Thursday, March 10, 2011

For the Love of Food – Britannia & Co.

Mumbai has evolved over the decades, as any city daring to call itself metropolitan would; constantly adapting to social trends and demands of a population wanting the fastest and the best, in equal measure. Eateries have moved with the times as well, with restaurants bowing to the concept of “glocalised” cuisine.

However, there are some that have stood firm, and requested evolution to go knock on someone else's door. Some that have remained unchanged, with the same principles, quality of food, and ambience. Some that found the love of good food more important than commercialism. This section - For the Love of Food - is an ode to those few.

South Bombay retains more than a little of the city's old-world charm, so it's fitting to start there with Britannia & Co. at Ballard Estate. 88 years, and three generations on from its establishment by Rashid Kohinoor, Britannia still attracts tons of tourists and first-timers, in addition to loyal patrons who have made eating here a part of their routine. The big, red board outside bears a crest with a black rooster, saying “There is no greater love than the love of eating”, although owner, Boman Kohinoor's love for great food and service comes very close. He is a friendly old man, undeterred by his age, and shuffles up and down the the narrow spaces between tables every afternoon, taking down orders himself, endearing himself to those inside, and inviting onlookers from outside to take a seat.

That seat can be hard to come by at times, since Britannia is perennially packed with people either savouring their food, or succumbing to involuntary salivation as they await their orders. Orders that invariably include the famed Berry Pulao – a masterpiece of rice strewn with berries (“Imported all the way from Iran”, Kohinoor says proudly), cashews and spices, mingling with either chicken or mutton. While Berry Pulao is something of a family secret, the more traditional Parsi delicacies have a unique flavour as well. The seasonal Bombay Duck is fried to perfection and while “melt-in-your-mouth” is a phrase thrown around rather loosely in food reviews, it is completely warranted here. The same can be said of the Fish Patra, which is pomfret steamed and served in a banana leaf, traditionally called Patra ni Machhi.

Those who find fried fish and rice too dry, prefer to order Salli Boti, a tongue-tingling mutton gravy, topped generously with thin, crisp potato fries, or Dhansakh (a milder, lentil-based gravy), arguably the Parsi cuisine's most well-known dish. Both get along famously with either rice or fresh chapatis, washing down very well with a fizzy raspberry soda. More commercial items like biryanis, kheema, and cutlets are less popular, but on the menu nonetheless. It's strange, in a way, that ordering one of those would be considered experimental at Britannia.

There is one clear winner amongst the three items on the desserts menu. While it is a fairly common preparation, the caramel custard at Britannia holds down your taste-buds and tickles them into submission, leaving you no choice but to wolf down at least one, no matter how full you are. The consistency and sweetness are as perfect as humanly possible, making it an absolute treat.

Britannia has more than its fair share of loyal visitors, one of whom is Prasad Gupta, a 30-something marketing executive. He has been lunching here for several years now. When asked what he finds special about Britannia, he takes a break from the feast laid out in front of him to enumerate on his fingers. “Great food, first and foremost. Along with the quaint atmosphere and great service. The Iranian cuisine lends exclusivity”, he says, taking a quick bite of his pulao before adding, “If this was made into an air-conditioned, commercialised space, it would lose its charm. It's amazing just the way it is.”

There have been rumours that the restaurant will shut down when Old-Man Kohinoor passes away, though he says he has convinced his son to carry on the legacy. Or maybe in 2023 when the 100-year lease on the Ballard Estate property runs out. I prefer not think of what's to come, though, and savour what is. Britannia, with its high-ceilings, chandeliers, green walls and great food, has remained the same since 1923, and continues in the same vein. Go there while you still can!

Recommended Meal for Two

Bombay Duck Fry – Rs. 200/-
Mutton Berry Pulao – Rs. 350/-
Salli Boti or Dhansakh – Rs. 250/-
Caramel Custard x 2 – Rs. 160/-
Raspberry Soda x 2 - Rs. 100/-

Approximate Total – Rs. 1100/-