Finally a good Bombay Canteen. Pun intended

Let me explain the strange title of this post.

I had earlier spent years in corporate Mumbai scarred by lousy canteen lunches. The food in none matched up to the simple home cooked food-like Bengali meals of my first office canteen which was in Kolkata. Nor did any of the places I worked at in Mumbai offer the sort of indulgent evening and weekend snacks that we got in Kolkata. It’s as if the need to eat well to feel happy was brushed aside and looked down upon in corporate Mumbai.

No such problems with the food in the newly opened restaurant, Bombay Canteen though, where we went for a late lunch recently.

I had wanted to go to Bombay Canteen for a while. The impression I had of it based on various articles and social media posts on it was of a place which uses local Indian ingredients to recreate traditional Indian dishes.

As someone who laments the lack of Indian alternatives in the new restaurant scene in Mumbai, this seemed like an exciting option.

The place is the baby of the now US Based originally Bandra Goan boy, chef Floyd Cardoz.

Bombay Canteen’s recently been opened for lunch too and we headed there at 3.30 pm after finishing some work near by. I was told that lunch orders close by 3.15 pm and that only sandwiches and rolls are served after that till dinner. So I checked with Chef Thomas of Bombay Canteen on twitter who offered to keep the lunch kitchen open for a few more minutes till we reached.

Chef Thomas in his kitchen

Bombay Canteen is in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills. Once upon a time the only exciting option close by was Jai Hind which a colleague had told me about when it opened. Her husband used to work in O&M then and used to go there. Since then O&M has moved out of Kamla Mills, though Jai Hind is still doing strong. Ironically the local seafood joint, Jai Hind, proudly offers imported basa now in the menu while Bombay Canteen makes a virtue of using local produce.

It wasn’t very crowded when we walked in post lunch hours and the first thing that strikes you about Bombay Canteen is the sense of space that is fairly unusual to Mumbai. The ambience at Bombay Canteen is a tribute to the old bungalows of Mumbai I am told. The atmosphere is casual with the wait staff were in denims. The young manger, Kartik, who reminded me of the college kids who hang around in Candies, told us that it apparently gets pretty crowded in the evenings. He said that some of the diners even stand by the tables or sit on the steps and enjoy their drinks at night. The imagery evoked memories of tapas bars in Spain.

That's Kartik, in a red tee

Chef Thomas came up to say hi and we discussed our order with him.

We tried two drinks. The masala chhaas (buttermilk) was initially pleasantly spicy and thick but then became watery said K as there was a lot of ice in it. I tried a curry leaf ice tea which wasn’t too sweet, which was good, but missed the curry leaf punch that I had enjoyed in the curry leaf mocktail in Masala Library.

Iced tea & masala chaas

We were blown away by the first dish that we tried. Pulled vindaloo pork on methi thepla tacos. The pork was juicy, the vindaloo spices prominent and yet not overpowering. The methi flavours in the thepla (supple flat bread) was very mild and didn’t interfere with the pork. I had earlier seen a Facebook discussion on the dish where people had wondered if the methi in the thepla would sit well with pork. No such problems here.

Pulled pork vindaloo with methi thepla tacos

An Instagram discussion when I posted the pic of the pork made me realize that there could be an inherent double meaning in this dish. You see, theplas are taken by vegetarian Gujaratis while travelling abroad to eat when they don’t get vegetarian food. At Bombay Canteen the Goan chef Floyd Cardoz, and his Syrian Catholic Keralite, protégé, Thomas seemed to have played a private joke by placing pork on the theplas. Well both do belong to communities who like Bengalis and Parsis, can’t connect with vegetarians.

Wonder if I read too much into this.

We then tried an eggs Kejriwal, a dish that K and I love to have at The Royal Bombay Yacht Club and which traces its origin to the recipe from a member of the same name (Kejriwal) in Mumbai’s Willingdon Club.

The Yacht Club Eggs Kejriwal is a simple cheese slice topped by fried eggs (with a hard yolk) on toast, with chopped green chillies on the side, affair. A picture that food writer, Marryam Reshii, had put on twitter earlier of the Bombay Canteen eggs kejriwal warned me that the one here looks very different.

(Pic of Yacht Club Kejriwal)

Here they serve an egg with a runny yolk on a crunchy bread which reminded K of the brun pao of Irani bakeries. The experience of biting into runny yolk on the crusty bread was riveting. The egg is topped with a green chutney which gives you a chilli hit a bit after you have taken the first bite which catches you by pleasant surprise. 

