Raju ban gaya Malvani restaurant-wala: A story from the City of Dreams, Mumbai

Bombay Duck Fry, crab lollipop, prawn fry medium at Raju's Malvani Mejwani

The year of dreams

2018 has been one of the busiest years in Mumbai’s restaurant landscape

It seems as if there are one or more new restaurants being launched everyday if one goes by social media influencer posts. Some of these restaurants are concept based, whatever that means. Some chef based. Some showcase Indian food. Some international. And it is not just restaurants that are part of the emerging food scene. There are new age bars, artisanal pastry and bread places. Organic, gluten free and vegan places too. Farmer markets and food halls as well. It’s all happening in Mumbai and the city’s food lovers could not be happier one would suppose.

I went to one such new restaurant last evening. A place I had been wanting to check out ever since they opened three months back and ever since I read about them on Kunal Vijayakar’s  Facebook page. In fact he had inaugurated it I think. 

This restaurant ticks of some of the buzzwords that are in vogue today. Indian food. Regional food. Locally sourced. Chef driven. Slow food. Heritage recipes. 

From cart to table

Malvani Mejwani is located near Merwans in
the road beyond Shiv Sena Bhavanat Dadar when
you head towards South Mumbai

I am talking of Raju’s Malvani Mejwani, a restaurant that has opened in Dadar, near Shivaji Park and the Sena Bhavan. 

Surprised? No, not all new restaurant openings are high profile ones! There are still the odd new restaurant being opened which thankfully offers everyday food for those who want to just eat and those who are not seeking an 'experience' to go with their meal.

Mumbai born Raju, as Narendra Sawant, is known is not new to the food business. This 53 year old gentleman used to work in an office once upon a time in Mumbai. ‘Job karta tha,' as he told me on the phone today, before he set up a thela (food cart) in 1986. He used to sell Malvani food (food from coastal Maharashtra) as cooked by his mother, the late Gunawanti Sawant, from the cart. She had come to Mumbai from Sawantwadi in coastal Maharashtra and her cooking still retained the memories of the time that she herself had spent in her mother’s kitchen. Raju's Malvani Corner, as the cart is called, became an urban legend over the years in Mumbai. Kunal had featured it in his show too I am told. Many readers had written to me saying that I should try it, including my former colleague, Chinmai Prabhune.

With my friends at Raju's newly opened Malvani Mejwani restaurant on 19th
December 2018

Mr Sawant, who is in the hospital right now after a foot injury, most kindly took the time out to speak to me on the phone today. When I asked him what made him open a restaurant after all these years, he told me that he had actually been wanting to open a restaurant for a while. He did so when things finally fell into place in terms of his getting the license and space for it.

The restaurant offers the same menu as the cart and more I was told. The d├ęcor of restaurant is functional, neat and clean. It is air-conditioned and that will make a difference once the heat returns to Mumbai in a few days. There is something very pleasant about the restaurant even though it looks so simple. The courteous and efficient service helped build this feeling I guess.

We were introduced to his son last evening at the restaurant. Mr Sawant told me today that his son is studying hotel management at the moment and helps out at the restaurant too. He dream is to be a bartender though he said when I asked Mr Narendra whether his son  will take on the family business once he is done with college. 'Mixologist' is what his son would say I reckon.

I joined some of our food loving friends (I don’t have any other sort I think) last evening at Raju’s Malvani Mejwani. The group included blogger Sassy Fork who had recommended that we go there and who had planned the evening. Kurush Dalal and his wife was with us too. And our British friends, Sue and Nathan, who are back in India after two years in the UK and who were dying for some good desi khana.

Bombay Duck fry at Malvani Mejwani

We started off at Malvani Mejwani with some juicy Bombay Duck fries whose presentation reminded me of the Sydney Opera House. The fish was so nice and fresh  that we kept calling for more of them through the rest of our dinner.

Prawn fry at Raju's Malvani Mejwani

We ordered the prawn fry (medium) too which, as it is in most Malvani/ Gomantak restaurants that I have tried them in, presented a stiff upper lip in a manner of speaking. We ordered multiple plates and  they were all rather overdone and hard and chewy. 

Crab lollipop at Malvani Mejwani

Redeeming the prawns  though were the crab lollipops which Sawant Junior suggested we order. The dish is their innovation I am sure and not something traditional. I was astounded by how brilliantly flavoured the pillowy crab meat was. 

Our friend Dr Kurush Dalal, who like Sheldon of the Big Bang Theory knows everything but is a better raconteur thankfully, told us that this is because the Malvani restaurant owners prefer to use small and medium sized crabs. These have more flavour than the massive crabs that they try push down your throat in the Mangalorean run and more well known seafood joints in the city said Kurush. This is something that I heard at Sindhudurg, another Malvani restaurant, down the road too and I agreed with him.

Mutton sukha at Malvani Mejwani

For our mains, we ordered a lot of meat dishes for some reason at Malvani Mejwani that night. There was the mutton sukha (mutton in a thick desiccated coconut, chillies and spice based paste). The chicken shagoti (chicken in a thin, coconut based curry with a strong chilli hit) and kheema (garam masala heavy and a tad salty, but good quality minced meat which was not smelly at all).

Vade (puri) and chicken shagoti (orange), kheema (dark brown), clams
(light brown) at Malvani Mejwani

Malvani restaurant food is not all about seafood and features a fair bit of mutton (goat meat) and chicken too from what I have observed over the years. Two things distinguished the meat dishes at Malvani Mejwani to me that night. One, was the fact that the meat was very tender and of very good quality. Two, while each preparation had nuanced differences from the other, they were high on chilli heat. At least for someone like me with a weak ability to handle chillies and I kept mopping the sweat on my forehead with paper tissues through the meal.

