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Sarvis with a smile February 18, 2007

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
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Sarvis is near Bombay’s red light area, it’s 90 years old, and it makes the best kebabs in the universe

By C Y Gopinath

HIS NAME WAS DIMTIMKAR. I don’t know anything about him.

He must have been someone special, because they finally named a small one-way street in Bombay’s Nagpada after him. Perhaps he was a fire-eater. Or a ventriloquist. Or a very tall man who could effortlessly memorize 98-digit numbers. Or perhaps he was a freedom fighter, one of that disillusioned lot who wonder today why they bothered at all. Me, I just like the name Dimtimkar, it sounds like a cloudy night with just a few stars barely visible.

I will never forget Dimtimkar: three weeks ago I discovered a restaurant called Sarvis, which stands exactly where the square bifurcates into Dimtimkar Road and Nagpada Road.

You can only stumble upon Sarvis if you’re the kind that visits Bombay’s red light area, Kamathipura. Fortunately, I’ll go anywhere for food. So one still, humid, and joyless evening in late April, my friend Utkarsh and I went walking down Falkland Road, looking for some flesh. Before your mind jumps to some reprehensible conclusion about my libido or value system, let me state that the sort of flesh we were seeking is usually served skewered on spitzes in roadside restaurants. Kamathipura, it is said, crawls with these brisk and burly eateries.

“It’s only logical,” said Utkarsh, who once played the leading role in a street play about AIDS, performed for a hall full of prostitutes. “People come here to satisfy their senses. Good food, cheap liquor, quick sex. How can you get bad food in a place designed for the senses?”

“Makes sense,” I said. “Shall we go to the Sher-e-Punjab then?”

Utkarsh made a moué.

“What did you have in mind? Anant Ashram?” I asked. “It’s not exactly in the red light area.”

He shook his head. “Sarvis,” he said.

“Well,” I argued, “You can’t be too fussy about service in an area like this, you know. . .”

“Sarvis,” he repeated. “Not service. There’s a little place called Sarvis. I went there once long ago. I think I can find my way back if I try. They used to serve exceptional kebabs.”

* * * * *

You could say Sarvis has no class at all. They have clearly learnt nothing about hoteliering in 90 years of serving food. But the reason why we are foregathered here today, my comrades of the night, is that they have also forgotten nothing in 90 years. Especially the art of making kebabs. On the Dimtimkar Road pavement a young lout wearing singlets and a white smile on a coal-black face is patting beef mince around flat spitzes and turning them into kebabs over an angry coal brazier. The flat, gauche-looking kebabs that he will toss on to a small saucer are without doubt the best in the galaxy. In my opinion (and the opinion of the Chief Chef of the Oberoi Flight Kitchen, who I took there on another evening).

Utkarsh and I seated ourselves at one of the round marble top tables. A mangy kitten immediately wrapped herself around my ankles. A muscular, gladiator-like fellow called Kalhan, completely bald, and with the amused insolence of a Spartacus, was somehow managing to serve all 19 customers at Sarvis that evening. All were eating the same thing: dal kheema with hot, round and soft rotis, a small saucer of chutney and fresh onions on the side. No drinks, not even soft ones like Thums Up or Pepsi: remember, one Pepsi equals two kebabs, and to anyone at Sarvis there’s no doubt which is the right choice, baby. The patrons are people who work with their hands: carpenters, cart pullers, taxi drivers, perhaps bachelors living in the vicinity. Sarvis is a perfect place for class conflict.

When a man can eat plain kebabs and rotis, with sprigs of fresh mint, and not feel the need for something a little juicy, with perhaps a little gravy, then that is a prince among kebabs. Even Dimtimkar would agree. The simple succulence of the Sarvis kebab, its softness, its warmth, its even-handed and subtle spicing, its sparing use of oil, all combine to create a specialty that needs help from nothing else.

As to the softness now. Several discussions have already taken place, and serious foodophiles have bent their minds to it. Anjan Chatterjee, owner of Only Fish, is convinced that papaya is blended into the beef mince, and this is all that explains the tenderness. I myself wonder if they have not taken a page from some Middle Eastern book — in Turkey’s unparalleled lamb chops, called pirzolas, the meat is marinated in a mixture of lemon juice and onion juice.

Turns out Sarvis had a Middle-eastern clientele once. “In the early days,” said the hefty boy at the counter, “this area was different. There were many Jews, many Iranians, some Armenians, and such. Sarvis catered exclusively to them.”

Turns out staff turnover is high. On the wall, large letters written in cheap paint read: OUR WORKERS ARE PAID DAILY WAGES. How do you ensure consistent softness in your kebabs? I asked if you don’t have continuity in your kitchen staff?

The young man smiled like Mona Lisa. “Secret,” he said.

Papayas, I thought.

I should warn you that Sarvis closes at 11pm. And that they don’t serve sweet dishes. If you’re really interested, I suppose you could walk to some other restaurant and have something sweet. As long you stay away from the tarts.

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