Eating Misal Pao At Shree Damodar Restaurant

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The no-frills Matunga restaurant’s misal pao is underrated and delicious.

A Pepsi-blue signboard reads “Shree Damodar Restaurant”. A bored-looking man leans against an L-shaped counter at the entrance, scouting for customers on a Sunday evening. I walk in.

There are three tables and six benches in a space the size of a bedroom. A seventh faces stacked cartons of mineral water. As I sit on one, the man leaves his station, plonks down a metal glass of water and stares at me questioningly. There is no menu. When I ask what’s available, he rattles off: “Samosa, omelette pao, usal pao, misal pao – ” I interrupt him and ask for a misal pao.

I’ve never heard of this place. I hadn’t planned to sup here. I didn’t even know what I’d get. But I’m early for a concert, and, true to character, hungry. This is no fancy restaurant, nor is it a smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall fast-food joint or dingy tea-stall. It is single-room home converted into an eating-house. The clay-tiled floor is pockmarked but clean. A weathered door at the back has a damp bath towel wedged against its frame.

A Cadbury display case containing a few ten-rupee Dairy Milks is plugged in but not switched on. Next to it are crates full of empty cola bottles with straws still sticking out of their mouths. This is the neighbourhood tuckshop where kids spend their pocket money. A cabinet exhibits a modest inventory of ketchup sachets, cream biscuits and Maggi. A marble-topped partition-cum-counter separates all this and me from the kitchen, where I can see the man preparing my snack.

In a minute, he transfers the now-steaming usal into a bowl, opens a transparent dabba of farsan and sprinkles a generous amount to make it misal.

He ladles usal out of a blackened pressure cooker into a saucepan for reheating. His movements are quick and efficient. In a minute, he transfers the now-steaming usal into a bowl, opens a transparent dabba of farsan and sprinkles a generous amount to make it misal. Throwing in a dash of chopped onions from an uncovered dish and a pinch of almost powdered coriander, he brings it to my table, where I find it has acquired a crescent of lemon, two paos and a dessert spoon on the way. I shall write no paeans to the dish: it is nourishing, filling and yum.

A second man enters, takes off his slippers, and pours tea out of an aluminium kettle into a flask that he delivers to the political office next door. A local stops to chat about the possibility of a job as wardboy. A penitent girl apologises for not carrying enough cash; the manager reassures her in a dialect of Konkani I don’t hear often enough: my own.

As he walks past me, I ask how much I owe. He tells me; there is no bill. As I make to pay him, he points towards the counter, where the man I’d assumed is the helper has replaced him. Perhaps they switch roles sometimes, just to battle tedium.

Ten minutes away is a legendary restaurant that is reputed to serve Mumbai’s best misal pao. People queue up to savour it. I have friends who will eat it nowhere else. I wonder: why do we always want the best misal (or kebabs or seafood or coffee)? Every version contains some combination of the same ingredients: lentils, spices, savouries, garnishing and bread.

In an age of superlatives, I enjoyed a good meal and the quiet pleasure of dining in my own company.

Shree Damodar Restaurant, Shop No. 6, Ground Floor, United House, Manmala Tank Path, Matunga (w), Mumbai 400 016

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