Sunday's a good day to drive deep into the suburbs for lunch; the traffic thin, driving easy, time on hand. By deep, I mean, Kandivli, that is my outer limit, down the Western Express Highway, past airport one, airport two, Aarey Dairy Goregaon, malad, Kandivli. Opposite the Mahindra & Mahindra's jeep plant, in the well laid out Thakur Complex, is 'The Avenues'.
It is an European concept, a highway restaurant complex, with rest rooms, etc., interesting and enterprising. It houses two restaurants, Indian and Chinese, a separate bar and lounge in the basement, three lawns for banquets, including one with a semi-permanent marriage pandal, a convention area, a terrace restaurant, a children's playing area, an aquarium with Mangalore tile roof, and a glass vestibule lift to take you up and down, though it is only two floors, counting the basement. The entire property is about 24,000 square feet, and the nice part about it is that it's exclusively a restaurant complex, not a hotel, no hotel rooms.
The Chinese, which is known as 'The Great Wall' (yes, not very original), doubles as the convention room. Weekday afternoons, though never in the evenings, there are invariably corporate meetings, Mahindras from across the highway, Siemens, Glaxo, Otis, Larsen & Toubro, Royal Touch. 'The Lawns', A,B and C, are booked well in advance for marriages, parties, receptions. The Indian restaurant is called 'Raj Bhog', it has a salad bar (Rs.85 per head), a longish menu of 'Jhinga Jal Pari', 'Murgh Tava Masala' and 'Biryani Nawabi Tarkari', with impeccable service, half the staff seems to be from our Oberoi, and a bouquet of anthoriums (each flower priced at Rs.35, flown directly from Bangalore) in the front reception. The anthoriums, for some reason, are the Raj Bhog's trade mark, regular diners look forward to them.A word about the bar. It is called Xanadu, has a decent selection of liquors, barman who mixes all the standard cocktails, a seating area where you may order your meals.
So much for the ambience (unless you want to know about the kitchen also--among the cleanest I have come across), now to the food. I shall concentrate on the Raj Bhog, because that is where I have eaten, though you can have the Chinese food served there also. Begin with the 'Mathura ka jal jeera', a large tumbler, flavoured with cummin, black pepper, topped with mint leaves, salted boondis bobbing in the liquid, nicely chilled. They say it is both an appetiser and a digestive, but it is also a loverly drink. And, I think, it is one thing that is totally Indian, like toddy, with no other cooking in the world do they serve 'Jeera pani'.
From the starters, order the 'Makai ke pakode', the corn deep-fried and golden brown, the batter flavoured. You get eight pieces for Rs.85. Also, if you want a second starter, go for the 'Nizami masaledar papad'. It is the Punjabi papad, rolled, with chopped vegetables stuffed in the middle. It is deep fried, sliced into pieces, like spring rolls, and served (Rs.85). Most of the starters are vegetarian (though the 'Tandoor ka tohfa' has every possible variety of meat and fish tikkas), understandable when the evening clientele is largely Gujarati and Marwari.
Lourdes Mudaliar, one of the three restaurant managers (the other two are Shekhar Nair and Prakash Lobo), tells me that the Gujaratis favour the Raj Bhog, the Punjabis go in for Chinese at The Great Wall, and the Bengalis (there is a sizeable Bengali representation at Gokul Dham in Goregaon) go in for seafood, naturally, both Indian and Chinese 'Shikandri khekda' (the kind crab, done in the tandoor), lobster angara, prawns in garlic, in ginger, with green pepper, squid in chilli sloya sauce, or in a green masala, but you will have to ask for it. What they do for the latter is have a squid fillet, pack it with more squid, minced, tie it up, deep fry, and prepare in the green masala. I must also mention the 'Sagar ke sunhere moti', Rs.395, a platter of assorted seafood, crab, lobster (the shells conveniently removed), prawn, squid pomfret. There are numerous pomfret preparations, including an outstanding tandoored pomfret, wrapped in red tandoori masala treated with yoghurt. The only fish served is pomfret. I am surprised at the number of restaurants who do this, no rawas, no surmai, no kane. For these, you have to go to a Mangalorean restaurant.
The Shetty brothers, Karunakar, Raghunath and Satish, plus an uncle, Raghuram Shetty, one of the pioneers of the restaurant business, own 'The Avenue'. It is among a chain of well run restaurants, including 'The Peninsular' at Sion, about which this column has already written, and 'The Golden Wheel' at Girgaum (also written), 'Main Street' at Santa Cruz, 'Shabri' at Vile Parle. I understand they are trying to open a Mexican on Linking Road in a couple of months. Who sayd restaurants are not good business? The Chef's Special (Chef Bharatsing Chauhan) is an unsual combination of three separate vegetables in three separate gravies, all served on the same platter. They arrive on the table in different colours and different tastes. You will have to ask for it, it is not on the menu. It costs Rs.175 and three to four persons can share it.
Most dishes are large and enough for more than one or two persons. Be cautious when you order, ask the waiter about the quantity. Especially the Chinese soups, they are served in a hot pot (the sumo, pot), what is known as the 'Chimney soup'. It comes on the table on a coal fire, flames lapping it up, the smoke flavour enveloping the soup. Four to six persons can share a hot pot. And they even have a hop pot for vegetarians. This is a genuine vegetarian, with vegetable stock (onions, potatoes, cabbage leaves, carrots boiled for more than two hours, then strained) and pieces of vegetables tossed in oil and put in the stock.
I shall recommend one more vegetarian dish, and two lamb dishes, before leaving you to your 'chawal' and dessert. There is an item on the menu called 'Methi ke sath sath'. Order it, take the 'methi', and, for the 'sath sath', take a spinach. Together, the methi and palak make an interesting combination. The two are chopped, and with cottage cheese, mashed potatoes and cornflour made into balls. Separately, a gravy is prepared of methi and palak, then the fried balls are placed in the gravy.
Next, the 'Kadai gosht hussaini'. It is bhuna gosht, the meat cooked in its own gravy. This is the stock from the parboiled meat, the authentic brown gravy, with onions, but no cream, butter, cashew, all the ingredients that go to make the dish heavy. The meat, is tossed into it and made ready, with black pepper and jeera powder. It is served with a garnish of tomato, coriander and a slice or two of boiled egg. The second lamb dish is 'Kachi mirch ka gosht', and the 'kachi mirch' is green chillis. It is used in the gravy, plus there are fried green chillis. The dishes cost Rs.150 each.
I leave the mithai to you. And have a nice drive back into town, that is if you are not staying at Kandivli.