Some kinds of city nostalgia deserve a slap on the wrist. Take Bombay Vintage’s menu, which features items such as “Chicken Uruval: A South Indian bar snack from Bombay’s famous dive bars”. It’s one thing to forget the way of life that necessitated those dive bars; to memorialise it with a Rs 400 snack in a restaurant that seems to be meant for banker bros, posh lawyers and white tourists is, as they say, the ultimate self-own.
In case you are its ideal guest, with no preconceptions about what something called ‘Bombay Vintage’ should mean, here’s the top line: this new Colaba restaurant is a bright little box, painted a deep shade of blue that sari salesmen variously describe as ‘peacock’ and ‘firozi.’ Its burnished wood floors and iron railings will fill you with a sense of well-being even if you’ve never visited its sibling and neighbour, Woodside Inn. Nouveau-ish poster art of city neighbourhoods (including a weirdly suggestive Koli woman pin-up that doesn’t belong here) is meant to be more pleasant than coherent - they must be sure you won’t mind.
Ponkh For Peace
On offer is a smart selection of Bombay-Indian food, featuring all the things you’re advised to eat when you’re here on a long layover but don’t have time to go hunting for. Bombay Vintage’s siren call to western travellers is a list of big plates, from kurkure bhindi to salli boti, all grouped under the heading ‘Curry.’ The ponkh bhel doesn’t taste like it does at Soam any more than the sabudana vada does at Prakash or the misal pao at Aaswaad, but that seems to be the point - a muted, made-with-Bisleri selection of things you can go home and tell your Indian friends you checked off the list.
If this seems to be working up to a bitter rant about the gentrification of the Bombay restaurant, it isn’t. Places like Bombay Vintage understand that sometimes you want the food of your heart, but you’d also like it with single malt, or wifi, or a table that you’re allowed to occupy for hours on end. That’s not the problem. The problem is: shouldn’t all this add up to something more fun? Shouldn’t that something feel like an update to the city’s palate - especially on this historic Colaba block - rather than a shrug and a manipulative wink?
Funnily enough, that chicken uruval is one of the best things about the meal, fragrant with its simple masalas, cashew nuts and curry leaves fried to a crisp to complement the watery softness of chicken. Kolambi masala eaten with neer dosa is rich and meaty, its fiery colour belying its real success at balancing the taste of fresh prawns with tomato and chilly. Having sampled the same thing at an actual dive last week and paid for it with our sinuses, we feel extremely grateful for Bombay Vintage's softness, at least in this instance.
To tip the balance, there’s one-note misal served with farsan that tastes like it’s refried and some kind of unforgivable bun masquerading as pao. Sabudana vada comes with a solkadi-coloured dahi chutney, a lovely touch that doesn’t quite hide the fact that the vada is a glorified aloo tikki. Our cocktails look beautiful but taste bland; the tamarind sour is a bit like a tonic; nor does a ginger and peppercorn mule taste of anything other than a mildly spiked adrak nimbu pani.
Khoya Khoya Chand
We end with phirni that looks and tastes like it came out of a mithaiwala’s fridge. Its sweetness is surpassed by two things that make us think that Bombay Vintage’s proprietors know exactly what they’re doing. The first is a wonderful 1950s soundtrack that switches seamlessly between old Hindi movie dance hits and pre-Elvis rock ‘n’ roll - an echo of the giddy, youthful cosmopolitanism of that decade that’s unlike anything we’ve heard in a restaurant before. The second is the kind of service that only a certain type of Bombay establishment offers: an easygoing, non-deferential hospitality based on an unspoken assumption of mutual conviviality and respect.
So many restaurants ignore or flub these nuances that it’s difficult to believe that Bombay Vintage gets it even as they apparently drop a number of other balls. The local cuisine this restaurant serves is part of the memory and culture of these streets; that doesn’t mean it’s dead or gone or inaccessible. Many other city restaurants have understood and adapted their Indian cuisine accordingly. It may seem safe to compete with some sort of imagined past, but - you know this, don’t you, Bombay Vintage? - your town only knows how to live in the present.
Getting there: Bombay Vintage, Indian Mercantile Mansion, opposite Regal cinema, two doors up from Woodside Inn. Rs 4,000 for a meal for two with one drink each.
Accessibility: Street-level entry. The washroom is built a step up, with a narrow doorway.
This review was contributed by Supriya Nair.
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