Suraj Salian holds up crabs as Anand Solomon looks on
Seated inside Bharat ExcellenSea, the 34-year-old iconic seafood restaurant on Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, curious pedestrians' reactions as they peer through the French windows, the freshly-done beige facade as well as the new logo, makes for interesting viewing.
Butter garlic lobster
Ballard Estate has stirred up the city's F&B map; first, with The Clearing House in 2017, and last year, with IF.BE adding to the buzz. The interiors are a hat tip to Mumbai's sea connection; a cobalt blue wall displays a massive map of Mumbai, while porcelain sea creatures swarm on the other. A live crab tank in a corner tells you that they mean business. There are caricatured scenes from a Mumbai local; whitewashed brick walls and comfortable seating. A stairway leads to the mezzanine alcove with ornamental fish tanks for decor.
We are here to chat about veteran chef Ananda Solomon and seafood restaurant owner, Suraj Salian's collaboration. Salian calls it a marriage of the past and future with due respect to classic flavours. Chef Ananda is an institution. With him helming the kitchen, we want to make it a pan-Indian and global brand. A Thai restaurant is also in the offing," he reveals.
For Salian, it is a renewal of the vow he made when he started Bharat ExcellenSea in 1989: To run a seafood restaurant that focused on the day's freshest catch, great quality and service. He recalls heading to the wharfs by 4.30 am, every day, to snap up rare kapri pomfret, set aside for export, as well as the flat surmai that was unavailable for local consumption. Salian would personally take orders and recommend dishes to each table. House favourites included neer dosa, Mangalorean-style bangda pullimunchi, chicken and mutton sukka, gassis and balchao that remain on the menu.
Surmai tawa fry
The restaurant was a favourite with consulate staff; from 5.30 pm to 8 pm, it would be packed with early diners. Bollywood A-listers like Pooja Bhatt and Bobby Deol were regulars. Now, with Solomon on board, the menu expands. Apart from the Konkan, there are hints of Far East Asian and European influences, too. For Salian, it is a family affair: wife Chitra works alongside, son Shravan is studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris while daughter Shrishti, is focused on drawing new-age patrons.
Chef Solomon's craft is on display. Chilled sol kadhi - the kokum cools us down, and prepares us for an elaborate deep-sea dive. Tangy crab meat (Rs 375) uses a monsoon-influenced East Indian recipe that includes raw mango. The spices don't hit the throat, curtailing the light fiery torch within the palate gates. This makes way for a Mangalorean favourite, lady finger (kane) bound with a crispy semolina crust. Surmai tawa fry (Rs 650) has a semi-wet red masala paste freshly-prepared by Solomon for the day. The classic meen pollichathu (Rs 700) is wrapped in a banana leaf, which lends the pomfret its sweetness.
The main flavours are a tamarind variety called jarige puli and byadagi chillies from Karnataka. The sourness doesn't grind our teeth but leaves a lingering citrusy aftertaste. The butter garlic pepper lobster (Rs 1,200) exudes a European vibe. The white meat, butter and garlic are cooked to perfection. Solomon's stamp also surfaces in the shrimp cocktail (Rs 450), a luxuriant creamy tipple. The seafood biryani (Rs 700) pays homage to a Keralite preparation, and is packed with shrimps, calamari, prawns and fish spiced with cumin, pepper and cinnamon that deserves extra helpings. Solomon's wizardry brings simplicity and regional flair to the fore while keeping traditional sensibilities intact.
The chef joins us for a chat only after he has fed us well. As he wipes the sweat off his face, there is an after-shift glow. At 64, he is raring to go. "South Bombay and the Bombay 1 pin code have a special place in my heart. Everything I have ever achieved in my career has been from here," he tells us, laughing off the idea of retiring to his seaside village in Mangalore. "I have always wanted to, but I don't think I am meant for it," he remarks.
Crab soup. Pics/Aishwarya Deodhar
A career that began with The Oberoi, and flourished with the Taj Group for 25 years, during which he set up the city's first Thai restaurant, Thai Pavilion at Taj President, along with The Konkan Cafe and Trattoria (the first coffee shop to offer Italian fare). In 2016, he left to take up international projects, returning with Thai Naam at The Orb in Andheri in 2020. "My cooking is focused only on winning people's hearts through their stomachs. This partnership is my attempt to create a nuanced offering in the mid-section, where I can showcase my skills," he shares.
To execute this vision, he handpicked experienced talent, "Most of my chefs are between 50 and 65 years. Our veterans have junior chefs training under them," he reveals. Solomon gets pensive about his early days, "Dad always said: âHard work pays off.' I have held on to this advice. I was studying at IHM Dadar while simultaneously training at The Oberoi. We reported to the kitchen at 8 am until noon.
The restaurant is spread across two floors and seats 114 guests
Then, till 4 pm we were assigned in the restaurant. I would then rush to attend classes and return at 6 pm for kitchen duty. If I missed my 1.10 am train, I would sleep on roadside benches with my North Star shoes as a pillow," he recalls. The difference of working here, Solomon points out, is that you have to do everything on your own. "I am aggressive with myself; I don't like putting up boundaries. We are born to do things."
At: Bharat House, 317, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Ballard Estate