No, it’s not the name of a dish. “Amba Bhavan Coffee Club” is a simple, unpretentious eatery in Matunga, Mumbai, one that was started way back in 1934. Whenever I visit Matunga, (which is around 15 km away from where I live, but in Mumbai, 15 km is not a big deal) I make it a point to visit Amba. The taste of their sada dosa and sambar is a major pull, and you just can’t ignore this simple, no-frills place, which still has an old-world charm. Amba is managed and run by down-to-earth people who serve food that your palate will never forget!
Amba doesn’t have a very elaborate menu, just the usual sada dosa, rava dosa, mysore masala, ghee sada, idli, etc., etc. The special items that they serve are kela bajji (raw banana dipped in besan batter and fried), kadi vada (lentil vada soaked in a yoghurt-based curry), and rasam vada (mixed lentil vada soaked in spicy hot rasam). My personal favorites are ghee sada, rava sada, and rasam vada. What is unique about Amba’s dosa is the use of methi seeds in the batter, which no other restaurants use. The methi seeds add to the wonderful flavor of the dosa. This combined with the sambar that has JUST enough jaggery to neutralize the pungent taste of tamarind without spoiling the spiciness is nothing short of yum! The amount of jaggery in sambar is where, I feel, the normal Udupis in Mumbai fail. They just don’t get it right. I would much rather eat a sandwich from a Mumbai Udupi than order a dosa and be forced to eat it with the sweet sambar or worse eat the chutney that is full of pottu kadalai (roasted split peas dal). But the sambar at Amba is like no other, and if you are a frequent customer, the waiter would even give you some molaga podi (gun powder), sometimes even without you asking for it! The gun powder is another one of their masterpieces.
South Indian filter coffee is something every coffee lover goes gaga over. So it just wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t say anything about Amba’s filter coffee. Well, what about it, you might ask. Try it once and you will know! Its one of the best I have tasted. But more than anything, I love the way the coffee is served – in two stainless steel tumblers, one big and one small. Which one should you drink from is entirely up to you. Mix well till the sugar dissolves and then take that first sip, which is what I would call the ultimate coffee experience! Well, at least for me, it definitely is.
And Amba offers all these heavenly items at prices that are down-to-earth without compromising the taste. The crowd at Amba is a queer mix. You share tables with either the temple priest from Asthika Samaj dressed in his dhoti and anga vastram or you are sitting next to a bunch of chirpy teenagers out to have their fill after boring tutions. But at Amba you just do not feel odd sharing a table with strangers. Amba has wide open doors and huge windows too and is airy and leisurely.
I have always been intrigued by the names of some South Indian eateries that became iconic with time. Take Amba’s case itself. Seventy years back, who would have related the sound of Amba Bhavan with food? I wonder how they came up with these interesting names like Saravana Bhavan, Arya Nivas, Hariharaputra, and the like. Who would have imagined Mavalli Tiffin Room will be an everyday household name throughout India and indispensible in the NRI kitchen? What an unlikely name for an eatery, YEM-TEE-ARR (as a mallu would say it)!
Almost every place in South India has such a restaurant to boast about where people like my parents (who practically never eat out) are comfortable going to. Since the time I can remember, Hariharaputra is the ONLY hotel where we have eaten out. It is called the Brahmanaal Hotel (which means a hotel run by Brahmins). Palakkad has 3 such places. TNVR, Mani’s Cafe, and Hariharaputra. Their kitchen walls might look black, they might not have the cleanest of hand-washing areas, and they might not give you hand tissues, but the food served in these places have no substitute at all! I remember eating out once with my college friends in a restaurant where the waiters wore white dresses with red borders and a cap. I found it so odd compared to the friendly waiter at Harihariputra who wore a dhoti that was begging for some Ujala!
I need to be born again and have oodles of Saraswati Kataksham to be able to describe the taste of the mysurpa that Hariharaputra serves. There will be enough water in my mouth to steer a ship each time I think about their mysurpa. Same goes with the Rava Kesari (Rava Sheera) at Mani’s Cafe. Nothing short of marvellous, I say!
Coming back to Amba, just like the place, the rules of the place are also very simple. It opens at 7:00 in the morning and is open until 8:00 in the night and serves only tiffin (in other words, snacks). Amba does not have a separate menu for lunch or dinner. Though a lot of the Gujju crowd (who dig South Indian food) eats out regularly and frequents restaurants only after 8.00 PM, Amba sticks to its own set of rules and closes its doors by 8:00.
I was fortunate enough to speak to the humble and ever smiling owner of this place. He was kind enough to share some of the incidents and challenges from the time Amba was conceived until now. He also invited me to his house to meet his wife who could share lots of culinary tips.
If you live in Mumbai and are a fan of South Indian food, please visit Amba at least once to taste authentic South Indian food. If you live elsewhere, hunt down the Saravana Bhavan or the Hariharaputra of your place. If you are new to the place, just ask the elderly, and I am sure you will find a Bharat Hotel or an Amma Mess. Long live places that serve good food!
And look, Amba is on Facebook too!
Addendum: Amba is very close to King’s Circle and is in the same lane as Asthika Samaj Kochu Guruvayur temple. The address is: 373, Patel Mahal, Matunga, Mumbai, India, 400019.
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