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  • Nikita Nikalje

Native Bombay in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate is a delightful exploration of traditional Indian flavours

The newest entrant to the SoBo restaurant and bar scene believes less is more, focusing on indigenous ingredients and punchy flavours to create a refined experience.

When a 10,000-sqft art gallery in Ballard Estate—opened in April this year, it made the news for being a beautiful architectural project housed in a now-defunct 143-year-old ice factory. The gallery includes three art spaces along with the serene Banyan Tree Cafe. The latter has been built around a glorious banyan tree, its complex network of roots and branches spreading out over the roof. Here, what’s old is respected and preserved and newness is built around it. Native Bombay, the new restaurant and bar housed within IF.BE, approaches regional Indian food with the same philosophy.

Much like the rest of IF.BE, Native Bombay is all exposed brick walls and wood panels. Parts of the original architecture, like a tiny wooden door with a rusted lock, have been retained in the space. While the restaurant is up on the first floor, when you enter—the back entrance of IF.BE on Cochin Street—it is the Native negroni bar that you are greeted with. Bottles of Campari, gin and vermouth line the shelves of the island bar, which has a menu carefully curated by head mixologist Denzil Franklin. “There aren’t a lot of bars focussing on Negroni in Mumbai or even the country,” says Franklin, as he deftly concocts a mixture of aromatised wine, gin and campari and pours it into an aeropress with coffee grounds from Chikmagalur in it. “We want to change the impression that Negroni is a bitter drink that cannot be enjoyed.” He places the cocktail before me, topping it with three coffee beans. In an effort to make the drink less intimidating to beginners, all the Negronis on the menu contain flavours that would be easily palatable and even familiar—coconut and curry leaves, passionfruit, pandan and more. The Kaapi cocktail offers a refreshing but mild hit of caffeine, while the Coco & Curry is reminiscent of an aromatic South Indian tadka.

Upstairs at the restaurant, we place our drinks on coasters that are lined with the text “anything but bland”—a phrase that accurately encompasses the flavours to come. The extensive food menu brings together food from Rajasthan, Nagaland, Kashmir, Kerala, Uttarakhand and more in small and large plates. There are also “Native sets”—curated vegetarian and non-vegetarian menus perfect for non-Indian tourists who want a well-rounded introduction to Indian food, or diners that don’t want to browse the 120-item menu. “If you go to a restaurant these days, you may get either Mughlai or Goan or South Indian food,” says chef Bhairav Singh, who comes with over 24 years of culinary experience at IHG, Accor, Marriott, Hyatt, Oberoi and more, as he sets down a plate of the Bombay Bomb—potatoes stuffed with a sweet-sour-crunchy mix of Mumbai chaat. “Why not get all of that in one place?”

In quick succession, come an array of small plates. There are perfectly cooked, smoky pieces of chicken tikka—named NH48 chicken tikka after the highway dhaba that inspired the dish. The maska prawns are baked in a clay oven and placed on a bed of jaggery chutney. “Don’t be concerned by the butter,” chef Singh laughs, as he pours the glistening melted liquid infused with pearl garlic from Kashmir over the jumbo prawns. The dish felt like an orchestra of complementary instruments coming together to find the same pitch—the savoury layer of masala over fresh prawns, followed by the surprising mild sweetness of jaggery. I’m no musician, but this felt like pitch perfect.

As much as Indian food is about balance, it is also about extremes. On a scale of spicy to sweet, India probably has a dish for every centimetre. The Naga chilli pork, made with a paste of dalle khursane and bhut jolokia chillies, falls on the higher part of this scale, to put it mildly. And yet, despite the fire on our tongues and the hot tears rolling down our cheeks, we found ourselves going back for a second bite (the trick, we learn, is to resist the urge to reach for water and give your tongue some time to calm itself). “If you eat something that has a lot of store-bought red chilli powder, it may upset your stomach,” says Singh, who has a keen interest in Ayurvedic and Vedic cooking. “But the heat from a bhut jolokia from Nagaland or peppercorns from Kerala won’t do that. They say, if the masalas in your kitchen are right, you will never need to see a doctor.”

To survive the delicious chilli pork, we recommend also ordering the paan paneer tikka, which is stuffed with Banarasi betel leaf puree and served with fennel chutney and refreshing Kannauj gulkand that will cool your taste buds. Singh’s love for Rajasthan—he is originally from Nathdwara—shows in the Jodhpuri ker sangri. The dish is like a Rajasthani jalapeno popper, featuring fried chillies stuffed with ker berries, sangri beans and cheese. To complement the rollercoaster of flavours the food offers, we recommend opting for refreshing drinks from the nostalgic cocktail menu, which features flavours inspired by the street food of your childhood—slices of starfruit and jeera soda on a sweltering summer day, the tangy tamarind chutney of pani puris after school and even the kadha your mother made you drink to tide through coughs and colds—all spiked with a dash of alcohol.

The mains take us to Goa and Uttarakhand, with a tangy kokum-infused chonak curry and rice, and the Pahadi-style kafuli paneer made with fresh palak and methi. The latter steers away from the standard rich-and-creamy palak paneer to offer a light and delicious variant where the greens overshadow the paneer completely. We mop it all up with a crunchy bundle of chur chur naan. The same lightness follows in the desserts. The rasmalai tres leches is a clear winner—soft, airy and with that delicious milky sweetness of a good rasmalai, all finished with a theatrical flambé at your table. “Of course you eat with your tongue but you eat with your eyes too,” Singh says. At Native Bombay, amidst the minor theatrics and fine-dining presentation for your eyes, Indian flavours are intact and unabashed for your tongue. I imagine Singh perceives these flavours the same way the architects of IF.BE would have perceived the century-old structures of the ice factory—as something to be adored and enjoyed, preserved and celebrated in all its glory.

Address: 10/12, Cochin Street, Ballard Estate, Fort, Mumbai

Phone Number: +919619066000

Average Cost: ₹3,000 for two people (approx.) Without alcohol



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