Culture, served hot

Mar 09, 2013, 08:59 IST | Soma Das and Hassan M Kamal

One is an established legend, as famous as the landmarks that surround it, while the second spells great news for visitors to this restored museum near the city zoo. Samovar Cafe at the Jehangir Art Gallery, with a view of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya, and the Museum Cafe at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, are doing their bit to keep art and culture buffs in good spirits, after a busy day at these museums and galleries

When we visited Samovar on a scorching Wednesday afternoon, the eatery was abuzz with customers tucking into its popular Dahi Vadas, Roti Rolls and cups of steaming chai. Sixty-year-old owner Devieka Bhojwani was supervising the goings-on much like she has been doing over the last two decades. Her mother the eighty-six-year-old Usha Khanna, who founded the cafe in 1964, also drops by during the week to sample the food and ensure it retains its authentic flavour. You’ll spot her chatting with customers, a habit her daughter seems to have inherited as well.

Samovar opened in 1964.
Samovar opened in 1964. Pics/ Sayed Sameer Abedi, Atul Kamble 

Art and the palate
“Initially, Samovar was a hangout for artists who couldn’t afford fancy eateries. My mother befriended them and treated them like family. If they were lonely she would talk to them about their problems. At times, the artists couldn’t afford to pay for the food till they sold their paintings; my mother was adamant that no one should go hungry from Samovar, and didn’t even keep accounts, at times,” shares Bhojwani, who practically grew up at Samovar and visited it with her classmates from the Sir JJ School of Art. She admits that the family’s belief in Marxism subconsciously shaped the gallery too.

Devieka Bhojwani
Devieka Bhojwani

The Mix Pakoda is a hit with loyalists
The Mix Pakoda is a hit with loyalists

Bhojwani points out that the cane chairs and tables at the café haven’t been changed since inception when it was a favourite with artists like KH Ara and MF Husain and filmmakers like Mani Kaul. “They would sit here and dream up of new ideas, scripts and films. Nobody felt uncomfortable; you could sit with a cup of chai for an entire day,” chuckles Bhojwani.

Old and new
Today, Samovar’s prices might have risen with the times but the chai is still affordably priced (R5). Their popular dishes are Dahi Vada (Rs 70), Aloo Paratha (Rs 75), Roti Rolls (Rs 100) and Chole Amritsari (Rs 90). The menu changes every day.

“With shooting costs of vegetables, oil, sugar and other ingredients, we barely make profits and are just about able to sustain ourselves but the love of customers has kept us afloat. Luckily, we pay a low rent and get a lot of artists as well as tourists who visit the Jehangir Art Gallery and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya,” admits Bhojwani, who points out that there was a time when the ground overlooking the café allowed visitors to head to the café from the museum.

Memories galore
Bhojwani observes that Samovar’s (or Sam’s as it was fondly called) popularity also lies in the fact that it remains a place where the owners reach out to the clientele, the food while being simple is wholesome, fresh, cooked on the premises and delicious thanks to family recipes. Besides, the eatery offers a view of changing seasons in a city now dominated by concrete structures.

“The eatery is run like a family. My mother has always believed that food should be served with love and care and it’s the memories that drive people back to a certain place,” she states, adding that the café gets its name from the Kashmiri samovars or heated teapots around which families would gather during winter and conversations would flow. Khanna had visited Paris’ Left Bank sidewalk eateries where artists and writers would hang out, and was inspired to replicate it in the city. Today, Samovar has a coffee table book on its history, titled The Making of Samovar.

No walk in the park
The years have witnessed the café face several challenges — the eatery has faced litigation over space and presently, they have a two-year extension on the lease; Samovar must also contend with restrictions in terms of structural modification, hence, the decor is basic and replaceable; it leaks during the monsoon, yet the place runs to capacity. “Actually, it’s more of an interactive space where people can suggest and contribute towards the decor. At present, we’ve decorated the interiors with kites for Makar Sankranti; for Holi we might play around with colours,” she reveals.

At the start of 2014, they plan to conduct anniversary celebrations where they hope to gather Samovar’s loyal patrons. “Our 25th anniversary celebrations in 1991 were a trailblazer for the Kala Ghoda Festival, and it included poetry readings and dances in the Kala Ghoda parking lot. Prior to this nobody would use those spaces. We hope to set a trend with the 50th year celebrations too,” says Bhojwani.

Cafe gupshup
> Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan frequented the cafe while they dated. They would travel by bus and taxi to reach Samovar Cafe. 
> Artist MF Husain would barge in the eatery, pick up his favourite Baingan Ka Salan, wrap it in a roti and leave in
a huff. 
> Artist Jatin Das got married on the premises. 

The bliss of biting into a well-done chicken sandwich with chilled cola for company, under the shadow of gigantic 100-year-old trees, isn’t easy to articulate. Summer’s arrival and our chaotic commute added to the comfort of a meal in the lap of nature, at the Museum Cafe in Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

Museum Cafe
The Museum Cafe opened in December 2012. Pic/ Hassan M Kamal

The Museum Cafe opened in December 2012 along with the neighbouring Museum shop, that it shares the wall with. So, one wasn’t surprised to see not a single soul besides the attendant and the cashier. The only way to reach the Museum Cafe is through the Museum building; hence you can enter only after paying the entry fee of Rs 10. Once you pass through the Museum, and the stunning imagery of artifacts displayed in carefully preserved glass boxes, you enter the backyard of the museum. As we walked towards the café, we noticed that the space doubles up as an exhibition area for contemporary art installations. While we are inspired by the art, we had more pressing issues to attend at the time, like freshening up but there was no washroom in sight. It’s when we were told that the washroom is accessible only after paying Rs 5.

Food for thought
The cafe seating is divided into two sections — the inside, which we felt might get a bit claustrophobic if crowded. It was also hot the day we dropped by. So, the

al fresco outer environs under the shade of the trees beckoned. Soon, a cafe attendant greeted us with the menu. We noticed that it had listed the two most expensive items Vegetarian Thali (Rs195) and Non-Vegetarian Thali (Rs 245) at the top. The cheapest item is the Vada Pav (Rs 20). Skipping it for a more fuller, mid-day snack, we chose the Chicken Sandwich (Rs 60), Veg Kathi Roll (Rs 85), Brownie (Rs 45) and a can of cola (Rs 35). The attendant offered to grill our sandwich, which we agreed too, only to discover later, (on re-reading the menu) that it would cost an extra Rs 10.

The Parsi, Maharashtrian and Gujarati delicacies mentioned in the Museum’s newsletter were amiss — on enquiry, we learnt that it would take a while.

But the Chicken Sandwich, served with tomato ketchup, won our vote. In fact, what works for the café's menu are its snacks, which not only tasted good (we loved the Kathi Roll and Brownie), but were reasonably priced too.

The next time you’re at the museum, drop by this idyllic café — to switch off and relax in its natural ambiance. Never mind the rising mercury.

Go to top