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Konkan Cafe
You've come a long way, Gassi
... dinner at the Konkan Cafe, Bombay

Nadar Parakh

E-Mail this travel feature to a friend Good food is only half the fun of eating out. The other half is the setting. The lights, the decor, the clientele at adjoining tables, the service -- all ingredients that add up to the perfect meal.

It's also the rationale behind the latest Rediff section -- the restaurant guide.

Join us on a gourmet trip through the eateries of India -- the good, the bad, the indifferent. Browse through this section, and you not only can leave the strip of gelusil back home, you could end up having a great evening.

Konkan Cafe

It's happened. The Konkan food that we've been gobbling at seedy dives all over Bombay has finally gone legit. With the opening of the Konkan Café at the President hotel, you've come a long way, Gassi.

Konkan cuisine is like Goa: Everyone thinks they know its inner secrets intimately. And they worship it at many altars. There are the Maheshees -- devotees of the Mahesh Lunch Home in south Bombay -- a tacky temple adorned with plaster of Paris mermaids. Then there are the Trishnaites: jet-setters who like their butter-garlic squid in the style Francaise. It's normally so packed that if the person behind you burps, you get thrown into your plate.

There is also Bharat Excellensea, where if you don't watch your head it could get knocked off by those absurdly low beams, and Sayba in Bandra, where you can't wave to the waiter because a passing bus could knock your hand off.

We all have our favourites, and even though most of them serve up their delights in metal plates, with gravy drooling off, we eat on, oblivious. But, in this world of choices, we now have THE Choice: Konkan Café. In a swoop, our gassis and appams, surmai frys and teesri masalas have been triple promoted to swank-dom. Will life ever be the same?

Why Konkan Café? Why give us food we consider ourselves to be experts on at three times the dough? Is it for foreigners wanting to sample coastal cuisine in an aseptic environment? Is it because The President had to have an Indian restaurant of some sort, and they thought this would be the trendiest idea? Why not a restaurant show-casing Keralite food for folks who know their moily from their kari-meens? And just who do they think will pay good money to eat here?

A surprising number, is the answer. At 10 pm the café is rocking. But not a foreigner in sight. No blue eyes, no blond hair, no we'll-get-malaria-if-we-breathe-in-this-wretched-country types. Instead, a fine sample of the city's piggerati: a boisterous birthday party is in progress in one corner, there's a Gujarati family ploughing through the vegetarian thali in an essentially carnivorous dig. The chef hovers around a third table, where a well-known food critic makes notes. A business meeting is being conducted on our right, office politics temporarily put aside to reserve the agenda for Koliwada prawns.

Right from the entrance portico you are in a wannabe-Tharvad house. The candlelit tables are close enough to provide a discreet buzz. The central section is like an inner courtyard, with a faux tropical sky and stars twinkling down. Mangalore tiles and gables add just the right rustic touch, all the tables have an assortment of mismatched chairs upholstered with brightly coloured cushions. The walls are lined with authentic cooking utensils from down the coast. There are other neat ideas as well: wooden pillars that look straight out of a Kerala home; and, here and there, a terracotta floor tile replaced with a glass one, under which are shells packed together.

A menu promising foodie experiences from Vasai to Mangalore, can be rather confusing, though. Packing in a substantial number of dishes on a single sheet is not a good idea, even though it may give a casual, café touch. Broken into nebulous sections, it takes a while to gather your wits and start doing what you do best, ordering your food.

Starting with an "appetising drink" of "tomatoes, coconut milk, laced with kokum (Rs 40), we were taken aback to get a hot soup, when we had hoped for our regular chilled kokum kadhi in a five star avatar. This Mulligtawny-like creation, with a peppery after-taste and a strong presence of black mustard seeds, is quite interesting. Our many experiences at the Mahesh Lunch Homes of this world had not prepared us for, of all things, a soup!

East Indian style mutton (Rs 140) was up next. Lacy-fried lollipops of mutton came in a basket to the table, accompanied by a green chilly-coriander chutney. The mutton was succulent and chunky, but the lacy-fried coating was far too oily. What really caught our interest at this stage was one of the pickles on our table. A tendli aachar, with a sweet and sour masala reminiscent of a great Parsi prawn patia, this is magic. With a perfect balance of flavours, I want a pot of this permanently at home.

