Why does Mumbai, with its vast shoreline, not have more sea-facing, or rooftop, restaurants? Kunal Vijayakar remembers the iconic ones of yesteryear.
There is something wrong with us in Mumbai. It’s a city that has an uninterrupted seafront for miles, at least three bays, more than four sandy beaches, four rivers, and four lakes. With so much shoreline and so many water bodies, why don’t we have waterfront cafés, riverside restaurants, beach bars, pier hang-outs or lake-view digs? Barring some cheap bhel puri stalls, a few crappy hawkers dishing out tasteless ragda patties and sub-standard pav bhaji, some shady shacks, and the odd five-star property, there’s nothing much to talk about.
Similarly, why do we have such a paucity of rooftop restaurants? Perhaps the answer to both the questions lies in red-tapism in the government. But despite the shackles of bureaucracy, three erstwhile rooftop restaurants kicked butt by their sheer presence and views. I lament their collective demise.
Let me start with The Rendezvous at the The Taj Mahal Hotel. The restaurant first opened on the ground floor, where the Golden Dragon is housed today. This classic French restaurant was then shifted to the top of the newly built tower wing in 1973. With lush, opulent interiors, velvet cubicles and a dance-floor, The Rendezvous was the place to be, especially when it came to wooing a girl. Between pomfret debout (fried pomfret served standing up) and lobster thermidor, the band played and the crooner sang out all your requests. And if you were lucky to get a table by the window, and take the time to look away from your beau’s eyes, you could look down at the soundless waves lashing at the Gateway of India, the newly commissioned INS Vikrant at the Naval Docks, the lit up dome of the museum, and as far as the big bright gas flame of Bombay High lighting up the dark sky.
The Supper Club was situated just a few miles towards the west. This was the crown of the Oberoi Towers; it was housed a few storeys higher than The Rendezvous. The floor-to-ceiling high windows, framed at just the right angle so that the glass would not reflect the lights at night, but instead show off that spectacular view 31 floors below. This was the view no one else in Bombay had: the twinkling lights of the Queen’s Necklace, high-rises coming up on the dark shadowy silhouette of Malabar Hill, and the desolate red beacon at the end of the bay at the Governor’s house. The food here was French, the mood romantic and the dancing old-fashioned and close.
Down the road from there, on Churchgate Road, riding atop a lobby of gold, glitter and ostentatiousness, was the city’s only revolving restaurant. The first one at Sea Rock, Bandra had shut down, but the Ambassador Hotel’s restaurant called The Pearl of the Orient stood tall. As you sat on the rotating floor, a full revolve took over an hour, just enough time for you to reach where you started by the time your dessert arrived.
All three of these Mumbai icons have passed into history. The Rendezvous and Supper Club are now banquet halls. The views remain the same but the music has died. And The Pearl of the Orient is like a ghost ship on a sea of dark clouds. But despair not. Parel is the place where the new high-rise hotels have once again offered their respects to the city’s vast views. Aer, on the 34th floor of the Four Seasons, is a hip and trendsetting bar that does tapas and cocktails. But my latest discovery is By the Mekong at St Regis.
Named after the Mekong River (that flows through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) the restaurant is situated on the 37th floor. Just a few weeks ago, I heard about a new Chinese chef they’d acquired. His name seemed familiar — Chef Shi Ling. Then it all sunk in. Chef Shi Ling had spent most of the last two decades at the iconic Golden Dragon at the Taj. His food lovingly reminded me of all those flavours and tastes like only a master chef could.
As I stared out of the ceiling high glass windows look down at the glass and steel of Lower Parel business parks, the Malalaxmi Dhobi Ghat in the distance, defunct chimneys of mills, the crisscrossing of railway tracks and local trains running north to south and the other way too, we started with wok tossed scallops with bell peppers in Sichuan spicy sauce.
This was followed by crispy honey lamb and delicate dumplings of edamame, green peas with truffle oil. For the main course, it was Peking duck with its skin sliced thin and crispy, served with spring onion, cucumber, yellow bean sauce - all ready to be rolled in a mandarin pancake. Yunnan-style steamed pork belly with Chinese cabbage topped with minced garlic and ginger came next. Occasionally food can make you feel on top of the world, by actually being on top of the world.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar