Five-month-old The Bombay Canteen is perhaps the best example of what Mumbai currently considers a hip, intelligent dining-out place. The restaurant sits amid the sterile concrete-and-glass towers in Lower Parel’s Kamala Mills, but its bungalow-like façade and stained glass stick out for all the right reasons. Inside, high ceilings, exposed rafters, patterned Minton tiles and stone plinths reflect the ‘India inspired’ tone of the menu.
Those who’ve visited have found it hard to describe the look using standard phrases. The place evokes a bygone time even as it feels modern, it looks both Indian and international, there’s a solidity as well as lightness to the decor. And yet, there’s no confusion.
"The idea was to create an incomplete structure," explains industrial designer Ayaz Basrai, who, along with his architect brother Zameer, runs The Busride Design Studio, which designed The Bombay Canteen.
"We decided to create a ruin so you feel you are walking amongst old walls and old rooms of a typical Bombay bungalow," says Zameer. Indeed, the interiors look like someone slashed an old villa three feet from the ground.
Ayaz Basrai, 36, Industrial designer (left); Zameer Basrai, 33, Architect (Photo: Kalpak Pathak)
The young Basrais (Ayaz is 36, Zameer, 33) have designed some of India’s trendiest restaurants of the past decade. Starting off in 2009 with the minimalist Salt Water Café in Bandra, they’ve put trompe-l’œil doodles all over the walls and furniture of the Smoke House Deli chain.
At Bangalore’s Caperberry, they’ve installed cabinets inspired by items from the menu. In Lower Parel, they’ve brightened up the industrial-chic Café Zoe with sunlight from the mill compound outside, but only a few feet away, that compound is far removed from the circular booths of Blue Frog.
Round about: The Basrais’ pod-like seats at Blue Frog were a departure from club decor.
Those askew cabinets at Jam Jar Diner (Versova), the Art Deco grilles at Pizza Express (Colaba), the ceiling full of suspended ‘good news’ articles at The Daily (Bandra): They’re all works of The Busride Design Studio. Men at work
There’s no Basrai signature. Their creations don’t stem from a theme, a choice of colour, flooring or material. They also don’t do things the usual way. They don’t stick Post-Its on pages of international magazines or copy trends from Barcelona. Most restaurateurs don’t even give them briefs, only a starting point – and patiently wait until the brothers bring the idea to life.
"If someone were to look at a place and say this is ‘the look’, then we have failed," Zameer says, to which Ayaz adds: "We have started refusing projects that come with briefs to create certain looks and types of places."
What excites them instead are projects that use design to change the way we live, work and unwind. They realised that people love sitting next to walls while eating, so they created a wall for every table at The Bombay Canteen.
With Caperberry’s cabinets, there was just as much thought. "Carpaccio is a common dish today, but we have no idea where the name comes from," says Ayaz. It is named for a Venetian artist who painted in reds and whites. "So we created a little cabinet related to everything about this story. We placed a painting of the artist inside," says Zameer. A series of cabinets were created to honour other picks from the menu.
Right brains, Bright ideas Despite geeky little details like this, the brothers say they don’t take themselves too seriously. They take risks, but are ready to laugh at themselves. "Drawing on the walls like we did for Smoke House Deli could have gone horribly wrong," says Zameer, laughing. "It could have looked like some crap junior artist’s work."
Feast for the eyes: The sunlit interiors of Café Zoe (above) and the askew cabinets of Jam Jar Diner (below) are both works of the Basrai brothers. (Photo: Sanjay Solanki)
And they are just as proud of ideas that failed, such as Delhi’s now-defunct Shroom nightclub and fine-dining restaurant. The club won several awards, but its psychedelic, multi-sensorial, underground look was ahead of its time when it opened in 2011. "Back then, people must have looked at it and wondered, ‘andar kya ho raha hai?’" jokes Ayaz.
Zameer is an alumnus of MIT, Ayaz studied at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, but it probably hasn’t hurt that they also come from a family of design people. Their father is an architect, as is Zameer’s wife, Sagarika. Ayaz’s wife ,Tarangini, is an industrial designer.
So family conversations typically revolve around design and architecture. "And our mother is a trousseau packer, so she is also always asking us ‘How is this, and do you like that?’" says Zameer.
The brothers, however, make for ideal sparring partners. "The creative friction always leads to something better, which is very rare," says Ayaz. They’ve even found a way to merge their disciplines.
So Zameer tends to have design inputs, and Ayaz offers pointers on architecture. "Exchanging ideas on a project is crucial," Zameer says. It’s made for a partnership like no other. Bringing it to the table
Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and MD at Impresario, the company behind Busride-designed restaurants like Salt Water Café and Smoke House Deli, says the brothers understand their job in a way that goes beyond "just the colour of the wall".
Sameer Seth, co-founder and CEO of The Bombay Canteen says that nobody thinks like them. "Even before I had found the space for the restaurant, I knew I wanted to work with Ayaz and Zameer," he recalls. "They nailed the brief of creating an unpretentious, warm, India-inspired space, and their originality and attention to detail made for a fun process to witness."
Seth recalls how they tried to work and rework the stained glass that has now become an integral part of the decor. "I was sceptical that it would block off the high ceilings and that we’d lose the sense of space. But they somehow made it work beautifully," he says.
The Basrais cite many influences for their work, travel being one of the most important. They’ve gone scuba diving in Borneo, and visited the Bioluminescent Bay in Puerto Rico, "the trippiest thing to witness without substance abuse".
Events like Delhi’s annual UnBox Festival that celebrates collaborations in design, social innovation, culture, technology, art, and enterprise, also fuels their adrenaline rush for the year. "We have participated three years in a row, and it feels great that finally there is a festival for us, designers," says Ayaz.
Both are consummate doodlers. Ayaz sketches one or two drawings daily for his personal series, The Dirty Old Man. Zameer usually doodles himself thinking – while he’s thinking. "They are basically just blotches of ink, and they are not nice to show anyone," he says laughing. "Oh yeah, and I also like qawwalis; I like that whole build up over time and then the frenzy in the end… Aaaaaa Aaaaaa."
Take it forward
Sure, they love books, movies and graphic novels like one would expect them to, but these days, there isn’t much time for that. “We are slogging all the time,” says Zameer. Ayaz says Vipassana helps with creativity, and also joint pain.
The brothers are keen to work on their own line of furniture and satirical culture products. They’re also interested in designing civic projects – parks, promenades, and public institutions. “A promenade is nothing but a full democracy in action, so if you can do something to add to that, it would be great,” says Ayaz.
“The point is to measure your impact, not your billing. Who cares how many square feet of space we have under construction? The real question is: How have we changed the city?”
From HT Brunch, June 28
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