We tried the clam masala too. In the Malvani restaurant style of cooking clams, one rarely gets to taste the clams as the spices are the hero of the dish. In this case, the preparation was slightly more runny than at other places where the masala is more a like a paste. There was a slightly mellow and comforting feel to the clam masala at Malvani Mejwani.

Kala vatanacha usal

Kurush insisted that we try the kala vatanachi usal, a vegetarian delight in Malvani households according to him. Black gram cooked in a runny curry which offered a refreshing medley of coconut flavours and chilli heat. It offered a nice and refreshing balance to the robust meat dishes that we had eaten so far. Kurush told us that they use spices similar to that used in non-vegetarian dishes in making this dish in Malvani homes. A reason why widows at times stayed away from it in the past due to socially enforced dietary restrictions.

Wade, amboli
Bhakri, ghavne. Malvani Mejwani

We also got to try a sample of the variety of Maharashtrian flatbreads at the restaurant. There was the crunchy puri like deep fried  vade (made with a rice and udad dal dough) which goes so well with the meat dishes. We also tried some of the more demure, rice flour based breads such as the bhakri, amboli and the ghavan. Some of which, I thought were similar to the neer (ghavne) and tuppa dosa (amboli) of Mangalore, a reflection of the shared heritage of the Konkan coast that the two cuisines share.

Sol Kadi at Malvani Mejwani

There are no desserts at Malvani Mejwani but the sol kadi on offer is nice and light and not too pink and the mellow notes of coconut milk in it are rather soothing.

Where it all started

Raju's Malvani Corner, the cart

Once done with dinner, I was hungry for more! 

I wanted to check out the cart that I had heard so much about. I goaded my friends to join me and we crossed the road and went to the cart, which is known as Raju's Malvani Corner. It is located beside the Shetty run Malvani restaurant named Sachin and the ICICI Bank ATM. Giving it company are a few other street side carts offering dosas and vada pavs and the such. The Mervan shop lies opposite it. 

We placed our orders at the counter and were then seated by a plastic table on the pavement. There was a cat lounging by, which reminded me of going to eat at the Bade Miya in the late 90s.

Vades of joy. Raju Malvani Corner

I saw that there were folks frying vade by the dozen beside the cart. Fish was fried fresh too, once an order was placed. The fish was patted with a light dusting of rice flour and then dunked into hot oil and brought to the hungry diners once it was ready to roll. 

I wanted to try the fish curry but was told that the fish was over. I called for just the rassa (fish curry sans fish) instead and rice. More Bombay Ducks fries were ordered. And a bangda (mackerel) fry too. And something that menu described as kolambi rice or prawn rice. My plan was to make up for the lack of fish dishes in our order at the restaurant earlier.

Well, to cut a long story short, I loved everything that I had at the cart unequivocally.

Bangda fry, rassa and rice at Raju's Malvani Corner

The bangda fry was brilliantly juicy and seasoned perfectly with just the hint of salt and chilli powders. The taste of the fish shone through gloriously in it. 

I later asked Mr Sawant about where he sources his fish from. Mahim Citylight Market, he said in reply. The recipes are largely his mother's and he has now taught them to the chefs who work for him and who cook at the restaurant. 

The rassa (curry) at the cart was a perfect example of balance and restraint. It was not fiery at all unlike the meat dishes that I had earlier in the restaurant. It had a slight tanginess to it thanks to the kokum added to it and the taste of coconut in the gravy was muted. I kept taking spoonful after spoonful of the rassa and rice. Something that I rarely do when it comes to Malvani restaurant curries which I am not too fond of I must admit. This was definitely one of the best that I have had!

Kolambi rice, full plate, at Raju's Malvani Corner

And the kolambi rice was so good. It was a cross between a Marathi masala bhaat and Bengali pulao in my opinion, bejewelled with small and juicy shrimp. Once again, I kept taking spoonful after spoonful of the kolambi rice. As did my friends. This, despite our being stuffed when we left the restaurant earlier. That's how good the food was.

The dishes that we had at the cart are available at the restaurant too, as are thalis. So it is really up to you to decide on where you want to sit. On the streets (yesterday was a rare cool night) or in the restaurant. 

The restaurant would be a tad more expensive but cleaner and more comfortable and have a more extensive menu. The street would have ‘atmosphere’ and has the best of the menu on offer too.

You can sit behing the fish and vade fry station at Raju's Malvani
Corner and eat

The Bengali in me will point out that though we ate on the streets that night, and though the restaurant dishes made me perspire with their chilli heat, I did not have any heartburn or acidity when I came back home. Nor did my tummy misbehave the next morning!

My friends headed off to Apsara to have ice creams when we were done with dinner while I decided to Uber it home as I wanted to call it a day. 

I looked out of the window once I settled down in the car and notices that we were driving down the lanes by the Mahim Dargah. It was past eleven at night and I saw women at the shops buying dates and sweets for their families from the shops their. They looked like locals.

Our gang at Raju's

I broke into smile on seeing this. I suddenly felt so alive. Raju's Malvani thela came rather late into my life in Mumbai no doubt but it showed me that there is so much more that I have to discover in the city. A realisation made me so happy and that filled me with joy.

I appreciate the work, passion, talent and money that is going into the restaurants that are opening today. However, the truth is that these are the sort of places that represent the Mumbai that I love.

The Mumbai that I stayed back for when I came here from Kolkata twenty years back. 

What I like to call, #MumbaiFinelyChopped

Beautiful thecha (pounded chillies) at Raju's Malvani Mejvani

Pictures from our #MumbaiFinelyChopped evening at Raju's. 

Here's a little video that I did at Raju's Malvani Corner. I hope you like it and if so please subscribe to my YouTube channel, Finely Chopped TV

For those confused between the terms Malvani food and Konkani food, here's an article that I did for NDTV Food on the subject