Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar: A Kala Ghoda food trail
You can get 10 kinds of egg at just one cafe, fine French pies and pastries, and the best seekh kebab rolls (no, not Bade Miyan).
It’s now being called the city’s centre of culture, art and food, or South Mumbai’s SoHo. I’m talking about the intricate web of lanes running from the square opposite the Venetian Gothic-styled David Sassoon library behind Rampart Row all the way to Flora Fountain on one end and Horniman Circle at the other.
For what it’s worth, Kala Ghoda was always a hub for culture and art. Flanked by a museum, many art galleries, a foreign cultural mission, a historical synagogue and erstwhile home to two of Mumbai’s iconic restaurants. Samovar, tucked inside the Jehangir art gallery, and Wayside Inn, wrapped around the corner next to Rhythm House.
Wayside Inn was epochal because it was at Table No 4 that Babasaheb Ambedkar, over hours of passionate persuasions and pots of tea, drafted the Indian Constitution. It’s here that struggling progressive artists Husain, Ara and Gaitonde scrounged for toast and eggs, and poets like Arun Kolatkar wrote verses about life, jam and bread. Here that Mohammed Ali Jinnah romanced his Parsi girlfriend over dhansak, and Behram Contractor created his memorable humour column alongside sunny-side-up eggs and bacon. And where a whole generation of post-Independence socialists and intellectuals was bred, over custard and bread pudding.
I used to love sitting there, watching the rain fall and the brown trees go green, over a mug of beer and plate of mixed grill and onions.
Rampart Row used to be a street full of happening restaurants. Wayside Inn has given way to Punjab Grill. Khyber looks a bit lost. Copper Chimney has shifted three buildings to the left, and right above it is Boston Butt. But all the fun is now inside the lanes.
It all started with Kala Ghoda Café. From a small sky-lit space that could seat, at the most, six people and offered free wi-fi, it’s turned into one of the most influential eateries in that precinct. Its cavernous hall and Bombay black wood furniture are reminiscent of a large dining room in an old Mumbai mansion.
The menu is eclectic. Fourteen types of coffee, from macchiato to affogato. Ten kinds of egg, from the Parsi tamota par eedu (eggs on tomato) to omelettes with bacon and feta. There are also three kinds of waffles, two kinds of porridge and muesli. It’s an ideal breakfast place. But lunch isn’t bad either. You can pick between sandwiches, soups and sali boti, or try the Karnataka black rice risotto with mushrooms.
Just off Ropewalk Lane is The Pantry. White, bright and cheerful, they source their ingredients from artisanal makers all over India. Their cheese for example comes from Pondicherry and the Quiche Lorraine they do with oodles of cream Gruyere and ham alone is worth the visit.
La Folie is a stylish patisserie. The tiny place looks like a chocolate box itself, with small desserts lined up like little works of art, but it’s the hot chocolate that takes me there.
Then there’s Nutcracker, a vegetarian place that’s cracked the code. Penne, pesto, panini, potato wedges, with peach and ginger iced tea. But the Emmenthal scrambled eggs with truffle oil, and the Mumbai Local sandwich hit the spot for me.
A little further away is Plenty. It’s not exactly Kala Ghoda, but a short walk towards Horniman Circle. Brick-walled and poignantly coloured, the menu is a mixed bag of all our favourite dishes that remarkably bear an overall demeanour of goodness and health. Even the usually oily, spicy and vinegary Goa sausage, when served alongside a portion of fresh avocado, pickled beetroot and goat’s cheese on a crisp slice of healthy toast, tastes wonderfully refined here.
They have cold bowls and they have hot bowls and the hot bowl I like is the Kerala pepper chicken stew with steamed rice. But my favourite is the pulled pork sandwich — sweet and spicy pork between freshly baked bread. The finale has to be the berry pavlova, meringues in sour berry compote with vanilla cream, lime and pistachio.
As the office rush recedes and the lanes empty out, as young couples walk hand in hand in the lanes of Kala Ghoda looking for love, and as revelers hunt for a wine, a beer and a song, I am often spotted looking for a hot spicy egg roll, stuffed with boti kebab. Walk past the aqua-coloured Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue and at the end of VB Gandhi Marg (VB Gandhi is the man who decided that Mumbai cabs should be black and yellow) burns a late night fire. And that fire is from Ayub’s.
Ayub’s the Michelin star version of Bade Miyan. The meat is better, the onions fresher, the chutney less watery and the rolls less soggy. Hot seekh kebab or boti kebab rolls in soft roomali roti, with crunchy onions and chutney. That’s Kala Ghoda for me as well.
But the weather right now is too muggy and oppressive to eat hot spicy rolls. I’ll wait for the rain to come and wash the streets and trees of Kala Ghoda, because at the moment SoBo’s Soho stands for So Bloody Hot.