When I tell people I’m going to India, everyone says “ooh, how neat, you’ll get to eat a bunch of great Indian food!”. Well, not to burst anyone’s bubble, to me India (actually the city of Chennai or Madras to the Brits) ain’t all that. To spare you the excruciating details, let’s just say this city is not one of my favorite places to go for a variety of reasons. Food-wise, however, there is some outstanding Indian food here but 2 or 3 days of two meals a day consisting of nothing but curries and dosas and tandoories gets tedious real fast.
On my first night here (which includes 24 hours of travel time, going to bed at 6 am, plus all that jet lag), my co-worker and I (full disclosure: the co-worker in this case, is my manager Irina, who is quite cool all around, pretty fun to travel with, and wee a bit of a chocoholic) were expecting an evening of fine supping at one of the restaurants we went to on the last trip. But what her friend Kaushal found for us was anything but ordinary for Chennai. And from the moment I saw Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory and Delicatessen, I knew it would be like Alice falling down the rabbit hole…
Sandy’s Chocolate Lab is mainly a dessert place. If there’s anything in India that can match curry’s popularity, it is sweets. You find them everywhere and in many forms. But chocolate? Well, you can find it but it’s just a tiny bit less difficult than finding a (beef) burger joint. Sandy’s (named after the founder, chef and lab master Sandesh Reddy) is a small place, tucked away on a small thoroughfare in a residential neighbourhood. Yes, if you blinked while driving by, you’d only see a giant silkscreen of an enlarged thumbprint decorating the small entrance and maybe pay it no notice.
Once inside, it looks 180° opposite of your typical Indian restaurant with low modern tables, equally modern lighting with an easy ambiance and a case of goodies that will immediately get you wondering just what these guys are up to. There’s a case of desserts that look familiar but are definitely not and a case of some pretty high end cheeses and cured meats which seem to be rarities in Chennai (and maybe India overall).
Sandy’s menu is a very simple affair if you recognize that it is printed on carbonless credit card receipt paper already sitting on the table. Because it looked like the bill from a previous party, our waiter had to come over and pull it out of its holder because we thought it was a bill and were scrupulously leaving it alone.
The menu has a small but diverse selection of starters and mains ranging from corn cakes with salsa to Vietnamese catfish with pesto. And the fact that they had barbecued pork chops there too meant that there is probably a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Although the starters and mains are merely a side light of Sandy’s it doesn’t mean they skimp on flavor or presentation.
The corn cakes were more like small blinis with a nice, almost smoothly blended salsa with just a nice fresh tomato flavor highlighting the lightly sweet corn kernels. A pasta with an aioli made of capsicum (moderately hot peppers, in India parlance), butter and a bit of cream was a just-right spicy take on the old aglio-olio pasta sauté. The “Asian” chicken was a pan fried breast (just a shade past done) that was completely covered in a light coating of finely ground garlic, mild pepper, and ginger. A nicely sautéed stack of vegetables, arranged in tort fashion accompanied most of the dishes.
But the real stars at Sandy’s are the completely over-the-top desserts. Most of them have some form of chocolate in them and if you’re looking into the dessert case, it is pretty hard to just order one. The highlight of the case desserts was a piece of chocolate cake insanity called the “tiny” cake. If you can call 7+ layers and resembling a giant door stop “tiny”.
Actually, the Tiny cake is the only dessert that approaches Cheesecake Factory-sized portions but it is clearly meant to be shared as are most of the other desserts. But given the Indian penchant for sweets, it was no surprise that there were lots of people navigating their slices solo. If the treats in the case weren’t enough, there is another menu that the waiters take some pains to recite tableside. This “secret” menu is where the real fun begins.
As far as desserts go on this menu, Sandy’s “laboratory” concept is taken quite seriously as beakers, test tubes and other Pyrex lab equipment are used as vessels to carry their sweet treats. Quaint? Maybe. Cute? Definitely. But what they actually fill those things with completely blows away any notion of it just being a gimmick.
The most over the top dessert in this category is the “kids” dessert (available to kids of all ages…). The waiter will ask you of your choice of pastry (a small waffle or pancake) and chocolate (dark, light or white). And that’s it. When the dish arrives, the plate is filled with whimsical delights. Along side the pancake or waffle come two test tubes of toppings: tonight it was maple syrup and a stabilized chocolate sauce (dark chocolate which is what I chose). There is a small beaker of “milkshake” also based on your chocolate choice, a small and very moist brownie and a wicked looking giant syringe, minus the needle, filled with thickened chocolate milk.
All of the treats on the plate did not tip the scale sugar-wise as there seemed to be some care to highlighting the flavor of the chocolate. The strange but delightful tableau extended itself with the parents of family sitting next to us who ordered two of these for their twin daughters and were having a grand time with the contents of the syringe, knocking back the milkshake, playing with the test tubes and waffles.The girls were clearly enjoying themselves based on the giggle-fest in full chortle. And that’s the point, everything on the plate is meant to be played with and savored in a very un-serious way. (By the way, Irina insisted that she get to use the syringe first. On me. Those pictures won’t be posted here anytime soon!)
Another customised dessert was a series of milkshakes which were thick enough to stand a spoon in. We ordered the “Happy Jack” and the “Cookie Monster”. The former was a chocolate-peanut butter mix and the latter a dark chocolate concoction with cookie chunks merely mixed in. Both were served in beakers. Included with each of these was a small “cookies and milk” side; a small beaker with a thick-ish moist cookie and a small test tube of thickened chocolate milk. As with the Kids dessert, preserving the chocolate’s flavor was front and center.
Although side-street bound, Sandy’s had a steady stream of customers coming in seeking their sweet creations. By the time we got up to leave, the “Tiny” cake was gone as were most of the other items in the dessert case. Deemed “expensive” by Indian standards, Sandy’s is a complete bargain compared to what some of their dishes might cost in the US. And Sandesh is clearly going out of his way to create something unique in the middle of so much of Chennai’s traditional (albeit good) food. In fact this evening was his last in the restaurant for a month as he was off to New York to do research for an all-new menu for the July. And that just might be worth another 24 hours of travel to Chennai.
Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory and Delicatessen (Facebook page), # 14, 1st Cross Road, RA Puram Off Greenways Road, Chennai, India, 044 42303852