The Return of the Icons

So, here I am – with the second instalment of iconic food joints across the country.

There was a mild frisson of controversy over the first instalment (read it here) as the venerable JAP pointed out Mocambo had much better food than Peter Cat and a senior colleague was quite distressed that Gajalee hadn’t featured. Well, of course these two (and many others) serve out-of-the-world food but the point about icons is that they are not (necessarily) about food.

It is about the legend.

In an untraceable blend of history, society and serendipity, these places have become part of the folklore of the city they are located in. So, even a person who’s never been to Calcutta will say “I have heard that Shiraz ka biriyani is too good. My co-brother was saying…”

Which brings us to the first name in this list.

Calcutta – Shiraz

A not-so-glitzy shop at the edge of the glitzy Park Street is known as The Golden Restaurant. The adjective probably refers to the golden hue of the rice and potato (Yes! Calcutta biriyanis have potatoes) that arrives in perfect heap on a gleaming white porcelain dish. The chicken biriyani would have one end of the chicken bone sticking out of the rice (to distinguish it from the mutton version, which is a plain heap of rice). I have never seen the biriyani remain on that dish for more than 9 minutes. Be it the democratic open area in the ground floor or the AC section on the mezzanine, people just jump the biriyani the moment it arrives.

Of course, the rest of their fare is magical too. They have a sort-of-multi-layer-sweetish paratha (which is not really a lachha paratha) that – when served with their Chicken Chnaap – is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. While writing this post, I realised that I have never had kababs from Shiraz. I have gone through three-and-half decades of my life having tasted only 4 or 5 items of their menu!

Bangalore – MTR

This is one place I was totally unimpressed by. When I was in Bangalore, I could not voice my opinion in the fear of being lynched (or being mistaken for a donkey and sacrificed!). But I am completely convinced about its status as a Bangalore icon.

Its unobtrusive facade. The stern guy at the billing desk. The (waiting) coupon which always seems to have a number in excess of 400. And the queue seems to go on till the end of the universe. Even before you get a glimpse of their overloaded stainless steel thalis, MTR imposes its legend upon you.

Their serving style is old-style Bangalore – suffused with a confident lethargy. They know you’ll wait. They also know the wait will be worth it. So, they stop to sniff the flowers before they let you sniff the sambhar! For people like me – used to inhale full plates of biriyani in 7 minutes – this art is lost but that is clearly my loss.

Bombay – Bade Miyan

This is clearly the one Bombay institution which divides the city right down the middle. Some people think it is over-hyped rubbish while others swear it is manna, dropped straight off carnivorous heaven. Without taking sides, I can safely say that any food that ignites such debate is an icon.

All my brushes with Bade Miyan came immediately after a longish booze session at Gokul (which could well be an icon itself) next door. After finishing the liquor that is served rapidly and cheaply, the steps are a little unsteady when you come out but the hunger is beating a steady rhythm. It is in this state that everybody approaches Bade Miyan. Be it the cheap rum at Gokul or the swish wine at Indigo, this small nondescript shop is an island of protein in a sea of alcohol. And thanks to the inflammable nature of the liquid, Bade Miyan is never short of flying fists around it.

A food joint where fights happen regularly. If that is not an icon, what is?

While on the subject of violence and carnivores, read this post (and the comments with it).

Hyderabad – Chutneys

This is where Chiranjeevi comes for breakfast.

What? You are not convinced it is an icon. You Rajini fans, I tell you…

Located at the triveni sangam of Banjara Hills, Jubilee Hills and Punjagutta, Chutney’s is just another restaurant serving dosas, idlis, uttapams and pesarattus to hungry souls. But their Baba Hotel Idli – oh god! Or their MLA Pesarattu… don’t ask me why it is so named. I just thought its because it is as thick-skinned and oily as a MLA!

Like Swagath in Delhi tries to do a Chinese gig to increase menu pages, Chutney’s also thulps in some North Indian delicacies. But I don’t think they ever get any orders of those as people just jump on to the 70 mm Dosa and all will be well with the world.

Delhi – The Big Chill

The wait. The massive menu. The four pages of desserts. The walls jam-packed with Hollywood posters.And the blueberry cheese cake.

