We’re almost fooled. Besides a couple of wooden pillars scattered between exposed brick walls and those terribly overdone ceramic patchwork tiles, there’s nothing at this new Jayanagar restaurant that gives away its south Kanara roots or Mangalorean lunch-home cuisine. In fact, that world music playlist creates a vibe midway between someone's living room and a mini Buddha Bar in south Bengaluru.
All cocktails are mixed upstairs at the gastropub Salut, run by the same management. ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low,’ a bourbon and gingerbread cocktail with toffee, has a warmth that lends it sweet Christmassy nostalgia; we are able to forgive the distinctly artificial flavouring that gets it here. ‘Let's Get With It’ (what’s with these names?) is harder to cough down. Made with dark rum and passion fruit, it is the colour of jaljeera, tastes mostly of flat soda, and is so full of mint that we feel like we're prepping for a mouth-freshener commercial.
So this isn’t that kind of lunch home. Indeed, non-alcoholic beverages are an infinitely safer bet. A Kokum kadi is tart and tangy, just how we like our summer drinks; and the buttermilk, though watery, is still a safer choice than the mint-munching alcoholic alternative.
But the first real auspicious sign at Bella is the sight of the older gentleman eating a meal by himself on a Monday afternoon. The second is the menu, which features only only a handful of dishes (not including sides), cooked with mutton, fish, crab, prawn and in some cases vegetables, paneer and raw banana. Who doesn’t secretly think that this is just how a menu should be?
The true test of a great Mangalore restaurant is its ghee roast masala, so we wait impatiently for our oder of the prawns ghee roast. Although the portions are small – an appetizer just about enough for two moderately greedy eaters – it’s hard to find fault with the dish itself. The prawns are plump, fresh and the masala is smoky and rich without being greasy. Enthusiastic eaters who like to eat with their hands when the going gets good will find, happily, that the masala leaves no tell-tale red stains.
The masala crab comes deshelled -- more delight, but the excitement is dampened somewhat when we taste the masala. Ginger- and onion-heavy, it fails to do justice to the extremely fresh crab meat, quite unlike a good classic lunch home recipe. Rawa raw banana fry has us distracted in no time, however: these are thin slices of green banana fried in a rava batter that could give any rava fried fish a run for its money.
After the success of the fritters, we enthusiastically scan the menu for more vegetable options and settle on the Mixed Veggies Pulimunchi. One look at it, however, and we know we’ve made a mistake. The gravy is thick, chockful of diced carrots, peas and beans -- afloat thanks to sheer gloopiness – with merely a vaguely sour aftertaste that you’d miss if you didn’t know what the word pulimunchi meant. We have better luck with the Mangalorean Chicken Curry however, which is light without being watery, and so good we are tempted to sip it like soup. Instead, we dunk pieces of thin, soft neer dosas into it. (Their sannas are stale and grainy, and no Mangalore curry was wasted on it.)
This up-and-down sort of lunch has successfully pushed us in the direction of a food coma, and some deity responsible for post-lunch stupors must really have been smiling down on us. Just as we thought we’d never be able to eat another thing again, the words “elaneer payasam” gleamed up at us from the dessert list. Topped with slivers of almonds, filled with ribbons of tender coconut, this is so good it succeeds in pleasing even the elaneer-averse diner, and sends us out walking on air. Does Bella replace Coast II Coast as Bangalore’s best Mangalorean restaurant? Happily, we’ll eat every ghee roast option on the menu here to decide.
Getting there: 382/71-4, 11th Main Rd, Jayanagar East, Jaya Nagar 1st Block, Jayanagar. Call: 089712 85555. A meal for two with drinks costs Rs. 2900.
Accessibility: Two flights of steps lead to the restaurant.
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