Author Amit Gurbaxani Photography Manjari Sharma
I grab a few packs and head for the gleefully artistic South Mumbai neighborhood of Kala Ghoda, a five-minute stroll from the hotel, pausing along the way to take in a couple of the city’s 19th-century architectural gems: the Romanesque Transitional Elphinstone College and the neo-Gothic Indian Mercantile Mansion. I also pop into the Rhythm House, Mumbai’s most famous music store, where I grapple with a purchasing decision: Bombay Lounge or Bombay Chill Out?
Breakfast is at the Nutcracker, a small, funky vegetarian eatery that’s known for serving excellent comfort food. I have the eggs Kejriwal, a dish of fried eggs on toast topped with cheese and chilies, which puts a spring in my step. I head out into the bright sunshine, passing the caricaturists, palm readers and rice writers lining the sidewalk, on my way to the largest, most unpronounceable museum in Mumbai.
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya is still commonly referred to as the Prince of Wales Museum, which was its official name until the mid-1990s, when Bombay became Mumbai and many of its landmarks were renamed to reflect national rather than colonial traditions. The museum is housed in a huge domed building, an exceptional example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, which fuses European, Indian and Islamic styles to dramatic effect. The collection here is equally eclectic, encompassing everything from sixth-century religious statues to a stuffed white tiger. “Grrroar!” it says as I walk by—or maybe that’s my stomach.
Lunch is a short taxi ride away at Britannia & Co., one of Mumbai’s last remaining Parsi cafés, which were established in the early 20th century by Iranian immigrants. The crystal chandelier aside, this is not a swanky place—the paint is peeling, and the most prominent artwork is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (the nonagenarian owner, Boman Kohinoor Irani, is a staunch royalist and can generally be found wandering among the diners extolling the virtues of the British Raj). Food writer and Vogue India contributing editor Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi insists, however, that you’d be hard pressed to get a better berry pulav anywhere in India.
To prove her point, Roshni is joining me here, the first stop in a whirlwind tour of her favorite Mumbai eateries. “For me, one of the things that make Bombay such a great place is old restaurants like this,” she says. “For a lot of people, it’s almost as if their life depends on these places being open, because they go there to eat every day.” We order the berry pulav, a richly flavored rice dish of chicken or mutton, spices, fried onions and tart barberries imported from Iran, and round things off with fluffy caramel custard. Boman stops at our table to soak up some deserved praise. “My son is the chef,” he says, beaming, then sends us off with wishes for “a pleasant life and a safe journey.”
On our stroll back to Kala Ghoda, we walk past the wrought iron gates of the Horniman Circle Gardens, where, in the 1850s, a group of traders formed the city’s first stock exchange, in the shade of a banyan tree that still stands today. It’s a picturesque, peaceful spot, but Roshni has her own reasons for coming here. “I love that the park is surrounded by people selling street food,” she says, “from chana chor garam [fried and spiced chick peas] to bhel puri [a snack of puffed rice].”
I part ways with Roshni and head to the nearby home decor and design store Filter, which is filled with things I want but don’t need. Having picked up a few vintage Hindi film posters, I head out to explore the many art galleries that have opened in the Colaba–Kala Ghoda area. One of the more prominent of these, Chatterjee & Lal, is housed inside the pleasantly shabby Kamal Mansion. I pop in to find a young couple taking selfies next to a fiberglass Spider-Man, which is a cast of its creator, British-Indian artist Hetain Patel, wearing the superhero suit.
Not far from Patel’s Spidey stands a testament to a different kind of power: the 85-foot, basalt-and-concrete Gateway of India, overlooking Mumbai Harbor—a Hindu-Muslim spin on the ceremonial arch. Built by the British in 1911 to commemorate themselves, it was also the point from which the last British troops left the country in 1948, which seems fitting. Today, it serves as a meeting point for locals, who are catered to by a clutter of street vendors selling roasted corn, ice cream and coconut water. I, however, have another kind of beverage in mind.
A quick stroll along the waterfront brings me to Cafe Marina, a rooftop bar that provides a perfect vantage point as the sun sets over the harbor, dousing the Gateway and the Taj hotel in pink and orange hues. “What’s that?” I ask my waiter, pointing at a huge white structure in the distance. “Asvini Hospital,” he replies, “where they filmed that movie with Amitabh Bachchan.” In Mumbai, you’re never far from a Bollywood reference.
From here, I walk five minutes or so for a spritz at the hotel, then cross the street to reunite with Roshni for dinner at Ling’s Pavilion, a local institution where the decor, clients and quality of the food haven’t changed in 20 years. “That’s what I love about Ling’s: the consistency,” Roshni says. “The way the pot rice smells is exactly the same every time.” We eat perfectly cooked salt-and-pepper prawns and meaty mushroom pot rice in view of a portrait of a white cat. “It’s a piece of Chinese silk embroidery art,” the restaurant’s owner, Baba Ling, tells us with pride. “The Chinese consul-general gave it to us in appreciation of what we’re doing for China.”
Our last stop of the evening is a few blocks northwest at Ellipsis, an artsy restaurant-bar designed by industry darling Thomas Schoos. There’s clearly somebody important in the house tonight, because there are two huge bodyguards at the approach and a couple more seated at the table next to ours. Over cocktails, Roshni and I speculate about which Bollywood star might be here, only to learn that the muscle belongs to a local property developer.
Ah, well. On my way back to Abode, I make eye contact with a hand-drum seller. Oops. “Only 600 rupees, sir, 10 dollars,” he says. “Five,” I respond. We settle on eight and I walk away, fully aware that I’ve been had, but still tapping a happy beat.