Bharat Excellensea in Mumbai carries its seafood legacy ahead with Indian coastal and Far Eastern flavours.
A Review of Bharat Excellensea, Mumbai
Any foodie true to his salt in Mumbai would have dined at Bharat Excellensea. Back in the early 90s, if there was a place you came to for seafood, it was here. It had several firsts to its credit – the first to introduce a live crab concept on the premises in a dining establishment, the first to bring homestyle neer dosas to a restaurant’s menu, and the first name for folks to enjoy good, simple seafood with ample servings at this side of town. The glitterati from the party circuit donned their crab bibs here, as did corporate folks, editors, food lovers and their families. Cut to date, the reopened place is seeing the city’s food cognoscenti return with all of the old menu favourites and a few more touches.
In its earlier years, I remember trooping up the flight of stairs, pausing long enough to observe the live crabs in a basket, and that’s the first thing that caught my eye when I walked into the revamped eatery almost two decades later. Bharat Excellensea unmistakably celebrates seafood; the blue walls with fish motifs at the entrance drive that point home.
Further in, the palette moves to beige tones and cream, offset by paintings inspired by Mario Miranda’s cartoons of Mumbai. The place is also very spacious–something uncommon to find in this part of the crowded city. “I’ve cut back from 200 covers to 114,” smiles owner Suraj Salian. He’s at home here in this place. It may look different to suit the modern day, but at heart, its recipes and mandate for quality drive the day.
The place now also has the expertise of Ananda Solomon, an industry veteran who has iconic eateries like Trattoria, Thai Pavilion, Konkan Café and a 25-year-old career with the Taj Group behind him. So you can expect Thai along with dishes from India’s coastal belts – Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A quick hello with a promise to chat post the meal, and he was off to where he practised his craft best: the kitchen.
If you’re someone who must begin with soup, unflinchingly order the Mud Crab Meat Soup. It is a hearty bowl of crabmeat stock, brimming with crab meat and egg whites and fired up by garlic, onion, peppers, coriander, a dash of lemon and light starch.
To get prawns on the menu at several seafood eateries is one thing. But to have it warm and succulent, tender bites interspersed with tangy raw mango, with an aftertaste of chilli firing up your tongue, is another. This is an East Indian speciality made with masala that must kickstart your entrées. To balance things out spice-wise, go for the neutral-natured Shrimp Cocktail. The fleshy seafood hors d’oeuvre of pan-cooked prawns chilled with a Thousand Island dressing and garnished with boiled eggs, olives and a wedge of lemon over crispy iceberg lettuce cools things down a little.
“All that we’re serving at Bharat Excellensea now has been through several trials. Our recipes are intact, but the process is the process,” says Salian. No restaurant can truly garner loyalty unless it has a fixed, almost stubborn resolve to stay true to what it believes in. For Bharat Excellensea, Salian follows a few principles. He still goes to the market at 4.30 am each day to handpick and buy Kapri pomfrets, flat surmai and other fish. He also has a day-in-day out principle with fresh stock used every day. And for him, this is a restaurant for the people, so prices don’t overshadow the business. “There are times in the monsoons when we buy fish at as high as a 3X premium, but the menu doesn’t reflect that surge, I prefer to take the hit; that’s our USP,” he states.
There’s a lot of variety to satiate your seafood cravings and I decided to choose clams or Tisryache Sukke, a dish from Ratnagiri prepared with Malvani spices. The dish makes for an explosion of flavours of masala meeting desiccated coconut, best enjoyed with soft neer dosa.
Going further down the hyperlocal route is the Meen Pollichottu or grilled rawas. Fish can be tricky when grilling, but this is a moist, sour-spicy bite of rawas filet wrapped in banana leaf with onion, tomato, turmeric, spices and jarige puli tamarind and byadagi chillies brought from Karnataka. True-blue seafood lovers will like the rawa-fried Bombay duck.
This is at heart a Mangalorean restaurant, so ordering its classic – the chicken ghee roast – is almost a given. It’s also apt if you’re in a group as this arrives as a large serving of chicken simmered in pure ghee to soften the ginger-garlic, chillies and light garam masala. It might be a good idea to go in for an interlude so I try a Thai specialty — the Crispy Fish with Chilli Garlic Basil. It has Chef Ananda’s signature touch. A few bites into the filets of pomfret crust with a dressing of chilli-garlic-basil sauce and I’m glad this is part of the menu.
One of the best regional treasures of the coastal area of Mangalore lies in its gassi and you’ll find different versions of it around the south – in Karnataka hing, dhania and tamarind go into it; the Kerala way is to use a mix of coconut with curry leaves and mustard seeds; in Goa, kokum is di rigeur part of the gravy; and here, at Bharat Excellensea, the tangy gassi follows a tedious process of roasting spices on slow flame then grinding that with coconut, chillies and tamarind to get the best flavour.
