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From Hippie to Hip
... a selective guide to the restaurants of Colaba Causeway
A city is just a few important criss-crossing roads, arteries which regulate the flow of people and define their lives for them. Like blood, we can only flow where our arteries take us. We can only go where they lead us. So the city is our body. This is one definition of a city, though not a well thought out one, and one that probably will be of no use to anyone.
Bombay's Colaba Causeway is definitely one such artery. A little over a hundred years ago, it was quite content to be underwater. Until, much against its will, it was dragged out, tarted up, and forced to be host to every pimp, hustler and bootlegger this side of Bangkok. The Causeway is Bombay at its shabbiest, its liveliest and its sleaziest.
From the fortress like encampments at Cusrow Baug, where the Parsis can look down in disgust at the natives misbehaving all around them, to the Blue Nile Bar with its dubious cabarets, the Causeway houses them all. The broken sidewalks are lined with shops on one side, hawkers on the other, and touts all over.
In the 1950s this was Bombay's most fashionable shopping address, where powdered and coiffeured women did a fine spot of afternoon shopping. Those same women would now not venture here, unless they were keen to have their bottoms pinched.
And the food. Being central not only in the lives of Bombayites, but also to the low budget tourist trade, the Causeway has several restaurants. Most of them are very popular, many by dint of sheer location and convenience rather than good food, are always full. They are lively places, filled with the chatter of people from all over the city, often from all over the world. These restaurants are an escape, a short respite: from the buses that charge past, the incessant horns, the heat, the offers of "You want dollars?" or "You want woman",' from the very Bombay-ness that surrounds you.
This is a selective guide to the restaurants of Colaba Causeway.
Any such guide must start at Kailash Parbat, the bastion of the Sindhi community in Bombay.
Bombay inherited a lot of Sindhis during the Indo-Pak Partition. These Sindhis took a particular shine to the lower end of Colaba Causeway, and shifted en masse into the buildings around the Strand Cinema. There they remain to this day, totally at home. However, there must be those moments when every good Sindhi longs for the past, for Karachi, for the bungalows they left behind, for the people they loved and lost, for the good food they... No, let's not get carried away. Whatever else they may miss, it certainly can't be the food. Don't forget just down the street from them in Kailash Parbat.
With its large open facade, Kailash (affectionately known as KP) is like a yawning food monster, noisily gobbling up the hundreds who visit it for their daily fix of bliss. As soon as you enter, a fascinating array of snacks beckon you, deeper and deeper into the monsters belly. A heap of hot orange jalebis, freshly fried in pure ghee, stacks of delicious mithais, pani-puris to die for, ragda patties to live for, they are all here. The hardened glutton need venture no further, for at KP you can stand around and eat wherever you choose.
But for the demure glutton, there is a choice of two air-conditioned eating areas to choose from, both having one thing in common: their unrestrained hideousness. One is like a railway compartment, except that the beams running across its ceiling are so low that you have to keep ducking, until you can finally squeeze yourself into your pulpy seat, while the air around you spins with the remnant aromas of variali, sweet chutney and food spilled and wiped away with dirty clothes over the years.
The second option is a further flight of steps up. You enter a room with a distinct style of its own: the famed Victorian-Romanesque-Udipi style, so characteristic of Bombay eateries in the late 20th century. This hotchpotch room, with stained glass, plaster of Paris columns and faux everything, manages to seat quite a few. Some of the window seats are squeezed into such impossible niches that you fear if you eat too much your may never be able to leave: certainly not for the horizontally challenged.
Be that as it may, there is excellent food to be had here, at very reasonable prices. Other than the various snacks there is a Sindhi menu, served only at night, which includes an outstanding preparation of bhee, the lotus shoot that forms one of the pillars of Sindhi cuisine, as well as divine lolis, many layered parathas, either sweet or savoury. Desserts include falooda kulfi, a combination of the two, with a rich taste of burnt milk, gulab jamuns, rabdi, and their famous lassi, which is so creamy and luscious, that it can only be classified as a dessert.
KP is part of the Colaba scenery, integral to the well being of a community and a locality. Many people eat here daily, and there is a palpable feel in the air that this is not a restaurant, but a huge, bustling a raucous Sindhi community kitchen.
Like KP, Delhi Durbar (or DD) is also one of the Causeway's institutions, actually it is one of Bombay's institutions. The strength of its kitchen lies in their no nonsense Mughlai food, served with no fuss, with no style, and at consistently reasonable prices. The Causeway branch of this restaurant is considered to be their upmarket outlet, though you'd never believe it. Their other branch, which many believe serves even tastier and more authentic food, is in the Red Light Area, where the additional hunger of the clientele must certainly be making more stringent demands on the kitchens.
The exterior of the Causeway outlet is done in red brick, to resemble Delhi's Red Fort, which it doesn't unless you're hallucinating severely. Anyway, push open the door, and you're in a formica haven, they've done their bit to give you a feel of the Mughal era outside, haven't they? Now, synthetic takes over as you read a plastic menu on a wet plastic mat placed on your vaguely greasy formica table.
