Thought I’ll start the new year by writing a happy post. About a happy afternoon. In a happy place.
I headed to Fort a couple of afternoons back. Thought it would be a good place to unwind. There are few things as de-stressing for me as some good old Fort therapy. Just walking around the place helps me unwind in a way very few other things do.
I weighed my options on where to eat as I headed to Fort. Which of my old favourites should I head to ... Or should it be something new ... I thought aloud on twitter.
Which is when Amit or @fossfan, the Bengali who cycles around the city passionately with stops at various restaurants, suggested ‘mutton burgers. Cafe Excelsior’.
A tweet which took me back to a night more than a decade and a half back when I was first introduced to the cutlets and gravy with bread at Cafe Excelsior by a colleague. We were waiting to watch a movie at the New Excelsior Cinema that night. Face Off perhaps.
I remember liking the dish enough to in turn introduce Excelsior and its cutlets gravy to a couple of others too.
And then for some reason I never went back to Excelsior for more than a decade. I had nothing against the place I guess. It’s just that I had moved on.
The mention of the burger at Cafe Excelsior brought back memories of its cutlets and gravies from my first year at Mumbai. I decided to head there once I was done with my work of checking out for cameras and lenses.
It was about 4 pm when I stepped in for lunch. Cafe Excelsior had a lazy, languorous feel to it. The place was half full. College kids, couples, colleagues…sitting back on a balmy winter afternoon at Mumbai. The pace was for from frenetic. An oasis of calm as the fans creaked from below the high ceilings….gently nudging in a sense of stupor.
I looked at the menu that the waiter got me. I was looking for the cutlets when I suddenly saw a section of Parsi food. I had always thought that Excelsior was a Muslim restaurant. Turned out it was a Zoroastrian Irani Cafe. One of the last few such cafes left at Mumbai.
I am always tempted to try out the dhansak at a Parsi place. Which posed a problem one faces if one eats alone. The problem of choosing between plenty. I couldn’t manage a dhansak with its meat, daal and rice AND a cutlet with gravy and sliced bread.
So I placed my order. Mutton cutlets…dry…and a chicken dhansak…leg piece.
The memories of cutlets and gravy could wait for another day.
Except, life had other plans for me. There were some kids from Xavier’s college sitting at the next table. They had apparently ordered cutlets and gravy.
With the unabashedness that I have inculcated over three years of blogging I went up to the boys and asked them if I could photograph their food. The kids thought it was best to indulge the old man. So I did get my pics of the cutlets and gravy even though I had not ordered the dishes.
I didn’t know that this wasn’t the end of my gravy trail that afternoon.
My food arrived.
I took a bite of the cutlet first. It seemed quite perfect. Spicy minced meat packed in tightly, infused with chopped green chillies and masala, coated with eggs and deep fried. The egg forming an intricate design which led to the name ‘lacey cutets’ or ‘cutlace’.
It never makes sense to order a chicken cutlet at an Irani place. Apart from the Parsi disdain for white meat, there is a basic structural conundrum too.
They use minced meat in mutton cutlets. Therefore the masala and spices spread evenly through the meat to give you one hot and spicy bite of unbridled pleasure after another in mutton cutlets.
The chicken cutlet, on the other hand, is a passive aggressive way of the Iranis to push you back to your senses. To push you back to red meat.
Most Irani restaurants use strips of shredded chicken in the cutlet rather than minced chicken. Therefore, the taste is uneven, the meat often chewy, the end effect leaves you feeling quite miserable about life.
So my reco is to either order a mutton cutlet at a Parsi restaurant or to not order one. Unless you are the sort of person who goes to a kebab joint and orders paneer tikka or goes to a Malvani seafood joint and orders tandoori chicken.
Now any red blooded Parsi or Irani would be outraged at my choice of chicken for dhansak. I am sure the Parsi Panchayat would have a thing or to say about it in the Jama, the Parsi newspaper. Forget the Parsis. Even the Bengalis wouldn’t accept me into the Durga Pujo committees or trade unions if I chose chicken over meat.
But these are not the best of times. Till the medical sciences do the sort of volte face they have done on mustard oil, red remains a bad word in world of meats. To be honest a good chicken dhansak is possible from a non Parsi’s POV.
Yes, the daal or lentil sauce does lack the flavours of a good hearty robust cut of meat but is still fairly acceptable to us heathens. Things fall in place if the chicken is as tender as the one at Cafe Excelsior. You could almost peel the chicken off the bone here with a fork. And, as you did so, you could see that the masala of the daal had gone deep inside the chicken making each bite as flavoursome as prime meat should be.
