If it's crabs you fancy, head for Chembur.
If you like salt and pepper crabs (you do), and you can't afford the Rs.500 and Rs.600 that the restaurants in town charge (you can't), then I have a solution. Head for Chembur.
In Chembur, there is the Oceanic Restaurant on Station Road (M.G. Acharya Marg), a classy little restaurant on the first floor, wood panelling, granite flooring, large bay windows, paintings on the walls, chandeliers, candlelit dinners on Mondays and Thursdays, an adequate bar - all this plus a one kilogram salt and pepper crab for Rs.350, as good a crab as you may get as the most crab-renowned places in town.
I was talking to Mr. Sebastian Fernandes, general manager of the Oceanic, he told me: "Crabs are crabs, but you have to price them according to the capacity of our clientele. In south Mumbai, they get customers who would pay Rs.500 and more for a crab, and that's fine, here you have to cut down on your margin of profit."
They prepare crabs in several styles, in curries, tandoored, salt and pepper, with Chinese sauces. I prefer the salt-n-pepper, where it is cooked in its own juice with salt and pepper, then done in butter. The butter provides the salt, there is no need for additional salt, the pepper balls are pounded and applied as the crab gets ready.
Add a touch of lime to bring out the full flavour of the salt and pepper. Dig into the meat. Remember, crab meat is 100 times more tasty than lobster meat. That's the big crab. The restaurant also serves what are known as the curry crabs, smaller in size and costing Rs.75. They have more flesh and the meat is even tastier, only it is a tedious task getting at it.
The crab, as also the rest of the seafood, come from Sassoon Dock, sometimes from Fort Market. The proprietors, Adarsh and Vinod Shetty, personally go to the market at 4.30 in the morning to buy their stocks. They have a special supplier, Anna, who is a bit of a legendary figure at Sassoon Dock.
Sassoon Dock is, of course, the best place for seafood, especially if you are a restaurateur. Khar Market is also good, particularly for lobsters and prawns, because of the market's proximity to the Bassein Creek.
The Oceanic specialises in seafood, especially in Manglorean style. For Chembur, it is a new cuisine and starting it was a bit of a risk, but, at the end of a year (it celebrated its first anniversary last week), it seems to have caught on, with customers coming from New Bombay and Ghatkopar, and some from the city proper. When more people come to know of the half rate crabs, there will be more customers. Then, I suppose, the rates will be raised.
Let me give you precise directions, as precise as I can. You come along the main Sion-Chembur Road, turn left at Diamond Gardens, then proceed, past the Ambedkar Garden, till you come to the Station Road (Acharya Marg), the station is on the left, you go on the right. A few feet away is Adarsh Restaurant, and on the top of it is Oceanic, the deluxe family restaurant. Ask for a table by the window, outside you will see the busy street, inside, the cosy comfort of a gentlemen's club. You get all the standard fish, bangda, surmai, rawas, pomfret, the black pomfret, kane (lady fish), tiger prawns. All the fish is served complete, not filet. There is no point in having pieces of fish, you have to eat the whole fish to experience it, says Mr. Fernandes.
So, when you order, make sure to tell the steward what size you want: baby, medium, large. Also, all fish is served with the bone, unless a specific request is made to remove the bones. The bones, I do believe, give the fish its essential taste, especially the central bone, and, to be more precise, the core of it, which you should chew and extract the juice from. Even the bones that are removed, on customers' requests, the restaurant makes use of by preparing a stock from them, which is then added to the curries.
About the curries: the fish is cooked continuously in the curries, not added afterwards, and two and three types of fish are cooked in the same curry to give it added body and aroma. I doubt there are many restaurants in the world who do this. If there are, I do not know them.
The proof, however, is in eating it. I suggest you clear your mouth with water, then take a spoonful of the curry and taste it by itself, count and identify the different fish you taste in it.
Most popular fish on the menu is the rawas, and, since Chembur is Chembur, the preference is for the tandoored rawas. If you are not a big eater, order the baby rawas, about a kilogram; if you are a group, order a four kilogrammer. Bigger than that the restaurant does not serve, for logistic reasons, it won't fit in the tandoor.
My choice is the rawas done in Manglorean curry - tamarind water, kokum, coconut milk, but no coconut and no vinegar. Goan curries have coconut and the dark Goan fermented vinegar. Goans also use fermented black tamarind, blackened through long storage in earthen pots. Both the curries are sour and fiery, and I enjoy them both equally. I have no favourites. The curries are around Rs.50 and you may ask for more gravy.
In case you get a wrong impression, let me hasten and add, the Oceanic serves meat dishes also. There's a Manglorean chicken curry served with neer dossa on Wednesdays, and a curry served with idlis on Sundays. Both are priced at Rs.65. The curry is made in coconut milk, with coconut oil.
At the Oceanic at least, I understand coconut water is also used, to make it smoother. The chicken used in the curry is deshi, which can stand long hours of cooking. The meat texture is much better in the desi, in the broiler, a few moments of cooking and it disintegrates, detaches from the bone.
The Wednesday neer dossa that you have with the chicken curry is a rice pancake, made with water, coconut milk and rice past. It may be a relation of the south Indian dossa, but it is not dossa, which is made with udad dal and rice, fermented overnight.
And the Manglorean idli is not really idli, it is sanna. It is called idli because non-Mangloreans patronising the restaurant would not know what a sanna is. It is a much softer and spongier idli, the dough fermented in the fresh toddy of the morning. Sop the idli in the curry, it makes a tremendous combination. But for this, remember, you have to go on a Sunday.
Finally, that other Manglorean favourite, sukha mutton and sukha chicken. This is a dry dish, though a lot less dry than what I have had at Manglorean restaurants in the Fort, and the coconut is not so crunchy, which is a blessing.
The meat is done in small pieces, very fine, and always with the bone. Three types of chillis are used, Kashmir, Madras, and bedki, which are the round red ones, they are all sauted and ground. The masala comprises whole dhania, bay leaf, whole pepper, mustard seed cummin.
Cooking is a long process, first in coconut oil, for an hour-and-a-half to two hours, then in coconut milk for another 20 minutes or so. What emerges is something between a meat dish and a kutch gosh ka kheema, and, perhaps, better than both. The sukha meats cost Rs.60.
I suggest the sukha meats with a few stiff drinks, then move on to the seafood. And order the day's vegetable. It is always a Manglorean preparation. The day I was there, it was turai in canna dal, done in coconut oil, of course. But then Manglorean food is coconut oil, coconut milk, and don't forget the curry leaves. Destination, Chembur.