Gajalee is justly famous in suburban Bombay. With food this good served up with a minimum of fuss, who can resist? Vir Sanghvi gives us a taste...
A few months ago, a Swiss hotelier friend of mine took me to Trishna, the Bombay coastal cuisine restaurant that has become an international phenomenon, being written about in the New York Times and featuring in nearly every gastronomic guide to Bombay. We had a great meal – and I wrote about it in this column.
When we were leaving Trishna, I suggested to my friend, who has spent his life in the food and beverage business and worked all over Asia, that next time, we tried some place that was a little more, shall we say, authentic?He agreed and we decided on Gajalee, a suburban sea-food restaurant that I reckoned served the real thing. There are many Gajalees now, there’s even a trendy, Trishna-like place in the buzzing Phoenix Mills complex in Parel. But the original, the one I went to first in 1996, is in Vile Parle and I’m always being told that it is the best.
It is not, however, the one I know best. That distinction goes to its poor relative, a branch in what is called the MIDC complex. Till about three years ago, I used to shoot a programme for Star World called Cover Story at Bombay’s Film City. I would fly in to the city every six weeks or so, check in to the Leela (conveniently placed for both, Star TV’s headquarters and Film City) and shoot like crazy.
But each evening, I allowed myself a treat. I would go to the MIDC Gajalee, a few minutes away from the Leela, and gorge on crab, egg masala, shrimp, mutton sookha and every kind of coastal Malvani dish that they had on the menu.
Then, Cover Story stopped and I moved from the Leela to the Maratha – which probably has the most personalised service of any hotel I’ve stayed in – and because the food at the Maratha is so good, became too lazy to go out to eat.
This time too, it looked as though our Gajalee plans would come to nothing. Each time we met, my friend and I would eat a great meal – Ananda Solomon’s Thai cuisine, white truffle risotto or amazing Chinese roast chicken at my friend’s hotel, and a biryani so subtle at Delhi’s Dum Pukht that it left my friend entirely stunned – but we never got our act together enough for Gajalee.
Last week, I was back in Bombay, back at the Maratha and I told my friend that we would do Gajalee this time. Anurodh, who looks after me at the Maratha, made my booking at the MIDC branch but slyly also made a second booking at the Vile Parle original. Then, he suggested gently that we’d be better off going to the original as it was so much better. (The Maratha is that kind of hotel…)
And so, we ended up at the original Gajalee, a party of five, determined to eat our way through the menu. The first surprise was the restaurant itself. I had been told by my friend and by Anurodh that business was down in Bombay after the terror strikes. Hotel occupancies were low and restaurants were less than half-full. Even the flight from Delhi to Bombay had only been a third full.
But Gajalee was a revelation. It was a huge restaurant and not only was it full but it looked as though they were turning every table around at least twice. (Our waiter assured me that because this was a Monday, business was slow, “nahin to line laga hota hai”.) It was also fancier than Trishna; it looked like one of those Sagar Ratnas that Jayaram Bannan runs in Delhi.
But the biggest revelation was the nature of the clientele. The restaurant was full of locals, of families and of people who obviously came here all the time. My friend was the only white person in the house (at Trishna, I’m often among the brown minority) and our table seemed to be the only one comprising non-regulars; at the other tables, they did not even bother to look at the menu.
So while the hotels reeled from the attacks, suburban Bombay seemed to have recovered. Families had regained their equilibrium and life had returned to something approaching normalcy.
We started with the dish Gajalee made famous – the batter fried bombil. Till the Gajalee re-interpretation became a fixture on menus throughout India, most of us knew bombil by its English name, Bombay Duck, and thought of it as the stinking fish they dried on the footpaths at Cuffe Parade.
But Gajalee’s version uses fresh bombil, with no smell at all, beaten to a thin escalope, tossed in masala and then fried till it is encased in a crisp golden batter. And it was great – the batter had just the right crispiness and the fish melted in the mouth.
What impressed us the most however was the chutney that came with the fish. Green in colour, it had an onion base but I could taste sugar, garlic, kothmir and all kinds of other flavours. Gajalee serves this with all fried fish and we liked it so much that we ordered another bowl of it and ate it with papad.
Next came the crab, still alive and kicking. It was so big that my friend, the globetrotting hotelier, decided to take a picture of it.When we saw the crab again, it had sadly been assassinated and cracked open so that we could consume its remains in a garlic butter sauce.
This was the tricky moment. Which was better? This or the famous Trishna version? My friend thought about this and then said, diplomatically, “Well, they are both different.”
And indeed they were. The Trishna version is from the Chinese section. The Gajalee version tastes of Malvani spices. I asked how their’s differed from Trishna’s. The manager told me that they first put the masala in the crab and then steamed it. The Trishna version, he said, was first steamed and then served with the appropriate sauce.
If anyone tells you size doesn’t matter, direct them to a crab. This was the biggest crab any of us had eaten. It was so big that we did not require the tedious excavating that is normally a part of the crab experience. Here, there was so much meat, that it just came off in our hands. My friend can be diplomatic. I don’t have to be. So, I’ll say it: this was the best crab I have ever eaten.
Next came a huge pomfret, uncooked as yet but fortunately dead so we did not have to feel like mafia dons ordering a hit on a poor defenceless fish. They called it a Chinese Pomfret but I’m told it is also called a Silver Pomfret.
They returned a little later, with chunks of the pomfret cooked in the tandoor. A member of our party, also in the F&B business, made the point that he was surprised by how moist the fish was. Normally, when you put a fish in the tandoor it dries out. My point was more basic: this did not taste at all fishy. Were we eating a pomfret that thought it was a tandoori chicken?
Another member of our party, sat in the corner, a saintly glow over her head declaring that she would not eat anything non-vegetarian because of religious reservations. So, she had a nice khichdi, an amazingly smokey baingan bharta and a garlicky yellow dal. When we realised how good her food was, we ate up her share too.
Next came a sookha mutton to be eaten with fried, puffed up multi-grain pooris that they called wadis. The meat was great but the pooris were the real hit. The vegetarian quickly commandeered them and wolfed them down with the onion chutney.
We had egg masala next (a little too much gravy for my liking), followed by a deep prawn curry. Then, they forced a masala-rich South Indian prawn biryani on us. And finally, when we were pleading for mercy, they gave us a tasting portion of a thick custard apple kulfi. We were full. But we were happy.
Gajalee is justly famous in suburban Bombay. I looked at the visitor’s book – it was full of movie stars (Rani Mukherjee, Kareena Kapoor, Jaya Bachchan etc.), cricketers (everyone you can think of from Sachin Tendulkar downwards) and even, a ringing endorsement from Lata Mangeshkar.
I can see why. With food this good served up with a minimum of fuss, who can resist Gajalee? And Anurodh was right: it is better than the MIDC branch. I asked my friend what he thought. He conceded it had been a revelation, one of the better meals he had eaten in Bombay.
So, yes, we will be back. Soon.