The daal or lentil curry in which the meat was cooked was nice and hot. It had a nice domesticated feel reminiscent of musty kitchens with toothless Parsi grannies in nightgowns stirring the pot.
The only problem was that this was a bit too much like ‘grandma’s cooking’ which, as Bourdain says, is not always perfect. The dhansak lacked salt.
Adding a few grains of salt from the shaker on the table and a squeeze of lime brought the smile back on one’s face. The smile which is what grandma cooks for after all.
The rice looked slightly greasier than normal. But the first bite made me fall in love with it. I probably have the lack of salt in the daal to thank for this. This allowed the delicate flavours of the rice to waft out and enshroud me like a mystical Sufi hymn and held me in its spell. The rice drew its flavours from the barks of cinnamon in it which lent this amazingly bewitching sweetness to it.
This was sheer poetry and the dish came together in a truly humbling way. I always look for delicacy in cooking over in your face loud favours…the dhansak at Cafe Excelsior, with a touch of salt, was near bespoke.
I couldn’t end a meal at an Irani Cafe without a caramel custard. I ordered one at Excelsior.
The first bite ice-maidenish bite chilling and sweet…I thought I would have a few healthy polite nibbles and daintily push the rest away … and then I saw that I had wiped the plate clean. It grew on you.
Meal done I walked up to the counter. The owner was sitting there. The ever smiling Ardeshir or Adi Mazkoori.
His grandfather, the late Ardeshir Mazkoori, has opened Cafe Excelsior in 1919 when he came to India from Iran. His grandson, who shared his name, was running the place now. Unlike other Irani joints, I found out that Excelsior is open seven days a week and from eight in the morning to eleven at night. Most other Irani Cafes in town go to sleep by the afternoon and are not open for dinner. Thankfully Adi is comparatively younger than most Irani Cafe owners and plans to run his place for a while…touch wood. Hopefully at Excelsior won’t add to the increasing list of Irani Cafes that have closed down at Mumbai.
Adi insisted that I join him for a cup of Irani chai. His manager Nityananad joined us with a smile which was as big as that of Adi’s. On hearing that Nitya was from Hyderabad, I asked him which his favourite biryani place was.
Cafe Bahar was the answer and not Paradise. Didn’t require much thought at Nitya’s end. Nityanand nodded in approval when I mentioned Shadab too. Good to see the findings of ones biryani digs at Hyderabad vetted by a native.
Adi was tickled when he heard about my memories of the cutlet gravy at Cafe Excelsior from a decade back. He immediately called for a plate of gravy for me to taste. I took a spoonful…creamy yet edgy…an initial soothing sip followed by a slow but resounding hit of chillies. A very elegant and yet passionate sauce. I liked it so much that I finished the contents of the saucer. Onions, little tomato, garam masala, chilli powder, salt, no coconut, poppy seeds or khuskhus and occasionally almonds went into this sauce according to Adi.
Seeing the delight on my face Adi insisted on packing some cutlets and gravy for me to take home…and some slices of bread too….the bread turned out to be as soft as Cupid’s cheeks.
I pointed out the lack of salt in the dhansak to Adi.
"Well that's good for old proplr no with BP? others can add salt." said Adi with a smile.
I requested Nitya to give me a spoonful of the mayo, which they make specially here, to taste. Sassy Fork kept telling me about the chicken ‘rolls’ here. I was too full but was happy to have tasted the luscious mayo that went into these.
Nitya told me that there most popular dishes were the cutlets, the burgers and the chicken rolls.
It was time to bid goodbye to my new friends at Fort as I headed back down the boulevard opposite the CST down the New Excelsior cinema … sheltered by lofty trees and old Parsi buildings which were run down… and yet amongst the near ruins were intricate balconies which told you stories of a glorious past.
I reached my last stop. Yazdani Bakery. I wanted to buy some bread and Christmas cakes for folks.
I stepped into Yazdani and met my old friends, if I may call them so from my visits to Yazdani last year. Tirandaz Irani and his uncle Rashid or Haroon al Rashid as he calls himself.
Tirandaz insisted that I join them and have a cup of chai as we chatted about food, England, why I had left it, Sydney, Opera House, NCPA, recent murders at London and Bandra and other stuff which make for a nice Irani Cafe chaier dokaner adda (tea shop chat in Bengali).
As I headed home I wondered if I was the only non Parsi to have been treated to Irani chai by two Irani Cafe owners in less than hour. Perhaps Kunal Vijaykar, apparently a regular at Cafe Excelsior with Cyrus Broacha, would be the other.
Well here’s wishing you a great new year and here's hoping for many such sunny food afternoons.