You can order from the standard menu. Or you can order the days specialities. Either way the food is oily but delicious. Their Arab butter chicken and
Anyone and everyone eats at DD. The tables are always overflowing: with Arabs stuffing down biryani while their ladies discreetly tuck into morsels under their chadors, noisy teenage crowds who can't afford to eat anywhere else, families with several children, several, several screeching children, single men just sitting there and gorging themselves silly, all these and more partake of the many delights of DD, revelling in its 'Air Cooled' environment, plush with plastic and bright lights.
None of their desserts are up to the mark, with the usual assortment of ice creams and gulab jamuns being the only fare. But after the oily food has found permanent residence in your stomach, you may want something lighter. In which case, help is on hand. Canteena, just outside, serves up an array of fresh fruit juices and faloodas, in a clean and hygienic environment and at very drinkable prices. Itís a good way to end your DD experience.
Ling's PavilionFor an upmarket dining experience on Colaba Causeway, no place can beat Ling's Pavilion. This is arguably Bombay's best Chinese restaurant, serving great food at prices that are high, but not over the top. In a few short years, Ling's has established its presence in several stomachs, which keeps the restaurants full at all times.
A sincere effort has been made to give the place a genuinely Oriental feel, like a Chinese tea garden (if there is any such thing), complete with a fake tree that desperately needs some new leaves, a pond with real fish, a bridge and a large outdoorsy kind of mural. Waiters swish around in gowns, relaying steaming platters and pots of soups to nest like tables, straight into wide open mouths. Everything is done with orchestrated precision.
And, like all orchestras, Ling's has a conductor. Baba: large, refined resplendent in his safari suit, master of all he surveys. With discreet flicks of his gold bracelet-clad wrist, he controls and coordinates the players around him, directing and guiding them, keeping them in time, rewarding them with a flicker of a smile when they've played their parts well. There to assist him is his son, who we will call Baby. With the sangfroid of Sumo wrestlers, this Baba-Baby pair have maintained consistently high standards, ensuring that every customer goes home well satisfied.
An immediate relief in the food at Ling's Pavilion is that there is no ChIndian' influence in the kitchen, The food is subtle, clean and simple. Though most of the fare is great, the starters are particularly delicious. A barbecued meat platter comes sizzling to the table, with an assortment of tender meats offset by a peanut dip. The fried cream corn is excellent, with its crisp exterior collapsing into a smooth soft filling, and the dim sum platters on offer are delectable. Follow this with prawns in black bean sauce and a clay pot of steamed rice, and you're floating above the fake tree, touching the fake sky.
Leopold Café: From Hippie to Hip, Leopold Café has been through it all. A large airy hall, with a high ceiling, opening flat out onto the Causeway, this is the Mecca of weary travellers. A place to meet, to swap stories and to write letters.
Those Flower Children of the 60s, who could not manage to make do with love and fresh air alone and whose appetite for food often overtook their hunger for nirvana, planted Leopold firmly on the lower-budget tourist map. With the wilting away of these Flowers, back to boring, normal lives in some Godforsaken suburbia, only the dregs remained at Leopold. Just when this slide into sleaze seemed irreversible, and the place looked set to become a strip joint, the change began. Slowly but surely, lower budget foreign tourists started creeping in. Seeing this, Bombay's own chatterati and arts crowd slid a jhola and a Kolhapuri chappal in, and soon Leopold was seen as a cool place to lounge around at. Fortunately, the management had the good sense to chivvy up their act at the same time, and suddenly Leopold was thriving. Its never looked back since.
The food on offer covers a wide range of cuisines, bound together by the qualification that it must be palatable to foreigners. This makes for strictly non-spicy food. Breakfasts are fun at Leopold, generously served with the option of large glasses of fresh fruit juices. Lunch and dinner fare include a mixture of Chinese, Iranian, tandoori, Parsi and continental dishes. Something for everyone.
And someone for everyone as well. The crowd at Leopold caters to as many 'palettes' as the food. African students sit around and smoke at one table, next to a young beer-sipping Scandinavian couple flushed to a lobster orange and poring meticulously over some guidebook. A group of puffy eyed sailors stroll in with women of questionable intent, past the stares of a group of Arab men, taking time off from their food to do a little sightseeing.
You cannot wrap up a restaurant guide to Colaba Causeway without mentioning Café Royal a respectable sizzler, steak and sandwich joint opposite the Regal, with its chic interior and stylish crowd, next door to Chikita, where (rumour has it) there is a hole in the wall, through which select male clients can avail of dishes not on the menu! It would be impossible to respect such a guide without a detailed discussion on the virtues of the authentic and spicy Goan food served up at Martin's Lunch Home. Or the depressing ambience but delicious Parsi food at the Strand Coffee House next door. No guide would be worth the reading if it ignored the staidness of Café Paradise and Edward VIII, where nothing has changed for the last 50 years, and probably never will, or Voodoo, the unofficial rendezvous joint of Bombay's gay community, where staidness is a forgotten word.
In short, this guide is not worth the read, so, if you've reached upto here, please don't waste any more time
Photographs by Jewella C Miranda
Bombay City Guide
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