It seems odd but for many, many years, I went to Bangalore mainly for the food. These days when you talk about Bangalore and food, people imagine that you mean the fancy newish places: Toscano, Caperberry, Olive etc. But my food memories of Bangalore go back to an earlier era – the beginning of the 1980s – when the fancy restaurants did not exist, when the Ashoka was the best hotel in town and when Bangalore was a sleepy city where the shopkeepers all closed their establishments for several hours every afternoon for lunch and a nice siesta to follow.
In those days, there was very little happening in food terms in Bombay where I lived. Bangalore, on the other hand, was full of interesting options. It was here – and not, sadly enough, in Hyderabad -– that I first encountered fiery-hot, non-vegetarian Andhra food at such restaurants as Amaravathi and RR. I had my first Chicken 65 – a dish unknown north of the Vindhyas in that era – in Bangalore, the city where it was invented. And the South Indian vegetarian food at small restaurants and some larger establishments (Hotel Chalukya, for instance) was a revelation.
I wondered if any of the dishes I encountered in Bangalore would ever make it on to the menus of more up-market restaurants or whether they would make it to Bombay at all. Clearly I was not the only one to have had the same idea because in early 1984 when the Taj group opened the Taj Residency (now called Vivanta), Camellia Panjabi put many of the dishes I came to Bangalore for on to the menu of Southern Comfort, the hotel’s coffee shop.
It was, as far as I know, the first five-star-hotel restaurant to serve appams; the first to serve Andhra dishes, including a biryani and the first to give Chicken 65 the recognition it deserved. Southern Comfort did some Goan food too, which was fair enough, because the Taj had a strong Goan presence. But as for the rest, it came from cooks stolen from the best local joints, lured to the Taj with fancy five-star salaries.
Eventually, the owners of such restaurants as Amaravathi began to warn PK Mohankumar, the Residency’s food and beverage manager, of dire consequences if he stole any more cooks. But by then, it did not matter. The Taj had begun to understand South Indian food itself and its own chefs were mastering Mangalorean dishes and promoting such previously unfashionable fish as Kane.
The success of the Residency, which quickly became the best hotel in Bangalore, was slightly dented when, soon after the hotel opened, the Taj took Spencer’s Hotels on long lease. Spencer’s was an old British company and the owners in the 1980s were (if I remember correctly) a Parsi family who felt that the hotels would be safe with the Tatas. (A few years later RP Goenka bought Spencer’s).
Thus, the Taj got three wonderful heritage properties at a stroke: Ooty’s Savoy, Madras’s grand Connemara and Bangalore’s West End. Of the three, the West End was the most significant. It was about a century old, had begun life as Bronson’s Boarding House in the heyday of the Raj and had been – for a while – the grandest hotel in Bangalore. But the years had not been kind to the West End. By the time the Taj got it in 1984 it was a rundown property favoured only by Bombay Gujaratis who came to Bangalore during the racing season. (The hotel is situated opposite the Race Course).
But it had the advantage of space. As far as I can recall, it had only around 60 rooms spread over 20 acres in the heart of Bangalore. At the time, Bangalore had not yet boomed so the monetary value of the property was not massive but still, it was hard to think of a hotel in any city that had so much space.
The Taj set the West End right. It built more rooms (it now has about 113 rooms, of which 26 are suites), refurbished the existing accommodation and spent lakhs on restoring the gardens to their former glory. From 1985 to around 2002 or so it was the only hotel in Bangalore I stayed in (unless I was there for a conference or something) and given that I came to Bangalore three or four times a year, I guessed I must have stayed there at least 50 to 60 times.
But there was no reason to stay anywhere else. The West End was one of the world’s most beautiful city hotels. It comprised around seven free-standing buildings, none of which had more than one storey. The rest of the property was just acres and acres of garden. There were 113 different species of trees, thousands of flowers and the air was full of bird song. Even after Bangalore boomed and property prices shot through the roof, the Taj refused to touch the West End. Not one foot of the hotel was surrendered to shopping malls or to offices and no new blocks of rooms were constructed.
But even as the West End went from strength to strength, the Taj had another idea. It took over the old East-West Hotel on Residency Road and transformed it into the Gateway. With Camellia Panjabi as the mastermind and Mohankumar as the opening general manager (the old Southern Comfort team), they turned the hotel into a foodie destination. The hotel’s greatest triumph was Karavalli, a restaurant that is to South India what Bukhara is to the North.
Camellia and Mohan sourced recipes from South Indian housewives, Karwar fishermen and Malayali families to create a legendary coastal menu. Long before Gajalee became famous and every tourist sought out Trishna, Karavalli served the kori gassis, the Alleppey curries and the masala crabs of South Indian coastal cuisine. The first chef was Bernadette Pinto and she was assisted by the young Sriram.
When the restaurant took a little while to find its feet, critics scoffed that a coastal restaurant could never succeed: “In three months you will be serving butter chicken”. But the Taj kept the faith and slowly but surely Karavalli flourished, creating a restaurant cuisine out of home recipes, one that has been copied endlessly all over India and the world. Bernadette left and Sriram, who must be one of India’s most cerebral and accomplished chefs, took over. Eventually, Sriram left for London where he runs the Michelin-starred Quilon for the Taj and his assistant Naren Thimmaiah took his place.
I went back to Bangalore last week to see how things had changed. The city is now too fancy and bar-oriented for the ethnic eating experiences I recall to seem quite as striking. But Karavalli has held up. I had lunch there with Mohankumar and we talked about the old times, when he first came to Bangalore from Bombay in the Eighties and was shocked to find how quiet and slow-paced life in this city was.
The food at Karavalli was even better than I remembered it. Thimmaiah is still there and he is still trying to maintain the flavour of home-cooking that has always been Karavalli’s hallmark. His vegetables are bought from farmers, his masalas are freshly ground, no cooked food is stored for longer than a meal service and new recipes have been sourced from other communities (for instance Brahmin food from Mangalore rather than just the usual Bunt dishes.)
Mohan is back in Bombay but as chief operating officer of Gateway Hotels (now a whole chain within the Taj) he has been involved in the refurbishment and renovation of Karavalli. Within the Taj, he is Mr Bangalore, having run the Gateway and the Residency. Most significantly perhaps, he is the man who revived the West End.
A decade or so ago, after a disastrous renovation and a collapse of service standards, I gave up on the West End and shifted to the excellent ITC Windsor a few minutes away. By then, Bangalore had changed and the new and massive Leela Palace was commanding higher rates than the smaller and more exclusive West End – a bizarre situation.
The Taj sent Mohan to the West End as general manager and he turned the hotel around, restoring standards to where they should be. This year, the West End completes 125 years (though only 28 of them as a Taj hotel) and it is back as Bangalore’s top hotel with the highest room rates. Frankly I’m not surprised. Its situation and setting make it one of Asia’s finest hotels, on par with the Oriental in Bangkok or The Peninsula in Hong Kong.
So it is nice to know that as much as Bangalore has changed, some things remain the same. The West End is still a glorious Bangalore institution and Karavalli continues to live up to its legend.
From HT Brunch, September 30
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch