Of rains and restaurants… Part 1

by sidin in

It is another day of foreboding in Mumbai. It has been raining all night and as I wake up I first think my plans for breakfast at Basilico now looks very unlikely with the incessant showers. But a quick flip through the channels and one phone call from a friend later the situation prroves to be very grave. Hardly has the city bounced back from two days of madness and it seems like the streets are flooding again and people are being asked to stay indoors again. The city continues to receive plaudits from everyone from the PM downwards for its resilience and grit. But plaudits do not pump out the water in the roads or light the bulbs in Kalyan or Kalina. Thousands have no food, water or light.If it rains again today and the floods rise again we just might see the fabled resilience of the Mumbaikar wear out. What then?

Outside my windows visibility is a grey haze through the thick showers and I can see the colony of taxi drivers across the vacant plot behind my building. The rows of black and yellow cabs parked outside the buildings I guess means they wont be hitting the roads atleast for the time being. The authorities make interesting statements with the Police asking people to stay indoors while the airports say they are functioning and people can come. Jet has cancelled all its flights. Here we go again...

But I guess life must go on and so should my blog. I have been fairly busy over the last many weeks. Engrossed in a project so far, it is only this weekend that I can spend some time sitting at home doing nothing without fearing what Monday holds for me. So I was lazily leafing through an assortment of old newspapers lying around at home. Newspapers are queer things. They can accumulate for weeks in a corner of the kitchen or by the floor next to the armchair. Unread and uncared for. But alas not having a paper delivered at home even a single day is an unmentionable sin akin to not keeping your remote controls in plastic covers or, as my manager pointed out, wearing white tennis socks to a business meeting. (Under my trousers I mean…)

So there I was languidly strolling through a fortnight old copy of the Hindustan Times when I was forced to stop and smell the flowers at a column by the delectable Vir Sanghvi. He was talking of some of his favorite restaurants in Mumbai in yet another edition of his eponymous column Rude Food. But a few column inches through I was losing interest at an exponential rate as it was but a rehash of some of his excellent but old columns published recently in a compilation.

So my mind wandered and I figured if so many people paid to read him write of his favorite eateries why should not I feast my readers to a brief guided through the (and I love this phrase) restaurants of my life… So draw up your chairs, smoothen the napkins down the fronts of your shirt fronts and make sure you have an open excel sheet handy for the boss when he comes around…

Ironically the first real restaurant of my life (ROML) was Abdul Aziz Restaurant on the ground floor of my apartment building on Old Airport Road. Ironic not because it was a non-descript little mallu run place with a short menu and a shorter client list, but because for all the years I lived above and walked past it, I never ever ate there more than once or so. I really need to jog my memory to evoke images of the place. Let me see it had old creaky 70s style tables and chairs all topped with wood-stain Formica sheets. And lots of Lipton tea promotional materials. The yellow and red emblem was everywhere. On the walls, under the glass table where Abdul Aziz uncle hardly sat all day, and on the wooden box which held wax paper towels near the single wash basin. That box was special as the opening in the top was cut in the shape of the Lipton emblem. At that time it was popular in down-market restaurants all over Abu Dhabi and I always managed to skin my fingers while pulling out sheets.

Abdul Aziz was a short rotund man who looked exactly like the image "short rotund’ invokes in ones mind. He was a sweet friendly man who always offered me tea or some apples when I came back from school which I always refused like my mom told me to. He used tinted glass cutlery which made all his curries look the same and were either bottle green or a caramel brown. And so all his gravies, be it chicken, egg or the consolation mixed vegetables, all looked brownish green or well very very brown depending on what bowls he used. They all had a thin layer of oil on top and even though we lived in the building for some 15 years we never ever ordered a single dish from downstairs. Not that Abdul Aziz minded or we were embarrassed because of it. It was just the way it was. He was a family friend though. Once he celebrated the birthday of his son who was miles away in his village in Kerala. But he asked my parents to let me stand in for a little mock birthday party on the upstairs family section of Abdul Aziz restaurant. I cut an overly sweet cake and got a gift I do not remember except that it was covered with plain silver wrapping paper. We shifted out of that house a few years ago and then the building was demolished to make way for a new residential building. The grocery and used car shops came back but Abdul Aziz did not.

