Fried fish perfection in Modern Mumbai. Sion Finely Chopped Food Walk Part 2

Surmai thali at Modern Lunch Home, Sion. I grabbed the table by the window to get you this shot

Sion beyond samosas

In my previous post, I had written about how I had gone to Sion in Mumbai earlier this week to try out the samosas at Guru Kripa.

I wanted to maximise my trip and did a quick Internet check on places to eat at Sion (on sites such as LBB, Zomato), reached out to my friends for the same and asked for suggestions on my social media channels too before I set off from Bandra that morning.

This explains why I went on a little walk after I stuffed myself with some of the Sindhi food delights of Guru Kripa. I walked down the inner lanes of Sion and then a covered market which seemed to be set around the periphery of a bus terminus. I even climbed up a pedestrian bridge instead of just crossing the road, as I headed back to the Sion circle. I had to make place in my tummy for the next  lunch stop after all. 

The Shettys of Mumbai

Modern once upon a time. Stellar still.

I was headed to a restaurant called Modern Lunch Home which is located near the Sion circle and which I passed by when I entered Sion earlier in the day after heading out from Bandra.

It is a Mangalorean place recommended to me by two of my Mangalorean friends, Elson Sequeira and Dr Pradeep Rao (with whom I had travelled to Mangalore to eat last year), when I told them that I was going to Sion. They are both people whose suggestions I take seriously.

Which is why I was keen to not miss out on Modern even though it looked rather dingy and unimpressive to me when I passed it by earlier in the morning. Experience has taught me that some of the best seafood in Mumbai is served in the humblest of eateries…think Malvani Aaswad in Vile Parle E, Raju’s Malvani cart at Dadar and Pradeep Gomantak at Fort. Or even Gokul (Yes!), the Mangalorean run place in Colaba which is better known for its cheap alcohol than the excellent seafood on offer.

The Mangalorean lunch homes in Mumbai are famous for the seafood that they offer. Some of these restaurants such as Mahesh and Trishna have grown really big and posh over the years and now define ‘seafood in Mumbai’ to most visitors. I used inverted commas, as the cuisine is not really native to Mumbai (Koli and Pathare Prabhu would be so), or even the state of Maharashtra (Malvani could be more apt then). It actually emanates from the Mangalore to Kundapura area in Mangalore and was brought in to Mumbai by the Shettys. Many of whom had started off by selling idli and vada on the street corners of Mumbai first. Legendary restaurateur and Indian regional food maven, Camellia Punjabi MBE, had spoken about the rise of this restaurant community in Mumbai during the Mumbai edition of the Times Kitchen Tales meet. She said that the community had really got together to support each other at the start and that this created the foundation of their success. That the Canara Bank had actually given loans to these small entrepreneurs in the 70s and 80s, unheard of for banks then, to help them grow their business. The restaurateurs then decided to rise the limitations that a simple idli dosa business put and set up eateries that served non-veg (seafood, chicken and meat) and then obtained liquor licenses too. They then brought in relatives and others from their home town to work in these restaurants and kept it within the family in a sense. Soon Mumbai's restaurant landscape was dominated by the Shetty restaurants.

My favourite restaurant in this genre is Apoorva in Fort.

How would Modern Lunch Home at Sion measure up was the question facing me that afternoon and I was happy with the answer that I got.

Modern Indian food sans foam and froth and pipettes too

Modern Lunch Home is a fairly tiny place. It is non air-conditioned. Extremely neat and clean with no unpleasant smell of fish or sweat. It was anything but 'dingy.' The restaurant seemed to have a steady stream of customers coming in even though it was past 2 pm. I saw a set of office colleagues sitting at a table relishing fish curries and pulao. A family at another having biryani.

Pradeep told me that he is fond of the prawn fry masala at Modern Lunch Home. I gave that a miss though as I planned to go to the Sion Koliwada area later for the prawn Koliwada. Elson had recommended a thali. I saw a variety of thalis on the menu at Modern Lunch Home…bombil, pomfret, kane, surmai, rawas, mandeli, kane (ladyfish), prawns, chicken, liver, mutton. They do a ghee roast too at Modern Lunch Home but the waiter told me that that requires half an hour as they cook it from scratch. The a la carte menu is extensive. They do not serve alcohol.

I went for a surmai thali (Rs 300) though I later saw kane and wished I had ordered that as I had enjoyed the same when I went to Mangalore last year. The waiter explained that it would have 2 rotis (I could choose what I wanted), a piece of fish fry, rice, sol kadi, a fish stock curry and vegetable dish.

