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January 12, 2000
Three Cousins And A Canteen
Kamla Bhatt in Sunnyvale
With their heads bent, the diners quietly dig into the simple, homemade food served in steel thalis. They only look up to ask for another helping of sambar, rasam or poriyal. You can often hear the people at the next table say, "Dhool sambhar, da." It's easy to imagine you are eating in either Mylapore or T Nagar in Madras, with the waiters quietly walking around in the small room with steel pathrams filled with sambar, rasam or mooru.
If you happen to go in the evenings for a light tiffin, you can watch Vadiyar (M G Ramachandran) and Jayalalitha prancing about in Kashmir or Ooty in bell-bottom pants and tight shirts. No Hindi songs or ghazals or piped Hindustani music here -- all you get are Tamil songs.
If you look around carefully, you might also get a glimpse of some of Silicon Valley's well-known entrepreneurs like K B Chandrasekhar, who are strict vegetarians.
This is Komla Vilas, or 'KV', an authentic South Indian vegetarian restaurant in the hub of the Indian community, fondly called Gandhi Nagar by many desis. It is located on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale.
"I waited a year to get this place," says A M "Swami" Narayan Swami, one of the partners. "We place special emphasis on Tamil cuisine. We don't use garlic or onion in many of our dishes," he says.
The place is reminiscent of a "mess" or a college canteen. In fact, it is. Two partners are the products of the Indian Institute of Technology and they wanted to recreate the ambience of their spartan IIT "mess".
Like most canteens, the place is devoid of any artefacts, those familiar garish pink plastic flowers and the mandatory Heer-Ranja or painting of village belles.
The menu is displayed on a blackboard. "You get a set breakfast, set lunch and a light dinner just like you do at home," says Swami.
The plan for the restaurant came about three years ago when Swami and his two cousins were chewing rag about food.
Swami is an engineer and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, one of his two cousins is a Wall Street banker and the other, Dr Bhavani Srinivasan, a pediatrician on Long Island.
Swami bemoaned there were no place to go for some good old "amma's sapadu" of sambar and rasam. Many restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area serve north Indian food, primarily Punjabi or south Indian food cooked mainly in the Andhra style.
The trio decided it was time they started a restaurant.
The three had no experience in the food industry and the only thing that drove them to start the restaurant was a passion for good food and their scientific minds. They came up with a flow-chart on how to make idlis.
To recreate a bit of Madras, they spent over $ 250,000 recreating the ambience of a canteen. All the steel pathrams are from the famous Ratna Stores in Pondy Bazar, Madras.
Swami had to get special permission from the city to install the sinks outside the bathroom.
"We wanted to mimic the Indian environment since we don't wash our hands in the bathroom," Swami says.
To promote the restaurant, the cousins adopted a combination of traditional and cutting-edge advertisements, besides relying on e-mail and word of mouth. Between the three of them they were able to come with a sizeable number of contacts.
When KV opened last year, hundreds of people showed up within the first week.
"I was in the fifth year of my business plan in my second week," says Swami. "On the first day, I had 20 people and by the fifth day, we had 400.
"There were only 38 plates and 32 seats!" Now KV seats 45.
On the first day while people were waiting to get a place, there was an argument in the kitchen if the rice should be pressure-cooked or boiled. That is the extent to which the three cousins go to provide a "home- cooked meal," he says.
Lakshmana Lakshmi Iyer, who is in his late 70s, and Sampat Kumar, many years younger, look after the kitchen. Often, you can see Kumar in his veshti and namam cooking in the kitchen. Sometimes Swami's mother, fondly called patti (grandmother) putters around the kitchen and provides a twist to the mooru kozhambu. There are a couple of other Silicon Valley mamis who work on weekends.
Occasionally, Dr Srinivasan catches a red-eye flight from New York, exchanges her doctor's coat for a salwar kameez, and helps out at KV.
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like K B Chandrasekhar and B V Jagadeesh of Exodus Communications, Raj Raghavan of Real Chip, M R Raghavan of Sandhill Ventures are some celebrities you spot having breakfasts there in the weekends.
But Swami is waiting for the day when Steve Jobs will come to his restaurant.
"You know he is vegetarian and goes to Indian restaurants frequently," he observes.
The testimony from customers vouches for the authenticity of the food. Vishwanth Raman, an engineer working in Sunnyvale, says, "Komala Vilas consistently meets my expectations for food that is closest to the first 20-odd years of my life. Tamil Nadu sapad at its best."
"The food reminds me of my mother-in-law's cooking," testifies Mathew Barker, another Silicon Valley engineer whose wife is from Bangalore.
Some others don't share the viewpoint of Raman or Barker and point out that the $ 8 lunch is a bit steep while others maintain the food is not piping hot by the time it is served.
Arun Venkatachar, an engineer who occasionally goes to KV with his wife, Archana, says: "You will like the food only if you have acquired a taste for it."
According to Dr Srinivasan, "The south Indian taste bud is so exquisitely sensitive, it takes KV to fine-tune it."
Komla Vilas is located at 1020 East El Camino Real, Sunnyvale.
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