Get into the car at night. Nudge past the traffic on the roads of Bandra. Drive down the Sea Link under the majesty of its arches. Hit the rain soaked streets of South Mumbai. The Queen’s Necklace and then the brightly lit Saiffee Hospital which looks straight out of The Arabian Nights. Into Colaba, past grand buildings, jewelled horse carriages, get into a parking spot guided by a parking attendant and walk into Ling’s Pavilion.
That’s my Mumbai.
We entered the restaurant and there was Baba Ling, the chubby, eminently huggable patriarch of Ling’s. His face lit up, like an elder version of Poh the Kung Fu Panda, as he saw us.
Me: “Saw you on TV last night Baba. You are the newest star” (Baba Ling featured on The Foodie on Times Now the previous night on a show which focused inexplicably on bitter gourd and the one thing we never order at Ling’s, chicken. But then that’s the show where Kunal Vijaykar had to refer to my pork spare ribs as ‘meat’ as we were told not to use the p word on camera’.
Baba’s face broke into a big smile, ‘I didn’t see it it.’
Me: “What was all that chicken nonsense though'?”
Baba: “Aaare what do I tell you ya…they said no pork on the show. He didn’t even want any seafood. I once thought I’ll make some pork and not say on camera. But they said no”
Me: “I know, same thing happened when I made spare ribs for the show”
Baba: “So how many of you are there dear”
Me: “Two of us”.
Baba: “Give me two minutes. What will you eat?
Me: “What’s there?” (I had been told by regulars at Ling’s, ‘never order from the menu, the more exciting stuff are outside of it’)
Baba” “Special roast pork, ox tongue stew, pork mince bun, prawns, everything.”
Me: “We will go with the roast pork then and the ox tongue stew with pan fried noodles”.
Baba: “Very good. What noodles?’
Me: “Tenderloin…wait, make that prawns.”
Baba: “Ok and there’s your table. Down and left”.
Felt good to see our table in a smart little corner with two comfy high backed chairs. Specially when one saw the crowds waiting for long at the reception. As it felt good earlier in the evening at Candies. Candies was packed too but one of the staff saw me, came to the counter and took my order with a big smile and got it along ‘with a muffin on the house”.
Yes, being made to feel welcome and special feels good. Specially when you sense the genuine warmth.
In front of us at Ling’s was a long table with a boisterous, happy Punjabi group and behind us a table of Parsis who were celebrating the birthday of one in the group in a rather sepulchral way with the sole young boy in the group carrying on the conversation.
It was a typical Sunday evening at Ling’s.
As I headed to our table Nini Ling, the thin and tall brother of Baba Ling, saw me and came up.
NL: “What did you order Kalyan?”
Me: “Ox tongue, roast pork and pan fried noodles”
NL: “Two of you? Yes, that will be enough”
Me: “Wish we could eat more”
NL: “That’s the thing about Chinese restaurants. Helps to come in a group.”
Me: “Saw Baba Ling on TV last night. Quite the star eh”.
Nini Ling smiled Master Shifu like.
NL: “He wanted to eat bitter gourd for some reason. That Kunal. He did not even want seafood? Do you like bitter gourd?.”
Me: “No. I don’t touch it.”
NL: “Actually it’s good for you. They say it cleanses the system. Or if you have blood sugar. We make a beef with gourd and then eggs. You won’t find it bitter.”
Me: “Yes, I saw the eggs on the show yesterday’
NL: “They showed it? We call it Ho Choy. (with a smile) After the manager of Singapore airlines. It’s made in a Singaporean style”.
I then went back to our table and settled down.
Chinese tea and then the food followed.
Roast pork. Thinly sliced. Red like the char siu of Singapore and KL. Slightly sweet which we fired up with red chillies.
The the waiter came to us with a bowl.
“Saab has sent” he said pointing to Nini who then walked up to us.
NL: “Try it. Eggs with bitter gourd”.
I sceptically took a bite and mulled over it.
Creamy eggs…savoury…full flavoured and suddenly an urgent bite of bitterness cutting through the richness of the egg like an electric current….and then back to the egg…and so it continued. My face lit up and both of us, bitter gourd haters, wiped the plate clean. It was truly the highlight of the evening.
NL: ‘You like it? We made it bitter unlike the Indian style which is to add sugar'
Me: “Well not in Bengal. We make shukto with bitter gourd where the bitterness is retained. Just loved what you made here”
Mr Nini gave a calm smile. Happy and content he moved on.
The rest of the meal followed. Crisp pan fried noodles with fresh prawns in a slight sauce. Thinly sliced ox tongue…robust, solid and yet tender meat in a thick brown meaty and mildly sweet stew. Very Petalang Jaya Bah Ku Tee’ish.
A spectacular meal done we called for the bill. Settled we were ready to leave when three waiters dashed up to me.
“Your desserts are coming sir”.
And then Baba Ling who was having his dinner in the corner smiled and said “sending you some dessert”.
Me: “We tried the egg with bitter gourd Baba. Loved it”
Baba: “You did? It was my idea. Now even the Cheenas love it. they use bitter gourd there but the ones in India are more bitter. Actually our vegetables have more flavour”
Me: “I know. You said that on the show.”
Baba: “I did? I said so many things I don’t remember”
Our desserts came. Ice cream with pancakes stuffed with grated coconut and raisins. Ironically our day that started with pancakes at Mocha Mojo ended with pancakes too.
Dinner finished I sat at the table for a bit before heading back on the drive home.
Happy. Content. Nodding my head with a smile without realising it.
The warm welcome, great food, nice conversation, meeting people you are fond of…all added up to a great evening.
Folks often ask me what motivates me to keep blogging. Evenings like this I guess.
I wouldn’t have even have thought of going to Ling’s had I not started blogging and made friends through it who introduced me to Ling’s.
For years Ling’s was a restaurant that I would pass by on the way to Leo’s, Gokul or Bade Miya. I never went in.
Today the centre of my universe has shifted and places like Candies and Ling’s are it’s core.
And I am not complaining.