Last year, we brought you news of Bombay’s oldest flower shop winding down business, thanks to its home on Bhandarkar Road becoming a redevelopment project. Another icon around the block shut shop for the same reason. However, early to rise as always, Mani’s Lunch Home has efficiently moved further east to Bombay’s other historic South Indian bastion, Chembur.
Something (we suspect the #CashCrunch) delayed the inauguration of the restaurant’s new location by over a month, but a New Year’s visit makes it clear that re-Mani-tisation is going pretty well. Indeed, Mr Narayanaswamy’s (vanishingly) minor-Art-Deco lettering and Sunmica-covered Matunga premises have given way to an aesthetic that can only be described as splashy.
The new Mani’s spells its name in blindingly golden letters, and inhabits a room full of natural light (never a lunch home specialty), as well as more fluorescent tube lights than we’ve seen since Diwali. It carries over its half-Malayali, half-Tamil aesthetic in bits and pieces — we’ve seen that replica elephant caparison before! — as symbols of its origins in Kerala’s Palakkad district, home among other things to the distinct food culture of the Tamil-speaking Palakkad Iyers.
The upgrade may be millennial, but Mr Narayanswamy and team will no doubt be pleased that his clientele appear to be almost entirely made up of the retired upper crust of Diamond Garden and Anushakti Nagar. When we visit on a weekday lunchtime, we are the worst-dressed among the throng of Mysore silks and superbly ironed collared t-shirts of Chembur’s genteel seniors, and no one will sit with us even though this Mani’s continues the Matunga tradition of table-sharing.
The upgrade may be millennial, but Mr Narayanswamy and team will no doubt be pleased that his clientele appear to be almost entirely made up of the retired upper crust of Diamond Garden and Anushakti Nagar.
The establishment’s fans will be pleased to learn that the menu is unchanged, as is the clean, earthy taste of their idli (full marks to the proportion of urad dal to rice in the batter, if you care), which many trusted connoisseurs used to rate as the finest in Matunga. We also try the sambar-rice, which will seem a shade too sour and thin if you’re used to the ghee-laden decadence of places like Café Madras, but is pretty much the real deal. Unlike some of its flashier former neighbours, Mani’s reputation is built almost entirely on the resistance of its food to change. Sure, the menu has a full complement of “variety” dosas and snacks, but if you really wanted an onion rava masala dosa, you can just go to Café Madras — or a Shiv Sagar.
The thing is, the minute you sit down to a ‘meals’ thali at Mani’s Lunch Home you become a lonely South Indian bachelor, newly stepped off the train at Victoria Terminus at some point in the middle of the twentieth century. To welcome you to your harsh new environs and strengthen you for the sojourn ahead, the meal begins with two “chappatthys,” staple of the hardy north. A glass of flavoured buttermilk is thin, gingery and cold, but not too cold. Your bowl of vegetables is usually a thoran, dry and quickly cooked with mustard seeds and grated coconut.
The minute you sit down to a ‘meals’ thali at Mani’s Lunch Home you become a lonely South Indian bachelor, newly stepped off the train at Victoria Terminus at some point in the middle of the twentieth century.
A server watches your plate in discreet but hawkish fashion, waiting for the level of sambar or rasam in your bowl to dip so that he can dash out and top it up. The rice is pre-moulded into cakes for neater servings, and two of them will keep you going for the next twelve hours. Only an incongruously smooth, solid bowl of yoghurt, clearly dairy-bought, is a reminder of the outside. Speaking of which, that’s where you’re expected to be the minute you’ve stopped eating, with about a minute’s grace to wash your hands and pay the bill. The whole experience takes about fifteen minutes — a quarter of an hour in which you are utterly, contently at home.
To Mani’s credit, in spite of the coconut shavings floating in its sambar and rasam without its bottom layer of dal, the food still tastes like a grandmother might have made it. In spite of the gold lettering, the prices remain the same, too. In fact, it might be the only restaurant in Bombay where a grandma won’t be shocked at the bill. Don’t feel bad about splurging on the rava laddus at the sweets counter on the way out — at 20 rupees a pop for a fistful of crumbly sweetness, it’s just (sorry) Mani earned.
Getting there: Mani’s Lunch Home, Komal Building, Road 2, Chembur (E), call 25200201. A meals thali with unlimited sambar and rasam costs Rs 80; a special thali with dessert, served on a banana leaf, Rs 150.
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