Sundays when in Bombay mean but one thing for my family and I – a lavish South Indian spread served up for lunch at home. The usual suspects feature of course – crisp dosas, fluffy idlis, gloriously deep-fried medhu vadas…
But every once in a while, I break the routine and venture further along Coastal India, from Mumbai to Goa, to Mangalore and Kerala. It’s an eclectic culinary adventure that ensues at Konkan Cafe, the elegant and in my view, highly underrated restaurant at the President Hotel in Cuffe Parade.
Konkani influences shine through from the moment you step in into the restaurant, which is fashioned on the “Nallu Kettu” – the single courtyard homes, typical of Kerala. The vast space is outfitted in a rich rosewood, with engraved stone columns that add to the sumptuous look and feel. My favourite spot is in the cosy verandah area, occupying a slightly raised platform on one side. It’s all-too-comfortable to sink back against the multitude of cushions, as you take a breather between the incredibly decadent courses.
To start with, papad (poppadum for all my Brit friends reading this). I’m never one to succumb to these tempting little numbers before a meal, as it’s all too easy to fill up on them and fail to do justice to the mains. But at Konkan cafe, they’re irresistible, served as they are alongside a bevy of chutneys. There’s coconut of course, but also tomato, mint and coriander, and even a lentil-based one for a kick of protein.
We always go for the thaalis here. Changing almost daily, these offer a generous taste of all the key elements of Konkani cuisine, centred on coconut, fish and rice.
What you can expect are fragrant and well-balanced coconut-based stews and curries, earthy lentil-based dishes, and wholesome preparations of boiled rice. On my list visit, I was treated to a spicy “masale” bhaat; cooked with eggplants, capsicum, peas and cashews, it made for a complete meal in itself! While non-veggies delight in the catch of the day, often presented fried to a crispy perfection yet tender once bit into, alongside tangy fish-based curries.
All of which are enjoyed with the endless rounds of fermented-rice pancakes, from paper-thin and light as air white neer dosai, to pillowy appams and crisp yet wonderfully flaky Malabar parathas…
One can’t help but steadily climb into a state of food-induced coma, especially once the sweet treats arrive. The intensely sweet jalebis and lush chunks of malai kulfi are offset by the more mildly flavoured payasam – tender pieces of coconut swimming in a pool of coconut milk lightly sweetened with jaggery.
I can’t resist calling for a side of paan ice cream too, homemade and artfully textured with gulkand (a sweet preserve made with rose petals); betel leaves; cherries and coconut… the result is deliciously flavoursome but surprisingly not overwhelming.
The only disappointment I have to admit, is the filter kaapi. It’s presented true to South Indian form in a tumbler nestled within a “dabarah” that it’s poured back and forth between (making for a fabulously fun pre-coffee activity, I might add). But sadly, the coffee itself lacks the silky smoothness of the kaapis had at other South Indian establishments like Madras Cafe.
Still, it’s a minor quibble given the high quality of fare, which has thus far never disappointed. I have to say that at Konkan cafe, the meal is as much about the overall experience. Service is flawless, while the unhurried ambience is ideal for long and lazy meals.
The cherry on it all, is literally the sweet paan you can pick up on your way out. It’s so moreish in fact, that I often pop in just to grab one (or a few) whenever I find myself at the President, even if dining at the other classic restaurants housed within the hotel!
Konkan Cafe, Vivanta by Taj – President, 90, Cuffe Parade, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400005