When I first moved into Mumbai in the mid nineties, Gujarati Thali was a big thing. At a time when expense accounts were still some years away, the sheer promise of unlimited food (even if vegetarian), attentive waiters and wholesomely pretty gujju girls (even if vegetarian) all sounded like the greatest option ever. That most of them were tucked into bylanes made them (in the era before map-laden smartphones) only added to the adventure. Don’t get me wrong though, I also do love the food.
This whole prologue is leading up to my visit to Panchvati Gaurav today, hidden inside a mall in Thane. The somewhat odd name means the pride of five banyans and derives from an eponymous religious place near Nasik; this is where the chain originates too. It was one of the star thali places in those days, suitably hidden in Marine Lines behind two thousand shows of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. In those days it used to rank somewhere between Status and the very hard to find Thakkar. The original location has since closed; it has become a chain that can be found hanging about in many a suburban mall. While Rajdhani spreads through the Western Suburbs, Panchvati Gaurav (I’m sure people call it PG) rules the other side – Vashi, Mulund, Thane, and even makes an appearance in hometown Nasik.
This was my second visit to the Thane location, and it didn’t seem very busy either time. The thali is the standard one – eight bowls and all the usual trims; the only jarring note both times has been a couple of punjabi dishes. The food is quite good, very competently executed and well presented but invariable comparisons with the other thali chain – Rajdhani – kept popping into my head. I find that all the better gujju thalis have food that a blind taste session would not be able to distinguish – they are all rather competent when doing classic dishes in classic ways. The differences lie in the range – Rajdhani scores a little better there though neither can match the unending options offered by Ahmedabad’s Agashiye (which in my opinion is the best thali in the universe).
There’s also the whole health business and the unhealthy propensity man has, when faced with unlimited food, to eat way too much. The nice thing about the thali is that it goes both ways – it can also mean as little food as you want and (unlike a five star buffet) at a mere rupees two fifty a pop you don't feel like you’re wasting money. You can stick to the relatively modest portions in an individual bowl and avoid refills; combine that with the vigorous negative gestures when faced with the ghee, and you could end up with a proportional, balanced, healthy vegetarian meal.
I need work on those negative gestures though – the waiter didn’t always get it.