When old wine in a new bottle can be a good thing. The Bombay Canteen refreshed menu.

Ammu roll Bombay Canteen

Lessons in brand building

It is safe to say that The Bombay Canteen is the most talked about restaurant in Mumbai today, if not in India. I feel that what was worked for them is a relentless focus on showcasing regional Indian food. Backed by cheffing expertise and service excellence, bolstered with a focus on social media storytelling (as against hard selling). What matters the most for building a successful brand is having a unique and consistent voice and the folks at The Bombay Canteen have aced that admirably.

There are at two primary ways in which their belief and conviction in promoting regional Indian food gets spread from what I have observed.

One is through the Instagram, Facebook and Instagram updates from chef Thomas Zacharias, who travels across the country and then meticulously posts stories from his trip under the #chefontheroad hashtag. The posts show the dishes he ate, the way they are cooked and the people who cooked it. The overarching reach of social media helps spread these stories among a younger generation which has very little knowledge (not that the older folks are different) of the diversity of food that exists across the country. I know of many who say that they are inspired by these posts to discover more of Indian food. I find a lot to learn from these posts myself.

The other is when the chef gets back to base and then, with his team, recreates some of the dishes that he experienced in formats which are more eye catching in terms of plating and presentation for the guests of the restaurant. They also use modern cooking techniques to render the food in a manner more suitable, if not familiar, for the global palate. Many of those who come to Bombay Canteen might not have considered going to hole in the wall eateries or street food joints themselves and what they experience in the restaurant offers a sort of alternate reality to that.

So what's new at The Bombay Canteen?

It had been a while since I had gone to The Bombay Canteen and they have had a recent renovation and menu change too. Which is why I took the opportunity of fixing a working lunch meeting there earlier this week so that I could experience what was happening at the restaurant these days. The folks I were meeting were game for this too.

What struck me the moment I stepped in was how subtly the renovation has been done.  If you have been to the restaurant before, then you might be a bit hard pressed to figure out the changes at the start and then slowly it will all sink in. The overall feeling of restaurant remains as that of being spacious, classy and yet casual. Familiar and yet refreshed.

The one thing that has remained unchanged, and which has nothing to with the bricks and mortar part, is how well the young waiters come and explain each dish that is served. I have seen very few restaurants manage this. Given that the food on offer at The Bombay Canteen ranges from being novel to unfamiliar, this takes the experience up many notches.

New dishes at The Bombay Canteen

The menu retains some old favourites and some seem to have gone. The regulars here would be better able to point out the differences to you. I usually go there a couple of times in a year. Many of the new introductions in the new menu seem to be from Odisha, the state Zacharias had last visited. They are having an Odia festival in the restaurant too at the moment and some of the dishes feature in that as well. I was keen to try these out as the only time I have been to Odisha so far was in 1980 for the customary Bengali family Puri visit. All I remember from eating then was the sweet pulao and the khaaja prasad served in saal leave boxes as prasad outside the temple.

Here is what we tried:

Mangsa kalija bhaaja pitha

Mangsa kalija bhaaja pitha

I could not see to a mutton liver dish and not order it could I?

The dish consists of a soft white pitha (steamed/ dumpling), stuffed with chopped mutton liver, crowned with it too and some pickled chopped tendli (ivy gourd) as well. We were told that the pitha was steamed in tamarind leaves though the food was served in a banana leaf.

Tanginess was the dominant flavour here rather than the bitterness one associates with liver. The slightly mushy texture of the pitha was the overarching texture with the occasional bite of liver livening up the dish. 'Occasional,' as most of the liver seemed to have been treated in such a way that it was lighter in colour than mutton (goat liver) and softer textured (grainier than a pate) too. I am afraid I have no idea about the techniques used by the chef but I feel this would be good for those who might feel the original texture and taste of liver a bit too much to stomach.

Kadali manja bada

kadali manja bada

Poha encrusted banana stem (what we call thor in Bengali) croquette served on a tangy potato mash. The dish with the crunchy pakora like nuggets and tangy potato mash, reminded me of a chaat. I was looking for the flavours of thor (banana stem), which one has memories of from the finely chopped thorer ghonto that my didu would make me when I was a kid, and did not get that in this rendition. 

I also missed the texture of the poha in the dish. This was in contrast to the poha encrusted prawns at Bandra's Salt Water Cafe. That's a favourite order of ours there and the crisp fried poha (beaten rice) offer a great textural counterpoint to the juicy prawn that thee enrobe at Salt Water Cafe but I guess each chef has their own way of looking at things.

Dahi baada alu dum

dahi bada alu dum

I had recently learnt that this unique combination of a south Indian dahi vada and the spicy alu dum of eastern India is very popular in Odisha. I could not fathom how it would work as a pairing though, when I first heard about it.

Zacharias' insta feed showed that many versions of the dish exist through Odisha. The waiter told us that the chef has apparently used the Cuttack version as inspiration for the dish. I asked our waiter how one should have it and he suggested we take a mouthful of both the vada and alu dum at one go and at the end of the meal have the peda which is given to cool down after the spiciness of the alu dam (though he stressed that The Bombay Canteen one is not high on chilli heat).

