Follow the red brick road... Horniman Circle. Apoorva, Fort

Caveat: Very long post, or seemed so while writing it, with many photos in between.  Food features somewhere deep inside.

I didn't have any plans for lunch today. I went down. Didn't know where I would eat. Didn't have a cuisine in mind. In fact even looked at the beans, daal and rice which the canteen had to offer. I got out of the office building and ambled up the street.

I looked left, I looked right. Desperately seeking inspiration. Looking for a place to eat. That's when I saw a red coloured brick building, past a sugarcane juice seller, in the lane to my right. There was something vaguely familiar about the building. And red is my favourite colour. I began to walk towards the red building before I knew what was happening. Almost in a spell.

A few steps down the lane, under the shade of big leafy trees and I was there. Of course! This was the Bombay Samachar Building. A building I had recently seen while returning from lunch at Olympia. A building I had once gone to for a meeting before its recent facelift  Except that I had come down the opposite end that time. Just ahead was  the Horniman Circle. I had no idea that it was so close to my office at Laxmi Building.

Don't snicker at the name. As I learnt today Mr Horniman played a big role in fighting for the freedom of the press. Paving the way for us bloggers a couple of centuries later. I had never entered the garden at Horniman Circle before this. My main association with this area was the Jimmy Boy Restaurant where K and I used to share the Parsi Laganu Bhonu (wedding meal platter) before we got married and the Wedding Court close by where we got married. But the garden I had never been to.

I decided to walk into the garden today. I had some spare time before I headed back to work. I entered through the grand gates for the first time in more than a decade at Mumbai. I walked in. It felt weird. Strange. Almost as if I had stepped out of big city Mumbai into another world. An idyllic, innocent world. A secluded island. Surrounded by mighty yet benign trees. A land where time stood still. An antithesis to always on the run Mumbai. The air seemed fresher. There were lawns, there were benches. A little Garden of Eden in the middle of Sin City. Suddenly you could hear birds chirping again. The roar of angry impatient car engines strident by their absence. For once the rustle of coins couldn't be heard. Ironically in the original hub of India's commercial capital, Mumbai. An oasis in a city parched of peace and solitude.

There were busy worker bees stretched out on the lawn in warm bonhomie, feeling completely at home.  A few foreign tourists dipping into their Lonely Planets as they caught their breath before venturing back into the crowded roads. Couples building a little cocoon around them as only lovers can. Chatting, smiling, looking into each others eyes. Till the food blogger rudely interrupted them as they were blocking the view from his camera. An over sized mouse who had slid down the hole into Alice's Wonderland. I walked around clicking photographs. Happily gazing at the greens around me. Revelling in the aimlessness. Marvelling at the majestic buildings. Getting reacquainted with nature. Stepping into a refreshing hot shower after a very grimy day.

A colleague suggested a group picnic here when I described the park to her

That's when hunger struck. Cutting short my moments of misplaced poetry. I stepped out and looked for options. There was an ancient water fountain. I had seen its cousins at Bern, Switzerland. There was a guy selling peanuts. A restaurant called 'Udipi'. It's baseline 'Pure Veg' in my dictionary means 'run like hell'. And then Epiphany. Across the road was Apoorva, part of the original seafood triumvirate of South Mumbai. I had dined at fellow member, Mahesh Lunch Home, from the lane parallel to Apoorva, a week back.

K and I had eaten once at Apoorva in our courting days. This time I ignored the non air conditioned ground floor section where we last sat. The cooler climes of the AC section upstairs was what I needed after my stroll through nature. It was time for some Ozone deflating CFC loving air conditioned loving. I was not used to the pure, unadulterated life.

I was recently berated by the otherwise benign Miri of Peppermill. I had made the cardinal mistake of ordering 'butter pepper garlic' squids at Mahesh. That is neither Mangalorean nor South Indian she said. Made for foreigners she huffed. She reduced my favourite dish to Pidgin trash as I cowered in embarrassment. I didn't repeat the mistake this time. I ordered a 'gassi'. I confirmed with the waiter. It is Mangalorean. I chose a baby pomfret (Rs 150/ 3 USD) over a 'slice' (Rs 300/ 6 USD).

