Read the prologue of this piece here: Meena Tai’s – Prologue
So, last Friday, at dinner time, I found myself at the portals of the three restaurants. This time, the manager was different. (Last time, it was a Bengali-speaking guy, and it later struck me whether Pricol was aiming for national and international integration: Maharashtrian, Parsi, Bengali, and African.) This time, it was a guy with a Christian name, that too a Biblical one, Gabriel, and I became certain of the integration bit. Gabriel was pleasant, like all hotel / restaurant managers, I guess. But he didn’t need to guide me about which cuisine I was interested in. Maharashtrian food was calling this man born in one city of Maharashtra (Nagpur) and stayed in another city of the ‘Great Land’ for the longest time (Bombay / Mumbai). Meena Tai’s it was going to be. The Parsi dudes would have to wait for another time.
Meena Tai’s is trying for homely – so they don’t have Bombay’s famous street food ‘Karan-Arjun’, vada pav and misal pav. And homely is the feeling you get when you step in. It’s peaceful, quiet, like you stepped into a home in a Maharashtrian village, with mellow Marathi songs playing in the background. A few ditties down, even the other tai, Asha, shows up on the playlist. The relaxing atmosphere is enhanced by blue accents all around and the homely ambience accentuated by the jars of spices and pulses in a recess and various cooking instruments of yore displayed on the walls.
I take my seat, the server comes with the menu and wearing the rustic Marathi manoos outfit – white kurta and topi – and I wonder for a minute if I could speak with him in Marathi. Then, I look at the name on his tag, and am not sure. ‘Sasti’. That doesn’t sound Maharashtrian (in fact, that means ‘cheap’, or to be less c-rude, ‘inexpensive’ in Hindi), but from the little I know, that doesn’t sound Tam either. So, I let out very slowly, “Are… you… Maharashtrian…?” “No, I’m local,” he offers. And since he does so in English, I proceed to speak in that common language.
He makes the standard Indian restaurant query, “Are you veg or non-veg?” The restaurant – tasteful, refined and all, so far – looks like it could stand up to the IrfindingVegan test, and I decide to chuck my roundabout way of asking so (“Does it have any milk, cream, butter, curd…”) and go straight up, “Actually, I’m vegan… You know what that is?” He takes a moment before responding, “Yes, you don’t have dairy…” “And honey,” I complete. Sasti at once points me to the bottom of the page on the menu, which has icons for Dairy, Gluten, Nuts and Chilli. I. Am. Impressed. And also think, ‘Clever strategy. Show which items have dairy, thus helping out both lactose-intolerant and vegan patrons. So, while not vegan, vegan-friendly for sure, at least in their communication.’
I think of asking him for suggestions, but decide to go with, um, my gut feel. I’m not too hungry. So, decide on a drink (sol kadhi, coconut milk with kokum) and a starter (mini matar karinji, deep-fried stuffing of peas). I check with him whether the karinji will be too oily. He replies in the negative. Cool. I ask him to leave the menu behind in case I have the appetite for dessert: I saw a couple of items with no dairy icons.
And while I’m waiting for the food to come and flipping through the dessert section, in step a couple of folk that will have my Chennai friends and acquaintances envying me for a long time: Mani Ratnam and Suhasini Maniratnam, arguably Kollywood’s leading power couple. However, they decide to party with the Parsi boys and so take the stairs. That’s ok, I think; I’ll be loyal to my Maharashtrian history.
However, the food was taking a bit – I guess they also believe in not rushing things (believers of slow food?) – so I decided to go and speak with Gabriel, especially about the power couple that had just ascended the stairs. Gabriel smiled even more and shared, “This is a VIP neighbourhood, and you have lots such folk coming in. Why, Dhanush too stays close by.” OK, not too hot about that one. I decide to put him through the vegan test too, and he too passes. In fact, he does one better. When I tell him I also plan to hang out with the Parsi boys next time, he feels uneasy for me, suggesting I won’t find anything there. I reassure him: “I will find at least one or two items there, don’t worry, and what I don’t, I’ll check if they can make vegan.” And if not, I can always come here again, right? Well, that is, if the food too ends up scoring like the ambience and the people (somehow, ‘staff’ seemed too coarse for such genteel ‘staff’).
I go back, the food comes, and the Parsi bawas can wait: I’m visiting Meena’s again very soon, with a bigger appetite. The sol kadhi is obscenely good. In fact, it almost tastes like curd. So, I summon Sasti. “Are you sure there is no curd in this?” He reassures me. To be doubly sure, I have a sip in front of him. I again get that curdy feeling. “Sure?” “Absolutely. But the taste could be due to the kokum.” “Hmm. OK.”
This is a bit of a moot point. Some vegans look for vegan substitutes for non-vegan foods and so some product-makers go to the extent of making some vegan food taste like non-vegan food, especially meats, and in this case, curd. However, I’m not sure any vegan wants their food to taste like something they’ve given up for very strong reasons.
I have the kadhi with some more assurance now, and clarity attained, it seems to taste heavenly: it’s playing a perfect orchestra of sweet, sour, heavy, light, smooth, silky. OK, not the last one.
I proceed to pick up the first of the six karinjis that await me. They don’t look too deep-fried, as Sasti had assured me. These folk seem true to their word, I see. I take a bite, and Meena Tai appears in the chair opposite me, looking on as I savour her made-from-the-heart karinjis. The karinjis are packed with all the right flavours: light savoury, medium spicy, hint of sweet (thanks to the peas and onions), and the crust perfectly crunchy-crumbly. One karinji, one sip. One coolant-snack combo, one heavenly trip.
My tongue is lilting with all the right flavours, I don’t want to ruin the taste, or better put, I want the taste to linger, plus am a bit full, so decide to not engage with dessert. I ask for the bill. As Sasti comes with the mini-clipboard that bears the bill, I gush, “The food is awesome… Next time, I’ll come with an appetite…” And it’s his turn to complete, “And with your family.” Wow, vegan-friendly. And friendly.
To know more about Meena Tai’s, check out their FB page: Meena Tai’s on FB