Then comes a downer, the unexpected taste of coconut which marred the final experience for me. K didn’t seem to mind it though. Chef Thomas said that the coconut taste comes from the coconut oil that they use. I think they would do well to skip this. This was the only false note for me in the meal.

The lovely bread is baked in house.

Bombay Canteen eggs kejriwal

We also tried the seafood bhel which I earlier saw people praise on social media. I was intrigued as to how bhel (rice crispies) would go with seafood. Wouldn’t it get soggy like it got when they served moori (rice crispies) with Bengali fish curry in Delhi’s Farzi Café?

Turned out that the ‘bhel’ in the name is just a reference to the chaats of Mumbai from which the dish takes its spice palate inspiration from. It doesn’t actually have bhel (rice crispies). Like Mumbai’s bhel puri, the seafood bhel is topped with sev (tiny crisp gram flour bits). The base here is made with raw papaya and raw mango (keri) which give it a refreshing Thai som tam salad like taste. While I spotted the odd squid in it, I missed the presence of seafood in the dish.

seafood bhel

K liked the dish as it was light and so did I but I wondered whether the fried calamari (squids) or mandeli (local anchovies) would have been better options in seafood than the seafood bhel with barely discernible seafood.

Kartik then got us a dish that Thomas had sent for us which I think is not on the menu. I had seen Thomas earlier post a picture this as a part of the staff menu on twitter.

Grilled kaleji (chicken liver), whose chubby smoky tender juiciness of the meat and zesty spices took me straight to the HajiTikka Bar B Q stall at Bohri Mohalla and I mean that as a compliment. Both K and I were enthralled by the vibrant flavours and great textures of the dish.

This for me was the standout dish of the afternoon.

Grilled kaleji liver

You must try your luck and ask for the grilled liver if you go to Bombay Canteen. It will make you fall in love with liver even if you are generally not fond of it.

For our mains we had a twice cooked tandoori pork ribs with Tibetan tinggo bread.

tandoori pork

The pork is cooked in local jaggery instead of the Far Eastern idiom of honey and also uses Old Monk, the classic Indian rum. The taste of the rum is pretty prominent. K found the dish a bit sweet but I thought it was less sweet compared to various versions of honey ribs that I have had in Chinese restaurants or the ribs at Delhi’s Indian Accent. The meat was incredibly tender, had a bit of tantalising fat and a slight char due to its being finished in the tandoor. It was served with beans which gave it a nice textural contrast and Gujarati spicy sweet mango pickle, Choondoo, which added some spice and tanginess to the dish.

For desserts we had ice cream sandwiches in memory of the ones at Churchgate’s K Rustoms where K and I used to go to when we worked in town.

They offer two varieties of ice-cream sandwiches in Bombay Canteen in a serving. Both, intentionally or not, pay homage to two the most sought after biscuit brands in meetings in corporate Mumbai, Jim Jam and Bourbon.

The Jim Jam one came with a koolfi textured coffee ice cream in the simulated biscuits which I didn’t take to much as I am not fond of coffee flavours in ice cream.

What we did love, and what broke my resolve to stick to just a bite of desserts and finish my share, was the Bourbon (named after the biscuit and not the drink) one which had a delectable dark chocolate ice cream filling. The chocolate (thankfully ?) over powered the ginger shreds in the ice cream with its magnificence. I have recently begun to appreciate dark chocolate, after being milk chocolate man till now, and this strengthened my new love.

Ice cream biscuits

We left really happy with our relaxed lunch and the good food that we had, K said that the meal was a throwback to the Friday lunches she and I once had when we used to work together in town.

What struck me about the food at Bombay Canteen is that is is simple and uncomplicated, doesn’t try too hard, and that the flavours are bold and prominent and that the focus is purely on taste. I definitely enjoyed the food here the most among all the modern Indian restaurants that I have eaten in so far in Mumbai and in Delhi. K said that though it is an Indian restaurant it doesn’t feel like one as the food is different from what we are used to.

A welcome addition to the Mumbai eating scene.

Now if only the Bombay canteens I had eaten in earlier had served such delicious food.

And don't get me started on the atrocious coffee served in Mumbai offices.

Note: This didn’t turn out to be an anonymous meal as the chef knew we were coming. I did see the folks at the next table get the same friendly service that we did. Our meal with 3 starters, 2 non alcoholic drinks, 1 mains and 1 dessert came to around Rs 2,300 with, as the bill said, ‘ghastly taxes’.