I was both embarrassed and pleased to find Busybee Kebab (Rs.155) at the renovated Kebab Corner of Hotel Natraj, Marine Drive. And it is not just a coincidence. Chef Haji Murtaza, 70-plus and the best kababji in town, assured me that he had specifically designed and named the kebab after me.
It is a chicken kebab, and as kebabs go, it is extra large. Actually, there are two pieces, served on a snack warmer, a sort of an urn that keeps the kebabs warm, without scorching them. They are breasts of specially selected chicken, and, stuffed into the breasts, is spiced chicken meat, also taken from the breast. It is grilled in the tandoor, with the breast bone, topped with a light gravy of onion and coriander. You eat it with a yoghurt chutney. It is a little liquidly, more like a sauce, the yoghurt is strained in a thin muslin and a blend of 36 spices are added to it. What the spices are is Chef Haji's secret. He would not disclose them, not even to the man after whom the kebab is named.
Yes, the taste. You eat through the outer breast, which is tender by itself, and you discover the minced chicken inside, which is more tender. Thank you, Haji Murtaza.
Mr. Murtaza is the Kebab Corner's star, and though the place has been totally overhauled, they have wisely retained him. Before he came here, he used to run a tiny kebab stall at the foot of the Jamma Masjid steps in Delhi. And he was discovered there by the Late Iqbal Ghai, founder chairman of the Natraj Group and father of Ravi Ghai (the R.G. of R.G.)
Mr. Ghai brought him to Bombay and put him in the restaurant in 1972, and he has been there ever since. He carries his years lightly, moving from kitchen to restaurant and back, and the only sign of age is the fine white cotton candy beard.
As for the restaurant, you will not recognise it. The floor is Mecarana and Italian marbles, the frontage is a glass wall that looks out into the lobby and from there on to Marine Drive and the sea. There are two 10 ft. by 4 ft. stained glasses on the sides and paintings by Gurcharan Singh and Adiverkar. There are Mughal roses, a pedestal laid with mother of pearl, on which the paan-daan is kept.
Two musicians play tabla and sitar, lunch and dinner. The glass wall and the stained glass, plus effective lighting, has made the place bright and airy, and just right for eating kebabs. And perfect sound-proofing has kept the busy lobby and Marine Drive noises out. Haji Murtaza's son, Irfan, now works with him in the kitchen, plus two assistants, Salim and Sadiq. The Continental cooking is looked after by Chef Loo.
So what do all that make together? To start with the kebabs, since the place is a kebabji, five-star though it may be, there are eight kebabs, lamb, chicken, fish. A kebab, the group's executive director, V.P. Garg, informs me, is meat cooked on open charcoal, not in a tava or tandoor. The meat has to be fresh, no cold cuts, and it has to be marinated for at least 12 hours.
So tangdi kebab is a kebab, the drumsticks mildly seasoned and barbecued (Rs.120), and seekh kebab is, of course, a kebab, and perhaps the king of them all, the minced lamb carefully blended with herbs and spices (Rs.100).
There is the boti kebab, using prime meat cubes, and shammi kebab, which, though shallow fried, is still considered to be a kebab, because the oil used is negligible. It is also not skewered, but patted into patties, since mince and lentil would not keep together on a skewer (Rs.95). But murg tandoori (Rs.120 for half) is not a kebab, since the bird is cooked in a clay oven. However, don't let this put you off, it is still the all-time favourite at the Kebab Corner. Ask the hotel's F&B, Harish Gidwani. I also like the murg Afghani, which is a basic kebab, probably eaten by the simple Afghans by throwing chunks of meat on an open fire.
Most of the Kebabs I have mentioned are the regular items at the restaurant, carried on over the years and introduced into the menu of the reopened place with little change.
And talking of old favourites, I must mention the mutton stew. This is not a stew, like the Irish stew or the Kerala stew, it is a mutton curry, with lots of meat and a thickish curry, that is known as stew in north India. At Karim's (born 1913) in Delhi, it is Vinod Mehta's favourite. "Ishstew lao, ishstew lao," he keeps telling the waiter. Try it at Natraj, and you don't have to say ishstew here.
The new items include the vegetable tava. The chef comes around with a trolley and prepares the vagetables on a tava in front of you. Mostly seasonal vegetables, done in butter, but including mushrooms and baby corn. I had a spinach roll, the spinach leaf peppered and packed around a paneer.
Other new vagetable items include dhingri kebab, the fresh mushrooms with tomato and onion cooked in a thick masala on a tava. And adraki aloo, which is diced potatoes sauteed in ginger masala.
Also included on the menu is the Natraj pau bhajee. The posh items in the bhaji include baby corn, mushrooms and brocolli, the oil is guaranteed best quality, and the pao is a soft roll specially made at the Aryan Bakery in Byculla. If you are fussy about eating pao bhaji in the streets, then try it. At Rs.95, it is perhaps not all that expensive.
Also new is the chicken baida roti. The roti is made with egg and flour, the chicken meat is first grilled and then shredded, put on the roti and made into a flat omelette, with onions, green chillis, coriander. You may treat it as an omelette or a paratha. I call it baida roti. Rs.30.
Keep some room for the Hyderabadi biryani, murg or gosht. The finest Basmati rice goes into it, the chef himself has a hand in buying it, and, everytime a new stock comes, he first experiments with it, finding out how much water and temperature the new lot would require, so that every grain stands out separate, all of them evenly cooked and delicately flavoured with saffron.
The biryanis are cooked in large handis, but then transferred to gaily decorated earthen pots, sealed with metal foil. When opened on the table, you get the twin aromas of the rice fields of Doon Valley and the saffron fields of Kashmir.