Spice of India

Platter of mixed tandoori - chicken, fish, squid and prawns

I SEE copper name plaques above room doors when I walk through a tiny lobby and is shown into the Padmini room. Once inside, I see brass artifacts, antique turbans and pictures of traditional dancers all around me.

My eyes are riveted to an impressive teakwood cupboard of rich brown hues. Soft Indian music fills the air. Lulled by the musical lilt of flute and tabla soloists, my lunch buddy Din and I are transported to India right here in Johor Baru.

Earlier, when we decided to dine in Chakra Restaurant, housed in a former family house, we didn’t realise we were going into a 70-year-old building that once hosted Indian celebrities and now counts prominent politicians and a list of dignitaries including Johor royalty, among its customers.

The menu is a pictorial delight and even though I am distracted by the exciting scenes of Indian culture and tradition, the brief descriptions in English make it easy for us to order.

Tasty Treats

Mango Lassi [Left] and Masala Tea [Right]
A fresh chilled yoghurt drink like mango lassi should hit the spot in such warm weather so when the drinks are served, I am surprised to see the straw standing upright in the middle of the tumbler. It’s quite an odd sight and at my first sip of the thick concoction, I discover that it’s a delicious blend of mango with banana.

I choose a wedge of garlic naan while Din prefers kulcha naan that is topped with a generous sprinkle of chopped coriander leaves. Eaten with spicy Chettinad mutton curry, it tastes heavenly. I sink my teeth into tender cubes of lamb.

As I crunch crispy discs of papadam and savour the smoky-spicy taste of a tandoori platter of chicken, lamb, fish and prawns with a mild mint sauce, there’s an avalanche of flavours in my mouth.

Mild Chettinad Mutton Curry

Then I have a tiny portion of pilaf rice or pulao and biryani. I thoroughly enjoy these with the creamy cashew-nut base of Chicken Roast Masala and the spicy de-shelled crab, a dish definitely for lazy people like me.

As the dishes are slowly polished off, I am surprised that I still have room for dessert.

Kulfi - Milky saffron ice-cream

I pick kulfi from a selection of traditional Indian sweets like gulab jamun, gajar halwa and pumpkin halwa. The milky saffron ice-cream with pistachio nuts simply melts in my mouth.

We round off the meal with masala tea and as Din sips the fragrant tea tinged with cardamom, cloves, nutmeg flower, saffron and ginger from a little cup, he declares: “This is the perfect end to a meal.”

Timeless Treasures

Proprietor N. Shanmugam Chetty, better known as Shan, says the teak cupboard is a family heirloom shipped in from their village in Chenglepet near Chennai, India. He feels that not only his family’s recipes but also its antiques are priceless treasures that should be preserved in Chakra.

Spicy de-shelled crab

Every morning, the chefs grind and blend spices and make paneer (cottage cheese) for a menu of delectable dishes. Healthy alternatives like Carotino oil and evaporated milk are used instead of coconut milk except in a few recipes or upon request. MSG is not used either.

In 1962, Shan’s father, K.R.N. Nadeson Chettiar, hosted a group of Indian celebrities here including popular Indian classical dancers Padmini and Rajini, world renowned Tamil classical singer Seergazhi Govindarajan, famous Tamil songwriter of more than 5,000 songs for films, Kannadasan, and Tamil film icon, Sivaji Ganesan.

Now, the private rooms are named in their honour.  If its walls could speak, I wonder what tales the ones in Chakra would tell!

Fast Facts

Not only are spices used here imported from India but also the six chefs who have been handpicked from the finest restaurants in India to create an authentic menu of North and South Indian specialties. Opened three years ago, Chakra Restaurant is located at 1 Jalan Yusuf Taha, Johor Baru, a site parallel to the Inner Ring Road. There are private rooms, an upstairs hall and an al fresco terrace that’s perfect for tandoori parties.

For reservations, private events and catering, call 07-223 9991 or email, chakra_jb@yahoo.com.

Open daily for lunch from 11.30am to 3.30pm and dinner from 6.30pm to 10.30pm.

This article was first pubished in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 9 June 2009

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