As the nostalgia-evoking restaurant turns one, we get inside its head.
It’s been a year since the team of two young friends – Sameer Seth and Yash Bhanage – along with a younger chef – Thomas Zacharias – and the world renowned chef Floyd Cardoz, gave us The Bombay Canteen. If you love Indian regional food, you’d take certain pride in what the restaurant has done with it. Picking up local vegetables (the ones you wouldn’t take a second look at) and re-creating them in a way that you would stop, take a look, try and go for seconds.
The Lower Parel restaurant, which celebrates its first anniversary on 11th February, took nostalgia as its cue and built from there. The old-bungalow-meets-canteen theme – inspiration for which comes from a blue bungalow on Bandra’s Turner Road – was an instant hit among the local diners. They put pulled pork on theplas (no Gujaratis were offended there, thankfully) to create Desi Tacos and worked with guava to make a fine tart.
On my first visit, almost a year ago, the fusion of Pancham with Cuban musicians had impressed me and so did the Banana Leaf Wrapped Roasted Fish – with its Kerala style tomato chutney – and Gulab Nut – a brave take on the Indian gulab jamun made like doughnut, stuffed with pista cream and soaked in Old Monk. There were a few misses on the menu, but the idea and its authenticity stayed.
“When we were planning The Bombay Canteen, we thought why not look internally for inspiration. In the last couple of years people like us have looked at Indian food and have thought of making an experience out of it”, says Seth when I chat with Bhanage and him over phone. Something that has inspired Indian diners to look at Indian food differently and take notice of varied local produce.
The Bombay Canteen has grown leaps and bounds since that first, partially underwhelming meal. Food from different regions of the country has made an entry – case in point the Aloo Kaju Kofta in a grainy green peas curry which is fascinatingly similar to the matar ka nimona cooked in eastern UP. Chef Thomas instantly looks it up when I mention the similarity to him and shares the info with Seth and Bhanage; that’s the kind of passion the team brings in.
India offers a number of cuisines, each with its variations as per region and community; how does the team go about planning the menu which changes every three months? “Chef Thomas was on board with us since August 2014, six months before we launched The Bombay Canteen. We came up with an ingredients calendar based on the seasonal produce”, says Bhanage who has recently been featured in Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list, “it was important for us to create the supply chain knowing what will be available when, and also having that ready”, he adds. That goes for their beverage program too, which includes a lot of fresh fruits.
The team’s constant travelling has helped them digging deeper into Indian food and get inspired. “Kolkata’s jhaal muri has a distinct flavour because of the raw mustard oil. We thought of incorporating the flavour in a fun way and that’s what led us to using cheeselings, another childhood favourite”, says Seth. But then, not all the dishes that they try immediately go on the menu, “we let it marinate in our minds and it pops-up one fine day when Chef Floyd and Chef Thomas have some inspiration to create something new”, he adds.
The extensive research shows on their winter menu; the Barley and Jowar salad includes ponkh – tender jowar which is available only for two months – cooked jowar, barley crisps and pomegranate laced in garlicky hung curd dressing. The sarson ka saag uses the traditional recipe – of mixing bathua and palak with mustard leaves – and served with fluffy and warm corn bread. Gajar ka halwa is made into warm fudgy carrot cake with murabba-like candied red carrot served with tamarind toffee sauce and hung curd. “Winter is the best time for us”, says Seth, “the market is flooded with interesting fruits and vegetables”, he adds.
The conversation drifts towards their mentor Chef Floyd Cardoz, who holds the reins from London and visits every three months. “He is the wise old man in the group, the voice of reason when we think of going too crazy. He puts a sense of discipline in all of us; to hold our ground and keep doing what we’re doing”, says Seth.
The duo belongs to families that eat, sleep and breathe food; does that mean influence from home-cooked food in the menu? “Of course! Once my mom sent bhareli wangi for us and that’s how Chef Floyd came up with Videshi Style Baingan Bake which has Maharashtrian style peanut masala and spicy tomato curry,” says Bhanage. “There’re also regular advices on the family WhatsApp group – add this to the menu, we ate it at XYZ place”, says Seth. Glimpses of these advices can be seen on the Mother Of All menu that’ll be launched on the anniversary. The menu will feature dishes from the homes of The Bombay Canteen team.
The owners have had their Ratatouille (the film) moments too when the guests have come back and praised the dish for stirring nostalgia. “It’s heart warming to see people connect to the food in a way that it takes them back to a place, and that place is different for everyone”, says Seth and I couldn’t agree more. With appreciations come criticism too, personally or via social media; how do they deal with it? “We take the feedback but weigh our time out before changing a recipe. If it still doesn’t work, we take it off the menu”, says Bhanage. “At the end of the day, the ability to listen is really important”’ says Seth, “and that goes for our staff members too who get a chance to try all the dishes and have their opinion”, he further adds.
Is there anything that the duo would’ve done differently, when they opened The Bombay Canteen? “We would’ve done things better if not differently”, says Seth, “add more tables”, Bhanage cuts in.
There are no future plans to expand the brand yet and the team wants to focus on making it better. “The Bombay Canteen has completed a year, but we’ve just scratched the surface of Indian cuisine” says Seth. For now, they want to travel and take inspiration from food across the country.
This article was first published on Burrp!