Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Rise and Rise of Bombay Canteen

When Bombay Canteen opened a few years ago, it quickly became the buzziest restaurant in Mumbai. But it wasn't the best. The place had some great dishes (the Eggs Kejriwal was the hottest dish in the city), but not every dish worked and nor did every drink. Sometimes the creativity came together magically but at other times the dishes felt confused, neither one thing nor the other. But what they lacked in consistency, they more than made up in effort, warmth, ambience and buzz. It quickly became one of my favourite restaurants, a place where you were guaranteed a great time, and if you knew what to order, the food would be more than good, it would be close to excellent.

But actual excellence is rare. The restaurants in Mumbai that consistently hit excellence could be counted on one hand.. restaurants like The Table or China House where no dish could ever go wrong. Bombay Canteen was the hottest restaurant in Mumbai. But it certainly wasn't the best. 

What it did have going for it however, was ownership that was looking at a completely different way of running a restaurant. Sameer Seth and Yash Bhanage weren't satisfied by just bringing down one of the world's great Indian Chefs Floyd Cardoz to design and supervise the menu. They decided to empower the local team, to invest in research, to spend money on letting their team travel, explore, and understand the infinite variety of flavours, techniques, ingredients, vegetables and more that can be found all over the country. Whether it was home cooking in Kolkata or chaat in Lucknow the team at Bombay Canteen consciously explored food like few other restaurateurs in India do. In 29 year old Thomas Zachariah, they also discovered a chef who was passionate about exploring the food served in households across India and recreating them in his own way. 

I said last year that the hottest trend in food, the holy grail that all chefs aspire to, is the ability to marry creativity/surprise with comfort. The gimmicky creativity of the molecular gastronomists is dead, but it's not been replaced by simple home style cooking. People still want to be surprised and amazed by the food they eat, to feel that   it is cooked with a creativity that distinguishes it from normal home food and makes it worth stepping out for and spending money on. And they want all this with fresh produce and high quality ingredients. 

Which brings us to Bombay Canteen today. Most restaurants that start on a high only go downwards. Bombay Canteen, on the other hand has ridden on a young chef finding his voice to become to my mind the best restaurant in Mumbai today. At 31, Thomas Zachariah is combining comfort, surprise and produce better and more consistently than much older and more experienced chefs.

Their Barley and Jowar salad with puffed grains, pomegranate seeds and spicy hung curd dressing is the best vegetarian dish I ate last year, a dish of subtlety and imagination in terms of texture as well as flavour. So I was excited to try their winter menu and see what they did with seasonal produce. But the food I ate there this week exceeded my highest expectations.

There is a haleem with green wheat, fresh ginger and mint that has all the flavour of the original one but is lighter than a thick soup. The pork sheekh kababs had the hearty texture of beef, the familiarity of a sheekh kabab in Nizamuddin and the juicy flavour of pork. I've never eaten anything like it before. 
Every dish was bursting with innovation whether it was the beef short ribs pilaf or the hara channa hummus salad with toasted almonds, gooseberries and homemade tapioca chips. At the same time every dish left me with a hearty, satisfying feeling that only food cooked with love and soul can give you. 

Mumbai's food scene has exploded in the last 2 years. Prateek Sandhu is pushing the boundaries at Masque. Kelvin Cheung is bringing fun innovation to the suburbs. Manu Chandra is conquering our city one restaurant at a time. Riyaaz Amlani is rewriting every rule about the restaurant business. Gresham Fernandez is probably the best chef in India today, ahead of Manish Malhotra. Alex Sanchez is still perfection personified.

But at least until Toast and Tonic opens, Bombay Canteen sets the pace as the best restaurant in Mumbai today. Two years into their journey, that's quite the accomplishment! 

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