Way back in 1942 young Laxman Varma landed in the big bad city of Bombay from Andhra Pradesh.
He used to run errands in restaurants near the Victoria Terminus. His customers included the local constabulary and police officers. Some of them used to tell Varma that he should get into the food business himself instead of just being a handyman.
He took them seriously.
Varma started first with basic snacks. Batata vadas, omelettes. He then ventured into kheema or minced meat curries. He would carefully note down down the reactions of his customers to his offerings. See what worked and what didn’t….quantities, recipes, dishes…fix his formulas and then try to maintain them.
About three decades before the first market research agencies set shop in India.
This was a story told by Laxman Varma’s proud sons, Shekhar and Shreedhar, to a market researcher who had stopped at Grant House on the way to a client meeting the other afternoon. Seventy years after Varma first came to Mumbai.
Laxman took up a tin shed in what is now the Haj House building at the base of J J Flyover, the flying carpet which takes you into the VT area today. This was in 1950 though where flyovers were perhaps an unknown concept in a newly independent nation.
His shop was popularly known as the ‘Police Canteen’ as many police folks used to come to eat here. It wasn’t one though.
This building housed the Prohibition Office when Mumbai had one. It was also the house of a Governor Grant at one point.
In 1996 the ‘Police Canteen’ shifted premises to a shop next door to the Haj Building and renamed itself as, what else, ‘Grant House’.
I first came to Mumbai in 1996. Yes, got off at VT or CST as it is known now.
Since then I must have crossed the Grant House a million times on my way to South Mumbai.
Never stopped. Never gave it a second glance. Never walked in.
Then Jamshed Adrianvala, known here as Jamshed Uncle, recently told me about the kheema pao at Grant House. Soon after that I bumped into Kunal Vijaykar buying a truck load of mutton rolls at Hangla. He told me that he had recently done an episode of The Foodie and tested out various kheema pals in Mumbai. Grant House was the winner apparently. I had decided to go to Grant House since then. Finally made it when I had a meeting in Town and had some time to kill before that.
I got down J J Flyover and walked around. Took some photographs, peeped into the intriguingly named ‘Iran Like Restaurant’ and then walked into Grant House.
It was past 3 pm on a Friday afternoon. After lunch hours. There was a sort of lazy calm in the shop with the ceiling fans swirling a balmy breeze through it. I was later told that there is a small air-conditioned section upstairs though to be honest, in places like this, I like to sit in the main section where I can see life pass by on the streets outside while I take a break from reality.
I ordered the legendary kheema pao. Roughly minced meat with a good robust bite, cooked in a garam masala stamped curry, with a feather pillow soft pao to mop it up with. The perfect traveller’s meal. In true Bengali style I called for a Cola to go with it. I prefer a Pepsi to the Bong favourite, Thums Up. Got a Coke instead.
Then the usual DSLR tableaux followed. A waiter, who like most waiters in this part of town, had worked here for about three decades, got me a plate of assorted fried fish that they keep as a display for me to click.
Andy, the winner of Masterchef Australia 4, made a fisherman’s basket when asked to put together a dish that encapsulated Australia. The folks at Grant House had done the same with this plate of seafood for Mumbai.
They then got a plate of crab curry.
“Photograph it” said the smiling gentleman at the counter.
They took it away.
I was rather full but asked for a sampler of the curry. I took a sip and my eyes lit up with the joy. The flavours of the crab ran through every drop of the gravy. This is so unusual in Mumbai where the flavours of the masalas outshout that of the seafood in curries in restaurants here. The curry in Grant House was all about the crab which stamped its presence even when absent.
The two brothers, who were at the counter, came up to me and we started chatting. Shekhar and Sridhar were born in Mumbai and have taken over the restaurant after their father retired. They are extremely passionate and articulate which makes it a pleasure to talk with them.
“So what’s the sort of food that you serve here? Local Malvani? Muslim? Hyderabadi?”
Frankly the bill of fare which spanned kheema to biryani to Andhra chicken (you need to order in advance) to paplet fry and sol kadi to bheja masala and pav bhaji confused me.
“We serve ‘Indian food’”
“What is ‘Indian food’. To the world Indian food is chicken tikka masala” I pointed out.
“Indian food to us means that regardless of whether you are from Calcutta or Hyderabad, Mumbai or Delhi…you should feel a sense of familiarity when you taste the food here…you should be able to recognise it as your own…it should make you feel at home”
That sounded like as good a definition as any.
There wasn’t any specifically Andhra dish from the home of the Varmas apparently which was a pity given that Mumbai hardly has any Andhra options. Just Golconda House these days with its Hyderabadi fare. They do have Hyderabadi biryani at grant House though which I took a bit to taste.
The biryani took me straight back to Shadab and Bahar in Hyderabad. The chicken very succulent. Pieces of onions and the rough masalas strewn through the delicately flavoured basmati tukda rice. If you are in Mumbai and if Hyderabadi biryani is your thing then the one at Grant House comes pretty close.
Provided you are willing to take the word of a Bengali non-Hyderabadi on this.
Grant House is no ‘discovery’ or ‘find’ or ‘secret’.
It has its set of loyalists. Folks came trooping in that afternoon including a lady who is the wife of a former ACP. They used to live next door and she often comes back to Grant House to eat even after her husband retired and they moved out. She has been coming here for 35 years and giggled when we pointed out that this meant she must have been coming here from birth.
Grant House has its fans amongst folks I know. Harshad and his dad, Mr Rajadhyaksha, former dean of JJ School of Art, used to come here. As did Anurag who introduced me to Old Delhi recently. Sachin of mid-Day…Ranjit and the doctors of J J Hospital. These are some of the countless Grant House fans apart from good old Uncle J and Kunal amongst the folks I know. Many of whom know of Grant House as the tin shed called Police Canteen.
Yet, it took me sixteen years in Mumbai to discover Grant House.
Which sums up the city of Mumbai. Full of surprises and treasures.
You just have to open your eyes to them.
This one’s for Varma, the kind and gentle Andhraite, who was my first and only room-mate in Mumbai, whom I used to really bully.
Note: Sridhar and Shekhar refused to let me pay for my kheema pao and Coke even though I tried to wrestle them for the bill. They have promised me ‘100 percent’ to charge me the next time I drop in. I have the bheja fry on my sights. I have been told that they make it with just salt and pepper and minimal spices. The seafood pulao was strongly recommended to me this evening too by a Grant House fan.
You could check this facebook album for some of the other photos I took that afternoon