If you have not eaten at Vinay Health Home, one of the few Maharashtrian restaurants in town, then you have no business to stay in Mumbai. You will be reported to Mr. Thackeray.
Vinay Health Home is in the heart of Maharashtrian Girgaum, off Thakurdwar and near Fanaswadi. It is 60 years old, run by the third generation of Tembes, and its signature dish, the batata pauha, is exactly as it was in 1940, a little sweet, a little spicy, the pauha nicely mashed up into a porridge. Even the price cannot be much different than what it was 60 years ago, Rs. 12 for a plate. Since I have begun with the pauha, let me complete it. It is available through the day, not just for breakfast, and it is prepared differently from the pauha made by Maharashtrian housewives ar at dak bungalows and circuit houses in the state's mofussil. The pauha is of the best quality, as are all the ingredients at the restaurant, after all it is a 'health home'. Old Mr. Tembe, now late, had instructed his sons, serve your customers the food you would serve yourself and your children, you are in charge of their health. The pauha, I understand, I soaked in warm water for a long time to soften it. Meanwhile, the masala is cooked, with sugar and onions for sweetness, chopped chillis and curry pattas for tartness, and bits of potatoes for body, removed from the fire, & the pauha is put into the cooked masala. The pauha itself does not touch the fire at all. That's the trick. And I hope I am not revealing the chef's secrets.
That's the daily pauha. On Sundays, there is the vangi pauha, with bits of brinjal cooked into the pauha. Same price, & the pauha is a little spicy. Today is Sunday, it would be a good idea to go today.
You travel from Metro, across Princess Street & straight into the Girgaum Road. Half way along the road, you come to Thakurdwar Junction, turn right into Dr. Babasaheb Jayakar Marg, & proceed some distance down the crowded street. A short way inside, you come to Vinay Health Centre, on the right, a shiny bright restaurant, belying its age. Over the door, you will find a jumble of words, suggesting the tastes of food: thandgir, garmagaram, chatakedar, swadisht, lajetdar, kurku (crisp), chamchmit, rajesahi. The restaurant is at street level, pleasantly clean, non-air-conditioned. The food items on the wall are written the wrong way, like a mirror image. To read them, you have to look in the mirror opposite. So is the clock, the second hand is moving anti clockwise, you have to look in the same mirror to check the time.
These are the little touches of Anil Tembe, one of the two proprietor brothers. The other brother is Chandrasekhar. I have met only Anil, he graduated from the Dadar Catering Institute, under ms. Thangam Phillip, then started managing the restaurant. The founder is the grandfather, Bhau Gopal Tembe, he came to Bombay from Ratnagiri in 1930 and sold tea in the dock area, going around with a kettle. From that he graduated to a tea kiosk (Bandra) and then to a 60-seat restaurant. Unfortunately, the 1944 dock explosion blew up that place. But by then the Girgaum restaurant had started.
It has a most unusual clientele. Local merchants, employees of shops in the C.P. Tank-Fanaswadi area, Businessman Harshad Mehta, who comes religiously every Saturday morning for an usal pau breakfast, Cricketer Dilip Vengsarkar, who turns up regularly for patal bhaji, and Actress Sanjana Kapoor, who has puneri mishal. Sharad Pawar is an old customer, he does not come to the restaurant but he orders home pauha, green peas pattice and mango lassi, so does Gopinath Munde, the next CM. Two or three items from the restaurant go regularly for the cabinet meetings. There is even an instance of Mr. Vajpayee (the same) ordering sabudane wade on one occasion.
You should taste the sabudane wade. It is always freshly made, soft and yielding in the mouth, and served with its own chutney, made of potato and peanuts. During the month of Shravan, of course, it becomes the main item of food, with the sabudane khichdi (Rs.12).
The food is all VFM, and it is all Maharashtrian. There is a little idli sambar, though no dossas, it is the restaurant's only concession to South Indian food. People have suggested they should start pizzas, they would do very well, but, no, they are not Maharashtrian food. The menu, incidentally, is printed in Marathi. Which is so much more sensible than having restaurant names in Marathi.
I will mention a few Maharashtrian favourites. There are several types of mishals, they are to Maharashtrians what bhel is to the more cosmopolitan Bombayman. Essentially a mixture of sev and things, with no onions and chillis, but not wet with chutney as the bhel is, and not as spicy. At Vinay Health Home, it begins with puneri mishal. Puneri means of Pune, because the mishal originally came from Pune to Bombay. In its simplest form, it is some pauha, some chivda, a lot of sev but no gathia, green chillis, raw onions. It comes to the table, the ingredients piled one on top of the other. There are two tea spoons, you pick them up and mix the mishal with them. It tastes like a slightly bland version of bhel. And it is quite handy, because at 10 o' clock in the morning, you don't want to eat bhel, you eat puneri mishal. Rs.14. At Rs.15 there is special mishal, then dahi mishal, a slab of dahi on top at Rs.17, special dahi mishal at Rs.18, then sweet dahi mishal. The dahi in this is both sweet and cool, with the chillis and the crisp sev, it provides an excellent contrast. Both a conflict and a marriage of tastes and textures. And for this special pleasure, you pay Rs.19, which is about the maximum anything costs in the place, except the milk-shakes and the ice-creams.
The Gujaratis, who form 70 per cent of the customers, like usal pau, the Maharashtrians patal bhaji, or so I am told. Both are gravy dishes, lots of dark red gravy, very tasty, you dip bread (pau) into it and eat it. Usal is peas, the hard variety, patal bhaji is similar, but it has potatoes and tomatoes. You are served two loaves of bread (the bread bought at a bakery next door and freshly baked every two hours), with the bhajis, plus raw onions, lime, and the famous coconut-chilli-garlic powder chutney, popularly referred to as Shiv Sena chutney, since they popularised it with their street-corner wada paus. The whole combination costs Rs.14, and you can be reasonably full on it.
Thali pith is round and flat, like a crisp cutlet. It is made from a special dough called bhojni dough (lote), made with the grinding of three dals (udad, channa and tur), rice, jeera, a little wheat. At the restaurant, the thali pith is deep fried, at homes it is shallow fried. Two pieces, with appropriate chutney, cost Rs.12. The kothmir wadi has kothmir inside it, a dough of corriander leaves and besan, and there are enough corriander leaves to make it pleasantly bitter. Two oblong pieces cost Rs.14, you bite into them and you taste the corriander. The batata wada is also unique, it does not have the usual pieces of potatoes inside. Whatever potato is there is minced and mixed with udad dal, chopped mirchi, curry patta. Open the wada and it is almost green inside.
They serve mini meals, rice, dal, papad, etc., but I will not go into that. Instead, I will conclude with their drinks, which alone are worth going through the crowded Girgaum traffic for. A mango lassi, made from the rich pulp of the alphonso, so solid that you have to almost eat it with a spoon, a 220 ml. glass costs Rs.20. A sweet and creamy drink that Rahul da Cunha's niece would die for. And piyush, which is chaas, with a pinch of saffron and other ingredients. Price Rs.10 only. Also a ginger-lemon combination which is considered as the best digestive in the world. Though you don't need a digestive if you eat at Vinay Health Home. Not for nothing did grandfather call it a health home. Go today, remember it is the day of the vangi (brinjal_ pauhe. The Sunday special.