If the Parsis and Iranis contributed to the foodie map with their unique cafes, a section of the south Indian population supplied the Udipi, the city's first fast-food joints. Not surprisingly, a majority of the oldest and, by extension, most-loved Udipis can be found in the area that would be known as Mini Madras, a direct reference to the large population of Tamil Brahmins, or Tam-Brahms, living there.
Most restaurants in the area have continued to adhere to 'tradition', which means no 'Schezwan Idlis' or 'Noodle Dosas' on the menu, walls adorned with images of gods and lungi-clad waiters bussing tables, each contributing to the laid-back feel of these places. One restaurant, however, has dared to stray from the recipe, choosing to 'update' its menu. The result? Sheera in 19 flavours. The restaurant? Ram Ashray.
The story goes
The origin of Ram Ashray can be traced back almost 70 years ago to founder Shyambabu Shetty, who came to Mumbai from Mangalore. He opened an eating joint, only a few minutes from the station, which is today four times the size it once was. Later, sons Jayram and Bhaskar would take over, as the restaurant slowly grew both in size and name. Today, Bhaskar's children run Rishikesh, a south-Indian joint in Vasai, while Jayram's sons, Akshay and Amarjeeth, oversee Ram Ashray.
"Students from the neighbouring colleges (Ruia, Poddar and Welingkar) comprise a large part of our clientele," says Amarjeeth, explaining the motivation behind introducing flavoured sheeras to the menu. "We wanted to introduce a fresh feel and some variety to the menu without disturbing the tradition of the restaurant," adds the 27-year-old, younger brother to Akshay.
With new blood now running the restaurant, Ram Ashray too underwent a renovation of sorts. "We were initially apprehensive, and so started by introducing a few basic flavours, last summer," says Amarjeeth.The flavour additions to the rava or semolina-based dessert, a menu staple since the restaurant's inception worked. "People loved it and we went on adding new flavours."
Amarjeeth says that the core staff and head cook, who have worked with the family for years, were not resistant to the change, either. "They were actually very enthusiastic and curious. Our head cook successfully managed to create the long list of flavours," he says.
Don't expect all 19 flavours on any given day, however, as they serve only two flavours a day. "On Sundays we prepare chocolate or butterscotch, as they are our best-sellers," says Amarjeeth.
The 'regular' sheera is served from 5 am, when the restaurant opens its doors, till 10 am. From 10 am onwards, the first flavoured sheera is served until 5 pm, which is then followed by the second flavoured sheera, which is served till the place closes at 9.30 pm.
Need proof that the sweet stuff is a hit, here's a number: 13. That's the average number of kilos of sheera they sell in one day.
Committed to memory
There is one tradition, however, that the proprietors will not compromise on: the no-menu policy. "We are still old-fashioned that way. Even our customers don't mind, as they happily ask for the day's Specials," says Amarjeeth, adding, "We like to maintain that personal touch."
The flavoured sheeras are made with fresh fruit pulp, and include pineapple, orange, guava, grapes, chikku, tender coconut, as well as seasonal fruit varieties, such as mango and strawberry.
The day we dropped by to sample the glistening desserts, thanks to an exceptionally generous dose of ghee, Banana and Guava were on the menu. The sweetness of the banana complimented the sugary taste of the sheera, while the Guava was an instant hit, leaving a refreshing taste in the mouth, in spite of the ghee. The Black Grape sheera (we had to drop by a second time) is good too, with the grape puree adding both a subtle colour and flavour to the dish.
We would gladly make regular trips to sample each of the different flavours, and recommend that you do too. Change, after all, is the only constant.
For: Rs 30 per plate
At: Ram Ashray, corner of Bhandarkar Road, Matunga (E); open (Tuesday to Saturday) from 5 am to 9.30 pm; open till 10.30 pm on Sundays; Mondays closed.