Reviews

In Pursuit of Good Food

ghee masala dosaHow far have you traveled in pursuit of the food that you crave for? Based on your answer to this question, I would judge whether you are a real foodie or not. The more you crave, the more effort you are likely to put. If it is difficult to get to the food, you will be less inclined to put effort. At the cost of sounding vain, let me tell you that I consider myself a passionate foodie. I know I do not look like one (at least I don’t fit the conservative description of a foodie). But if you listen to some of the things that I have done to just indulge in the food that I love, you will know what a strong competitor you have in me. Would you travel 45 km in public transport just to pick up that special mysurpa which is only sold in that specific store? No, you do not have any other agenda in that part of the town. Yet, would you? Would you consider cycling 20 km just to have a crispy ghee roast? Well, I did today morning.

MTR near Lalbagh gardens

I do not need to introduce you to Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR). For the benefit of people who are not from Bangalore, MTR is a restaurant that was set up way back in 1924 and has been serving traditional South Indian food. It is one the best and oldest place that you can visit for a traditional meal. Although there are other competitors, the original MTR branch (located very close to the main gate of Lalbagh Botanical Gardens) has an old world charm and uniqueness that you cannot get even in other MTR branches. In recent years, MTR has captured the global market. Although they started out as a restaurant, they expanded to snacks and Ready-to-Eat items and now they are a very popular household name across India and even abroad. Read their story here.

Clock at Lalbagh entrance

I live roughly 8 km away from MTR and have visited them only once before, but have been wanting to visit again for a long time now. I also wanted to catch a glimpse of the last flowers of the season at Lalbagh. Flowers weren’t motivation enough, but ghee roast at MTR definitely was. Many of you may not agree with me, but indulging in rich food definitely makes me feel guilty at least for a few days. So I ruminate over the craving, try to resist the thought. Mostly, I just give in. At times, I set goals for myself and try to do something that makes me deserve that sinful indulgence. After cycling 10 kilometers, I have really earned that ghee roast for myself.

Lalbagh blooms

So, I made up my mind to get out of my bed on a Saturday morning and cycle all the way to Lalbagh. Admired the cool green shades, walked around soaking in the intoxicating smell of the wild champa flowers in bloom, and then headed to MTR. I did bump into quite a few people I saw at the Lalbagh garden. Though, I really doubt how many of them truly worked out to deserve the rich breakfast that they were eating 😉

dosaBreakfast options are many (although not as much as your neighborhood Udupi restaurant). But if the available options are top class, who wants many options? What I have observed is that, people feel good about seeing a long list of options in the menu card, but mostly stick to ordering the usual 3-4 items they like. MTR has Rice Idly, Rava Idly, Dosa, Upma, Khara Bath, and two varieties of sweet. (They didn’t have Kesari bath yesterday 😦 so next trip is in search of Kesari Bath 😉 already decided!). So ghee roast it was for me. At MTR all dosas are drizzled with ghee and a light spread of a green masala paste, served with potato masala filling inside, extra ghee by the side and coconut mint chutney.

a bite with the chutneyThe texture of the dosas here is a class apart. It is very crispy on one side, yet soft and spongy on the other. I would love to learn how they manage this. I have eaten such dosas only in very few places. You have to eat this dosa to even understand what I am talking about. You go to a normal Udupi restaurant (or any other that serves dosa), and you get paper thin roasts that you can break off and scoop chutney with. You stuff it into your mouth, and if you aren’t careful enough, you end up hurting your upper palate or tongue! No, that’s not how dosas are supposed to be. I am telling you guys, you really need to explore and find the best dosas. In Mumbai, I loved the dosas at Amba bhavan, the best. Here, it has to be Yem-Tee-Aar.

As mentioned earlier, the oldest MTR branch is located near the Lalbagh main gate. A quaint, two-storey building with unpretentious interiors. No fancy chairs or crockery, simple seating arrangements.