The restaurant also offers only mud crabs and softshell crab varieties. The hot favourite is the Butter Garlic Crab, but the chef dips it into his repertoire to serve the crustacean in other ways too, resulting in Singapore Chilli Crab, Penang Crab Curry, Urraval Crab from Mangalore, and Goan styles of making it in Crab Racheado and Crab Peri Peri spice.
Move onto rice and go for the seafood biryani. The Bharat Excellensea version is a nod to Moplah cuisine. Prepared with the shorter-grained ambe mohar rice and layered with prawn, calamari and fish with a generous topping of birasta or browned onion, it’s sure to please purists.
Ananda Solomon takes a break and sits down for a chat. He divulges a few flavour secrets. “The whole play revolves around four to five types of chillies and tamarind as a souring agent. Nothing is too heavy; it’s the kind of food that you can have at any part of the day,” he says. He brings his experience to the table that emanates from his journeys with food as he recalls how during Konkan Café, he went to several villages, eating local fare in people’s homes and understanding their tastes. Similarly, he went to Italy and stayed for six months, which gave him an in-depth look at pasta, different olive oils and how tomato is used as a universal ingredient, something that brought him closer to the Indian palate. That led to the repositioning of Trattoria. After he left his work for the Taj Group, Solomon headed to Thailand for three years and eight months in Bangkok, and put up a total of eight restaurants for a hotel chain. He got back to Mumbai, started Thai Naam in Andheri under a two-year contract and then someone introduced him to Salian. And he decided to lend his skills to the place.
“I wanted to do the food that I know well — Mumbai going downwards to Kerala with a little bit of Chettinad, Goa and of course, Thai. I’ve covered mainland dishes like Kori Pepper, the Mutton Stew from Kerala, Mutton Ghee Roast from Mangalore, rachaedo preparations from Goa, and introduced the Malabar Green Curry, a recipe from Taj Malabar Cochin, which became a bestseller in Konkan Café, to the menu here,” he informs.
The recipes had to be reworked in a manner to suit today’s day and age. “Take the ghee roast for instance; in earlier days the ghee would float on the plate in a large quantity, so we cut that down. Same for the ample rice servings that are traditionally served with meals in the South, as people in the big city don’t take to that,” he explains.
Served along with the food is an array of interesting drinks like the Kokum Fizz and Kala Khatta Breeze. Opt for the sol kadi to refresh your palate between bites.
Though the servings are ample all through, ensure you have space for dessert. Go for two traditional Indian and Thai ones that make for an apt sequel to all the spice play earlier. The elaneer payasam or tender coconut kheer from Kerala made using milk reduction is smooth and comforting. The Thai dessert, Tub Tim Grob, is another good choice to end a meal. The concoction is made with water chestnuts soaked in rose syrup, then wrapped in tapioca flour and poached after which it is added to palm jaggery syrup and served with coconut milk and ice.
When you have eaten and understood seafood, you will know that it isn’t simply about acquiring, cooking and serving it. There is a science to its process — how long you cook it for, what methodology works best, how spices play a role and more. And Solomon’s acumen whips up a terrific storm here powered by the faith that Suraj Salian has placed in him. In its new avatar, Bharat Excellensea elevates good, regional-style cooking, while it also heralds a new-age sign for such iconic eateries to blend in with the times. The next generation of the Salians are raring to go, too. Daughter Shrishti is hands-on with the management of the place and has spearheaded the design and décor of the restaurant, and son Shravan has just graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. Plans are afoot for two more branches of Bharat Excellensea in Mumbai and next year, one in Bengaluru and one in Pune. Looking back, Salian, a postgraduate in food production from the Dadar Catering College, notes how much has changed over time. “When we started in the late 80s, the aim was to get people to love seafood. That has grown more than what I expected and today, 95 per cent of our returning customers are all the old Bharat patrons who know the dishes by heart, what goes into each gassi and the base for the other dishes. But they’re also making choices. Earlier there was a huge demand for fried fish, we now see that replaced by tawa fry and grilled fish.”
Timings: 12 noon to 12 midnight
Address: Bharat House, 317, Shahid Bhagat Singh Rd, Between RBI & GPO, Ballard Estate, Fort, Mumbai
Price for two: INR 1,500 + (approximately, exclusive of taxes)
Reservations: 022-22618991, +91 9004098196
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
— Does Bharat Excellensea accommodate large parties or reservations for special occasions?
Bharat Excellensea can accommodate large parties. One can walk in on weekdays. However, on weekends, make sure to make a reservation as it is one of the busiest restaurants in the area.
— What year did the restaurant establish?
Bharat Excellensea first opened doors in 1989.