This is the latest for our destination dining guide, Eat Sheet. For more on how we do these a bit differently, head here first.
Mumbai has long been an entrepot, a cosmos stamped with the influences of communities from within India and around the world. Immigrants have seeped through the city, imprinting their culinary cultures into its kitchens; stalls selling the city’s iconic vada pao sit cheek-by-jowl with rarefied colonial-era clubs, Indian-style Chinese is corralled onto a menu with Chicken a la Kiev, and chicken tikka as popular as pizza. This extremely abbreviated list of restaurants is a personal shoehorn into its past and its future.
The headliner at Ram Ashray is of course, the dosa, with a greatest hits selection of Mysore, onion, and lace-thin rava (semolina) varieties. But venture beyond the obvious, and you will be rewarded with a swathe of other Mangalorean breakfast specialties— goli bajje, chewy, deep fried dough fritters; buns (fried banana dough); and a frothing glass of filter coffee alongside. For this, you may have to spider away from the tourist trails, but it will be well worth it – nothing on the menu costs more than Rs 100.
HOLD THE MEAT
Soam draws a cacophonous thicket of people, chattering, laughing, waiting, gorging on its superb Gujarati cooking. Preface your mains with the thick, crisp kand na chilla (purple yam pancakes); the farsan platter—a wreath of Gujarati snacks in a thali, crowned by golden spinach samosas that are juicy with cheese. Then order the fada ni khichdi, a dish of broken wheat baptised by ghee. To finish, whorls of jalebi, crisp and sweet.
Olympia Coffee House
When you wake up late with the taste of last night’s tequila still coating your throat, there’s really only one thing that can wash it away for me and that’s breakfast at Olympia Coffee House. At Olympia, the chef’s Midas touch stretches to all things meaty — biryani, kebab, khichda, paya. Try the kheema, coarsely-chopped up minced mutton spliced with peas and carrots, gently spiced and simmered to an almost-gravy, and served with white bread to soak up the gravy.
ON THE STREET
Gupta Chaat Centre / Chowpatty or Juhu Beach
Bhelpuri, an iconic snack often seen as a metonym for the city, is a vivid collage of potatoes, onions, puri (discs of flatbread fried crisp), puffed rice, sweet-sour and spicy chutneys spooned over it all, with a dusting of sev (hair-thin strands of fried chickpea flour) on top. This is working class, immigrant food, especially popular as a seaside snack, sold by street vendors on Chowpatty and Juhu beach. For a more salubrious option, you may want to try yours at Gupta Chaat Centre.
Chef Niyati Rao’s menu is ingredient-led and restlessly cosmopolitan, cleaving to familiar flavors or textures while inflecting them with a touch of whimsy. For instance, Petrichor, a tequila cocktail infiltrated by mezcal made with coconut toddy, amla cordial and infused sandalwood, becomes an homage to the fragrance released by the first rains. Or potato, sliced, baked, fried, then lidded by a tousle of lime and chili-based condiments. Menus change as seasons turn, so there’s always something fresh to look forward to.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE
It’s a bit of a thrill to stumble upon this unassuming café in the tangled lanes of the Fort neighborhood. For a delicious shoehorn into the world of Parsi* food, try their creamy akuri (spiced scrambled egg), pulao dal, or Sali boti (dark, sticky hanks of meat, with a pelt of crisp-fried potato matchsticks). But on Tuesday, they make Parsi-style curry rice, on Wednesdays, there is titori (bitter vaal beans) and on Saturdays, there is railway mutton (a slow-cooked mutton and potato gravy dish)— rarely available outside a home kitchen.
*Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran who washed up on Indian shores more than a millennium ago.
START ME UP
Kala Ghoda Café
Kala Ghoda Café began its life as one room, but it slowly unravelled into three (including a wine bar at the back). Consider their cortado (or espresso or cappuccino) as a chaser to their breakfast stalwarts — the pora (masala omelette), upma (a semolina dish), oatmeal pancakes, and a variety of waffles; there’s even one cross-hatched with amaranth, millets and brown rice flour.
LOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING
At Highway Gomantak, disregard the décor; the seafood’s the thing. I could tell you about its masala mutton wade, the wade fried to a crunch. Or I could tell you about its mandeli, tiny fish fried until they reach the point of shattering crispness. I could even tell you about its jawla kismur, a Goan dish made with tiny dried prawns. But what I really love is the assertively-spiced fish—bangda, rawas, pomfret, bombil, lepa, halwa, surmai—dredged through a mountain of semolina, then fried to a golden crackle.
UNDER THE RADAR
Go here for a tiny toehold into the food of the home state, Maharashtra. Although the menu holds a multitude of Indian dishes, the heart of the restaurant lies in its familiar Maharashtrian mainstays—snacky kothimbir vadi (squares of chickpea flour veined with coriander); varan bhat, an unfussy yellow dal and rice; bharli wangi, a gravied baby aubergine dish scooped up with bhakri; missal, mung beans and potato submerged in a gravy sprightly with spice, then lidded with crackle-crisp farsan; and kharvas, a sweet made from bovine colostrum.
MAKE IT QUICK
Tibb’s frankie fire-engine red kiosks ribbon through the city streets, the brainchild of Amarjit Singh Tibb and his wife who sought to make an Indian version of the shawarma. The frankie is masala-doused meat wrapped in a roll of eggy naan—chicken and mutton usually but paneer and vegetable versions are available too. Belly-filling and quick-service, the frankie is food meant to be eaten afoot, when powering through the city.
ONE FOR THE FEED
The Bombay Canteen
At The Bombay Canteen, the food is an inventive homage to India’s varied cuisines, untrammeled by border or tradition — Khasi-style pork ‘tacos’, gulab jamun soused in Old Monk, Tandoori lamb chops served with garlic chutney and caper leaf chimichurri, spiced liver pate with a shiver of kokum jelly (a souring fruit) and toddy vinegar, served on a toasted milk rusk. The focus is on seasonal, sustainably-sourced local ingredients and dishes. The décor, with its art deco elements picture windows with light summering in, traditionally-patterned tiles and rattan chairs harks back to old, languid Mumbai living.