The other day I met a friend for breakfast at B Merwan, the century-old Irani café still standing strong on Grant Road, Bombay. We were catching up after far too long and so were glad to find a quiet corner in the special ladies room hidden away at the back – a quaint and cosy space with its marble table tops, tall wooden chairs, peeling walls, not to mention the antiquated patterned tiles…
What followed was an idyllic morning spent dipping lavishly-buttered brun maskas into our Irani chai, which arrived true to form with little drops of milk delicately spilling out on to the saucer. Whilst of course, we simultaneously tucked into soft and pillowy mawa cakes – more buttery goodness, gently flavoured with cardamom. We parcelled a few to take home too, elbowing our way through the bustling crowd to nab them while they were still fresh.
B Merwan is one of the last of the old guards of the Irani Café culture rooted in the city’s history from the time when Zoroastrian Iranian immigrants made their way across to colonial Bombay in the early 20th century. By the time the swinging ’60s came around there were almost 400 in existence… Today there are just 25.
It is this fading legacy that the Olive Group’s SodaBottleOpenerWala (SBOW) concept sets out to uphold, reviving the archetypal Bombay Irani Café in a modern day world. And now, following on from successful openings in Gurgaon, New Delhi, Bangalore & Hyderabad, old man SodaBottleOpenerWala has finally come home.
I was invited to a preview lunch ahead of the official launch this weekend. Here’s a sneak peek of what to expect, when SBOW opens its doors in BKC on the 26th of September…
Most shots of the interiors & exterior provided by SodaBottleOpenerWala
The vibe is lively, vibrant, playful and vividly nostalgic all at once. Love and respect for the Irani cafés of old shine through in the details, from the vintage printed floor tiles and classic red-checkered and crochet table-cloths to low-hanging colourful glass lamps and dome lights sourced straight from chor bazaar. A vintage mural depicting the iconic entrance of B Merwan takes up an entire wall on the side, while you can find the rules of the establishment clearly spelt out on a blackboard at the back.
All the eccentricities and quirks of a typical Parsi home and kitchen are present here too in a jumble of knick-knacks, bric-a-brac and framed portraits. There’s even a gleaming motorcycle standing proudly in a corner, a manifestation of a bawa’s reverent care and affection for his bike.
I also quite like the subtlety with which architect Clement and interior designer Sabina Singh (the other half of Olive Group’s supremo, AD Singh), have married the cafés old-world charm with modern day elements, such as with the playful graphics outfitting the bar area…
At the helm of it all is Mohit Balanchandran. SBOW’s prolific brand head and cuisine director is also incredibly well-known in blogging circles, where he goes by the alias Chowder Singh, uncovering all the hidden gems that India’s rich street food culture has to offer. You can imagine my delight to find myself chatting with him at the lunch, as he spoke at length about all things foodie, from the experiences that have inspired him to where to find the best daal makhani in the country. Mohit’s formidable team include Anahita Dhondy – possibly one the most elegant chefs I’ve seen – and Darius Madon, the Mumbaiya Parsi shepherding the kitchen at this new outlet.
Under their direction, the menu embraces both Irani staples and Bombay favourites inspired by club classics and popular street-fare, from vada pao to Tardeo A/c Market Mamaji’s Grilled Sandwich!
Veggies are spoilt for choice and I found much to please in the comfort-food quality of the dishes that I sampled, like the Eggs Kejriwal. SBOW’ take on Willingdon club’s signature dish has a distinctly melt-in-your-mouth quality to it, with oodles of butter and melted cheese slathered between the egg (fried to a firm perfection) and thick hunk of toasted bread. Aloo Aunty’s Vegetable Cutlet was a gloriously deep-fried treat, panko-crumbed for a crisp outer shell.
Highlights of course also include the Parsi favourite, veg berry pulao – mountains of fragrant rice with a flavourful, slightly spicy centre stuffed with well-cooked veggies, while the generous heap of berries and cashews on top, add another dimension. My lunch companion, a journalist from HT, found that the original mutton version quite hit the spot too, also highly praising the Tareli Macchi. At SBOW, this is baked rather than fried (as is the Parsi tradition), making for some “healthy chatpata fish” in Chef Anahita’s words!
We also guzzled down SBOW’s luscious Raspberry Soda, made in-house with frozen raspberries for a much fresher taste. I have to say, all the drinks from the Irani chai bar sound incredibly appealing – next time, I’m definitely trying Mrs. Sodabottleopenerwala’s Special Cold Coffee.
As for the desserts, my 32 sweet teeth were in for some serious indulgence. First up, was a trip down childhood memory lane with toffees & poppins, freshly baked shrewsbury biscuits and Badam Nan Khatai plucked straight from the glass jars at the bakery counter.
Next, a long and fluffy slice of mawa cake served with a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream that really brought the subtle hint of vanilla essence in the cake. Then came the essential Parsi wedding dessert – Lagan nu Custard. The sharp flavours of spices and nuts mixed in, cut through the creaminess of the custard beautifully.
And finally, we plumped for the Toblerone Mousse – a richly dense concoction that is a dream for chocolate lovers everywhere.
A real tribute to the quintessential Bombay Irani café, it very much feels like a homecoming for SBOW’ latest venture in the very city that nurtured the legacy.
SodaBottleOpenerWala, Ground Floor, The Capital Building, G Block, Bandra Kurla Complex, Mumbai
I was a guest of SodaBottleOpenerWala, but as always I hog full credit for my opinions.