At last, a bona fide Maharashtra restaurant, Viva Paschim, at Worli Naka, serving Karwar oysters (crisp-coated in spices), red hot Kolhapuri tambda meats, Malvani kombdi, Nagpur's chubak vadi, Janjira crabs, Harnai bombils, Raigadh's sukki kaleji, Konkan's curries, gode mutton of the Pathare Prabhus, rice puris, bajra bhakris (to be eaten with raw onions, crushed under the fist, and mirchi cha thecha).
Not your Shiv Sena vada paus and jhunka bhakar. Not that there is anything wrong in that, but there is more to Maharashtrian food than that. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi should pin a medal on Sunit Pai, the restaurateur who has introduced a taste of Maharashtra into Mumbai.
Sunit Pai, with the able assistance of Femina's Vimla Patil, the redoubtable grande dame of Marathi cooking, first started the experiment of introducing this much neglected and misunderstood cuisine to mumbai at his oddly named Beverley Hills Restaurant at Andheri. He arranged a food festival of ghassis and curries, kaju kothimbir vadis and mini thalipiths, in that little corner of the suburbs, and it became the talk of the town.
After that, a Maharashtrian speciality was a must. Here it is. Actually, this had been the dream of Sunit Pai and Vivek Bhanushali when they were working at the Taj Mahal Hotel. They left and started on their own, westward bound to Viva Paschim.
If you are familiar with your Mumbai, you will remember Shalimar, a first-floor restaurant in the first building (City View) on the right, after crossing the Worli Naka traffic lights and moving towards the suburbs.
Or, if you are coming from the suburbs, on the left, a couple of shops after City Bakery, Shalimar was a decent meat and kabab restaurant run by Mr. Ali Akbar Jarrahian. Then he decided to take the plunge and start Viva Paschim with Sunit Pai, Mrs. Vimla Patil as consultant.
Regional ambience has been catered to. At the entrance, there are imprints of Goddess Laxmi's feet and the foyer wall is strikingly painted in Warli tribal art by two Adivasis from Dahanu. Stairs lead upstairs to a granite flooring with a semblance of rangoli and a room plan featuring the Wada architecture of the Konkan. There are ganjifas, masks, headgear, textiles, pots and pans from the West Coast, kirtan paintings from the Ramayana and yatra motif from the Ambavati temple.
The walls have a rich cloth used in covering the backs of prize bullocks and a strange sequence of cards from a game played at the Savantwadi palace.
The best part is the crockery, all of it has a border of Paithani sari motif. Enjoy the ambience, also the cultural show put up nightly, though I personally am not one for mixing my food with culture.
The food, I must clarify, represents the entire western (paschim) region, from Nagpur and Aurangabad (nawabi biryani, spiced rice with chicken) to Antulay's konkani Muslim food of Raigadh, the mori amotik of Goa and the dals, farsans and kadhis of Gujarat. As far as possible, for the rest of this piece, I shall stick to the foods of Maharashtra.
There is no ghee, mawa, butter, cream, no artificial colour in the food, no butter chicken, no aloo mutter, no mango chutney, no dahi kachumber. Instead, there are three Maharashtrian achars, what the restaurant calls complimentary accompaniments.
First, the panchamrit, which is more a relish than an achar, sweet and sour, made with jaggery, tamarind, til, capsicum, dry coconut (roasted), some grated cashewnut. It is strictly Maharashtrian, and no Maharashtrian wedding feast is complete without it, but the Gujaratis at the restaurant, I am told, love it, they take parcels home.
Then there is watli dal, a mix of pre-soaked chana dal, grated fresh coconut and raw mango, quite mild, eat it with your curried bhindis and varhadi aloo bhaat (rice cooked with potatoes in what is described as a Nagpuri style).
Finally, there is the mirchi cha thecha, and this is fiery. Be extremely careful, you will hit the roof, though, the manager told me, Captain Nair of The Leela finished half a bowl of it, with crisp fried and rice crumbed prawns. It is pure, unadulterated, green chilli, ground, with salt and nothing else. Perhaps, a touch of garlic later on.