The first ROML where I frequently ate with family was the Emirates Casino restaurant. But have no allusions of Monte Carlo or even Macau mind you. It was probably named after the Casino Hotels in Thrissur and served North Indian, South Indian, Chinese and Rest of the World in Mallu style. Which means they found fascinating ways to infuse coconut into every dish on the menu. (But that still pales in comparison to the Kerala stall at Dilli Haat which serves an authentic malayali Fruit Beer… shudder…)

A close second was the Arab Udipi where my dad insisted we order the Veg Thalis. As kids we hated the dented to death steel plates and bowls. Except for the payasam which was the one limited dish on the menu, we abhorred all the sabjis. The Puris were oily, fried and perfect. But lasting memory to this day are two wall hangings which adorned the walls in the dinghy family section upstairs. (All the gulf Indian restaurants had family sections upstairs with bad lighting, bad air conditioning and Hillary-esque steep stairs.) One was of a dancer in Mohini Attam costume who at that pre-adolescent age appeared quite comely to me, and another was a completely irremarkable one of an elephant. It was just on top of the landing of the stairs and so I guess I just saw it too many times.

At this point I think the ROML took a radical turn with the discovery of Kentucky Fried Chicken and the world of fast food outlets and irresistible promotions. KFC continues to have a lasting impact on the life of the Vadukuts. My dad continues to use a faux leather laundry bag which we got in some promotion at KFC over 12 years ago or so. Crimson red with the face of the KFC mascot emblazoned on both sides it has become an irrevocable part of the family. A case of the laundry bag being more valuable than the laundry. (If there is such a saying…)

KFC and other fast food restaurant visits were inevitably rewards for good performances in exams and class tests and other ventures academic. At that young age such incentives were taken seriously. Unfortunately I was a decent student and this coupled with the incentive program made sure I was always obese, socially neglected and reverted to fast food for comfort. A first class vicious circle. With fries and coke. Till a few years ago we still had boxes of fast food chain toys at home. I still miss my clown faced calculator and chicken alarm clock. The calculator sang "Happy Birthday To You" every time you opened it. For a couple of days it was ok. Then it became a frigging pain in the ass. Every time I cheated on my maths homework the banshee screaming would start nullifying the very purpose of the bloody thing. But soon my younger brother devised a way of opening it without the evil ballad. I did well in maths. And got more cool stuff. Like the laundry bag.

Then of course are the ROML that were not your typical eating joints. Like a horrid restaurant in Bombay Airport that served chicken sandwiches that looked deceptively like bread rolls with filling but were so cold and hard that each bite momentarily drowned out the noise of planes landing, taking off and skidding off runways. But the sandwiches at some place called Swastik somewhere below a railway bridge in Santa Cruz were heavenly. Moist, light and spiced with a proprietary Swastik masala it was a revelation when I had it for the first time in Bombay. Once in Ahmedabad I came across a sandwich very similar to that but it had beetroot and beetroot has no business being in a sandwich. (Or in this universe… blech…)

By then I had grown older and I knew the difference between chopsuey and fengshui and learnt that you could not pack leftovers at a buffet. Albeit painfully. Engineering in Trichy was a plethora of many ROMLs. There was Cascade the coffee shop that was open twenty four hours a day and served only idlis for 16 of them. And of course Suvai where a friend was served a piping hot portion of Gulab Jamuns during one visit. Only thing was he had ordered for a Club Sandwich. But with both items having an "L" and a "U" so close to each other who can blame the waiter… Suvai though had an excellent Tandoor Platter which accounted for a large part of my pocket money. But I managed, like all engineering students, by controlling expenses on such frivolous things like toothpaste, soap and underwear. However I believe of late Suvai no longers lets people from my college partake of their excellent weekend dinner buffets. Apparently the term "eat all you can" was not applicable for engineering students for whom "can" meant gastro-intestinal collapse or complete extinction of the species that was used to make crumb-fried fish. Whichever came first.

Then followed the days of salaries, credit-cards and the intriguing eating outlets of Chennai. But there is such a term as too large a helping on a plate. So tune in soon to read the second portion of the ongoing adventures of the author and the Restaurants of his life...