Friday, August 24, 2007

Rule Britannia

After spending eight years in Bombay, Irani cafes were still virgin territory for me, something which I had read about in every single publication, heard about from many friends and acquaintances yet somehow never had the opportunity to go and discover the much talked about culinary delights they served. To add to my worries, I also kept reading that most such institutions were shutting down or selling out to make way for the retail boom in the space starved south Bombay.

On 14th August my husband and I were in South Bombay for some work and we made desperate calls to friends and acquaintances to tell us about an Irani cafe in the vicinity - a Google search may have yielded better results though! Some friends were vegetarian and did not know about any while others were vague about directions, one last call was fruitful though and the kind gentleman told us the exact location and said that Britannia would be closest to where we were.

After a few misses and wrong turns we did finally find the place. A washed out tin signboard with faded red paint with 'Britannia' written over it was just about decipherable. We crossed the street to enter, the place looked dark and deserted, my heart sank, we were well beyond lunch time - maybe we could manage some snacks. The old gentleman and a younger man at the counter with a booming voice said that they were closed. I was hungry and shattered with grief and my husband was probably relieved that he did not have to endure food at this seemingly squalid joint.

The gentlemen proudly said that they were the only eatery in Bombay to shut sharp at 4 in the evening, I resorted to begging for food - surely they can rustle up something. 'It's all finished', they say. I say how much I had read about Britannia and how it was a part of Bombay history and how much I had been looking forward to eat here - still hoping that their hearts would melt and they would offer us food but alas to no avail!

What ensued next was a conversation that I will always hold dear to my heart. The old Parsi gentleman asked us where we were from and seemed quite pleased to hear that we had come all the way from New Bombay - a good 60 kms away. He was even more pleased to learn that we originally hailed from the state West Bengal. The younger gentleman (the son?), immediately said ' Ah! Then you must be a fan of Sourav Ganguly! See how well he is playing now that Chappell has left? He was a real villain I say!' We of course being true blue Bengalis, whole heartedly agreed! The old gentleman went on to say that how much he admired Bengalis and about a friend who was a lone survivor of an air crash. How his niece had married a Bengali and they were living happily ever after somewhere in Canada. (Now that is something as mixed marriages are a strict no-no amongst the Parsi community - they are a fiercely proud lot who are trying to hold on to their roots). Then came the next statement which will floor any Bengali - the old gentleman said 'Why Ganguly, there is Subhash Chandra Bose - he is the greatest Bengali ever'. We were of course floored and sold for life and beaming from ear to ear. We wished them a happy Parsi new year which was on 19th Aug and promised to come back really soon.

Somewhere in between this happy exchange, loomed a dark cloud, the younger gentleman said that they were looking for a buyer and would sell immediately if they got the right price. I sensed some undercurrents of a reluctant younger generation who seemed burdened by a family business which was and is a passion with the older generation as long as they live. Perhaps it was this passion which kept the older gentleman coming in to the eater every day and interacting with the customers and taking orders and supervising the kitchen.

After hearing about the impending sell off we literally rushed back the next day, the commute was much easier as it was a holiday and there was almost no traffic on the roads. South Bombay wears a deserted and desolate look on such days as it is predominantly a business area. Britannia thankfully was open and buzzing with customers. The place was lighted, tables covered with green check cloth and topped with a glass cover. The menu was a printed sheet under the glass cover, straight backed wooden chairs round seats, marble floor, peeling green paint on the walls and a specials menu written on a whiteboard. Almost all tables were full, we managed to find a table though, my husband went and greeted the old gentleman - any Ganguly admirer is his friend for life! The old gentleman left his lunch midway, walked up to our table and assisted us to order our food.

We settle for Chicken Sali Boti, pav (bread), Mutton Berry Pulao and custard. All meat is served boneless here so no fuss. The chicken gravy was mild and thick, tasted pleasant with the handy pav which soaked up the gravy. The potato straws generously scattered over the gravy gave it a unique twist and texture. Once we were done with the chicken, we shifted our attention to the berry pulao, which is a derivation of Persian Jeweled Rice. Saffron colored rice with brown strands of fried onion and generously topped with fried cashew nuts and decorated on the sides with tiny meatballs. The mound of rice hid pieces of mutton cooked in what seemed to be a gravy made with the famed Iranian barberries which were specially imported from Iran or the nearby ever resourceful Crawford Market where one can find any condiment or exotic food item. The berries had a presence in the pulao as well as little bits I think but I will have to go back and verify this - some excuse to eat some more! To say the least, the Berry Pulao is the best pulao I have ever eaten in my whole life - it is divine. The ecstasy did not end here; more followed in forms the famous rich Parsi custard, which is made out of milk that’s been cooked over a slow flame till it turns brown. The custard de molded and served in thick caramel syrup and is indescribably good. The Parsi gentleman's admiration for Bengalis showed up in the menu as well, Mishti Doi (sweet yoghurt) - a Bengali specialty is available here too and that too in a khuri (an earthen pot)! The old Parsi gentleman stopped by again and said that we must try the Mishti Doi and tell him if it is as good as that available in Calcutta. We tried it and found it to be better than what we tasted in Calcutta.

While waiting for the bill and carefully masking our burps of satisfaction, we looked around to find a truly cosmopolitan lot, there were some Japanese tourists, Germans, Americans and of course large merry Indian families enjoying bottles of Dukes Raspberry (which I believe is a fixture in all Irani Cafes) and Berry Pulao all around. The price is modest for such a grand meal; we wave our goodbyes to the Parsi gentlemen and thank them for such a wonderful meal and the hospitality. They thank us and say 'We are always at your service' with a small bow.

There is no love greater than the love of eating - that’s the slogan of Britannia & Co. Restaurant, Ballard Estate, Mumbai. Phone: 2261 5264. If you are a 5* freak then you will realize that the food they serve there is a pale comparison to the truly delicious food made with love that they serve here.

Hail Britannia, Save Britannia. Rule Britannia.