A charming characteristic about the Mumbai food scene is the marked presence of a number of establishments that to me, seem as old as the city itself. Its almost as if I can’t imagine a certain busy street without their signboard and the wafting aromas coming from within beckoning people to walk in.
While there is no dearth of variety in this little subset of grub spots, the place I’d like to impress upon today is Zaffran, a restaurant with laurels and high praise heaped from Bombay lovers and food lovers alike for their Mughal fare.
Even though Zaffran is fairly new when compared to the other Mughal food kings in Bombay, it set its mark regardless with perfectly tender Lamb Galouti Kebabs and their special, a creamy, sweet Butter Chicken. To this day, hundreds flock to the main spot at Crawford Market for an hour of gastronomic indulgence, mopping up the decadent curry with paper thin Roomali rotis, immersed in their own tiny slice of heaven while throngs of people go about their lives outside the humble joint.
While I have savoured Zaffran’s offerings before this visit, it hasn’t been in the most conventional manner. I chanced upon their Crawford Market branch with a colleague about 3 years back. She insisted I give their Butter Chicken roll a try and a few bites of the creamy, chicken curry encased in their delicate Roomali Roti had me convinced that I needed to visit this place. Properly.
We stepped into their Lower Parel branch a few days back, and the decor was intriguing to say the least. All tables done up in dark wood tones, complemented by comfy chairs in hues of blue and gold, you already feel slightly pampered at the outset. What caught my eye was the half open, gold toned domes above all the booths that inevitably have people looking up in short lived wonder. Give their booths a try- especially if you don’t mind feeling like avian royalty, surrounded by the cage like contraption while you tuck in.
We were also informed the floor upstairs was dedicated for Sheesha lovers with a banquet like seating area for formal get togethers.
The menu is concise, focusing on Persian-Mughal fare and this is what we ordered:
To the unaware, Labaan is a middle eastern drink, much like our Indian chaas- slightly salted and sometimes flavoured with mint. The one we got here was exceptionally sour however and despite our server taking note and replacing it with a slightly more palatable version, the addition of garlic was overpowering and not very enjoyable.
A milk and crushed ice base, topped with an aniseed and rose syrup, this was fresh and cooling without it being too sweet or too milky.
Roomali Masala Papad
I feel like the picture doesn’t do justice to the sheer size of this thing. Topped with chopped tomatoes and onions, the Roomali is thin, offers crunchiness and does not get soggy as it sits. I stay away from these in general because I find the onion too pungent- but they have tackled the issue here, with the refreshing addition of a generous amount of tomatoes and a decent sprinkle of coriander and lime atop.
One of their signature dishes, this one was a miss for me. The meat was soft and positively melt-in-the-mouth, a characteristic this kebab is known for, but the salt and and spices needed a much lighter hand. Sadly the taste of the meat was completely lost out in the jumble of flavours in this dish.
Another signature, all I needed was a single bite to remind me of the roll I had first sampled and loved. The gravy is creamy and and delicately spiced, interspersed with large chunks of shredded chicken. It is a tad sweet however, and our waiter did warn us but I found a perfectly acceptable balance of flavours in it despite that. Really good.
Again, a disappointment. These rotis, as I’d mentioned earlier are supposed to be impossibly thin but the ones we received were thick at the edges and therefore slightly doughy and undercooked as a result.
The dish of the day, and by a large margin, I am surprised I have never had this before! The rice is cooked in a spiced mutton broth and takes on that beautiful meaty flavour. It is then tossed with a few aromatics and small, succulent pieces of boneless mutton and served steaming hot. It is peppery, hearty and offers bags of flavour without being heavy on the palate like a biryani. This is a must try and I would visit again for this dish alone.
To sum up our meal there, we had a fairly equal number of hits and misses. If I were reviewing a new place, I’d probably expect it, but I find myself slightly more disappointed given the name and legacy this place comes with.
What I have come to realise in Mumbai’s competitive F&B world is, that carving a niche for yourself is hard. Zaffran needs no help there. But what is harder is being consistent in your offerings and this place could do with and lesson or two in aiming to maintain the quality it got recognition for in the first place.