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Restaurant review: Crisp memories from Cafe Madras

As one of the city’s most cherished South Indian restaurants, Café Madras in Kings Circle, completes its 75th year, owner Jagdish Kamath, hits a nostalgic note about this Mumbai icon

We wait patiently in a queue for our turn to get a seat at the busy restaurant. Around us is a mixed set — this includes collegians, senior citizens and corporates, waiting to tuck into freshly-made goodies. Each patron seems eager to find a seat, and is absolutely willing to share a table with a complete stranger, just for the crisp dosa or piping-hot rasam. Leaving the cash counter to one of his sons, 72-year-old Jagdish Kamath makes time to hit the rewind button.

Pesarattu; Sakar Pongal, Vermicelli Payasan
Pesarattu; Sakar Pongal, Vermicelli Payasan

Sepia tones
“My father’s friend had opened this restaurant in 1940. My father Gopal Kamath bought it from him in 1950. I have that agreement; it’s how I know that this happened in August,” shares the co-owner.

Khara Pongal and Medu Vada. Pics/Bipin Kokate, Pradeep Dhivar
Khara Pongal and Medu Vada. Pics/Bipin Kokate, Pradeep Dhivar

“We lived in Malad then. We had a restaurant there since 1938 called Gopal. I only started sitting in the restaurant in 1968, which was after my graduation. Those days there was no respect in running a restaurant. Everyone told me, ‘You are a graduate; why do you want to work with the restaurant’. Women of the house would never visit the restaurant. Then, it slowly became common practice to visit restaurants,” he smiles.

The owners, Jagdish Kamath and Suresh Kamath
A full house at Café Madras. Pic/PRADEEP DHIVAR

Talking about the restaurant’s interiors, Kamath informs that the flooring and tiles have changed. Previously, Café Madras had wooden tiles, which used to be a big deal in those days. “Then granite arrived, and later, marble, so things changed. The service counters were made of steel which used to be very expensive. We had four chairs earlier, with each table instead of these benches,” he recollects. The restaurant has been in its current avatar for the last 20 years.

A full house at Café Madras. PIC/PRADEEP DHIVAR
The owners, Jagdish Kamath and Suresh Kamath

Kitchen confidential
Soon, talk veers to the food, and Kamath’s eyes light up. “The oldest menu was Idli, Vada, Sada Dosa, Masala Dosa, Rava Dosa and Upma; Rasam Vada started in 1950. There was no Onion Uttapa, just the plain Uttapa. In 1960, Mysore Sada Dosa was started. We used to have certain bhajias, like Banana Bhajias, Mango Bhajis, which we stopped making about 10 years ago. They were oily items (laughs). There was also the Dal Vada, Masala Vada that were typical Tamil dishes. At that time, about 40% of Matunga’s population was Tamil. It was called ‘Mini Madras’. Gradually, they left and the Gujaratis moved in, so the demand for those dishes came down. Panpoli (a dessert made with banana and jaggery) is our oldest item. It still exists in the same form,” he explains.

(From left) Devrath Kamath, Gordon Ramsay, Suresh Kamath and Jaiprakash Kamath
(From left) Devrath Kamath, Gordon Ramsay, Suresh Kamath and Jaiprakash Kamath

Talking about other popular items, he points out, “Set Dosa is new and so is Raagi Dosa, both from Bangalore. Tuppa Dosa is from Udipi. Our coffee is the most popular. We have now packaged it because everyone would enquire about this coffee powder. We call it Kaapi. Our Rasam Vada is also different. Most restaurants use only tomato in the gravy. Our water is made from Tur daal. Our sambar is not typically Tamilian. They use more tamarind. Our recipe is from somewhere in between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. We use more neem and hing,” Kamath reveals.

The restaurant also sells branded packaged farsan. “We started selling farsan recently. In my time, there were just three items — murukku, khara boondi and a mixture. In those days, if you took one sweet item like the Rawa Kesari (now called sheera), you had to give some farsan complimentary to balance the sweet and salty because after that the person would drink coffee, and that would taste bitter,” he explains.

Billing it
“My father would say, ‘Do not worry about the money; but serve the best food in town, don’t compromise.’

We can still afford this because we don’t have any extra expenses.

New restaurants have to spend on place and furniture, so they cannot afford it. In the last few years, no ‘only South Indian food place’ has opened in Mumbai. Most mix North Indian cuisine like Pav Bhaji, Chaat etc. We have stayed away from selling samosas and batata wadas,” confesses Kamath.

Winds of change
“Today, the food industry is booming and it’s important. In Mumbai, 7% people are totally dependent on restaurants. There is hotel management. Every channel has a food show. When you plan a town, the second-most important thing you build is a restaurant. I had conditioned my children to tell them that it has to be passed on from generation to generation. So many businesses vanish like that. Nowadays, on weekends, every eatery, including roadside joints and thelas, are full because no one cooks at home. It’s a trend. A hotelier’s life is tough; every holiday is busy and that’s why they don’t get brides (laughs). Technology has helped. I have CCTV cameras now, and can track the restaurant at home,” he says rushing off to give instructions.

Timings 7 am to 2.30 pm, 4 pm to 10.30 pm, Mondays closed
AT 38/B, Kamakshi Building, Circle House, Matunga, near King’s Circle.
CALL 24014419

Celeb-spotting

When a popular magazine featuring India’s wealthiest businessmen, asked Mukesh Ambani to reveal how he begins his day, he said he starts with coffee and breakfast from Café Madras. “Birla used to come; now their third generations drop by. Mukesh Ambani and his children are regulars. Prakash and Deepika Padukone have known to be patrons too. Many of them get parcels picked up from the restaurant as it gets too crowded these days. We don’t serve in the car, unless the person is disabled,” says Kamath nonchalantly.

South Indian haven
Kamath tells us that Matunga had always been a foodie’s paradise, even in the early years. “There was Cafe Mysore that came up in 1950, Amba Bhavan and Sharda Bhavan existed even before we started in 1940, Ramashray opened around 1944, I think. Some of the restaurants that opened later, shut down. Even now, there are about 14 pure South Indian restaurants in Matunga and more North Indian ones. It’s like a Khau Galli.”


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