After months of planning I finally visited the oldest Japanese restaurant in Chennai, Dahlia last weekend. Though finding the restaurant could be a problem, I loved the experience.
The restaurant was almost hidden, as if it does not want unnecessary attention, in the far end of the corner in an old building that could use some renovation at the busy Nungambakkam high road. It took us a quick phone call to place the restaurant though before we could knock that wooden door to be greeted by a genial elderly Japanese man and bright orange kimono on display.
My first impression of the restaurant was it could be a ‘Japanese home’. The modest restaurant had traditional Japanese seating arrangements with pleasant decoration and nothing extravagant. Just like you would see in any house, the place had shelf full of manga and old Japanese movie CDs. You will find an elderly Japanese, the owner, watching gaming and cook show on television in Japanese nodding and smiling. There were photographs or framed paintings like that of birds and cherry blossoms hanging on the wall all over the place. Somehow it was relaxing as I sat down in one of those traditional Japanese seats.
A polite young lady came to take our order of stir fried miso udon and teriyaki set from ample vegetarian options available. We must have arrived way too early because there was no one apart from us. To kill the time while we were waiting for our food and to quench my curiosity, I decided to talk to Revathi Nagaswami, who co-owns the place with her Japanese partner N Yamauchi. “We are completing 25 years this year,” she said. Pointing her partner, she said, “He has been living in Chennai for the past 33 years.”
What made Yamauchi-san start a Japanese establishment in a foreign country, I wondered. Revathi smiled, probably reminiscing about their meeting three decades ago. “He came to Chennai to as a seafood supplier. I was his interpreter back then,” she said. During the time he was here, he could not find a single Japanese restaurant. “The restaurant was probably started out of frustration,” she quips.
The restaurant has a vast clientele now, beyond Japanese. A lot of vegetarian dishes were now added to the menu to cater to the local crowd. “We have birthday party for small kids and even have got an order to cook vegetarian dishes for a wedding in couple of months,” Revathi said. Dahlia, she feels, is moving beyond the local and is getting wider recognition. “More awareness and interest in Japanese food culture is playing a huge role here,” she feels.
When our order arrived, she left us to tend to another customer, who seems to be regular. I dug into the dish I had ordered – seaweed soup, fried tofu with vegetables dipped in teriyaki sauce, nori, pickled radish and fragrant rice.
Somehow I have gotten used to drinking the bland seaweed soup that some people feel could use more salt. Fragrant rice and stir fried vegetables were an amazing combination as I had realised after eating at Fuji restaurant in the city. Pickled radish, which according to my companion tasted like maavudu (pickled raw mango), somehow failed to charm me probably because of variety of dishes I had to finish.
Well the quantity was too much and was priced Rs 700, if you are hungry and you do not want to risk your sensitive stomach this is the best option out there.