Café Mercara Express
ITC Grand Chola, Chennai.
Meal for two: Rs 2,400
“I thought you were a vada-pav sort of guy!” I stare accusingly at Chef Nikhil Merchant, senior sous chef at the Cafe Mercara Express as he rolls out their new menu. It consists of three Chai glasses filled with freshly made juices. “The first one is a cleanser: beetroot, watermelon and mint,” explains Nikhil.
I take a sip. “The second a de-toxifier: carrot, Apple, and ginger. The third a health drink: jamun and addled mint.” I try not to ask whether I have wandered into a Deepak Chopra healing centre. Senior executive chef Ajith Bangera at the ITC Grand Chola intervenes. He recites the new Mercara mantra: “Carefully selected. Mindfully prepared. We want to give our guests a healthier option to starting their day.”
The decor at the Mercara Cafe Express is as cinnamon and coffee dark as the trademark coffee they serve in generous white porcelain cups. Does it remind you of the rain forests around Mercara, where the best coffee is produced? Only if you catch a glimpse of the pinpoints of light twinkling from the nested filaments of the modernistic chandelier that hangs from the centre of the room.
We are not just doing lunch but trying out the full breakfast menu as well. The second course consists of a spectacular combination that Nikhil calls ‘Indian Muesli’. It’s a bowl of misty creamy curd, filled with swollen Tulsi seeds, and layered with cut fruits. “Delicious!” I murmur, not wanting to concede that there may be something in their mantra to please the palate while ramping up the health quotient.
Even the bread is brimming with good intentions, filled as it is with rye, amaranth and wheat and served not with butter, but a tiny glass-lidded jar of a green relish, mint and other green leaves with a soupcon of cream cheese and ginger-chilly. The next option for those waiting to try a South Indian style breakfast is to go for the ‘Welcome Meal’. It comes in a tray, rather than a thali and offers you a choice of typical breakfast items: there’s Kal dosa, a smaller, less oily version of the Mysore dosa; idiappam, or string hoppers, or Malabar parotta. They serve it with a very robust mutton pepper fry for non-vegetarians, or a tomato relish, yellow potato and pumpkin curry and chutneys. As a touch of sweetness, the tray holds a tiny portion of the golden palm sugar and coconut milk custard known as ‘Wattalapam’. It’s now that you can ask for that cup of coffee.
We have, however, miles to go on the culinary trail. As Bangera reminds us, this is after all a coffee shop and they have created an international section that ranges dizzyingly across the different continents. We start with a delicate coconut cream and silken puree of carrot soup. We might call this Indonesian. This is followed by a tempura style shrimp with roasted beet, pumpkin and salmon roe.
We then take a quick flight to Italy, where we are served a dome of stuffed Mozzarella cheese, filled with cream cheese and surrounded by slivers of orange, pine nuts and pickled beetroot--both healthy and satisfying. The next item consists of a filo pastry purse stuffed with a round of Brie, filled with caramelised onions. There are tiny Quinoa tikkis paired with sweet potato and a non-veg dish of what we are assured is Peruvian chicken with rice.
Does this leave any place for the desserts? If it’s raspberry sorbet it’s got to be Paris and chef Nikhil has combined it with a parfait that melts to show a soft interior of cream. Then again, being a Mumbai boy, he tops this with kulfi served with the best rabdi and a syringe filled with strawberry syrup that he squirts over the kulfi. It’s Holi in December at the Mercara!