A culinary ride aboard a trendy restaurant housed in a charming heritage property in south Mumbai.

Sudha Menon

Mumbaiites love the restaurant's rather grandiose private dining area with its deep burgundy walls and matching velvet drapes.

It goes by the unlikely name of Taxi and in a short period has become as much a part of the Mumbai fabric as the ubiquitous black-and-yellow vehicle crisscrossing the metropolis. But that is as far as the similarity goes. Unlike the everyday transport used by thousands of Mumbaiites this south Mumbai restaurant, tucked away in a quiet by-lane off Cuffe Parade, is a destination in itself and a favourite haunt of the city's swish set.

This fact couldn't have been better established than during the recent Lakme Fashion Week. One of the most happening parties of that glamorous week was the one hosted by South African Tourism at Taxi to celebrate the much-appreciated show by designers Clive Rundle and Sun Goddess from Johannesburg. Those who let their hair down at the event included Lakme's head honcho Anil Chopra, designers Wendell Rodricks, Narendra Kumar, TV's heartthrob Simone Singh, to name a few. LFW was also signed off at Taxi when designer Lascelles Symons hosted a Sunday champagne brunch for friends and clients to celebrate his successful showing.

And it is not just the fashion frat that frequents the place. Sony Max recently hosted a wrap-up party for

Extraaa Innings

and its commentators, including Mandira Bedi and Ian Chappell. The restaurant's golden-hued walls also reverberated to the sound of eloquent poetry when the late writer Dom Moraes' birth anniversary was remembered by his friends with a reading of some of his select work.

Walking into the restaurant, housed in a splendid heritage property with high, wooden ceilings and elaborate woodwork, is like being transported into another era. Owner Prashant Chaudhri has intelligently divided the space into distinct areas, each designed to give a different experience. While the dining area is elegant with the diaphanous drapes, large wall-sized mirror and perfectly laid-out tables; the centre square is the perfect place to lounge before or after one's meal... my companions and I fell in love with this space with its rich turquoise blue seating and generously plump cushions. The bar stands out with its golden brick walls mounted with a huge circular antique mirror. A long verandah skirting the entrance has been converted into a quieter space to chill out at with friends on bar stools overlooking the quiet by-lanes and old-world charm of south Mumbai. It is not really my style but Mumbaiites, especially those looking for a grand place to host their dos, love the restaurant's rather grandiose private dining area with its deep burgundy walls and matching velvet drapes, which allow for a very personal celebration away from the crowds.

Chaudhri had his architects rip out the false ceiling constructed by the previous owners to reveal the grand wooden beams on the high ceilings. Seated amidst the rugged stonewalls and high ceilings, on high-backed chairs set against contemporary décor, the place exudes a cosy feeling that's often missing in the new-age minimalist restaurants.

Interesting knick knacks adorn the property from the grandfather clock with its large pendulum to the wrought iron chandeliers, old ceiling fans, gold stencilling on the walls, wrought iron lamps with a dull gold finish and an ancient telephone instrument placed at the entrance. And what completes the picture is the beaten brass bar top and the large-sized brass ashtrays in the shape of a British taxi.

While the bar serves a selection of the best wines and champagne, spirits, cocktails, along with specially crafted starters, the highlight is the special Margarita menu serving a range of the popular tequila-based drink using fresh fruits and Mexico's finest tequila, Jose Cuervo Especial. Fancy a Guava Margarita in a Riedel glass rimmed with salt and chilli powder? You have only to ask for it!

The dinner menu at Taxi is a different ride altogether and I started off with a delicious celery and water chestnut soup with sun blushed tomato

crostini

. My companions slurped on crab and

brie

bisque infused with French brandy with cheese crudités and home-style Hungarian beef goulash soup with mini rolls. All of us feasted on the jalapeno cheese poppers with tomato aioli and the mushroom and cottage cheese tossed with garlic butter cream sauce, served in parmesan cracknel cup.

For the main course I asked for the cottage cheese cacciatore, parmesan dredged and grilled cottage cheese with mushrooms, bell peppers, olives and zucchini, cooked with Roma tomatoes and Italian spices, and shared it with fellow veggies who loved the home-grown flavours of the potato gnocchi and corn

polenta

tossed with a variety of greens. The saffron flavoured risotto with mushrooms and asparagus was creamy, velvety and divine.

Non-vegetarian diners are recommended the lobster meat cooked with mushroom and cherry tomatoes, served with porcini risotto, anchovy brandy sauce. Regulars swear by the tiger prawns

peri peri

with long grain lemon rice and pomegranate sauce, and pan seared kingfish darne smeared with five spice and

zattar

, accompanied by cracked baby potatoes. If you are a safe eater then the restaurant has the old favourite pepper steak grilled to your choice of doneness and served with soft spinach and oven baked potato backyard meat sauce.

Desserts at Taxi are sinfully delicious, conjured up by Executive Chef Vijayraj Chauhan. We sampled a selection of his best which included a delightful fresh-fruit cheesecake, a dark and alluring Kahlua chocolate mousse and abrandy mousse Gateaux.

The restaurant's popularity does not surprise those who are familiar with the hugely popular Mangi Ferra restaurant that Chaudhri launched in suburban Juhu a couple of years ago. A favourite hangout of Bollywood biggies, including the Big B and his family, its wood-fire baked pizzas are a big draw with the Roshans. Taxi, too, recently got its own wood-fired oven.

With two successful ventures in Mumbai, Chaudhri is now training his sights on other cities such as Delhi, Kolkata and Pune. "The Indian appetite for an adventurous dining experience has grown, partly due to the exposure through television and global travel, which has become a common feature among professionals.

Taxi and Mangi Ferra bring to Mumbai delectable and innovative concoctions and I think the rest of the country too would want to be in on this," he says. After this Taxi ride, one can't agree more!

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 17, 2006)
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