For any Mumbaikar in an intimate relationship with food, Jaffer Bhai’s Delhi Darbar is definitely a regular haunt. A powerhouse veteran restaurateur who built one of the city’s most enduring and dependable brands, his passing away last week felt like a personal loss for many. For those who didn’t know him personally, his restaurants were hotspots where memories were made over outrageously good food, and warm hospitality.
I heard about Gol Masjid in my first week in Mumbai. It is a funny feature of south Mumbai — a mosque stands in the middle of a road, splicing it into two. The mosque isn’t big, neither is it fancy, but it has evolved from a landmark into a location. Gol Masjid is not the landmark at Gol Masjid. Jaffer Bhai’s Delhi Darbar is.
Back in 2008, Jaffer Bhai’s was great spot to head off to, if lived in that area, and wanted to do fancy Mughlai. After my first outing at the restaurant, I realised that, well, it wasn’t Mughlai, but rather Mumbai’s version of it, further glammed up by influences from the Middle East. Jaffer Bhai’s was my first introduction to Mumbai’s Muslim community’s cooking. A smorgasbord of ideas, concepts, and iterations, Mumbai’s Muslim grub draws from Awadh and Golconda, indigenous Maharashtrian flavours, dominant Parsi impact, and Konkani concepts, constantly evolving based on ideas from Delhi and Hyderabad, affected by eating trends in the Middle East, and owes a lot to the fact that the city is a cosmopolitan cauldron that absorbs influences and spices from everyone and everywhere into its food’s flavour fabric. Hence, while the Bengali in me would be shocked to see the degrees of bastardisation that “Mughlai” cuisine has gone through in Mumbai, and in the hands of the city’s Muslims, it also is proof of Mumbai’s all-accepting, all-embracing personality. This is a city that celebrates “authentic” and “gandi copy” in equal measure if it tastes good.
After my initial taste of Mumbai’s Mughlai, I began exploring other restaurants, only to slowly realise that the flavour profile wasn’t trying to emulate someone else — it was an amalgamation of everybody. From dum techniques of Lucknow to the spice profiles of the Konkan, from tandooring kebabs like the north to Arabic kepsas and mezze formats, from the Hyderabadi salan-like textures of the gravies to borrowing the Barra Chaap and localising it, Mumbai’s Mughlai had a slice of everything. You just had to let it grow on you. And, I also realised that, of all the places in the city, if you wanted a Mughlai menu that delivered a wholesome, delicious experience under one roof, it was Jaffer Bhai’s.
In my second month in the city, I arrived at a Colaba institution — the original Delhi Darbar, the one Jaffer Bhai broke away from. It was an abysmal experience. I do not understand how the restaurant still enjoys queues. Since then, I have spent twelve years exploring corners and alleys of this city, from Mahim to Byculla, Mohammed Ali Road to Jogeshwari, and I haven’t found consistency like Jaffer Bhai’s. The food, is commercial and easily understandable. There is nothing textural or cerebral about it. There aren’t any layers either. There is a reason why Lucknow and Kolkata laugh in the face of Mumbai’s Mughlai. But, the food is wholesome and flavourful. It’s unacademic, but delicious. The Barra Chaap and the Seekh have always been my go-to at Jaffer Bhai’s. Tender, spicy, and fragrant smokiness. I love the kheema, bheja, paaya, dabba gosht, and dal gosht too — all spiced up versions of their authentic selves. One should definitely indulge in the Dum Gosht and the Mumtaz Badami Korma once in a while, with a buttery garlic naan. The Narega and Noorani Kebabs also have a special place in my heart. During Ramzan, the festival menu is an added delight, be it the khichda, or the outrageous desserts. Also, the famous AlBaik-style broasted chicken from Saudi finds a version on the Jaffer Bhai menu, as do Kepsas, and Arab Barras. Lastly, whenever I am at Jaffer Bhai’s, I always end the meal with the biryani. No idea why. It isn’t my favourite place for Bombay’s biryani (that honour goes to Lucky in Bandra), but I always do it. Like a ritual.
I went to the Jaffer Bhai’s at Gol Masjid for my first date in Mumbai. I remember it vividly. I had been so excited about introducing the person to Jaffer Bhai’s — maybe more excited about that than the actual date — that (because back then life wasn’t as easy) I had made a trip to the restaurant to make sure it would be open, and have the Barra and the Seekh. The desk manager was amused. Needless to say, we overate. Also needless to say, I made a fantastic first impression. I spent my first three years in South Mumbai, and Jaffer Bhai’s Delhi Darbar next to that adorable Gol Masjid was one of my can’t-think-of-anywhere-new-to-go places. It was dependable — still is — and delicious. Later, when I moved up north, the expansive property in Jogeshwari became closer and dearer.
Between Gol Masjid and Jogeshwari, college and growing up, dates-hangouts-dinners-experiences, Jaffer Bhai’s has always been a part of my life without me ever exclusively realising it. The restaurants’ flavoursome cooking, satisfying portions, generous menu, and warm hospitality have been the reasons a Mughlai purist like me has been a regular patron. At the Jogeshwari property, a gigantic photograph of Jaffer Bhai, with two tall and well-fed goats, oversee all the guests from the wall. That photograph will demand a very different kind of reverence the next time I visit the restaurant.