Our next starter, up on a blackboard, announcing 'today's specials' was a 'Kane KC' which translates as kingfish Konkan Café (Rs 170). It caught our fancy with its straight-out-of the-sea feel, like eating at a small home restaurant somewhere along the coast.

The system of highlighting 'fresh catch' specials adds to the casual ambience, but to pull it off successfully, you need to do something different with these dishes, to really show case their sea-worthiness. Something like fish shallow fried with a basic, authentic masala or grilled fish with a slice of lime would have been welcome. What turned up was whole fish, with a dry coconut based masala, predominantly flavoured with curry patta As it is, the fish WAS super fresh, flaky and firm, but prepared in a style too similar to the other dishes on the menu.

The vegetarian selection of starters may be brilliant, but sounded off putting with dishes like 'cabbage cakes', 'spicy lentil cakes' and 'tangy colocassia rolls' making you feel you're ordering from a patisserie. For a confirmed non-vegetarian, it is difficult to pronounce these words, so ordering them is impossible.

Another surprise on the Menu is the inclusion of a recommended wines selection, guiding you towards the wines that would match spicy food, semi-spicy food, or those that would 'complement most dishes' (Rs 650 to Rs 800 a bottle). This is an interesting development, as it points towards the fact that our very own Konkan food is truly making an attempt to go international. Matching wines to Konkan food? Why not? With Indian food gaining in popularity all over the world, its high time we started paying attention to the details.

'Chicken from interior Goa' (Rs 160) kicked off our main course selection, but proved our biggest disappointment. This was a dish recommended to us by a friend who had dined here just a couple of days before us, and one that I was dead set on trying. kombdi chi sukhe is boneless chicken pieces in a dry red masala. But it was not the right day for this poor kombdi, as our masala had the distinct taste of having been dry roasted or bhunoed too long. This gave a peculiar smoky taste to this dish, and though you could not quibble with the perfect chunks of chicken, the masala was a mistake.

Moving on to 'steamed pomfret in tamarind leaves' (Rs 195) was a pleasant surprise. With a subtle yet distinct flavour of turmeric coming right through the coconut based masala, the whole fish was superbly fresh and steaming hot. Truly, a well steamed fish is in a class of its own.

The appams and neer dosas (Rs 15 each) that accompany the meal, and are prepared in an open section within the restaurant itself, don't always come to the table piping hot. We've grown to expect our appams to steam as we tear them, but alas, this is not the case. A cold neer dosa is a miserable strip of rubber. The best choice here was an item marked 'coastal maida paratha' (Rs 25), a delicious pastry like paratha, more like a confection than a roti. Excellent, like nothing we had tasted before.

The 'Konkan rice with a hint of mango' (Rs 50) had no discernible trace of mango, maybe the other food distracted our taste-buds. Try as we did, we could taste no mango.

But by far the ultimate of the main dishes we ordered, their 'mixed vegetables in coconut milk' (Rs 95) is a find. Creamy, with a flavour that lets you sink into it, this avial-like stew has the right blend of blandness, followed by a mildly pungent after taste, that had us spooning out more.

What better way to end this deluge of spices than with a 'tender coconut ice cream' (Rs 115). A superior blend, rich and satisfying, with fresh grated coconut. Or take the sevai kheer (Rs 65). Served warm, this is perfectly made, and brings your meal to a comforting close.

Eating at Konkan Café is fun. It's a warm, friendly place, full of laughter and the sounds of people enjoying themselves as they tuck in. The food is not exceptional, in fact, a sense of adventure is quite missing in the menu. The dishes, even those that are marked very spicy do not have the freshly-made-at-home taste that they aspire to, but rather a watered down, safe version of the same.

Having travelled down the coast from Vasai to Mangalore and eaten at umpteen local fish joints and home kitchens, we felt that the food was too tame. The flavours were reigned in at every turn, and very few dishes really made us sit up in our seats and smile.

Having said that, my taste in food is not everyone's, and the other diners did not seem to share my views. At the end of the day, it depends on how loaded you want your Konkan cuisine. The prices are not bad, the atmosphere is very good. They'll do well in Mumbai.

Konkan Cafe, President hotel, 90, Cuffe Parade, Bombay. Phone: 022-2150808.
Open daily. Lunch served from 1230 hours to 1445 hours. Dinner served in two sittings at 1900 hours and at 1030 hours. Alcohol served. All major credit cards accepted.
Rediff rating -- Food: 5/10 Decor: 8/10, Service: 6/10, Value for money: 6/10

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