Akbarally celebrates 100 years, India 50, Shamiana 25. The Taj's coffee shop becomes 25 this week. Shamiana opened on August 27, 1972, Subir Bhowmick, presently vice-president and general manager of The Taj, as its young manager. Two years later, Hemant Oberoi, presently the hotel's executive chef, arrived at The Taj as a trainee chef and went straight into the Shamiana kitchen. The coffee shop has been a training ground and career starter for many of the Taj chain's best. It has also been Mumbai's favourite late-night eating place, and by far the biggest grosser among all the posh restaurants in town.
Go to the Shamiana any Saturday, past mid-night, you will find M.F. Husain, Nirmal and Mira Zaveri, Parvez Damania, Vivek Goenka and wife, Devika and Suresh Bhojwani, Malavika Sanghvi, Cyrus Merchant, Pradeep Guha, Foodie Rashmi Uday Singh, a smattering of the younger film stars, from Karishma Kapoor, the No.1 to Shah Rukh Khan, the No.1. But the night is still young, soon the 1900 will close, also the neighbourhood discos, Three Flights Up, Headquarters, more young night people will be coming in, dressed in black, or purple, or whatever the colour is this season. The day has its own regulars, and over 25 years, there have been many. Ashok Kumar used to breeze in, pleasant and genial, and the late Aditya Birla would come, once or twice a week, accompanied by his wife. The Mafatlal family, the Mehras of Orkays. My late and much lamented friend, Jalal Agha, used to literally live there. I am also informed about a Bohri family which has been coming to the Shamiana for 25 years, every day without a break. The whole family may not be there, but some members would drop in, breakfast, lunch, in between.
The Shamiana has all firsts. The first coffee shop in India to be open 24 hours. The first in the world to have an all round menu, from a la carte to set meals. Among the first to have special children's food, the elephant menu, probably the only coffee shop in the world to have a separate barbecue section, the first to be advertised in movie houses. It is indeed the most unique coffee shop in the world. It has more locals than travellers, more outsiders than hotel passengers. And unlike other coffee shops, which are quick-meals affairs before catching a late-night flight, it has always been a little classy about its food, serving everything from the curry wagon at lunch (three veg and three non-veg curries) to New Zealand lamb chops with angel hair pasta and pink salmon New Orleans style (marinated with Creole spices) for supper.
Like a coffee shop should be, the Shamiana is just off the lobby, easy access without having to climb through the entire hotel. There is a real shamiana tented across the ceiling, the material hand-woven from Kutch. It gives it an Indian touch. There were penants hanging from it, but these have gone now. However, the rent poles are there, and an informal grouping of camp chairs and tables, art pieces on the walls. The decor has not changed for 25 years. The atmosphere is easy, unlike in the other stuffier restaurants of the hotel, you may drop in for a coffee, use your cellular, have a pau bhaji or a sada dosa (note: dosa services closes at 10 p.m., but as a special dispensation to Mr Nirmal Zaveri. It is now available till past midnight), or order a roast chicken done in fresh herbs and olive oil and served with jacket potatoes. As a special service, you may ask the table captain to fetch you food from the other restaurants of the hotel.
I already mentioned that the Shamiana is India's first 24-hour coffee shop, and it really works round the clock, serving 1,000 to 1,200 meals daily, 1,400 to 1,500 weekends, averaging a collection of Rs.2 lakh per day, a buffet breakfast in the mornings (7 a.m. to 10 a.m.), a la carte lunch and dinner, mid-meal snacks, the curry wagon, then the night crowds in a city that does not sleep. It also has regular festivals: global pizzas, international curries, pasta and pesto, asperagus, brocolli, an entire festival devoted to preparations made with lemon grass, including desserts. And next week, starting Tuesday, for the silver jubilee celebrations, it is having a festival of old favourites served at the Shamiana over the 25 years. It is called 'Old Time Favourites' and it opens on Tuesday. For the next three or four weeks, till a brand new menu is introduced at the Shamiana, there are going to be a lot of sentimental meals and coffee breaks shared over here. I got a preview of some of the items being reintroduced from both Subir Bhowmik and Hemant Oberoi, the coffee shop veterans. First, there is the Currimbhoy Salad, garden fresh lettuce, boiled eggs, fresh garlic and onion, tossed in a creamy mayonaise dressing. Who is Currimbhoy, I do not know. Nor does the hotel seem to know. Somebody who stayed with us for a long time, is all they can say. (If the gentleman can be identified, please let me know. I shall make it public.) There are two more 1972 favourite salads, prawns in green goddess dressing, and the chef's salad (ham, chicken, cheese, eggs, and crisp greens) with Thousand Island dressing.
A spicy mutton burger (mutton cubes served on top of a roll) comes back from the past, plus the chicken in the basket of the 70s, beef escalope, spaghetti Burmese, and, for lunch and dinner, mutton biryani, chicken dhansak, Goan prawn curry. Plus, another old favourite, the Parsi cutlet, large and lacey edged with the whipped egg whites. The dossas and pau bhajis have been there from the beginning, and will continue to be there. In the early days, they used to brand the customer's initials on the dossa. Most important the Shamiana's mango exotica, once consumed by every customer to the coffee shop. Bhowmick explains: it came in a tall glass, with sponge cake as base, then mango slices, vanilla and chocolate sauce, melba sauce on side. Noshir Daruwalla, the the food and beverage manager, had conceptualised and compiled the menu. Much of it will live again. The new menu will be introduced towards the end of September. The highlights include a combination of six different lettuces, with American corn, tossed with sherry vinaigrette, and chilled asparagus served with orange vinaigrette. That's for appetisers. Among soups, there's three types of mushrooms in a cream soup, and a vegetable broth with saffron and mint. Wonder how that tastes!
Appams, hoppers, the Malaysian mutabak, Karawali fish (pomfret grilled and served on banana leaf), and a dozen pizzas, including an exotica made from goat milk cheese from France, soft and delicately flavoured. The pizza comes rolled, the cheese inside. And a variety of sandwiches, including those make on the Italian flat bread, the dough kneaded with olive oil and oregano. And what shall we have as a filling? That depends, if we are meat eaters, it will be turkey, cheese and guacamole; if we are vegetarian, smoked cheese, peppers and tomato. Plus, do it yourself burgers on sesame encrusted buns.
Make it 50 years, Shamiana.