela Palace property in Chennai, the first city sea-facing hotel, weaves a magic spell upon guests with its regal splendour, Chettinad architecture, an awesome flower décor of roses and marigolds.

And from the onset this uber luxury property sets out to entice your senses with delicious macaroons, chocolates and freshly baked cookies kept in your room. At Spectra, the spaciously laid out 141-cover all-day diner, there are seven live counters serving North and South Indian food, an Asian section complete with woks and steamers where Chef Nisa Yimthont from Bangkok, does Thai food, also offering dishes from Singapore and Malaysia. The Japanese counter is managed by a Japanese chef – Pong Narin – who was picked from Four Seasons in Japan. Keeping in mind more people going in for healthy food, there is a special green salad bar where you can fix your own salad. A grill station and patisserie, a special wood-fired duck oven, a pizza corner where authentic thin-crest pizzas are served, all account for the jam-packed weekend lunch buffet.

Mediterranean delights

At Spectra I sample a mix of Mediterranean fare; an excellent platter of mezze with the Hummus and Baba Ghanoush served with a delicious crisp, thin flat bread, and the best Aragulla salad I’ve had in recent times. Sprinkled with walnuts, goat cheese, and chunks of sweet, juicy orange, it came with a maple syrup-balsam vinegar dressing which added the right sour tang to the salad. This, I hastily consumed along with the delectable small helping of a Mushroom cappuccino soup, for two reasons. Both were great, and both gave one the illusion of sensible, healthy eating!

But you have to forget calorie intake while sampling the multifarious, authentic cuisine laidout by the 100-plus chefs in the team of Executive Chef Dharmen Makawana. And who’d want to remember such dull stuff while biting into the scrumptious and crunchy Jumbo lump crab cake with avocado, orange and red pepper? Or a pan friend Bekti, that is deliciously fresh and comes with tabouleh, tahini, eggplant and a Kalamata (black olive) salsa, that comes apart in snowy white flakes at the touch of your fork…

The Japanese fare that Spectra serves is as delicious as authentic, put together by a special Japanese Chef Pong Narin whose last assignment was at one of Japan’s Four Seasons hotels. In the seafood platter Chef Narin serves me, spicy rock shrimp tempura is a clear winner. Soft, crunchy and juicy, it is served with spicy mayonnaise; the salad with cucumber and lettuce leaves has a dressing made with soya sauce, sesame oil, vinegar and sugar ; there is also Crazy sushee made with avocado and salmon served with tartar sauce and tangy wasabi.

From Chef Nisa comes the Tom Kha Gai chicken soup, which has a coconut base made with Thai spices. The lemon grass flavour in this soup is very predominant, and not for those who don’t like lemon grass.

Roasted duck

Next comes roasted duck breast in tamarind sauce. I am not a great fan of duck, but at Leela Palace the duck is sourced from a Frenchman in Delhi who’s been farming ducks in India for 20 years. Chef Makawana says it requires special skill and about 30-45 minutes to get the duck right. The duck on my plate is sliced very thin, garnished with fried onions – a long time favourite – it is neither tough nor rubbery, a little chewy but juicy and delicious.

Steamed cod fish with Thai sauce, with baby corn, broccoli and juliennes of bell peppers follows. It is both spicy and tangy and very, very Thai.

For dessert I try a delicious wasabi cheesecake; there is just a dash of wasabi to give the cheesecake a shot of spice, and the result is perfect for my palate which shuns very sweet desserts. It is accompanied by a delectable strawberry sorbet and a pistachio sauce. The sorbet is so delicious that I spoon out the last speck of it. Corporate Pastry chef Avijit Ghosh notices this, and offers to send in more, which is gratefully accepted and polished off to round up an incredible meal.

Indian experience

At Jamavar, the second restaurant at Chennai’s Leela – the Chinese and Italian restaurants will be ready in a couple of months – Corporate Sous Chef in charge of Indian Cuisine, Surender Mohan has another sinful meal planned, which is a completely different experience. For a non-vegetarian to find the palak paneer to be the best part of the meal is certainly a compliment to the chef. But then special paneer is sourced from Mumbai, and melts in the mouth.

For starters there is Tandoori tiger prawn freshly marinated in a citric blend of lemon juice, cardamom, ajwain and roasted golden in a tandoor. The prawn is both crunchy and juicy, but the murgh malai kebab, a Jamavar specialty chicken cube, steeped in royal cumin enriched cream, cheese, garlic and fresh coriander, before being cooked in the tandoor, is exceptionally good too.

For the main course there is the Allepey fish curry, cooked with green mango, green chilly and coconut milk, and Kadai gosht - lamb cooked with spicy tomato, onion and capsicum, and served with jeera rice.

For vegetarians, along with different kinds of paneer, Dal Jamavar – black lentils enriched with cream and butter and cooked overnight – is strongly recommended.

Most Indian desserts are as rich as delicious and at Jamavar my offering is no different. Deliciously soft Malai Kulfi embellished with tantalising silver foil, Elneer (tender coconut) payasam, and Ada pradhaman constitute the meetha part of the meal!

Compared to metros like Delhi or Mumbai, Chennai continues to remain a traditional market as far as food is concerned “so you still have people eating basic stuff like paneer makhni, dal makhni, rotis, aapams and stews. Also we’ve planned our kitchen in such a way that the veg and non veg sections are segregated with separate tandoors for both,” says Chef Makawana.

The breakfast, served at Spectra, is elaborate and has an astonishingly wide choice of Indian, Asian and continental cuisine. The Pongal (rice and lentils cooked with whole peppers, ginger and cashewnuts) here is to die for; the different breads are a treat…and if you want to atone for the sins of the previous night’s dinner, quietly retreat to a corner overlooking the Adyar estuary with a helping of Bircher Muesli, which is made with apple juice, apple shavings, raisins and almond flakes. It is healthy and yet, oh so tasty!

Luckily, the macaroons and scones tantalisingly displayed here, are not edible!

rasheeda.bhagat@thehindu. co. in

(This article was published on February 18, 2013)
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