So long Valibhai


Valibhai's son and the last owner and his trusted ustad


Chances are that you would have read articles and blog posts about the recent closing of Mumbai’s landmark café, Samovar.

This post is not about Samovar.

I have my Samovar memories too. I used to go there in the early 2000s when I used to work out of an office in Nariman Point. I was introduced to the keema parathas there by my then boss. I remember going to Samovar with K when we were dating and possibly even before we knew we were dating.

I read out the news about Samovar closing to K a few days back.

“I remember going there with you,” she replied. “The food was nothing special.”

I shared a link on the restaurant’s closing on my Facebook page and a few others too wrote in saying that they didn’t find the food there to be too great. While others said they liked it. The verdict was mixed.
Samovar venu from when I last went there in 2013 or so


I revisited my blog post from a few years back when I had gone back to Samovar and saw that I quite enjoyed the stuffed parathas, lassis and keema masala then. As apparently did my colleagues then who had gone with me. I also liked that enchanted land like setting at Samovar with the museum gardens next door which you could look out from the restaurant in a verandah. A green curtain that is rare in the increasingly asphalted city of Mumbai.

I think I would have gone to Samovar more often if it was in Bandra.

A few days before the news of Samovar closing came the news of another Mumbai restaurant shutting down. 

This was that of the closing of Valibhai Payawallah, the bara handi place at Bohri Mohalla.


I got to know about Valibhai’s closing from a reader who went there to eat one evening and saw that it was closed and told me about this on the Finely Chopped Facebook page (please, please like the page).

There was no fanfare around Valibhai closing. No media coverage or online posts lamenting its demise.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Unlike Samovar, Valibhai was not a darling of the media. No celebs had said that they had eaten at Valibhai. Unlike Samovar, there was no coffee table book about Valibhai. Unlike Samovar’s prime location of Colaba, Valibhai was tucked away deep inside Bohri Mohalla in Bhendi Bazar. A part of Mumbai that no one except those who live there visits. Most of us take the  J J Flyover which sails above Bohri Mohalla which makes the neighbourhood and Valibhai easy to miss.

It took me more than a decade in the city before I got to know about Vallibhai's. 

It is symbolic that it was an archaeologist and a food lover and an old Bombay hand, Dr Kurush Dalal, who led me to it.

Kurush with Valibhai's son


At the risk of sounding corny, it was love at first bite.

Over my various visits I got to know the people who worked there and Valibhai’s son who ran the place that his father had started.

Valibhai’s was where I was introduced to the wonderful art of bara handi which celebrates slow cooking. Where a mix of lentil and wheat broths simmer over six hours and are then mixed with meats which are cooked for equally long. A medley of gravies from the 12 vessels (bara handis) and luscious meat which were served to customers with fresh khameri rotis made there.

The art of bara handi cooking had come to Mumbai from Iran via Gujarat, Valibhai’s son once told me.

The broths in 9 vessels. They claimed there were three inside

I remembered Soumik, who was with us in that first visit, saying that this was probably one of the best meat experiences to be had in Mumbai and I agreed. Kurush said that Valibhai’s was the best exponent of bara handi around. I had tried another place later and did find Vallibhai to be way better.

Unlike Samovar, there was no ambiguity about the food at Vallibhai. 

I had gone back many times to Vali's and each time found the dishes to be delectable. I still dream of the odd cuts like ox’s tail and hump and trotters which were rendered into delightfully tender bites of meat thanks to hours of patient and loving cooking. 

The alluring gravies which were spiced subtly and then livened up with marrow (nihari) and josh (animal fat) were of the sort whose tastes lingered in your mouth for long. This was sheer culinary wizardry that cannot be replicated.

Nihari (marrow) al Valibhai


Each person that I had taken to Valibhai had fallen in love with the food there and couldn’t stop raving about it. Valibhai’s shop became an integral part of my Bohri Mohalla Finely Chopped Walks

I remember us queuing up outside Valibhai's during the Ramzan walks and waiting patiently for the shop to open at 11 pm as it did during Ramzan. I have grateful memories of getting tables for those in the walk despite the crowds at Ramzan. I remember standing outside, as space was at a premium, trying to make sure that those in the walks got to try the marvels of Valibhai. Of orchestrating the orders from the door.

The Finely Chopped Walk stops at Valibhai


I remember feeling thrilled and proud when people on the walks came out after eating there and told me how much they loved the food at Valibhai's and said that it was worth the build up and the wait.

Valibhai's son, who ran the place, has now shut shop and sold it to the redevelopment folks at Bohri Mohalla from what I understand.

A delicious bit of Mumbai’s culinary history came to an end with that after a glorious sixty year run.

Ironically few days before the Maharashtra beef ban got the President's nod. 


Our lives have become poorer.  

The wait during Ramzan for Valibhai to open. Now no more

Comments

Anonymous said…
The folks at Vallibhai couldn't manage to relocate at another place like Idris Cold Drink House could. Hence Vallibhai shuttered temporarily for redevelopment purpose. I am sorta certain they are going to open up once the area is redeveloped. I've had a detailed chat about it with folks at Mohammed Rotiwala, Surti Bara Hand and Imam Sharabatwala. All of 'em have the same notion. They are either trying to relocate or closing down temporarily.
The knife said…
Hopefully they will come back after the redevelopment. Will be a shame if we lose out on all the great food
Gia Fernandes said…
Some love stories come to an abrupt end without even the opportunity of a lingering goodbye kiss or passionate hug. It's really sad, but at least, you will always have the memories. I remember feeling desolate when my favourite Chinese restaurant, Henry Tham's, had shut down. But if I close my eyes, I can still savour the juicy bacon wrapped prawns, tender beef, and succulent pork. I hope you continue making such discoveries that go beyond merely feeding the body and pamper the soul. You may never find another Valibhai again but you will definitely find love (foodie) again.
Teestha Sen said…
Pity we missed Valibhai and for sure a lot of Samovar's patrons couldn't have eaten there given that its mainly non-vegetarians food

but your blogpost sounds like its the fault of Samovar that Valibhai is not celebrated enough. I am not even sure they are even comparable - as Samovar was not about the food at all, for the majority (who'd agree with you that the food wasn't really the best there). But whatever it was for them, it does not need to be discussed in the way you have addressed it here - almost in an accusatory tone.

A lot of folks from Salil Tripathi, Vir Sanghvi, his ex- Malaviya Sanghvi etc have written about the cafe - mostly in a laudatory manner. However if you want to read a more neutral viewpoint - see Vikram Doctor's note in the ET about cafes within Museums.

Its not about food at all. And by comparing it to Valis - perhaps you are insulting Valis actually....
The knife said…
Gia, that's such a powerful analogy. I guess we were lucky to have such presences in our lives. Here's hoping to have the love replenished
The knife said…
Teestha, I think you have got me wrong. I was not accusing Samovar of pulling Valibhai done. The only connection I drew between the two were that they closed down in a similar time frame and that's the only comparison
The knife said…
Pulling 'down' not 'done'