The good news is that Britannia, the homely and friendly restaurant on Sprott Road, next to New Custom House, Ballard Estate, now serves dhanshak every afternoon of the week. And, if you want more good news - it also serves its famous berry pulao every day, Monday to Saturday. The daily service is in keeping with the policy of proprietor Boman Kohinoor (Irani) - if an item is popular, serve it every day, not on special days. Thank you, Mr. Kohinoor.
The dhanshak is among the best in town. If I were to rate it, I would put it among the four best: Ripon Club (Wednesdays), Yacht Club (Fridays), Melhi Mistry's house (Sundays, though it is many Sundays since he has invited us), and Mr. Kohinoor's Britannia (Monday to Saturday).
You get all three, mutton, chicken and vegetables. Rs.55 for the meat ones, Rs.45 for the vegetarian. Of course, there is nothing like a vegetarian dhanshak, just as there is nothing like a non-alcoholic beer or an eggless omelette. Still, there you are. And, while I am at it, I would like to add, the only bona fide dhanshak is with mutton, not chicken.
The mutton at Britannia is boneless. In fact, all the meats at Britannia, whether mutton or chicken, are boneless, and this applies to all the dishes. A footnote in the menu declares: "Chicken and mutton served boneless." Only the fish has a bone in it, and since it is pomfret, it is only the central bone.
It was Mr. Kohinoor's late wife, Bachan, who taught the Britannia cooks how to make the perfect dhanshak. The lady, sadly passed away earlier this year, but her art continues. Two dals are used, mung and tur, in proportions that only the cooks know. And the meat is cooked with the dal to give it its meaty texture and aroma. Pumpkin is used to thicken the dal. Muslims use dudhi in their dal gosh, which is a similar preparation and yet with a world of difference.
In the dal gosh, the dudhi is left more or less untouched, diners pick out large pieces of it and eat it. In the dhanshak dal, the pumpkin is thoroughly mashed. It is up to you what you prefer. I am for the dhanshak, so is Gerson da Cunha, whom I found last week, tucking away. Goans are the only people, besides Parsis, who eat dhanshak on a regular basis. And, in early days, when being a Parsi meant being Sir Cowasji Jehangir or Sir Jamshetjee Tata, gentlemen who could afford to maintain a fleet of servants, it was Goan cooks who cooked the dhanshak.
But let us return Britannia. And a word about the dhanshak rice, before we pass on. The rice is brown, the colour and taste achieved by carmelising it in a little ghee. Crisp fried onions are added on the top, and not only for decoration. Naturally, the rice tastes a little sweet, though the pepper and the tej patta sees to it that it is not too sweet, and the fried onions provide a taste of smokey bitterness.
With the rice, the restaurant serves you small round kababs, meat kababs, a little spicy, at least three, though often four. The dal comes in a separate bowl. And the meat is in the dal, not the rice. If it is put in the rice, it becomes pulao dal, which is far, far from the same thing. Equally popular is the restaurant's berry pulao, Rs.60 for mutton and chicken, Rs.45 for veg. They are the Barberry Berries, at least, I think so. They grow wild in the Middle East, on spindly shrubs, a red berry. In Iran, they are used with rice, in restaurants and in homes, and Britannia's berry pulao comes from Iran. The late Mrs. Kohinoor, though a Parsi, meaning not an Iranian, spent seven years in Teheran as legal assistant to Iran Airways, and brought back with her the berry pulao.
In Iran, the berries are known as zereshk, and the pulao as zereshk pulao. The berries are dry, like raisins, but sour and with a sweet aftertaste. Mr. Kohinoor compares them to dry pomegranate. I would not know, I have not seen a dry pomegranate.
In any case, the berries are cooked with the best quality of basmati rice, then the marinated and masalaed meat placed between layers of the rice. And there is a garnish of cashewnuts and fried onions. Plus, a few kababs. Note: This is the only place in India that you get berry pulao. Try it, it is like an aromatic biryani.A third item I recommend at the place is a fish patra (Rs.45), it is the standard Parsi wedding patra-ni-machi, but with some differences. First, it is not a filet of pomfret, it is a full pomfret, one pomfret per person. It may not be a big pomfret, but it is reasonably large, medium sized. Second, the green chutney, it is wet and smooth and most generously applied all over the pomfret. It has less chillis, more of kothmir and dhania and jeera and coconut and lime juice.
There is another interesting difference, the price varies. Sometimes the fish patra costs Rs.45, sometimes Rs.50, depending on the size of the fish and its availability. Mr. Kohinoor says: "Our customers understand, they don't mind. We tell them it will cost five rupees more than the marked price." The fish is, of course, steamed, wrapped in the plantain leaf. A drop of oil and vinegar is added to the water before steaming.
A few rules of the restaurant will be helpful. The place is open for lunch only, from 10.00 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. A few breakfast snacks are available before 12.30 p.m., but no tea, only Nescafe. Soft drinks are available, but no beer.
For dessert, there is Parsi Dairy's yoghurt and the restaurant's own caramel custard, excellent quality, burnt the right degree. But there is no ice-cream. And no beef. And the restaurant's philosophy, as written on the menu, is: "There's no greater love than the love of eating."
Such a restaurant has to have some history. It has. The present proprietor's father, Rashid Meherwan Kohinoor, opened it in 1923. The present proprietor joined it in 1933, coming there direct from Iran. Britannia was run on a grand scale then. Only officers were allowed, the assistant collector of customs, Port Trust manager, the collector of Bombay. Food was mainly Western, with some Indian dishes.
During the war, the British auctioned the place, to run a war office. It was returned to the proprietors at the end of the war, but by that time its glory days had ended. Mr. Kohinoor is actually the third generation. His grandfather came to Bombay in 1885 and opened Kohinoor Restaurant opposite the GPO. It still exists, in the same name, though not under the same proprietors.
Never mind, there's still Britannia. If you have not already done so, visit it, the earlier the better. Order a patra fish, a mutton dhanshak, and caramel custard. And say hello to Mr. Gerson da Cunha.