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A slice of Bombay in the heart of Mumbai

You are not supposed to say Bombay any longer.

The city is now called Mumbai, just as Calcutta is now Kolkata, Madras is Chennai and Bangalore is Bengaluru.

 

But here’s the thing: I have never met anyone in Bangalore or Calcutta who cares what you call the city. But in Mumbai, feelings run high. Refer to “Bombay” on Twitter and you will get dozens of responses accusing you of insulting Maharashtra. I could explain that there is no desire to hurt Marathi sentiments. We call it Mumbai in Gujarati as well. And God knows, Gujaratis helped build the city too.

 

   But I’ve given up. When somebody cares more about the new name of a city than about the civic nightmare it has become, there is hardly any point in responding.

 

   But there are certain parts of Mumbai that will always be Bombay. One of them is the old Town Hall. Chances are that at some subliminal level, you are familiar with the building. You have seen it in movies and photos. It is that magnificent old structure in South Bombay with a façade of steps that turns up on every postcard. It is the building where they shoot Hindi crime thrillers, so that when a character is shot at the top of the steps, they can show his body tumbling all the way down, step by step.

 

   In old Bombay, the Town Hall was called Tondal. This was not an atmospheric local name, but was simply a corruption of the phrase Town Hall. It was designed in 1811 by Thomas Cowper, one of Bombay’s best engineers. Cowper had visions of recreating the glory of classical Greece and Rome and the structure could easily double as say, the Temple of Hera, or as a companion to the Parthenon.

 

   The original patron was the Literary Society of Bombay, but when it ran out of money, the government stepped in and agreed to share the premises with the Society (now succeeded by the Asiatic Society) if it could use part of the structure as a Town Hall. When it was finally built in 1833, it was one of Bombay’s most impressive buildings and over the centuries, the façade retained a certain fading glory while the inside became a dusty mess.

 

   I remember going there in the ’70s to interview some of the old codgers who came to use the Asiatic Library Reading Room and though the average age of the members appeared to be 95, I always liked the library, because it reminded me of a vanishing Bombay.

 

   Imagine my surprise last month when Sanjay Kapoor of Genesis Colours, India’s top luxury company, invited me to join his table for the grand re-opening of the Town Hall. The Rotary Club of Bombay had overseen the restoration and Sanjay, through Satya Paul, one of the companies in his group, had helped sponsor it.

 

   And so, as I ascended the famous steps, various extremely tall models dressed in the latest Satya Paul saris suddenly appeared. The idea, apparently, was to surround the guests as they arrived, for the benefit of the cameras. As most of the guests were built rather like me (short, fat and middle-aged), I fear the models must have towered over us with a certain menacing glamour.

 

   The evening was fun and I enjoyed seeing the restored glory of the Tondal, and admired the statues of pompous Parsi millionaires, straining to look grave and heroic next to the comical marble representations of various Raj-era Brits clad in togas, presumably in an effort to fool people into believing they were Roman emperors.

 

   I’m not sure Sanjay will get anything in return for the money Satya Paul has contributed to the restoration. But that makes his generosity even more appealing. If only more companies and more rich people would follow his example, maybe our cities would be able to hang on to their heritage.

 

"They’ve called it Bombay Canteen and not Mumbai Canteen, because it celebrates a vanishing Bombay. For instance, its cocktail menu has drinks dedicated to the city’s iconic buildings."

   If the Tondal is Bombay, then the Four Seasons Hotel is very much Mumbai. It opened a decade ago in a part of Bombay that had never been considered very upmarket and in keeping with the can-do spirit of the new Mumbai, gentrified the neighbourhood to the extent that even the less savoury bits of the locality (the slightly slummy back roads of what was once the textile mill district) are now considered hot, happening and glamorous.

 

   If you have seen the hotel, you will know that it is not likely to win any architectural awards. But when it opened, it quickly became one of the city’s best modern hotels because of a) the excellent food, b) the well-designed and comfortable rooms and c) the high quality of the service.

 

   Over time and with personnel changes, all these qualities faded a little. It was still a good hotel, but it kind of dropped off the radar; nobody talked about it very much except for the kids who wanted to get into the noisy rooftop bar.

 

   But now with general manager Vikram Reddy (who is also responsible for Four Seasons properties in Thailand and Jakarta) and hotel manager Jasjit Assi (JJ), a member of the opening team who has come home from the Sydney Four Seasons, the hotel is suddenly the talk of the town again.

 

   Last week, JJ organised a World Gourmet Festival that featured chefs from all over the world and an array of world renowned mixologists (don’t ask me about the drinks, juggling bartenders are not my scene). The hotel was packed out night after night and JJ landed some of Mumbai’s greatest gourmets and wine buffs.

 

   I was only there briefly, but I attended a spectacular dinner cooked by Dharshan Munidasa from Colombo. Dharshan is probably the only person (apart from Joël Robuchon) to have two restaurants in that influential, if somewhat absurd, list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and he cooked dishes from both of them: Ministry of Crab and Nihonbashi.

 

   Because Dharshan is half-Japanese, speaks the language and understands the food culture of Japan, he brings subtlety and depth to Japanese food that few other South Asians can manage. I have never been to his Colombo restaurants, but I will be certain to go this year.

 

   I missed Himanshu Saini of Tresind (who I wrote about some years ago) and Tim Butler of Bangkok’s Eat Me (which also features on the Asia’s Top 50 list), but I met the thoughtful and modest Hari Nayak, who serves as an ambassador for South Indian flavours and spices in New York. Hari is opening in Bangalore this year, so we will finally have a chance to eat his food here in India.

 

   The real revelation for me, though, was how much the normal food at the Four Seasons has improved. When San Qi, its Asian restaurant, first opened, it had the best Chinese food in Mumbai. Then, the chef left and standards collapsed. Now, a new chef has restored San Qi’s Chinese kitchen to its former glory. It is once again the best Chinese food in the city. And as for the hotel itself, if Vikram and JJ can maintain these standards, then the Four Seasons is back at the top of its game.

 

   Which leaves me with a slice of Bombay in the heart of Mumbai. In one of the mills behind the Four Seasons is the much praised Bombay Canteen. They’ve called it Bombay Canteen and not Mumbai Canteen, because it celebrates a vanishing Bombay. For instance, its cocktail menu has drinks dedicated to the city’s iconic buildings.

 

   I ordered over half the menu. Remarkably, there was not one duff dish: beef chilli fry was made with buffalo meat but was surprisingly tender, a barley salad was delicious, haleem was given a new texture and was outstanding, the calamari were nicely charred, a ceviche served on sol kadhi was inspired, oyster mushrooms were delicious and pork seekh kebabs were light and irresistible.

 

   We were unlucky to get a table where the light had failed (they moved us when another table became available), but the service was perfect – friendly and well-informed without being obsequious. In a way the success of the Bombay Canteen sums up today’s Mumbai. Even when you go to the newly developed areas, the true strength of the city lies in its origins, in the traditions of Bombay.

 

 

Posted On: 01 Apr 2017 06:15 PM
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