Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Eating out: The Only Place and Haroon Sait

(I wrote this about The Only Place and the late Haroon Sait in 2004)

Imagine a restaurant that's a second home to Bangalore's creative souls. One that serves perfect `Momma-made' apple pie, good enough to still the homesickness of US Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s. Or one that innovated Thanksgiving Day turkey dinners, pizza, pastas and home-style hamburgers in the Karnataka capital. Clues to? Why, The Only Place, one of the city's favourite eateries.

No wonder Bangaloreans moaned when labour trouble forced OPs (as regulars call it) to close down in 2001. Where else could you sink your teeth into tender barbecued steak, tuck into exquisite grilled seer fish and luscious spinach lasagnes, or revel in seasonal fresh strawberry pies? Where else could a future fashion pundit share its Rs 1.50 steak sandwiches `one-by-two,' as an impoverished 1970s collegian?

Ever since its re-launch in November 2003 by its original initiator Haroon Sulaiman Sait, there's been a constant refrain. "Thank you for re-opening, Sait," gushes a silver-coiffed lady, with her granddaughter in tow. "It was my constant haunt as a collegian." An amateur theatre director seconds that, "All our lives, we've eaten at OPs while rehearsing close by."

But The Only Place is much more than a mere menu. "You know, every time I'm at Mumbai, Delhi or the Chennai airport, I meet at least six or seven customers who recognise me from OPs," chuckles Sait.

Ever the genial host, he recalls how OPs was originally an offshoot of his 1965-launched Regency Guest House on Brigade Road, with its then Rs 12.50 daily bed-and-breakfast tariff, where Peace Corps volunteers found a congenial shelter. Each morning, Sait would ride to a distant dairy on his rickety 50cc moped, balancing milk cans on his wrists on the return route. He spent hours in the kitchen, perfecting the hamburger that an American matron had taught him. Or trying various options while homing in on the perfect turkey stuffing.

Even today, Sait supplies frozen beef and lamb to embassy staff in New Delhi or Mumbai. They trust him for the best cuts. This expertise is reflected in OPs fare.

It's this tender loving care that makes OPs special. Sait traces his fondness for good food to being a Kutchi Memmon. "We're gourmet gluttons," he laughs, twinkle-eyed behind his glasses. "Do you know we make the best biryani and paya?"

Sait has been known to personally rustle up a glass of perfect tea, flavoured with garden-fresh lemongrass, for weary European backpackers drifting by the OPs gate, though the eatery is officially closed at teatime. While chatting to guests, he darts into the herb patch to pick out a basil leaf or a lemongrass stalk. "Smell this," he says, savouring its bouquet, as he offers it to you.

No wonder Victor Banerjee and the crew of David Lean's A Passage to India chose to make cycle-borne forays to OPs at mealtimes, though they were guests of the swank Taj West End Hotel. It's equally unsurprising that out-of-towners were in shock without their daily treat of OPs peach or cherry pie, while the restaurant was closed.

At its new Museum Road location, Sait ensures a continuity of the OP mood — with its trademark green park benches, green-check tablecloths at easy seating tables, even a copper lamp `mobile' under an airy, Mangalore-tiled sit-out space. The 100-cover service area extends to tables under sun umbrellas, or paper lamp d├ęcor in its old-world bungalow. The attentive staff are well-informed; they can tell a moussaka from a souvlaki (lamb kebabs), a beef Stroganoff from a chicken Cacciatore. The lack of piped music helps conversations to flow, friends to reunite, families to bond anew.

Does the much-loved OPs style linger on? In this former hangout for Mount Carmel and Jyoti Nivas collegians, pretty visitors were thrilled with the roses that greeted them on Valentine's Day, as they chilled out with friends or exchanged sweet nothings with sweethearts. Nostalgic older couples feasted on a welcome fruit punch, a three-in-one platter meal, and heart-shaped cookies oozing strawberry cream. Besides, the shared bill came to just Rs 350. Who could ask for more?

If you're lucky, Sait might strike up a conversation with you between courses. He is as likely to share recipes from Greece or Turkey, France or the UK as he is to whip up philology with an expert hand. "Did you know that pasta originates from the Latin word for paste, or that pav derives from the Portuguese? Or that the hamburger stems from Hamburg, as does the frankfurter from Frankfurt?" he asks. If you're in search of food facts or fresh ingredients, Sait could help you out.

In the high turnover restaurant business, Sait has long held his own. Will Bangalore memories constantly fortify his menu? I'd stake a huge wedge of apple pie on that.

(The Hindu Metroplus, 2004)

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