MTR board at the entrance

Coffee served in silver glassesWhen you enter, to your left is the stairs that lead you upstairs. The cashier is seated beside the stairs, and there is a small waiting area as well. To your right is a “Coffee Room” which is unique and something that I have not seen anywhere, not even at the “Tea Centre” in Mumbai. South Indians love their coffee. And it is only fair that an entire room and a few wooden benches are dedicated just for the coffee lovers to sip their coffee in peace without having to hustle with the eating crowd. At any time of the day, you can find a reasonably big crowd in this room. In the ground floor, if you give the cashier and coffee room a pass and enter the next room, there is seating arrangement for around 15-20 people. The rest of the space is dedicated to kitchen.

MTR seating arrangement

MTR kitchenMTR can boast of a very clean kitchen. As you can see in this picture, even at peak business hours, the kitchen is spotless. As gathered from their web site, the MTR owner’s trip to European countries would have made him implement strict hygiene standards back home.

view when climbing up the stairs

You climb to the first floor, and there is a small waiting area with wooden benches. This leads to two reasonably large halls that can seat around 35-40 people each. Photos from the past of prestigious customers decorate the walls.

walls at MTR

crockery shelf

manager's seat at the entrance threshold at the first floorLunch is a totally different affair. Breakfast closes at about 11 am and then you can enter the building only by 12:30 noon. Sit in the waiting area until the manager lets you in and then lunch is served to the entire crowd in batches. You cannot just walk in and take a place at any time you like. One batch of people are served with multiple servings of the different kinds of rice and other goodies and then the next batch can come in.

Bakery section

Next to the restaurant building is a shop that sells snacks, savories, and ready-to-eat items.

CycleBeing a foodie is not just about cooking and relishing good food, but also about staying fit and healthy. It is very easy to stay in the lazy comfort of our demanding sedentary jobs. It is only when a lab report or a health problem hits that we tend to take a step back and pay serious attention to our body. All of you would have different ways of staying healthy. My way is to ensure that I earn every kilocalorie that I indulge in, like they say about Bournville. Maybe cycling isn’t your sport. Maybe you want to run, walk, skip rope, dust the house or do some gardening. Whatever it may be, find your calling and then when you indulge in your ghee roast or that sinful brownie, you will feel good..really good. Doing it in the reverse order does not work. You cant indulge first and decide to do your sport later. That later never comes. Break the sweat first and then indulge. I can guarantee that you will feel good. Don’t wait for the Gatorade or the perfect cycling shorts. Just grab a bottle of water and get started.

What’s the next in my agenda? Kesari bath at MTR. Also, it is that time of the year when I need to stash away a whole year’s supply of jackfruit jam. Time to scan the street for the familiar smell. What are you waiting for? Go hit the street, with your running shoes or pedals or skipping rope or whatever is your sport and find your craving.

PostScript:

Thanks to my friend, this weekend I discovered an MTR branch closer to my house.

JP Nagar MTR

JP Nagar MTR EntranceLocated at the top floor of a 5-storey building, the interiors look very different in comparison to the original outlet near the Lalbagh entrance.

Tiled roof at JP Nagar MTRAt the JP Nagar MTR branch, the quaint charm is replaced with tiled roofs interspersed with glass tiles to let ample natural light in. Almost everything else remains the same.

Spacious interiors full of patrons

The restaurant has a pleasant and spacious decor.

DosaDosaDosaThe dishes taste the same although the silver glasses are missing. I must admit that it is a long wait to be served.

Breakfast, Chutneys/Thogayals/Dips/Podis, Dosas, Drinks, Snacks, South Indian, Tiffin

Amba Bhavan

Amba Bhavan Coffee Club | click to enlarge

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 rasam vada

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.

filter coffee

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.

I invite all my readers to share their thoughts and experiences about food or eateries that are special to their heart. I plan to have a reader’s corner very soon and all of you are welcome to share your thoughts here.

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