Lunchtime Friday, I was sitting with the young proprietor of Excellensea, Sharath Salian, in his seafood restaurant at Fort Market, eating boiled rice, prawn gassi and a thick slice of pomfret, deep fried, the skin thick and crusty. If you like seafood, there is no more satisfying meal in Mumbai than this. Mr Salian, of course, agrees with me. Firstly, it is his restaurant, second, it was his order. The rice (Andhra) has to be boiled, it absorbs the curry, and the curry has to be gassi, thick and substantial. Goans make good curry, Mangloreans make better gassi. The prawns medium, so you eat them by the spoonful, with the rice and the gassi. The pomfret is the side dish.
I can do a whole piece on the pomfret alone. The pomfret used is the large one, what at Sasson Dock they call kapri or Chini pomfret (don't ask me why). When fried, the meat tastes better than in the baby pomfret. It weighs between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half kilos, and the price in the wholesale market, I understand, is around Rs.270 per kilo. It is an expensive business, at least in the way the Mangloreans make it. The head and tail are chopped off and discarded, so a major portion of the fish goes. Parsis love the head and specifically ask for it, Mangloreans don't. So what they use at the Excellensea for the pomfret fry is the body, in five or six thick slices. And it is the full body, not the part with the cavity in it. This then is deep fried. The meat on the bone is rich and pinkish, very much like that of the red tuna that the Japanese die for. And it is fresh and plain, nothing is added to it, except salt, no marination has been done.
So you eat the rice and prawn gassi, and, in between, have large spoonfuls of the fried pomfret. Food that is not only tasty, but also convenient to eat, no struggling with knives and bones and hard meats. The gassi or curry, at least at the Excellensea, is a little yellow, not the Goan red. I believe this is because of the extra turmeric they use, it has a taste of turmeric also. Yes, the price, important, since you may not be eating with the proprietor. The rice and prawn gassi is Rs.90, the thick slice of pomfret, Rs.75. Total that up.
The restaurant has a lot more to offer, even in seafood. From lobster and crab to squid, rawas, surmai, and those plump angel fishes (kane). There are meats and vegetables also, a small selection, but I am concentrating on the seafood.
You are advised to book your table, for dinner, for weekends and regular evenings, and you are advised to be on time. Manager Sudhakar Shetty is an affable man, with a permanent smile, but ten minutes late and he gives away your table. Better idea is to have your dinner early in the evening, by 7 p.m., as groups of local Japanese do, they arrive early, eat early, and drink gallons of beer with their food. (For table reservations, dial 267 2677 and 261 8991, or fax 266 6871).
The restaurant is on Mint Road, opposite the Fort Market, and in the night neon signs beckon. Actually, there are two restaurants, Bharat below and Excellensea above. Both belong to Mr. N.C. Salian, Sharath's father, and serve identical curries and fries, but the price is about 30 per cent less in the more proletariat Bharat. However, the lobsters, crabs, tiger prawns, their supplies not being easily available in the bazar, are limited to the upstairs restaurant, which also has some authentic Continental and Chinese preparations.
So let us proceed upstairs to Excellensea. On the staircase, at a hopefully safe distance, in corners, you will find live lobsters and crabs crawling around like house pets. I have not made up my mind whether I like this or not. Also, at the tables, waiters arrive holding wriggling lobsters by their whiskers or crabs by a string tied to their shell. You check the poor crab's underside, figure out whether it is a male or female, then point out the one you want, like approving the bottle for the wine waiter. Excellensea, for your information, is the first restaurant in Mumbai to display and serve live food. Trishna, Mahesh, Apoorva have followed it. Then the restaurants in the suburbs.
The restaurant itself is compact, and filled with the pleasant buzz of people enjoying their food and company. There are a couple of large fish tanks, with purely decorative fish inside. Friday afternoon, I was sitting next to one of the tanks and a gorgeous canary yellow fish with a round mouth kept glaring at me accusingly. All the seafood is fresh and clean, that is my guarantee. The fish are cleaned in salt water, then rinsed in running water, twice over, the prawns are cleaned of the black threads, pomfret fillets are packed with salt, then rinsed, slits are made in mackrel and stuffed with salt as part of the cleaning. With all the seafood around, there is none of that smelly fish odour. That, I suppose, is the main reason for the popularity of the place and the quality of its food. The Manglorean masalas come second. Lobster and crab are priced by weight, Rs.650 and 450 respectively. You may have them with butter and garlic, red sauce, salt and pepper, steamed, grilled, sauted local sauces. I suggest you have them steamed, with butter and garlic. Amul with lightly chopped garlic goes to make the sauce, some people have the meat sauted in it, others like to have the sauce served separately, in a bowl, they do their own mixing. There is also a crab done in what they refer to as Indian sauce, ginger, garlic and onions fried together with phudina chutney and tomato gravy. The crab is steamed, the meat sauted in the gravy. Quite spicy and goes well with garlic naan. You don't get a bib, but you get crab crackers, marrow spoons. Whether you order crab or lobster, I leave to you. They say crab meat is the most tasty meat in the world, it is a little on the sweet side, lobster is more bland, but there is little to beat fresh lobster meat.
For starters, order the fish tikka, six large cubes of boneless rawas, tandoored in the clay oven, soft and succulent, like eating malai kofta on the beach (Rs.160), or the tiger prawns in a Hyderabadi masala of yoghurt and phudina chutney, marinated for at least three hours, before serving. For Rs.400, you get three or four 'tigers', depending on the size, and they are often like baby chicken.
The clams, I would advise in the Manglorean style, with dry coconut, and you may have the squid crispy fried or with pepper garlic or marinated in a Koliwada masala of garlic, chilli and pepper. My compliments to the cook, one of the few restaurants in town where the squid is not rubbery.
There is a selection of seafood soups, crab and prawn, and a mixed seafood, which includes squid. Also, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, they make Manglorean idlis. And it is Excellensea's (for that matter, Bharat's) boast that no seafood restaurant in town makes an idli so feather soft without adding yeast or any fermenting agent. On these days, you eat your prawn gassi with idli, not rice. Let's see, today's Sunday, idli day.