Surmai fry perfect at Modern Lunch Home, Sion

He brought me the thali in about five minutes. Please allow me to drop everything else for now and tell you about the surmai (kingfish) fry first. The slice visibly belonged to a big fish. It was not cut too thick even though the serving was generous. This, and the fact that the fish was of such pristine quality, ensured that the fish was fried immaculately. Obviously by someone who is a real life Master Chef.

The fish was fried in a way which ensured that the fish retained its juiciness. It was not too chunky unlike what surmai (kingfish) fries in restaurants often tend to be. It was seasoned perfectly too. The fish had been coated with a mix of red chilli powder and house spices and a bit of rice flour to bind the spices. There was a faint sprinkling of rava (semolina) on the surface. Just enough to add playfulness to the texture without dominating the canvas of the fish.

This was by far the best surmai fry that I have had in a restaurant in Mumbai. One which could even compete with the pomfret fry that I love in Malvani Aaswad in Vile Parle east to be the best fish fry that I have had in Mumbai. Coincidentally, both these restaurants are so small that I need to really squeeze in myself to fit in there and yet are places where the food ensures that I would do so with a happy smile and nary a complaint.

To go with the fish in the thali was a bowl of thick, tart and slightly smoky gassi (curry) which had as its base, small fish and bits and pieces of larger ones too. The flavours of the fish imparted the smoky taste I guess. The colour is slighter compared to the the curries you will get at Malvani restaurants. The sauce is thicker here and tangier too. From what I understand, tamarind is used as a souring agent instead of kokum often in Mangalorean cooking. Green chillies, mustard seeds, curry leaves, grounds red chillies, the ‘in house spice mix’ and freshly grated coconut gave the curry body and character.

When it came to rotis, one could choose chapattis, rice flour bhaakris or neer dosas. I chose the neer dosa as that is a Mangalorean speciality. Two came in the plate. Both were excellent. Gossamer thin and beautifully done.

Also on the thali was a refreshing bowl of sol kadi which is one of the best I have had in a Mangalorean place (I usually prefer this kokum based digestive drink when served in Malvani restaurants), a slightly sour stir fried okra dish and a bowl of rice. You could ask for extra gravy I guess and my waiter offered me some. Do check out the video below to know more about it.

A passion project

What struck me about my experience at the Modern Lunch Home, was the passion of those who worked there. This came through wonderfully and made ones time at the restaurant memorable. 

Take the waiter who attended to my table. He told me that he belongs to Ranchi in Jharkhand and has grown up in Mumbai. Yet, despite not being from Mangalore himself, he could answer every question that I asked him about the dishes that I had ordered. He was the one who told me about the rice flour coating on the fish fry and the fact the small fish was used to flavour the curry. You would be hard pressed to find the same level of awareness in the newer restaurants in Mumbai, the service charge enforcing ones, where the waiters are often so unaware of what is being served. I wish I could have brought the bumbling wait staff at a much touted, newish, Bandra restaurant which we went to on a Sunday and where it took three people to come to our table before we got the answer of what went into their savoury French toast, to take lessons from him!

He made my 'Chef's Table' at Modern Lunch Home Special

The passion in the kitchen at Modern Lunch Home showed in the sense of assurance with which the fish had been fried. The depth of knowledge which had gone into making the curry so soulful.

'How will know the future if you do not appreciate the past' (Street Food on Netflix)

"Shall I keep the picture of the fish fry in the pic," said
my smiling waiter when I requested him to take my pic
Modern Lunch Home reminded me so much of the restaurants in Fort which are popular with those who frequent the neighbourhood and who keep coming back for the brilliant food which is served  there. Food that makes you happy and which is served with no bells and whistles on the side, comes with no strings attached.

It was lovely to see Modern Lunch Home, or Guru Kripa for that matter, replicate the same spirit that made the food of downtown Mumbai so legendary, in the suburbs too.

Mumbai's restaurant landscape is constantly changing. Each day I read about new Japanese, Central Asian, Mexican, Sri Lankan and Ethiopian places coming up and the odd regional India restaurant too. That's what Mumbai does so well. It keeps evolving.

Places such as Modern Lunch Home are the result of the seeds sown by the Shettys during one such earlier evolution. These are the sort of places that you need to go to understand the DNA of the city’s food and to get context to where it is headed next and I am so glad that I did so during that enchanted afternoon in Sion. If you do so too, then please have the kane fish free and chicken ghee roast for me.
There's more to my Sion escapades though so keeping watching this space for more. Till then, do read my post on going to Guru Kripa at Sion.

 Also of interest for seafood lovers:


viss said…
Extremely well written Kalyan. Will try and visit most these seafood legendary restaurants too !
Cheers !