I have immense respect for home cooks. And by home cooks, I don’t mean imposters like me who cook the odd fancy meal and daydream of conquering unfamiliar techniques but are not too dependable when it comes to getting a meal on the table by the time you actually need it. I refer to those paragons of discipline, focus and constancy who cook day in and day out and dole out delicious, nutritious, made-from-scratch meals every single day, bang on time. The best Indian meals I’ve had have almost always been at someone’s home. More often than not, it was cooked by such a paragon who reigns over her own kitchen and operates on instinct rather than with fancy recipes, ingredients or techniques. Unfortunately, in the rushed, conveyor belt environment of a restaurant kitchen, it’s not easy to replicate this sort of simple perfection. Perfection that is born of cooking everyday in the constraints of the home kitchen, motivated by your love for those you are cooking for and rooted in the touchstone of traditional wisdom. It’s no wonder that for those used to eating such meals at home, most experiences of eating Indian food outside the home ends up being disappointing.
It was, therefore with a bit of skepticism that I walked into the newly opened Gonguura on Juhu Versova link road the other day when we were driving by. With a name like Gonguura though, (a type of sorrel leaf used in Andhra cuisine for its distinct tartness) things seemed like they were headed in an interesting direction. We were greeted by a smiling Srividya and welcomed into a simple, well-lit space and handed the short but interesting menu. That first time I met her, out of curiosity I asked Srividya if she was a chef and smiling, she described herself as a home-cook rather than a chef. That description, which reflected amply in the quality and flavour of its food and service, is to me the most telling aspect of this unassuming restaurant.
It takes some time and probing for one to discover the solid frame of steel that lies behind the soft spoken, gentle presence that is Srividya. That she is a graduate from IIM Lucknow and was at a senior position in L&T Finance for over a decade, may not immediately be apparent from her unassuming personality. But just a little time spent here and as you watch her move from welcoming guests personally to making the chutneys and supervising the serving staff, you know that this is a woman of great strength. And her immense gumption, grit and capability reflect in the story of how she set up Mumbai’s first Andhra restaurant while mothering 2 little children, against all advice to the contrary.
That she is also a home-cook of great calibre is abundantly clear in the nuanced flavours of the lip-smacking comfort food that this restaurant serves. As soon as the Mysore onion dosa arrived at the table, Sheryl and Atul both commented on how the sambar and dosa smelt exactly like my mom’s. Delightfully, it tasted almost exactly the same too. Earthy, honest flavours that pay testament to cooks straight from Andhra, ample experience, fresh ingredients and time-tested heirloom recipes. Authentic. Much as I have come to regard that word with suspicion, there’s no other way to describe the food here. Do not expect a large paper crisp dosa that splinters when you break it but then tastes of nothing. This is more the dosa eaten in a South Indian home for breakfast – hot and crisp, straight from the iron griddle or kal. Unlike a restaurant dosa (kept crisp with the aid of sugar added to the dough), these dosas may not retain their crackle for too long but they will hold on to that lovely flavour even as they cool down – light, savoury, a tad sour from just the right amount of fermentation, aromatic with real ghee. As much as we loved the crisp-soft dosa, what swept us off our feets were the chutneys that accompany. The quintessentially Andhra peanut and tamarind chutney or Verusenaga Pachadi / Palli Pachadi which is nutty, tangy and spicy tempered beautifully with curry leaves and mustard. The tamarind, ginger and jaggery chutney, on the other hand is the perfect balance of gingery heat, sweet and sour. Similar to the Keralite inji curry I made for Onam but only better. Perhaps even the best version I’ve ever had. Yum!
