For the first time in 94 years, Parsi culinary stronghold RTI dusts off old-fashioned caution to create high-end gourmet dishes that look at France and Italy, and invites mid-day for a bite
Assorted cheese platter
On the busy junction that connects Hughes Road to Babulnath, everything has changed, and yet, nothing has. The Sir Ratan Tata Institute (RTI) headquarters has been standing here for 94 years, selling delectable Parsi snacks through a ground floor cafe-shop and shipping out daily tiffins across the city to patrons from the Parsi and Irani Zoroastrian community.
From the traditional lunch dish dhansak to evening tea snacks,such as dal ni pori, patrel, bhakra, to traditional desserts that include lagan nu custard, ravo and sev to cutlets, pies, and quiches, which the meat-loving community is partial to, the menu is testimony to RTI being the custodian of traditionally made, authentic Parsi recipes that have survived decades.
Dar ni pori
Winds of change are blowing in the kitchen that sits at the rear end of the cafe. Old timers who’ve worked its stoves for much of their lives are privy to new entrants that have made it to RTI’s menu. “These vol-au-vents are so small, they’d fit in my cavity,” jokes one of them, her hair kept off her face with a tight scarf. The deconstructed cheese celery vol-au-vent is one of 46 new dishes that have been introduced to the Gourmet at 35 (referencing the street’s code number) helmed by Arzan Sabawalla and Hooma Billimoria.
They work under the expert eyes of Shernaz Buhariwala and Kaiyosh Kerawala. “It was a collective idea [to go gourmet] that got a nod from every committee member,” Sabawalla tells mid-day. “It meant stepping out of our comfort zone and going beyond the regular, traditional menu, which of course, continues to be on offer. This one is different and for the more demanding clientele. After the lockdown, we realised that people have grown fond of hosting house parties with lavish items on the menu. When the city opened up, we got queries about whether we’d cater for them.”
Pearl Barley Rissoto
RTI will now offer a range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian salads, mains and desserts, available on pre-order, while also allowing some of these dishes to share shelf space with their authentic Parsi counterparts.
The newer entrants include cranberry and walnut cheese logs, bocconcini cheese and cherry tomato skewers, pear, feta and arugula mixed salad microgreens with candied walnuts, Thai green curry, and chocolate cherry pudding among others. “Those working from home suggested that we add more gourmet items to the menu. Even some of our patrons, who prefer only the classics, were happy to try the new items on the menu when hosting a get-together,” adds Buhariwala.
The story of reimagination involved the team working on trials for six months, seeing what works, not just for the Bawa clientele, but their larger audience too. The one thing the team had to ensure was that certain flavours had the quintessential RTI spin. “We created the dishes and sent them out for trials and made changes according to feedback. Even in the kitchen, we sensed the initial apprehension, but got over that quickly. After training, the staff grew confident to experiment and were excited to learn something new,” says Kerawala.
Rati Patwa, a senior staffer, who the rest lovingly call “Rati aunty”, 75, has been with RTI for 30 years. She says she’d be delighted if everyone tried something off the gourmet menu. But we ask her which dish she personally likes, she says bluntly in Gujarati, “Kai nahin [nothing].” She clarifies that she prefers old-world classics. “I like authentic Parsi food; this menu isn’t for me, but I am glad we are doing it for those who are keen to try high-end eats. When new staff comes in, they bring with them fresh ideas and methods; that’s a refreshing change,” she adds.
Formerly, The Landmark, the space is now being rented out for parties and events, with catering from RTI
Beside the space that houses the takeaway counter and cafe is an area that once was rented out for parties and exhibitions. This multi-functional space is where the team now hopes clients will host half-day and full-day meetings, intimate events and pop-ups, with in-house catering by the brand. The wrought-iron spiral stairs up the mezzanine, a large vase of heliconias on the floor and glass jars holding carnations on the table, with the evening sun entering the frosted window glass makes this simple but vintage setting ideal for those looking for a classic feel to what they are hosting. It subconsciously transports you to another era that is perhaps not waiting or wanting to change. The team tells us that interestingly, this space has almost always had culinary connections. Back in the 1980s, it used to house a restaurant called The Landmark.
It’s this juxtaposition of old and new, of the resolve to protect the traditional while embracing change that makes RTI relevant today. Lady Navajbai Tata, Ratan Tata’s grandmother, Tata Sons’ first woman director and the pioneer who launched the institute in 1928 to discourage dole and make the not-so-fortunate Parsis self sufficient with employment training, would’ve approved.
Cheese celery vol-au-vent trumps lamb ragout
Arzaan Sabawalla, Head Chef RTI, Rati Patwa, a senior staffer; and Hooma Billimoria, HOD cake and confectionery, RTI. Pic/Ashish Raje
From a spread of the old and the new, we tried the mini chicken sliders (Rs 1,000 for 12 pieces) and loved how the patty had a smoky kick that blended well with the cheese and caramelised onion. The deconstructed cheese celery vol-au-vents (Rs 660 for 12 pieces) were a hit. The creamy, cheesy paste sat perfectly in the small, hollow case of the freshly baked puff pastry. “They are house party-perfect since they can be piped right before serving. Most of the dishes on the menu are like that—easy to assemble,” says Billimoria, who is particularly fond of the cheese logs. “We split the milk and make the log from scratch, so you’ll notice it has our signature taste,” she adds. We tried the cranberry almond dill (Rs 350) and agree that it didn’t taste like the regular cheese log. That hint of homemade, typical to the brand, lingered on our tongue.
Deconstructed celery vol-au-vent
We liked the lemon cheesecake in a jar, which had the perfect complementing flavours of sweet and tart. The pearl barley risotto with mushroom and truffle (R2,040, serves 4) is Sabawalla’s favourite. Made with forest and button mushroom, it didn’t have the overpowering taste of truffle thankfully. Would’ve been better if the barley had taken on some more of the flavour. The flavours of lasagne lamb ragout (Rs 2,500, serves 8) weren’t too prominent either; something that Sabawalla and team will need to work on while competing with other South Mumbai outposts serving simple, stellar Continental fare, in order to stay ahead of the game.