This is a story about bread. Not your mass produced, pre-sliced bread. But delicious, freshly baked French bread. The best kind of bread, really. It’s hard to believe that it’s the humble baguette that created one of the most popular expat locations in the entire city.
But that’s exactly what Tryst Cafe is. Maybe Tryst Cafe isn’t so much of a secret for all the expats that live in and around Neelankarai, but for anyone living in the centre of the city, if you haven’t come across Tryst yet, you don’t know what you are missing out on. Some of the best bread and pastries in the city, all the cheese you can imagine, fresh meat and all those other hard to find items. My personal favourite? Aside from the authentic pan au chocolates, I nearly cried when I saw salt and vinegar flavoured kettle crisps – and bought them all.
Am I making you hungry yet?
To find out the story behind Tryst Cafe, what its connection is with Washington DC, and what makes it so popular with Chennai expats, I sat down with its proprietor, Samia Sait.
The most surprising thing to learn is that Tryst actually started almost by accident. For any expats that have lived in the city for some time, you’ll know the challenges of buying good, fresh bread. You know what I’m talking about, crispy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside. A few years ago, a French (how could it be anyone else?) NGO volunteer started baking fresh bread which was sold in the supermarket that is also located on the same site as Tryst is now. The supermarket franchisee wasn’t too pleased about fresh bread being sold in the supermarket as they wanted to push their own line of bread.
The supermarket’s loss, was our gain. Samia’s brother, Omar, knew that expats will keep demanding good bread so a decision was made to open a standalone bakery. Now a business can’t survive on bread alone, so coffee and other beverages were added to the line up by Omar, and Tryst was born.
The making of Tryst that you see today with room to seat 40 customers has been a six year journey. Nothing in business is ever plain sailing and Tryst has been no different. The biggest challenge came when the NGO the French expat was working at shut down and with it the daily supply of fresh bread. Fortunately, there’s another supplier of excellent bread and pastries – and where else could it possibly be other than Pondicherry! Thank you France for leaving your baking legacy many, many miles from your home shores.
If you’ve been to Pondicherry, you’ll know that it’s good for two things: cheap alcohol and great food. Baker Street is a bakery located in the heart of Pondy and they stepped up to help supply Tryst with their bakery items for the next four years. Believe it or not, the time, energy and cost to bring the bakery items that expats demanded all the way from Pondicherry was a loss making endeavour for Tryst. But as word spread and footfalls increased, Tryst was able to start its own bakery operations.
So was all this effort, long hours and operational challenges worth it? Samia didn’t hesitate for a second, “Absolutely!” Samia “Seeing customers satisfied with our food never gets old, and the compliments don’t hurt either.” Ah, note to self: Don’t just look contented after eating at Tryst, tell the staff that I enjoyed the food. What about all the cheese, snacks and fresh meats that expats crave? All this hard to find food isn’t easy for Samia and her team to bring to the shelves but they use every means to make sure that they not only stock these items but that there is a reliable source to ensure continued supply.
For anyone that has ever eaten at the Tryst Cafe, you’ll know that the menu is tailored to western tastes. It started out with continental food but along the way Mexican and Italian options have been added with the most recent edition being the excellent wood fired pizzas – and yes it’s a real pizza oven with logs to give the pizzas and authentic taste. Has Tryst ever tried to change the menu? “Yes.” Samia informs me with a rueful smile, “But it wasn’t well received.” The message from customers was loud and clear: keep the burgers, pizzas, oh and of course the bread.
That’s not to say there isn’t any variation in the menu. Samia told me that most custom requests are handled, and recalls the body builders who come in to order eight egg white omlettes or the time an expat family had Tryst prepare an entire roast dinner with chicken, veggies and mashed potatoes to be served at their home. Other custom requests have included olive oil based breads. Basically, if it can be made in the kitchen, it can probably be ordered. This is probably one of the big reasons Tryst is so popular with the expat community.
To understand the inspiration behind the cafe menu at Tryst you need to go State side to the neighbourhoods of Washington DC. There, Samia and her family used to hangout at a cafe that has inspired Tryst in more ways than one: The US cafe is also called Tryst. The cafe didn’t provide processed food, all the ingredients were organic, juices were freshly made and every attempt was made to keep the food fun but healthy.
You can’t visit Tryst without noticing all the cats in the garden out the back. Indeed, I seem to make a beeline to the garden everytime I visit to see if there are any new arrivals. So who is the resident crazy cat lady? “That would be me.” Samia informed me, “We have 32 cats at the last count.” Any chance of rebranding Tryst into one of the trendy new cat cafes? “Absolutely not! The cats will stay outside.”
There are always events taking place at Tryst Cafe, from Overseas Women’s Club meetups to live bands playing on the stage (nothing too loud, Samia tells me, otherwise it upsets the neighbours). To find out what’s coming up, Like the Tryst Facebook page to get all the updates.
Now stop reading this and go and buy a fresh baguette and bloomer for your Sunday family lunch from Tryst.
How to Find Tryst Cafe
You can find Tryst Cafe on the seaward side of the ECR in Neelankarai. The nearby landmark is the Neelankarai police station. The cafe is really popular with expat families but most times you don’t need to reserve a table, although the place does get really busy around lunchtime on the weekends. Visit the Tryst Cafe Facebook page to keep up to date with all the events taking place there.
Try the Angel food cake (fresh cream and strawberries cake) and the Levian bread – favourites amongst the staff and customers. In the cafe, the beef steak or the pizzas or the fajitas are the biggest hits.