Friday, 1 October 2004

Drool, Britannia

A year or so ago, a friend lunched at Britannia with his mentor, a famous film director. The mentor, he says, has “this dictatorially democratic set-up” where the hired help often eats with her in the same restaurant. So her driver – let’s call him A-bhai – was ensconced at the next table. Lunch, which included the restaurant’s signature Berry Pulao, made with berries imported from Iran, was ordered, and consumed. (“And their orgasmic Caramel Custard for desert,” Vijay adds, misty-eyed.)

Sated, they trundled out to the car, where A-bhai, who had preceded them, held the door open. As he closed the door behind them, to his horror, the car rolled backwards and crunched into a tree, smashing its rear window. The shaken chauffeur had no explanation for the car’s behaviour, but film folks are nothing if not resilient, and since there was no further damage to vehicle or passengers, the company moved on, unruffled, no doubt to make Better Cinema.

Many days later, Vijay managed to cajole A-bhai into admitting, “Saab, sach boloon toh, jab madamne humko khaane ko aane ke liye bolaa, to hum uss Pulao ke khayal me itne kho gaye ki handbrake lagaana bhool gaye.
Such, gentle reader, is the power of Britannia’s Berry Pulao.

Britannia looks like a generic member of that fast-disappearing breed, the Bombay Irani joint. High ceiling, peeling paint, bentwood chairs, thick glass protecting chequered tablecloths, a wooden mezzanine, elderly gentleman presiding over high counter at the entrance, dispensing change to the waiters, unlocking drawers to ration out precise measures of special ingredients.

But it doesn’t offer the traditional Irani dawn-to-midnight chai, bun-maska and bread pudding. It is open for only lunch, six days a week, and serves mainly Parsi food.

The owner of the mischievous eyes that greet me from behind the counter is Boman Kohinoor, who has been here since he was a schoolboy (he’s a spry eighty-four now). His father, Rashid, opened Britannia in 1923, serving mainly western food to toffs – Collectors, Officers and suchlike. During World War II, the restaurant was requisitioned for use as barracks. By 1948, when it reopened, its time in the sun had passed.

We move to one of the tables, and he delightedly shakes my hand again, on discovering that I had studied in his alma mater. His late wife, Bachan, he says, spent many years working in Iran, and returned with a trove of Iranian recipes to add to the Parsi dishes she already knew. She trained the cooks to prepare all these, and Britannia revived.

Aside from the famous Iranian Berry Pulao, the other specialities are: Fish Patra, Fried Bombay Duck, and of course, Dhansak, which like the berry pulao, is available in mutton, chicken and vegetarian varieties. But, as that inimitable Bombay foodie, the late Behram Contractor, said: “Of course, there is nothing like a vegetarian dhanshak, just as there is nothing like a non-alcoholic beer or an eggless omelette. Still, there you are. And, while I am at it, I would like to add, the only bona fide dhanshak is with mutton, not chicken.”

The usual clientele is wall-to-wall officewallas. Today, a public holiday, the pace is filled with families out to lunch. People drive in from far and near, says Kohinoor. Gerson Da Cunha, Anil Dharker, Farzana Contractor, they’re all regulars here. Dilip Vengsarkar, like so many others, sends in for takeaway. And there was this editor who would sit alone at the table near the door, reading a book while he ate his lunch. (Later, when i am leaving, the old gentleman gently, but firmly refuses my efforts to pay my bill. Mr Vinod Mehta has given us enough business, he chortles.)

A rooster’s picture adorns one wall. A stylised version on the menus is surrounded by this cheery motto: “There is no love greater than the love of eating.” Kohinoor reminisces about that rooster, a family pet, which strutted the counter in the eighties. It drank only Mangola and ate only pista-badam, except now and then, when it ate chicken. “He was a cannibal!” he informs me gleefully.

Running Britannia is tough, Romin, Kohinoor’s son, tells me. He personally buys supplies, supervises the cooks – “It’s manufacture, not trading, not like those places that only open your beer for you.”

But change is imminent. Option One: a face-lift, spruce up the place, bring the old marble-topped tables back from the godown, and, abandoning decades-old tradition, open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. Or the family may sell – a potential buyer has come to talk to Kohinoor Sr as we chat.

If that happens, Britannia’s devotees will be bereft. But A-bhai has no cause for gloom. Romin will then start a small Britannia takeaway counter somewhere in Fort. So if Madam sends him to fetch lunch, all A-bhai must remember is to use that handbrake.

Britannia & Co Restaurant, Wakefield House, 11 Sprott Road, 16, (opp. New Customs House, nr. War Memorial), Ballard Estate, Mumbai 38. Ph: (022) 2261 5264. Open Mon-Sat, 11.30-4.00.
Berry Pulao: Ch. Rs 160; Mut. Rs 180; Veg. Rs 90. Dhansak: Ch. Rs 130, Mut. Rs 150, Veg. 90. (Huge servings: two moderate eaters can share one dish.) Also, Chicken Farcha Rs 110, Fry Bombay Duck, Fish Patra (price varies as per size), Mutton Sali Boti Rs 130. All chicken/mutton served boneless. No alcohol. No exclusively snack orders between 12.30 & 2.30.

Published in Outlook Traveller's October 2004 issue.