Some six months ago, a little Karwari seafood restaurant (six tables, 24 covers) opened in an undistinguished corner of Mahim. It has become a gourmet event in its little pond.
Last week, when I was there, I found diners from Lintas, Chartered Bank, Mahindra & Mahindra, and a manager from Oberoi. That's inside the restaurant. I do not know who all were there waiting outside the restaurant.
A large part of the credit for this should go to Siddharth Kaak, who discovered the restaurant and wrote an inviting critique of it. But credit should also go to the restaurant's cuisine. I maintain, it is food that counts. Not the airconditioning, Italian marble, live orchestra, valet parking service, waiters in waistcoats, and menus the size of Encyclopaedia Brittania, with text in French.
Vandana is a little hole in the wall, you step into it and you step out of it. Before it, there was a Shetty restaurant, the day's specials are written on the wall, the rest of the menu is type-sheeted, and whatever music is there is recorded and unnecessary. But it serves some of the best fish roes in town, at practically throwaway prices, has clams that open up at the touch of a tongue, and its baby shark ambotiks are tamarind tangy and chilly hot.
There's no liquor licence, nor is the restaurant going to get one. So you start with the sol kadi. It is pink in colour, not yellow, That's the pink kokam skin colour, the kokam got direct from Karwar, as are so many other ingredients. Drink it in large gulps, that's the best way to drink it. It hits you straight in the chest and the nose, crushed garlic, green chillis, coconut milk, breath out of the nostrils.
It is an excellent appetiser, and it is also a good digestive. So remember to take another sol kadi at the end of the meal. Rs.15 per glass.
Before we move on to the starters, let me give you a proper location, otherwise you'll never find Vandana, and end up travelling all over Mahim and cursing me. Coming from town, you go down Cadell Road, past Hinduja Hospital, that's when you come to the traffic lights and the junction, one road (which half the day is one-way) going direct to Mahim, the other via Lady Jamshedji Tata Road to Mahim.
Take the second road, meaning turn to right at the traffic lights - immediately thereafter, the third or fourth shop on your right is Vandana. With directions, you can't miss it, without directions, you can't find it. The address is: Nanabhai Building, Near Ram Electronics, S.T.Road, Mahim. And, by the way, it is closed on Mondays.
Starters. You can have prawns dakshin dry, or a bombil (Bombay duck) pan fried, or clams, or any of the fried fish, particularly the kanne (lady fish), which is fat and substantial and tastes a little like a fish steak.
Mr. Francis Fernandes, who runs the place with great elan, insists that all the food is coastal Karnataka, essentially Karwari. It is not Malwani, where the seafood is more rava-fried and deep-fried- here, everything is pan-fried, with just a hint of oil; and it is not Goan, with palm vinegar, instead, kokam sol is used and bimbla.
But the kitchens, like the regions, do converge, Mr. Fernandes's bombil does have a rava batter, and the prawn balchow at his restaurant is as Goan as you can get to be, complete with vinegar, both as a preservative and for taste. I have no quarrel with this, the food of all these regions, as also further down into Kerala, are my favourite.
Vandana's cook is Marshall Gonsalves, who is from Karwar, so that should give the food its authenticity. He has also spent most of his life cooking on ships, which brings adventure to the cooking.
And eating at the Vandana Seafood Cuisine is a bit of an adventure. The seafood all comes from the Citylight Cinema Market, which is the best seafood market in town, guaranteed fresh stocks. And it is just a stone, or an angler's line, throw away from the restaurant. And most of the ingredients come from Karwar, the kokam, the other souring agents, the Dakshin masalas, even the coconuts that go to make the many curries.
The dakshin prawns, dry, are medium-sized, marinated with lemon juice and turmeric powder, pan fried with the dakshin masalas, plus sol, plus bimbla, which is a dry plant of the tamarind family, and done in grated coconut. Each prawn is a mouthful. A plate costs Rs.60, and it is one of the favourite items at the restaurant.
The Bombay duck is dry but fresh, flattened into a round shape and fried in rava. Rs.35 for two pieces. Or you can have it in a green masala of fresh coriander, mint and green chillis. Rs.55 and you eat it with rice.
If you like bangda, which I believe is the safest seafood of all to eat, even more than the pomfret, go in for the bangda huggay. But it is not a real huggay, where the mackerel is wrapped in plantain leaf and steamed (a process difficult to execute in a small kitchen with individual orders), instead it is stuffed with a masala of chilli, tamarind and garlic, and gently fried on a tava, taking care that the flesh does not burn and the masala scorch. It costs Rs.30.
Other seafood include a chatpata pomfret in green coriander and mint masala, marinated in a lot of lemon juice, clams in a coconut masala, sukka crabs. The sukka crabs are Rs.55, the curried crabs Rs.70, and you can't get them much cheaper than that.
The curries are the best items of the place, the ambotiks. Actually, they are two words, ambot means sour, tik means spicy. And that's how the curries are, sour and hot. Keep some Bisleri ready when you have them.
I have kept the fish roe for the end. If there is one food I esteem over all others, it's roe. In its most prestigious form it is the roe of the Caspian Sea sturgeon - caviare. What you get at Vandana is from the gol fish. And, occasionally, especially these days (July to October), you get it from a fish called pola or pala. It looks like herring, and, perhaps, tastes like it. But you don't eat it, it is full of bones and tedious to consume.
What Marshall Gonsalves does is buys only the gaboli from it. This he first poaches, so that is does not shred in frying, then pan fries with a little ginger and garlic. It is priced at Rs.70 and it is one item I strongly recommend.
So, what's for dinner? Sol kadi, prawns dakshin dry and fried bombil for starters, either squid in a spicy masala or prawn balchao as a side-dish, baby shark ambotik curry and rice, as the main dish, a portion of gaboli for dessert, forget the bebinca, though it is available. Call 4468819 for reservations.