How to swing at 60
As Mumbai's earliest Mughlai food restaurant turns 60, a father and son team discuss staying relevant with an unchanged menu in a time of new modern Indian cuisine
It's busy lunch hour at Khyber, Kala Ghoda's Indian restaurant. The corner table we are sitting at is incidentally the spot where late artist MF Husain would idly doodle, taking his art to the eatery's walls. The intervening years have erased nearly all trace of his brush strokes. But, for Sudheer Bahl, the memories are still fresh. "In the early '80s, Parmeshwar Godrej was given the job of revamping the interiors after an accidental fire destroyed the hotel. She roped in Husain and Anjolie Ela Menon to create the murals," he says. The period marked a second innings for the family, who had set up the restaurant in 1958. They were forced to down shutters in 1985 due to the blaze. It reopened three years later. Due to a delay in payment, Bahl recalls that Husain sent a letter to his now-deceased father, Omprakash Bahl, where he drew his signature horses and wrote, 'My horses are thirsty'.
He has preserved the letter. "It will fetch me at least 20 lakh," he jokes.
Although not "high on milestones", regaling listeners with delightful anecdotes is Bahl's way of celebrating the restaurant's 60th year. "Some of it is news to me," says his son Ishaan, 26, who has followed in his father's footsteps, setting up 145 Cafe & Bar in Bandra four years ago, and chased it with three more outlets since. Thanks to him, for the first time, Khyber will serve cocktails. The Bahls took the decision after several rounds of discussions. They were clear they didn't wish to experiment with the food. "Frankly, we have never made any significant change to the cuisine apart from minor tweaks, because it's our biggest draw," says Bahl. Many moons ago, they tried to introduce European cuisine and even held a tasting. Although guests enjoyed it, the feedback was to stick to what they did best—whip up delicious Mughlai food. The idea was duly dropped.
According to Ishaan, those who frequent the restaurant come in knowing what they want. "They don't need to browse the menu." Last year, actor Brad Pitt dropped by for a meal with his entourage. "He is vegetarian and had carried a piece of paper with him. It had the names of dishes he wanted to try. The first dish on the list was baingan ka bharta," Bahl shares. The 180-seater has been a hotspot for celebrities and has been frequented by Sir Paul McCartney, Amitabh Bachchan, Prince of Luxemborough, the Kuwait royal family, Sir Richard Branson, Aamir Khan, Goldie Hawn, Richard Gere and Demi Moore. "Interestingly, before opening doors in 1988, Parmeshwar threw a private party here that saw a galaxy of stars, including Vinod Khanna and Feroze Khan. And, we did not have power at the restaurant that day. We hadn't managed an electricity connection. But, Parmeshwar being Parmeshwar, could make everything seem cool. She told the guests that there was no air conditioning at the party but that shouldn't stop you from having fun," Bahl says, adding that Shah Rukh Khan celebrated his early success in Bollywood with a bash here.
Snapshots from the album show Sudheer Bahl and Parmeshwar Godrej dining with Goldie Hawn and Sally Fields at Khyber in November 2009
To sustain and grow at a time when restaurants are struggling to break even is not easy. Bahl has managed to do it, he says, on account of the business acumen he inherited from his parents. "When you grow up in a small business family that only talks about food, you become hardwired to manage the business. It's all you know." His mother Saroj, too, was hands on with the daily affairs. "When the restaurant reopened in 1988, a guest mentioned that we should introduce raan on the menu. She went to the kitchen and whipped up a dish with help from the staff. Till date, the raan biryani is one of our fastest moving dishes."
The taste test
Unlike the food menu that focuses on Indian ingredients, the cocktail menu has been designed to appeal to a wider audience. The cocktails, all evenly priced at R395, are additions to original classics whisky sour, sangria and pina colada
The first drink we try, the sweet sonnet, turns out to be the finest. It is a blend of roasted coriander seeds drenched in white rum and muddled with Punjabi jaggery syrup, plum juice and fresh lime, shaken with egg white. You can taste each of the flavours on your tongue.
For those who love whisky, there is saffron spark. It’s the intoxicating aroma of this cocktail that hits you first. The drink contains fresh pineapple juice, biryani masala-honey syrup, sour mix, saffron, citrus bitters and a splash of ginger ale
The vodka martini made with fresh watermelon is as pretty to look at as it is to taste. It is refreshing and slightly bitter, which gives the fruity cocktail a layer of complexity
The year Khyber shuttered after a fire broke out on the premises
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