Cafe Military, hidden in the bylanes of Flora Fountain, would have remained hidden to me but for a loving recent article in DNA. It took me a while to get to flora fountain (possibly a reflection of how much of Mumbai life has moved out of the fort area) but here I am, at lunch, catching a quick bite of Salli Boti and Masur Gosh before the caramel custard appears.
The cafe may have been hidden to me, but it certainly wasn't unknown. The red checkered table cloths were busy with beer bottles and raspberry sodas; waiters rushed past at regular intervals transporting keemas and paos; biriyani was already sold out. Contemplating the inevitable paper menu staring at me through the glass tabletop, I settled on (as already mentioned, look up dears) the special of the day - Masur Gosh. Whole masur dal with skin landed up - a hearty dal stew if there was one, prettied up for the non-vegetarians by drowning three tender boneless chunks of mutton. The brain masala was pedestrian but the the salli boti that followed was loaded with salli crunch and tomato sweet-sour. The final stage- the caramel custard – came with a darker-than-average brown cap and was on the better side of competent. This isn't the best Irani restaurant ever but it is, indeed, quite good.
The tale of Mumbai's Irani chai, as we all know, is no longer in the food but the borrowed time that Cafe Military and kin are living on. I've always wondered, though, why are these storied restaurants unable to convert a reputation into a sustainable business. With generations of loyal customers, prime real estate and often (Brittania, for instance) an enviable brand, these places should be able to do more than sit and wait for death. The owner, Sheriar Koshravi, complains that roadside puribhaji is eating his lunch and there's no dinner crowd, yet less than a hundred feet away restaurants such as Khyber or Apoorva are thumbing their nose at street food and queuing people up for dinner. Irani cafes seem headed towards graceless decay rather than graceful vintage – gripping at a fading past rather than building on a heritage.
Deep thoughts make me hungry. Go ahead, gobble up the keema while it lasts…