One afternoon this week, I drove through patches of rain from the Flora Fountain end of the town to the bottom of Pali Hill in Bandra for a fish thali (Rs. 80) at Entertainment Impresario A. D. Singh's Soul Fry. Probably the journey cost me more than the food, but it was worth it, money and time. It is the best fish thali I have eaten after that of the Hindu Goan restaurant, on the first floor, in Panaji, behind the Mandovi Hotel. I forget the name. Would somebody oblige? Thali meals are served only at lunch, not dinner, when the restobar turns a la carte. You get fish, chicken, mutton and vegetarian thalis. The vegetarian costs Rs. 50, the rest Rs. 80. And, no, they are not unlimited, but sufficient.
My thali had two bombils (Bombay ducks), crisp fried. Not as crisp as Gajali's, perhaps, which are like biscuits, but still crisp. What they do is slit the fish and remove the single bone, unlike in Parsi cooking, where the bombil is pan fried with the bone. Once the bone is removed, the water is drained from the fish by placing a heavy weight on to. At Soul Fry, they treat the bombil with a simple masala of red chilli, haldi and jeera powder, mixed in Goa palm vinegar, and they pat the fish with fine rice powder before shallow frying it. The skin is crisp, the inside soft. The Parsi bombil is soft all over, and fluffy, done in egg batter. Also you may suck the bone, crunch it in the mouth, extracting its fishy juices, though there is an old wive's tale that it gives you elephantitis. Don't believe it. The bombil is one of the items on the thali, there is a fish curry, with a slice of surmai or rawas or a small pomfret, but always fresh fish, bought the same morning from the Citylight market at Mahim, never sardines, mackerel, bangaras, products of the cold storage. Then a large spoonful of clams, what they call tissri, done in a dry coconut masala. Pick up each shell and suck. And one vati of Goan dal. The Goa dal is special, it is a blend of tur and masoor, more of the former, plus jaggery and ground coconut. Almost like the Gujarati dal in tis sweetness. And there is a bowl of steamed rice, which you may have with the dal or the fish curry. Plus rotis, papad, roasted or fried, make your choice,and an achar.
For Rs. 80, it can't get to be more VFM. The chicken thali has a masala chicken, crumb fried, and a boneless chicken curry. And the mutton thali has mutton xacuti and fried lamb chops, as substitutes. How do they afford it? Meldan D'Cunha, Singh's partner and a chef by profession, carefully balances the cooking, a tight control on buying and stores, keeping wastages down. Meldan is a graduate in hotel management and has ten years of experience at the Oberoi, working in all the kitchens, plus another year-and-a-half in the galleys of the US Carnival Cruiser Line. A.D. Singh, of course, is a man of all seasons, his fame has travelled from Just Desserts in Homi Mody Street, Copa-Cabaana and Thai Nights to Bowling Company and Soul Kadi, Soul Fry is a follow up to the Soul Kadi started in the caverns of the old Phoenix Mills. Logically, I should have written about Soul Kadi first, but in matters of food you can't get too chronological. You go where hunger leads you.
There are some a la carte items at lunch, for those who do not want an entire thali. The menu hangs over your head, from the ceiling. You pull it down to eye-level and read. Its a pulley system, perfectly workable. Gimmicky, possibly, but also quite practical, The tables are small, under the glass table top are chess and snakes-and-ladder boards, no place to keep a menu. There are interesting little tit-bits attached to the menu, to keep you amused. Mine said: "I'd give my arm to be ambidextrous." The hanging menu idea is original, it comes from the fertile mind of Clement D'Silva, the young architect who designed the place. The place is comfortable cosy, like an international cafe, though not serving itsy bitsy cafe food. Instead, it serves familiar food that people have grown up with. Many dishes have come from the chef's mother's Goan kitchen. Also, his mother-in-law's. Essentially,it is home-style food, made commercial. Small portions, low on oils, well priced. A happy mix of Mangalorean, Goan and Malwan. There are also a few tandoori items, but the base is curries. And thank heavens for that.
The nights are different. There are jazz nights (once a month). Foster's beer nights (once a week), an a la carte menu of crabs and lobsters (every night, provided a fresh catch is available). Try the crab fusion, Indian spices and Continental herbs, or the more traditional Manglorean crab curry (denji curry), and you get both the crab and lobster rechad, in the fiery red Goan masala. The crabs are Rs. 100. No, a zero has not been dropped by mistake, it is Rs.100. The lobster dishes Rs. 200.
They have several prawn items, from prawn gassi to prawns smoked with mustard leaves (sarson) in a tandoor. And prawns cooked aldente, stir fried with chilli paste and tamarind juice. My favourite are prawns, slightly larger than medium sized,done in coconut milk and cooking cheese. The coconut forms the base of the sauce, the cheese gives the thickness, and it is quite thick. The prawns are cooked with diced capsicum and freshly ground black pepper. My other favourite prawn dish is the prawn peri-peri and the Soul Fry version compares with St. Anthony's at Bagha Beach. The prawns are cooked in a fish stock, with a masala made of sautéed onions, garlics, Kashmiri chilli paste, haldi, a touch of garam masala, black pepper powder, a little sugar, all nicely mixed in vinegar. Rice flour is added to the fish stock in which it is cooked, to thicken it. You may instruct the waiter how thick you want your peri-peri. It is as simple as that The price, Rs. 150.
The vindaloo, unfortunately, is made with mutton and chicken. The restaurant does not serve pork or beef. And beef I can do without, but I die for a pork vindaloo, I will go on dying at City Kitchen at Fort Market and Martin's on Arthur Bunder Road.
Finally, the Goa curry rice. You may have it with surmai, rawas or pomfret, and it is made with tamarind extract, no vinegar. There's coconut milk in the curry and the masalas used are raw, not fried as in Punjabi dishes. Rs.80 for Goa fish curry and rice, and I am ready to go to Pali Hill for that, any time. Let me give you the exact address: Soul Fry, Silver Croft Pali Malla Road. You go down Turner Road, turn right at the Hong Kong Bank, then left, then right again, till you hit the Pali Naka.