Funny how I’ve never noticed Cafe Military Restaurant and Bar, even though I’ve worked right next door on Tamarind Lane, Fort, for over a year. Maybe it’s all those dusty beer cases and newspapers stacked all over the place. 😛 But once inside I realize what passes for interior decoration is actually a we-are-like- this-wonly ambience that so characterises Parsi eateries.
One wall is of ceiling to floor mirror panels, alternating with panels of obscure of try-as-I-might-I-can’t-remember scenery. Classic Irani style “goldilocks” chairs arranged around small tables (wood, not marble stained yellow with centuries of spilt curries – I check under the table cloth). The only feeble attempt at frivolity comes from laminated color-prints of “bawa tips” taped to the walls. One says “Bawatip# 178 ( I find no trace of the other 177, ha ha ha) – our cure for cancer is kheemo therapy. ” Sigh….
I see a cavernous high ceilinged 600 odd sq ft “gomukh” hall painted institutional yellow, chairs giving way to benches as you go further in. I sit with my back to the wall facing the room so I can watch both the entry and the kitchen (Jack Reacher will be proud).
Portly Mohan, a Malayali (who works in the same place for 25 years. Why? Khit phit nahin hai. Customer nahin hai tho baitke paper padtha hoon. Honorary bawa by association?) eventually wanders across and first reads the lists of beer on the menu- all 3 of them, just in case I am illeterate. Apparently, the junta consider this the main highlight, and it’s frowned upon to not have a beer here. Eager to please I request a Kingfisher (sorry Berjes, didn’t see your recommendation till this morning) and wait drool-mouthed to order what I came for.
“Beeyar ke sath snack aitems kuch?” asks Mohan, running finger down the next line on the menu. “No thank you”, I smile, “Ek plate mutton dhansak”. “Ooo! Rice aitmes kuch nahin. Woh sab wonly lunch ke time pe miltha haii.”
Shit. I’m devastated. I settle for, nay NEED some kheemo therapy.
Mohan serves the kheema with soft pav and practiced indifference. In a bright yellow plastic plate. (I’m sure the clench-fisted bawa owner still narrates the story of how he pulled off this major bargain of Crawford Market rejects.) Squinting against unexpected brightness, I shove the spoon under one side of the plate so I can gleefully watch all the oil flow down and collect at the other end.
Nothing happens. The kheema is not oily. Unlike the kheema fry in Stadium, Churchgate. I feel cheated. Thinking this is where I’m going to stop saying nice things about the place, I absently take a spoonful.
And. Now I know how Scragg feels when he hugs the Great Acorn in the Sky. The subtlety! The top note of ginger, green chilly and tomato nicely complement the earthy flavour of the mutton itself. The mutton is soft, well-cooked. Ladled onto pieces of pav with a bite of lime flavoured onion, the kheema allows me to pause, savour and imagine the legacy of this dish being perfected and served for over 80 years in the very spot. I inhale the aroma deeply and start to consume slowly, mindfully.
Urban Cusine Myth
No round of pani puri is complete till you choke and sputter on atleast one.
No plate of kheema is complete till you pick from mouth atleast one piece of bone.
“Owr kuch?” Mohan breaks my reverie. I bring focus to menu, look for the most Parsi sounding non-rice item. “Akuri”, I tell him knowledgably, knowing it only as some form of scrambled egg simply because its listed as – Eggs – Scrambled / Burji/ Akuri.
The akuri is scrambled egg like the Taj is a mausoleum. Very tasty and fluffy, if a little heavy. And not in-your-face as a Burji. I suspect broadly the same seasoning as the kheema is used. Except for a very agreeable resonance of kari patta. The only sounds I hear are of my own appreciation. And the loud phone conversation of Mr. Broacha who seemed to be finding visas for “Gelf” workers from his office at the next table over a bottle of LP beer. I think Mr. Broacha is God. He is there before I came. He is there after I went.
I quaff the rest of the beer, now flat from being ignored, pay and leave. But not before I confirm from Mohan that the owner, a venerable 80 year old Mr. Koshrawi (?) still comes in 4 days a week from Mazgaon, and his son, the other 2. Sunday Holiday. In the light of Merewan closing down after being around a 100 years, I am concerned to establish that the family is still interested in running the place and not selling it off for the delectable piece of prime real-estate it is.
Lighting my post-parandial cigarette, I reflect that the we-are-like-this-wonlyness of Parsi eateries is actually reflection of a certain personal integrity. Indifferent décor and service don’t matter in the long run. Serving delicious yet simple food, consistently, over generations, is what gets people like me to start scheming when the boss will be out of town so I can nip over for a quick lunch of the famed “rice items” 😀
PS: Its official. Stadium is Vodaphone’s -eat while you wait for crappy service- extension counter.
— Vignesh Eswar
Meal for Two: Rs 800 | Alcohol: Yes| Credit Card:No| Timing: 8 AM to 11 PM| Address: Ali Chamber, Tamrind Lane, Fort, Mumbai| Phone: 022 22654181
Food: 3.0| Ambiance: 3.0 | Service: 3.0 | Overall: 3.0