I went for neer dosas over rice to go with the Gassi. The waiter recommended this as the appropriate combination. Didn't want to get on the wrong side of Miri this time. Washed it down with the rather Maharashtrian Sol Kadi. I think that K and I had ordered Gassi for our meal around a decade back too.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Pomfret Gassi. The fish was very fresh. Not chewy as pomfrettanginess blended together to awaken one's taste buds. It was sensuous, hot and yet didn't burn or singe. I am normally not a fan of gravies in Indian restaurants. This I lapped up. A rare event which normally happens when the Hailey's comet heads Earthwards. The neer dosas were nice and light and were the perfect foil to the tempestuous curry.

As I relished my meal I realised that I was in a happy place. A place full of food lovers. There was an office group opposite me. It was the birthday of one of they guys who cut a cake, a moment recorded by his colleagues on their cell phones. An animated conversation on the various preparations of meat in Goa wafted from another table. Then three gentleman sat down in the table beside me. One wanted to order Chinese. he was berated by another for this. 'You want Chinese everywhere. You ordered it Delhi Durbar too. Why don't you have the seafood here? Or chicken gassi if you don't like fish. They make it well. Or Tandoori. Have the specialities of a place for God's sake.'  Well, he did order a Chinese fried rice despite this and went on to talk about the sheekh kebabs in a stall in a red light area near Nagpada Police Station.

I stretched my neck across the table. "Are you guys foodies?"

We  got talking and chatted for a while on our favourite foods, restaurants and holiday destinations.  Who said that men can't 'eat, pray or love'? We exchanged stories as I waited for my change and they waited for their food. I finally left them to their fried fish and fried rice and tandoori chicken and made my way down. Talk about six degrees of separation? Well, one of the three food musketeers,  Ruzbe (in the green checks) had grown up at Nowrozbag and knew our friends the Pastakias!

I went down the stairs bidding goodbye to my new friends, a few enquiries at the cash counter and I got to meet the affable Mr Chandra (in the blue shirt) , the owner of Apoorva. He told me that Apoorva was around twenty to twenty five years old. There was apparently another restaurant in its place earlier. That was owned by his family too. "A vegetarian place," he sheepishly confessed. Chandra patiently answered my questions. "Yes, Gassi is Manglaorean". Gosh, Miri you did scare me :) That the curry was made with coconut and chili. The sourness came from tamarind. The use of tamarind apparently distinguished the Mangalorean Gassi from Goan and Maharashtrian Gomantak curries. The latter use Kokum instead of tamarind according to Mr Chandra. He assured that there was no problem with fish despite the oil spill. "Everyone's eating it, there was no problem. Problem's gone" he said. On asking, he told me that most of their fish is sourced from Gujarat.

Incidentally, the owner of Mahesh didn't seem to be around the day I went there. I sensed the difference today. My meal at Apoorva seemed more personal. As if I was eating at someone's house.

Soon the call come from work, "our presentation is ready, you can check it". I headed back down the winding roads. Looking as content as the cow chewing cud outside our office. This stint at Fort has been my most satisfying stint of blogging after all. Trying out new restaurants. Marvelling at the wonders of the past. Getting lost in time. Afternoons steeped in history. Making new friends. Talking to the earnest folks who owned the restaurants. Institutions in themselves. The bedrock of Mumbai. Starting conversations with me fellow diners, strangers united by a love for food.

I realised that I was living my dream in a way very few were lucky enough to. Doing what I wanted to do. Chronicling my days in a part of the city very dear to me. Writing travelogues about my own home. I felt what Anthony Bourdain did when he recently summed up an episode in rural Europe with the words, "A place where you can hear your inner voice. And live by it."

I was there this afternoon Tony.