With new restaurants opening every week and apps providing a multitude of cuisines to sample, it is almost easy to convince ourselves that this is perhaps how Mumbai’s dining scene has always been.
However, this city’s introduction to international or as we like to call it “continental” food had simpler beginnings- at the courtesy of gymkhanas and clubs in the city. And the newly opened Gymkhana 91 aims to pay homage, in a sense, to that dying tradition.
If we take a peek into industrial, post colonial Bombay (circa 1950), there was a surge of clubs/gymkhanas that offered memberships to the upper middle class families and elite residing here at the time.
These gymkhanas were all the rage, providing facilities to swim, golf and play polo and squash- activities associated with the western world then, and they were flocked by Indian families aplenty; all desperate to be a part of the new, modern, educated India that was at its infancy.
These clubs also had a restaurant or two within, menus of which contained heavy Western influences- presumably to pander to the taste buds of the British and Dutch officials before they were driven away. These became a success owing to the fact that dishes as simple as sandwiches or a plate of fish and chips deviated in a major way from the Indian food everyone was used to. Further, since this was only available to those with memberships, gymkhana restaurants went on to become the go to spot for celebrations, family outings and parties- the subject of a lot of exclusivity, status and pride.
Eventually, the restaurant culture did pick up, the result of which are the options available to us today. And while many gymkhanas still exist, they are a ghost of their former glory; their importance to Bombay society long forgotten by their former patrons and overlooked by a generation that grows up knowing what black truffles are, what molecular gastronomy is and somehow seem unable to ingest food unless a picture of it is taken on their smartphones first.
(Before my remarks are misconstrued as passing judgement, I should state that I am a part of this generation too- and suitably ashamed of it. Most of the time.)
Since the erstwhile Bombay is only one I’ve read of and not experienced, the moment Gymkhana 91 started making rounds in the blogging circuit, I knew I had to visit.
You walk in to a spacious and well laid out area, the Victorian influences apparent in the dim lighting, arches and choices in seating that impart an almost old world quality of times long gone by. What did seem out of place however was the choice in music- as much as I love Rihanna and Alicia Keys, it was loud and required for people to shout just to be heard and I’d personally prefer some jazz or blues to keep in with the theme of the place.
We were seated at once and offered their menus, and called for a bunch of stuff to sample with a couple of iced teas to wash it all down.
As most gymkhanas did back in the day, the menu is an array of Indian and global fare, and while there is a lot on offer, you do not feel overwhelmed with choices. There have definitely been some new age additions, like the baos and sushi, but even so they have kept to the concept of creating a dining space that gives you variety-gymkhana restaurant style.
The iced teas (green apple and lemon) were average at best, the classic problem being the lack of real tea in it. But thankfully the food more than made up for it:
Highly recommended by the reviews, you get four tiny kulchas topped with black sesame seeds, chilly and a squeeze of lime with the cheese within. As soon as you bite in, you get a taste of the salty, melty cheese that’s complemented by the spice and tang from the garnishing above and a latent nuttiness from the sesame- the chutney served alongside was hardly used. I don’t like the processed variety of cheese used in this generally, but somehow here, it just works. The bread was warm and soft to the bite. Small portions but really good.
Crispy Chicken with Chilly Orange Zest:
Ordered it wondering if it was their deconstructed take on the American-Chinese staple, Orange Chicken, and I’m still not sure if it was. The chicken was perfectly breaded, not too oily and they managed to cook the meat just right, which is a welcome change after all the overcooked chicken schnitzels I tend to find. It is served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce, with distinct notes of the chinese five spice blend. However, the orange is sadly missing in the dish and I think the sauce could have definitely done with a touch of citrus to elevate the flavour profile because the minimal zest perched upon the chicken is more a presentation gimmick than a real punch of flavour.
A Malaysian lamb curry, this is coconutty, spicy and creamy goodness on a plate, and I am certain would pair well with steamed rice or flatbread of your choosing. The meat was tender and fall off the bone, however seemed to lack any flavour on its own, almost as if it was cooked separately and didn’t get enough time to soak in the gravy. The gravy however was sublime and I haven’t had enough Malaysian food to know what is authentic, but I loved the addition of lotus stem, broccoli and mushrooms to it.
Traditionally the rendang is had with Roti Canai/Roti Prata, but they tend to be extremely heavy as well so we ordered a Roti Canai each and a simple Laccha Paratha to mop up the gravy in case the former got too decadent for us.
That Roti Canai is perfection. Hot, when it arrives at the table, the exterior is crisp and the interior is soft and perfectly flaky. The dough is kneaded in butter and therefore you have that gorgeous, buttery flavour running through, and I could quite honestly just have these alone for days on end. So so delicious.
The Laccha Paratha took a back seat because of the Roti Canai, but it was still very well executed. Flaky, soft and not overly greasy, these work great to soak up curries with as well.
We did go with the intention of ordering more, but we were stuffed at the end of this, and decided to defer the rest of the ordering for another visit.
The food was definitely above par, but what stood out for us and deserves a mention was the service. Crisp, efficient and FAST, you had a waiter at your table despite the throngs of people that had ended up there by the time we left. They also seemed to know exactly when to restock cutlery at the table, take away the dishes and clean the area between courses. It’s sadly not seen too often here, and 5 stars to the wait staff for their dedication to the task at hand despite the crowd.
I’m not sure if this was a true representation of the Gymkhana experience, but I did leave full and absolutely satisfied. Which leads me to believe that Gymkhana 91 did its job, and exceedingly well.
Definitely looking forward to visiting them for more, and relieved that I don’t need to pay a hefty membership for good food in this namesake, like the club members did decades back.