Between the vegetarian and non-vegetarian starters, I suggest the vegetarian, they seem to be more authentic. The manik painjan (literal translation: ruby anklet) is a pancake made of spicy peanuts and chick peas, studded with split peas, giving the impression of rubie. It is served with a peanut-garlic chutney, dip your painjan in it and eat. Rs.75.
Labad wangi, also known as loocha wangi (literal translation: lying, cheating brinjal), is a brinjal which is not a brinjal and yet is a brinjal. I will explain: the brinjal is pulped, mixed with mashed potatoes, and roasted, then reshaped in the form of a brinjal, the stalk of the vegetable, which had earlier been removed, stuck in it, and served. Does it taste like brinjal? Faintly.
The non-veg starters include pomfret, Bombay duck, ravas, surmai, prawns, crisp and crumb fried, from Rs.80 to Rs.150 per plate, depending on the fish, and going very well with drinks, Yes, the restaurant has a liquor permit and a more than adequate bar, no problem there.
There is a kolmi papad, bombil stuffed with prawns or crab meat and gently grilled, clams in a smoked coconut masala (tisryo sukke). If you want my recommendation, I suggest the Kurli Janjira. Kurli is crab, and Janjira is the port with the fort located in the sea, constructed by the Moors who pirated on the Maratha shores. Or was the fort in defence against them? In any case, the crab is boiled and the meat extracted. The rest of the shell is discarded but the two pincers retained. And the meat is ground, mixed with garlic, ginger, chopped onions, made into a ball, rolled in seasame seed, stuck on the pincers and deep fried. you hold the pincer between your fingers and thumb and bite into the soft puree of the treated and spiced crab meat. The seasame seeds looks very decorative and considerably add to the taste, and the dish costs Rs.160. I have not found out whether the dish came from the pirates of Janjira. I shall include here a tangy crab soup, flavoured with Indian spices. I have not had that anywhere else.
The main course has bangda zam zam (spiced mackerel in red masala, Kurli masala (a crab curry with spices and herbs from Malvan), and the kalamari, which you may order either chilli fry or stuffed with minced prawns. Plus, of course, the Goan mori amotik, baby shark in hot and sour spices. Rs.120.
Meanwhile, some pointers you may like to remember: Malvanis cook crustaceans with whole garam masala; coastal curries feature coconuts; the curries of the Deccan have onions, tomatoes and dry copra; Vidarbha curries have peanuts and channa besan; in Malvan it is curry, in Karwar it is ghassi, and ghassi is thicker than curry; Malvanis have coconut, grounded red chillis, tamarind or kokum, and trifool in their curries, karwaris put chopped onions and ginger in their ghassis while cooking.
If you like your food hot and not too sour, try the Kolhapuri dishes on the menu. These are all meat dishes, the tambda mutton and the kombdi rassa is made with red chillis, pepper, cloves, and onions roasted on charcoal fire and then ground.
Tambda, in case you do not know Marathi, is red, and the food is eaten by the old pahelwans of Kolhapur, the maharaja's wrestlers. The rest eat pandhara meat, which is cooked in white masalas.
There is a kombdi vindaloo and xacuti from Goa, and a kombdi loncha, which actually should be a pickle but is a pickly style chicken. Dry garam masala is used in cooking it and practically no water. All the dishes in this section are Rs.140.
In the sweets, try kharwas. I know it as balli. It is a steamed pudding made from the first milk of the mother cow, after she drops a calf, sweetened and flavoured with nutmeg and cardamom. Rs.50.
All this is for dinner. For lunch, there is a VFM buffet, only Rs.199, inclusive of all taxes. It is available between noon and 3.00 p.m. and comprises 35 items. Three non-veg salads, of which two are seafood, eight veg salads, five non-veg main dishes, out of which three are seafood, seven vegetarian main courses, two types of rice, three farsans, five desserts.
The menu changes daily for a whole fortnight. The afternoon I was there, I lunched on baby pomfret, Malvani surmai curry, kolambi che bhujane (translation: prawns sauted with spices, Pathare Prabhu style), and a meat done in green masala plus a few salads here and there, steamed rice, and a couple of amboli (translation: Konkani style dossas). Viva Paschim, Jai Maharashtra!