And then there is this perfectly portioned special thali that is absolutely sating without leaving you overfull and sick. The soft fluffy Puris were polished off quickly enough but the steamed rice with the rasam and poppadum was savoured, hitting that sweet spot of groan-inducing comfort that only a native rice eater can understand. If that wasn’t good enough, there was flavoured rice (both the lemon rice and tamarind rice are fantastic) 2 dry sabzis, one gravied vegetable, sambar and gun powder! From the simple coconut speckled dry cabbage dish to the sweet and sour gravied arbi and the radish replete sambar (a rare encounter in Mumbai sambar!), each side-dish was perfect. As was that rarity – homemade creamy melt-in-your-mouth-good dahi, set just right to round up the spicy meal and cool off the taste buds before you pamper them again with the dessert – semiya payasam. In other words, kheer that is milky, sweet and deliciously nutty with ghee roasted vermicelli.
As a Keralite who doesn’t herself cook south Indian food often enough, I have often craved for this taste of home in Mumbai. Yes, the fare at the Matunga restaurants of the Ramanayak ilk are absolutely worth the Sunday trek. However, mouth-watering though their faremaybe, to me they do not qualify as home food. Home style food is food that tastes, simple, real and fresh.Food that tastes of hadcrafted attention to detail, traditions and nostalgia. Food that you can eat for every single meal without feeling sick or overfull. And that’s exactly what Gongura delivers. What’s more, those repeat visits won’t damage your wallet too much either.
From Punuglu And Pesarettu to Dibba Roti, Perugu Wada and Mysore Bhajji, the menu at Gonguura, though limited, offers a lot of unusual fare for those seeking to explore Andhra cuisine. It’s no wonder that in the short span of 2 weeks, this little place has started to create a niche, loyal following of its own among Mumbai’s South Indian food enthusiasts. There are South Indian food enthusiasts from South Bombay or Powai who trek all the way here to check out Mumbai’s only Andhra thali place and bachelors in the Andheri Juhu region who have taken to ordering lunch from here regularly. Gonguura may not be bursting at its seams every time you visit but most of those who visit are known to return within the week if not the very next day (I ate there thrice in a week!). And that is surely the best possible testament for a restaurant to offer. With no publicist to beat its drum, famous chefs to endorse it or fancy interiors to boast of, I hope this little gem will dig deep roots and find space to grow tall and strong. I’d like to think that with the quality of food on offer, it can hang in there even in the crowded competitive market that is Mumbai’s restaurant scene. With my frequent longings for a taste of home, I know I’ll be returning there often.
Cost for 2: Rs 750
Location: 5/6, Juhu Ekta Co-operative Housing Society, Juhu Versova Link Road, Andheri West, Mumbai
(At Juhu circle, turn towards Andheri so that you are on the link road. Take the immediate left and you will see Gonguura soon after on your left)
Contact: 022- 30150832
The Ambience: Simple and unassuming. But when the food is this good, one couldn’t care less.
The Service: We once went with friends who have a little boy and without our asking for it, a dish of poori with sugar appeared for the little one as we waited for tables to get free. And then there was this other time when we were moaning in ecstasy over a dosa and another appeared in front of us because the cooks thought the earlier one was overcooked and not good enough! Needless to say, the service is genuine, warm and friendly with Srividya and her relatives themselves making sure that the food is perfect and each table gets the attention it deserves.
The Verdict: Everything we ate was really good and I can’t say this enough – this is the closest to home cooked food I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. The thali makes a fantastic filling lunch or dinner and the dosas, idlis and other traditional snacks on the menu make for equally great, if smaller meals. You might want to order two dosas here if you are tucking in for lunch since the size is typical of the home kitchen rather than the typically larger restaurant sized portions. But given the modest pricing, you probably won’t mind that. The fantastic pricing of just Rs 750 for two makes this a superb find that you can eat at as often as you like. All in all, a must visit for lovers of South Indian food.
The only catch – Gonguura is yet in its infancy and one hopes that the quality of food and service weather the test of time. As the crowd grows, challenges will mount and sustaining quality and that homey taste may get tougher and tougher. My finger stay firmly crossed.
Why I will go back:
- The Special Thaali (350)
- Pulihora (130)
- Lemon Rice (110)
- Rava onion Dosa (130)
- Ghee Roast (150)
What I may not order next time:
- Podi Annam (150) – No bone to pick really, except that I found it a tad monotonous