The Indian Irani culture is quite different from the Parsi one although both are commonly spoken about with an “Oh, but aren’t they the same?” kind of mindset. While Parsis are Zoroastrians who came with the first migration wave to India over a 1,000 years ago, Iranis also are Zoroastrians who migrated to India in the last 300 hundred odd years, mostly from the Iranian provinces of Yazd and Kerman with just one motive in mind : to survive the great famine in Persia.
Hardworking and enterprising, these Iranian immigrants quickly spread themselves out first in Mumbai and later in Pune and even Hyderabad. They went on to set up eateries that remained the favorite haunts of people looking for their morning bun-maska with chai. By the early 20th century, Irani cafes had sprung up in almost every prominent street corner in Bombay, Pune and Hyderabad – symbols of both cultural integration and distinctiveness.
These cafes with evocative names such as Yazdani Bakery, Britannia & Co, Sassanian and many more, specialized in serving a specially brewed tea and brun masko pao (a crusty bun slathered with butter and dipped in the strong Irani chai before munching). Established in 1904, Kyani & Co in Mumbai, is reportedly the oldest operating Irani cafe. Mumbai itself once had around 800 Irani restaurants, bakeries and cafes of which hardly 50 or so survive today.
In a plucky attempt to restore this fading establishment but in a fun, quirky, avant-garde avatar, SodaBottleOpenerWala from the Olive Bar and Kitchen Pvt Ltd recently opened its doors in Bengaluru to a population that is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan every nano second.
Having met with huge success in Gurgaon and Delhi, this delightfully nostalgic cafe with its European/Parsi décor and artefacts, attempts to recreate the typically Irani and Parsi setting and culinary delicacies. The high ceiling, red chequered table cloths, glass-topped tables, dark paneled wooden showcases, large mirrors, an old fashioned wall clock or two, European bentwood chairs, down to a counter with thick glass jars stuffed with old fashioned biskoots, have all been carefully replicated to evoke memories of a typical old Irani café.
There is even a quirky trademark notice board with stern admonishments to patrons: “Do not sit un-necessarily. Do not comb hair. Reserved for Ladies and Family,” inducing the longing for a bygone time. Then there is the leitmotif – a tiny train chugging tirelessly away around the restaurant on tracks that have been mounted at a height of about 7 feet above the floor which does the rounds at the Gurgaon outlet as well I’m told.
And so, onto the food…my lunch companion and I started with Spicy Mushroom on Khari, a nice variation on the traditional Welsh Rarebit but not as spicy as we’d expected given the name. We also had the Chicken Cutlet Pav – moist cutlets of delicately spiced chicken, served with soft pieces of pav, sliced onion and slices of lime. For the mains, we decided to share a Mutton Berry Pulao (this has special Iranian barberries – an enduring contribution by the Iranian diaspora to Indian culture) which had some incredibly succulent pieces of good lamb, a rarity in Bengaluru restaurants. The pulao was everything I’d expected it to be – slightly sweet from the interplay of the fried onion, nuts and berries and with just the right amount of gravy clinging to the meat. We decided to accompany the pulao with a Patrani Machi which, sadly enough, we regretted the minute we unfolded the patra. There was just a dab of bland green chutney sitting forlornly somewhere below the fish that we had to hunt around for. It was far removed from the “wrapped in green chutney…” description on the menu card. This was a decision we regretted because the paucity of chutney had taken away even the natural moistness of the fish.
We ended the meal with a Parsi Kulfi that was good but not memorable. Shikanjee Bin, the drink that kept me company through the meal was a delicious interlude although it was difficult to draw a drink out through a straw that was shorter than the bottle in which it was served !
The menu also carries some typical Parsi elementals such as Tomato Papeta Par Eeda (eggs baked on a bed of tomatoes and potatoes), Bheeda Par Eeda (eggs atop a bed of fried okra), Chicken Farcha, Prawn Patio and its vegetarian version Brinjal Patio and of course the Dhansak. Then there are the idiosyncratic ones such as Aloo Aunty’s Vegetable Cutlet, Tardeo AC Market Mamaji’s Grill Sandwich, Breach Candy Awesome Okra (apparently Breach Candy Club’s most famous vegetable dish), Bombay (not Mumbai) Rasta Sandwich and Vada Pav. And of course, the Bun Maska with/without jam tops the list ! Some of the dishes are served out of quaint aluminum containers or brass tiffin carriers.
The little legend at the bottom of the menu about the origins of the name SodaBottleOpenerWala adds to the charm and story-telling. Service on the whole definitely needs uplifting. The young wait staff and others, far removed from the milieu of Irani cafes, cannot be expected to have a background of the food, ambience or the nuances of a bygone culture I guess. And the gaps show.
SodaBottleOpenerWala is a concept resto bar from the Olive Group, an F&B group that believes in being distinctive, creative, fun and innovative, all of which this resto bar definitely is. The promoters have delved deep into the unique world of Irani cafes to bring alive the nuances – both for cuisine and atmosphere. When any forgotten piece of history is being recreated, the familiarity of nostalgia is key to the experience. The architects of SBOW have succeeded in bringing that familiarity to life.
All in all, the takeaway from the meal, the ambience and the experience was that Bengaluru now has a brand new place to “hang out, be seen at, talk about and eat something distinctive” all of which meets and exceeds the considerations of any restaurateur. SBOW is buzzing, the tables are full, people are queueing up and what’s more, the valet, when told that I was expecting a table to have been booked for me, actually had the conviction that comes out of a certain cockiness to say, “too sad (sic) it’s not”!
Ratings (out of 5)
Food: 3.5 | Ambiance: 4.0 | Service: 2.5 | Overall: 3.5
Meal for two with alcohol: INR 2500 + taxes | Alcohol: Yes | Credit Card: Yes | Wheelchair Access: Yes
Address: LOCATION Lavelle Road, 25/4, Opposite Harley Davidson Showroom, Lavelle Road, Bangalore | Phone No: +91 70222 55299
Disclaimer: This review was done on an invitation from the restaurant.Due judgment and care has been applied by the author to remain objective and unbiased in the review. Readers need to consider this review keeping this fact in mind.
– Suchita Ullal