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A Passage to Mumbai

India's gastronomic and financial capital has millions of people, tens of thousands of restaurants—and one hugely famous food critic named Rashmi Uday Singh. On a day-long eating spree, she takes writer Monica Bhide to her favorite spots.

"We're going where Mumbai's bachelors hang out," my guide announces. Visions of a noisy, ultratrendy nightclub pop into my head. Our car pulls into a winding lane lined with 100-year-old bungalows. I look around for packs of young men streaming out of a doorway with attractive women on their arms. Instead, all I see is an old house with a sign that reads ANANT ASHRAM.

I turn toward my guide, but before she can react, the owner stops us at the door. I assume it's because he knows her: A picture of her was in the morning daily, which named her one of the most influential women in the fashionable South Mumbai area. "No food left," he bellows. "Leave please, lunch over." "Can we just come in to see the place?" she pleads, and he finally lets us in.

We walk into a sparsely furnished room with small, marble-topped wooden tables and a kitchen where food is still cooked over wood-fueled stoves. The familiar scent of garlic-infused oil is all around us. My guide warns me, "Don't judge by the looks." The food at Anant Ashram is known to be passionately authentic, and the restaurant is a favorite among well-heeled locals—many of whom send their drivers to get takeout. "They make unerringly good fried fish and clam masala," my guide points out. "Homesick bachelors who don't cook eat here daily. Great fish and rude attitude."

The owner spots my camera and all hell breaks loose. "No," he commands in broken English, "no pictures, no advertise, please leave." We are, I think, officially thrown out. "How is that for being recognized?" she laughs. "I've been thrown out of here before for taking pictures."

My guide is Rashmi Uday Singh, one of Mumbai's most famous people and a fixture in the pages of the Bombay Times—but she is not a Bollywood star, politician or local nobility. She is, in fact, a restaurant critic. The author of several cookbooks, as well as Mumbai's first-ever restaurant guide, Good Food Guide to the Best of Mumbai, and a columnist for local newspapers, 50-year-old Rashmi has become renowned over the past 20 years for her savvy reviews of all types of dining spots—from expensive restaurants to street-food stalls.

I'm on my annual trip to Mumbai with my husband, visiting in-laws, and Rashmi has cleared a day in her schedule to show me her favorite places to eat. Although I grew up in Delhi and went to school in Bangalore before moving to the U.S., I still need some help navigating this massive city, with its 12 million people and tens of thousands of restaurants. Having Rashmi as a guide is a godsend. But so far today, we haven't had much luck.

"I'm starving," Rashmi says. "Since Anant Ashram is, um, closed, let's hit the Britannia Restaurant." As her chauffeur drives us to the restaurant, a few minutes from Anant Ashram on the city's south-central side, she's conducting three conversations at once: one with the chauffeur, one with me and one on her cell phone with a local industrialist who's planning a food event. "You must get Dubeyji for your show," she says into her phone. "He has been to Belgium 42 times to make paan for Indian weddings there." Dubeyji, she tells me, is a paanwala, a street vendor who sells traditional mouth fresheners called paan, made of betel leaves filled with areca nuts, cardamom pods, cloves and rose essence. Belgium's Indian diamond merchants love their paan and will fly in someone like Dubeyji for a wedding ceremony.

The Britannia Restaurant is in the landmark Ballard Estate building on busy commercial Sprott Road; the 82-year-old establishment serves only lunch. "This is one of Mumbai's typical 'Irani hotels,' where some Persian culture still survives," Rashmi explains. There aren't too many places in the city that still serve Parsi food, a combination of Persian cuisine—which uses lots of nuts, rice and dried fruits—and Indian influences. I try Britannia's signature berry pulao, a deliciously complex chicken and rice pilaf made with crunchy fried onions, sliced almonds and deep-red barberries—tart berries imported from Iran. "My wife was working in Iran, where she learned to make this," the owner tells us. "She added some spices to the dish to liven it up." Rashmi orders the equally terrific dhansak, a sweet-and-spicy mix of pureed lentils, mutton, stewed pumpkin and brown rice.

The owner begins to complain about some legal battles that he's facing. Clearly, he has no idea who Rashmi is. "I know someone who can help you," she says, handing him her card. "Rashmi? Rashmi?" he says, reading the name. "I know you. You've written about us many times." She nods, "Yes. I also was a senior officer at the Indian Income Tax Department. I know the legal system well." He thanks her profusely. She smiles, pays the bill and picks up the leftovers to give her driver.

"I want to take you to a place I love called Swati for a quick snack," Rashmi says as we walk out. Our driver takes the long way to Swati Snacks, which is just a few minutes from Brittania, so Rashmi can point out some of her favorite spots. "Look there," she says, pointing to a tiny lane. "There's a cake shop back here called Sleight of Hand that serves incredibly moist brownies. And over there is a vendor who sells iceberg lettuce, although he'll tell you it's 'ishberg.'" We spot a sari-clad vegetable vendor on the sidewalk wearing an American baseball cap, a boy bicycling down the road with a load of green coconuts and street stalls selling everything from fruit to underwear.

