St Marks, Bangalore, was the first hotel I stayed at when I started working. I went back there recently after 13 years, again on work. Don't know whether I should read much into that. But what I do know is that I love the fantastic service there.
I stepped down from my room at ten in the morning yesterday. I used to max out on the hotel buffet a lifetime back. And then walk it off at the garden near Vidhan Souda. Life was very different then. Today I wanted to 'experience' Bangalore. Get under its skin. Going to MTR or Mavalli Tiffin Rooms seemed intrinsic to the plot. But there was a problem. Locals had warned me that I had to reach there by 7.30 AM. Else I would "miss the idlis". Now here's the thing. I am the sort of person who would never 'miss' idlis or the South Indian steamed rice cakes. This was my first chance to sleep without being rudely interrupted by an alarm clock in days for God's sake.
So there I was at ten, at the reception of St Mark's, tousled hair, stubbled. The gentleman at the counter heard me out and then enthusiastically told me that I HAD to go to MTR. He assure me that they served really good authentic food there. There was a near religious zeal in his eyes. A glazed look of fervour that I would see later during the day.
And here's what touched my heart, our friendly, St Marks knight, found out the phone number for MTR, called them up, found that they were open till 11 am for breakkie, told them that he was sending a guest and egged me on just as Amrish Puri pushed Kajol towards Sharukh Khan towards the end of the movie DDLJ.
So off we drove to MTR at Lalbag. Figured out that the place was divided into three sections - ice creams, sweet shops and the historical 'Tiffin Rooms' or restaurant. I walked in. Feeling surprisingly more alien and lost in my own country than I do in the Orient. I entered the ground floor and faced what seemed like the kitchen and a couple of rooms where I saw a few people eating. It looked still and lonely.
Then I spotted a staircase and walked up. Things were different upstairs. Remember those Hollywood movies which show a throng of people waiting to enter a night club with a burly bouncer holding the ropes to keep the crowds away? Well, it was almost like that here. There were hoards of people waiting in. The burly bouncer replaced by an avuncular gent with a white moustache. Firmly and adroitly managing the crowd. Letting a rush of people in occasionally. Soon it was my turn. I believe that you normally take a lot more time to get a table. But at 11.30 AM I was there well after the breakfast time of any respectable Kannadiga.
There were happy families and groups of friends at the tables around me. I shared a table with three other 'singles'. Waited for a lifetime for a waiter to come and take our order. By which time an Udipi Shetty restaurant at Mumbai would have turned the table twice. I wasn't sure what to order. I asked Dhananjay who was sitting opposite me. He told me that the dosa, rawa idli and bise bela bhaat was famous here. I went for the first two.
Dhananjay turned out to work in, what else, IT. He apparently makes it a point to come to MTR for breakfast when he comes this side of town for work. Even if he had had breakfast at home. 'This is special', he said. 'You won't get it anywhere else.' On asking, Dhananajay assured me that the dosas were 'Mysore Masala Dosas'. "But we don't call them that as this is Bangalore (next to Mysore)."
I told Dhananjay about my food trip to Thailand when Pasha, who was sitting beside me, smiled. He nodded when he heard about my Bangkok trip. He had lived there for three years on work and loved the local seafood. Turned out that Dhananjay and Pasha were both non vegetarians and yet went out of there way to come the very vegetarian MTR. Such is the pull of the place.
My Masala Dosa arrived. What we in Mumbai know as 'Mysore Masala Dosa'. Except this had no resemblance to 'Mysore Masala Dosa' as we know it. Just as the fare at Lucky Garden KL would have resemblance to Chinese as we know it.
There was no green or red chutney unlike in the Mysore Masalas of Mumbai. The dosa was a lot thicker than In Mumbai. The texture of the dosa was a really complex work of art in keeping with the deep intellectual, artistic and mathematical traditions of the South. It was thick, soft, it drew you in and then climaxed with a resounding crisp crunch. The secret of the texture, according to my table mates, is in the higher proportion of of pulses (udad) in comparison to rice that they use at MTR. The 'masala' was asimple, non spicy, boiled potato filling. Worked for me. As did the gee (Indian Butter) in a tiny bowl placed on the dosa which I poured on the dosa as my table mates did. A strangely sensual experience in the hallowed ascetic portals of MTR. A place, which according the Dhananajay, was older than India's independence. We have his word for it, but what is sure is that MTR is classic Bangalore.
Interestingly there was no sambar. Just a coconut chutney. I asked Dhananjay about it. That's when the so far silent, Prakash, spoke up. "You don't eat dosas with sambar. Just chutney". Well, I am sure that Tamillians would have an axe to grind with this. But my views lie on this side of the Cauvery. Just chutney works for me too.
So there we were. Bangalore represented by Dhananjay originally from Dhavalgiri, Pasha from Bangalore and Prakash from Ahmedabad. And Mumbai by an ex Canterburian, Liverpudlian, Rashtian and Calcuttan. Strangers united by an epic breakfast.
Next for me was the rava (semolina) idli. Idlis are not the stuff I would dream about. I know that they are soul nourishing for many. I never get their point though. Except, at the most, as a sterile, healthy (steamed) snack option which is barely palatable if warm. Hey, come on idli lovers, be a sport, I am sure you would never understand my love for fish head daal. There is enough place for all of us in this world.
The rava idli at MTR was different. It was delectable and well flavoured. It had a very evolved taste. The marriage of nutty pieces of daal and chirpy ethnic curry leaves was solemnised again by a touch of that special ghee of MTR. Very different from the palate numbness that I normally associate with idlis. Then the penny dropped. The rava idli was like a tightly packed upma (South Indian semolina based, salty porridge). I looked up at my breakfast_mates ... "this is like an upma packed tightly in a bowl, upturned and served". My barbarian frivolousness was met with cold, icy stares. "No, I don't think so," said the ever smiling Dhananjay. The others nodded.
With which we yelled 'filter coffee' in unison. And there it came. Stained white cups with a volcano brewing in them. This was real kick in the butt stuff. Coffee with a point of view. A rather firm and determined one. Just what you need to set you for the day. It's time Starbucks stocks this.
I returned to the hotel. Our friend at the desk was happy to see the look of satisfaction on my face. He beamed and said, "you should go back to MTR for the typical South Indian lunch sir."
Pity that my tummy, unlike my suitcase, isn't expandable.
|The gentle 'bouncer' at MTR, managing hungry crowds with aplomb|
|The lucky few are led in|
|Prakash, Dhananjay, Pasha and me... the others smiled once the camera was switched off|
|The real Mysore masala dosa did stand up|
|Is it an idli or upma... question best not asked...enjoy in silence|
|Kick in the butt filter coffee. Time Starbucks stocks this|
|In my defence I didn't finish it all but needed to sample as much as I could (Less than 2 usd)|
|Non vegetarian, Non early riser, non shaven ... a bit like Amitabh Bachchan finally coming into the temple in Deewar|