I tried it as instructed and I must confess that the combination still did not make much sense for me. The medu vada (each had a different spicing apparently) combined beautifully in the sweetened Indian butter milk base. With the alu dum though, it made as much sense as his first one day cricket match experience had made for Sunil Gavaskar in the first world cup. The spicing of the alu dam, even if toned down, still dominated the dahi vada.

Would you know if the two are served on the same dish? Like a Delhi chaat? Or are they served separately as they were here? I think I need to go to Odisha to figure out the mystique of the dahi vada alu dum.

Chenna poda cheesecake

Chhena poda cheese cake

I rarely order dessert in restaurants these days but my lunch mates wanted to try one so I suggested the chhena poda which seems to be one of the the most popular and unique sweets in Odisha. The chenna poda has been compared with a cheesecake in the past and this rendition seemed to be an obvious and yet well executed one. The texture is a bit grainy like chenna poda's is. It was served with stewed seasonal strawberries whose tanginess balanced the often excessive sweetness one often sees in Indian sweets. I restricted myself to a couple of spoons as I try to avoid dessert but could have had more. 

Ammu duck roll

Ammu duck roll

This seems to be another new dish on the menu. Not Odia this time, but Kerala inspired. It was the one which really blew me and my lunch mates away that afternoon with its magnificence.

A thin, Kolkata roll-like maida paratha, stuffed with the most incredibly flavoured shredded duck stuffing. The meat was tender and juicy and had a strong coconut oil based flavour which shouted out its creator's own Malayali genes. The days of communist rule in Bengal is long gone, though Kerala still has a communist led government, and I could see the late Jyoti Basu and EMS Namboodiripad (former communist chief ministers of Bengal and Kerala respectively) smile in approval from up there at this combination of a Kolkata street food favourite with a Keralite punch.

They do a version which has egg in it too at the restaurant we were told.  I prefer a mutton roll over the egg mutton roll in Kolkata and I feel that this would work better here too. The roll was served with the dalia (broken wheat) salad that The Bombay Canteen is famous for and potato chips. Both, as key to the plot I am afraid, as the other heroes in an Amitabh Bachchan film of the 70s were. That's how good the roll was! I do like the dalia salad though and the occasional cooling bite of it in between the no holds barred flavours of the roll was rather soothing.

Were the flavours of the duck as glorious as they turned out to be, the contrast of textures between the paratha and the meat as inspired as they turned out to be, because of the chef's native Malayali genes is a matter of conjecture I guess. What is without doubt is that dish was visibly more self-assured than the others that we had at lunch and the most memorable too.

When same old becomes the start of a new chapter

When I had first written about The Bombay Canteen, I had said that the name was reflective of the fact offices in Mumbai are populated by people from across India and that the food on offer reflects the spirit of diversity that one sees at lunchtime in the city's office canteens.

I would now go a step forward and say that the restaurant also symbolises the values of creativity that Mumbai, the city which is the hub of both advertising in India and Hindi cinema of course, stands for. The food here truly displays a seeking spirit and purpose too.

So what's new at The Bombay Canteen? Not much one could say in a manner of speaking one could say. They have stuck to their core philosophy after all. And have grown and evolved with time based on this to have created something special.


My post on the restaurant when it was new.


Ankita said…
Dahi vada alu dum is an iconic dish from Cuttack although i can't fault you for not liking it too much as it is an acquired taste ( more so if you are brought up on it). The vada is eaten together with the aloo dum. Infact in Orissa it is served as a meal in a bowl, topped with chopped onions and sev. The spice quotient of the ones you get in Orissa are typically high. The residual buttermilk from where the vadas are kept immersed serves as great coolant! Chena poda is our brilliant indigenous cheesecake. Hope you get to travel to Orissa again and try out the food there.
gautam said…
That dahi vada-aloo dum does not look like the Odia/ Cuttack version at all, AT ALL. That is the trouble with these transmogrified versions, e.g. the foolishly ------ up "kosha mangsho, etc. served in Mumbai, and now a foolish trend all over India, as if that is the hallmark of Bangali meat cooking.

What I have seen in Odisha is a very adapted DAHI VADA, that peculiarly their own, and one which makes North Indians, like some Punjabi food reviewers fresh from up north blanch UNTIL they acquire the taste for it. A very, very thin dahi paani. Unbelievably thin. The whole thing is a unique combination unto itself, and nothing like what is pictured here. Made early in the morning in huge quantities, and I often wonder if the stuff does not spoil in the heat? But please go and eat it in its birthplace.

And please, don't eat the disgusting "kosha mangsho" at Golbari, drowned in masala and oil. It runs on reputation, and no more. people who have smoked all their lives and turned theiur tongues to leather, love to eat such fare: chatpata this, and chatpata that: dogturds chatpata is the Indian motto! No subtlety, no respite from heavy-handedness.

Let me cook you some "authentic" (!!!) kosha mangsho, which the lightly braised meat in preparation for the simple, very light and fresh tasting jhol, or light stew made in Bangali households of non-castrate kid goats, chevon, of the Black Bengal breed. Or, there is Radhu Babu of South Calcutta. Where have we digressed? So sorry!