Swati Snacks, in the bustling Tardeo area, is one of many places in town that serve snacks, an afternoon tradition in Mumbai. When we arrive at 4 p.m., the room is packed and we have to wait 10 minutes for a table. With its simple menu and its streamlined industrial design—long steel benches and a granite floor—this is a no-frills restaurant. The cuisine here is Gujarati, from the neighboring Gujarat region, which is known for its vegetarian dishes, deep-fried foods and slightly sweet flavors (cane sugar, or jaggery, is a staple). Rashmi orders the paanki—garlicky, lacy rice pancakes steamed in banana leaves—and I decide to try the dal dhokli, an Indian lasagna of sorts made with peanuts and chickpea flour and served in a bath of lentils. There are so many flavors in each dish, but they meld beautifully. I'm reminded of advice I've heard often: "To find the best vegetarian food in town, look for a place run by Gujaratis."

With no time for a rest, we head for an early dinner at Masala Kraft, in the 100-year-old Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, which has spectacular views of the Mumbai harbor and the Gateway of India, built to commemorate King George V and Queen Mary's visit to the city in 1911. A serene restaurant with vaulted ceilings, Masala Kraft serves modern cuisine from all over India and is known for its artistic presentations. Rashmi points out that the food here isn't just flashy: "This is the only place in town serving serious Indian food so creatively and doing it so well." She orders something called an Instant Sketch, which includes nine vegetarian dishes on ceramic plates of different sizes. Standouts include the char-grilled broccoli florets with Indian mustard and pickling spices, and the potatoes in a spicy blend of cumin, chiles and curry leaves. I try the Bohri tiffin, a riff on an Indian Muslim meal and consisting of baby lamb and chicken kebabs served in small bowls hooked onto a pole. Dessert is milk dumplings, fried nuggets made from powdered milk and a ricotta-style cheese.

Since the staff knew Rashmi, they were extremely attentive. I wondered, though, how she usually evaluated service. "Easy," she says. "I show up unannounced or have other people make reservations for me. How much can the staff change things once I'm there? And I ask other customers how their meal is. People are brutally honest, especially when they know I'll print what they say."

Rashmi checks her watch. She has to take off for a benefit, but she writes down the addresses of two more restaurants she insists I visit.

That night, my husband and I go for a late dinner at Olive Bar & Kitchen, one of the places on Rashmi's list and a popular hangout for Bollywood stars. We arrive at 11:30 p.m., which is prime time. A cab drops us off in front of a stucco bungalow in the exclusive Palli Hill suburb.

Inside, loud music is thumping; the furniture, mostly large stuffed pillows and rattan chairs and tables, looks slightly North African. Outside, there's a Moroccan tent, where diners are smoking hookahs. Olive is a radical departure from the Indian restaurants I visited with Rashmi—and not just because of its decor. The menu is Mediterranean-inspired, with dishes like lobster risotto and peppercorn-crusted calamari. Unlike the many non-Indian restaurants in Mumbai that adapt their food to suit the Indian palate, the dishes here aren't "currified," and the kitchen uses olive oil instead of clarified butter. The lamb I order, which is braised in rosemary-spiked wine, is juicy and tender. My husband's roast chicken is flawless, with a rich but not too heavy sauce of Gorgonzola and sage.

As we eat, we watch Preity Zinta, Bollywood's reigning superstar, at the next table. I ask the manager for a tour of the restaurant, and people turn to stare at us as we walk by. When I head to the ladies' room later, a woman rushes in behind me. "Madam," she says, "I saw the manager walking you around. Are you somebody?"

We leave at 3 a.m., but there's not much time to sleep. We have to wake up at 5:30 to head to Mahalakshmi Racecourse, which has a breakfast spot called Morning Bar that Rashmi loves. We arrive expecting a typical Mumbai restaurant: cramped and noisy. Instead we see a calm terrace with tables overlooking the racetrack. The menu offers muffins, baked beans and, every now and then, samosas. On Rashmi's advice, we order mint tea and Indian melba toast with a "chiplet" of butter. It's a perfect, if hardly adventurous, breakfast—and the setting is unbeatable.

As we get ready to board our flight at the Mumbai airport, Rashmi calls me on my cell phone. "Did you enjoy Olive?" she asks. "On your next trip, let's do the international side of Mumbai: Thai Pavilion, Suzie Wong, Wasabi by Morimoto—the chef is Masaharu Morimoto [Japanese Iron Chef]—and of course, all the new lounge bars." But next time, to be safe, I'm leaving my camera at home.

Monica Bhide lives in Washington, D.C., and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

Published June 2005
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