The Big Chill serves a mixed menu that draws laughter from critics when it wins prizes for Best Italian at food awards but that’s because that’s the best category they fit in. Otherwise, what prize can you give them. Best Place To Take Girlfriend On First Date award? Or Desserts That Blow Your Mind, Diet and Wallet Award?

In a strange inversion of the demand-supply laws, Big Chill seems to increase demand in Delhi as it increases supply. Every outlet they have opened in Delhi have got jam-packed within 17 minutes of opening the shutters. There are many places in Delhi that serve better Italian food and are quite reasonable too. But nobody packs it in like BC. And that’s one hell of an iconic queue!

BTW, have you ever been to Big Chill and got to sit straight away? Yes? Hi Rahul. Hi Priyanka.

Picture courtesy: Delhi Photo Diary

Crystal, just around the corner no more

Some restaurants are more than that. They are a part of your being, in the sense that they have played a large role in your life at some stage. You have hung out there, waiting for someone special, or with someone special. Or gone back there again and again, to have one particular dish. You associate some extremely important occasion with them, if not many.

This week, I learnt about the fall of not one but two such places. 

The first one is Crystal. To anybody who lives in Mumbai, it is difficult not to have heard of it. For business school grads who are not from the city, their first encounter is in the summers when they are put up in Wilson College and the evening meal is at this hole in a wall establishment. If you have seen it, you would know but for those who haven’t it wouldn’t be surprising if you didn’t register its existence as you drove past Girgaon Chawpatty on Marine Drive. It is difficult to describe the place from inside. It is as if someone had pressed the Pause button sometime in 1953, and the place froze. There were (yes were!) around  5 tables on the ground floor, and may be another 6 on the mezzanine level. The two were connected through a wooden staircase, which could test any back. The waiters looked as if and probably were there since the beginning – they all were in their late 40s/ early 50s and old world in all ways. The music on any given day would take you back to the Black and White era of Madan Mohan and O P Nayyar. My memory of the music is frozen to one night when I had come after watching a play called The Blue Mug, about some psychologically disturbed people and the song Zindagi pyar ki do chaar ghadi hoti hai was nostalgic to one of the characters . That evening, when I was returning from NCPA, I ate at Crystal and the same song was playing. It seemed as if it had been playing for years.

 The food was drop dead awesome, especially to anyone who has grown up in North India and misses the home cooking. It is difficult to describe how brilliant the dishes were at taking you back to that cooking – and I am afraid it might remain a secret how the cooks managed to get that taste repeatedly. I am sure the secrets included home made ghee, masalas ground on a stone slab and possibly transported from Himachal where the restaurant staff and owner hail from. The owner, to spend a minute on him, was an almost static figure – it seems his job was only to count the money, and return the change – but I am sure he was aware of every single happening in the restaurant. He would sit, without displaying an emotion – except if you turned up just after lunch or dinner hour and he would sternly turn you away signaling there was no room for negotiation.

I have been visiting this place for almost a decade, of course with much lesser frequency lately. As a bachelor, it was almost a haunt, where I would take a taxi from my pad in Churchgate, and queue up for the mouthwatering Rajma, daal, alu gobhi or sukhe aloo. As life got busier and I got married and moved away to the suburbs, the visits became infrequent – though both the wife and I share the love for the place. We would drag every visiting friend to the place, who after their initial shock (at how the place looked) would settle down to enjoy the meal, and the stunning kheer that would follow. We used to have a challenge – to eat for more than Rs. 200 between two people – and I can assure you it wasn’t easy – even for gluttons like me.

Last week, coming back from the Kala Ghoda festival, we stopped their to satisfy a late evening urge for Crystal food. We were sitting in the car and got the friendly waiter to deliver the parcel to the car. He mentioned, to disbelieving ears, that the place might shut down anytime – as the building is being razed down. Today, I discovered a shutter on the place with the chairs lying awkwardly on top of the decades old tables.

There is a small ray of hope –  apparently the cooks have moved to a new version of Crystal at Lower Parel, which is being run by the owners’ daughter. It would not be the same, it never could – but hopefully the food will be. I hear they have got an air-conditioned section. Wonder what the waiters at the old Crystal would have to say about that.

The other bachelor institution that has fallen is Just around the corner at Bandra. I would save that story for another day.