Late noon, and Ranwar Village, in Mumbai’s Bandra, is in a state of coma. We’re here to meet Ayaz Basrai, whose office doesn’t have a nameplate; instead, there’s a black board that says ‘Beef Eaters Club’. Basrai is “principal designer and head peon at The Busride Design Studio”, and along with his architect brother Zameer, he dabbles in designing corporate offices, factories, sound recording studios, installations and in heritage conservation. Basrai has also designed dance bars in Dubai, and admits he’d be “as excited about designing a dumpster as a new restaurant”. Speaking of which, his most well-known projects are the ones in which people are usually absorbed in their penne. He’s the man behind Café Zoe, Prithvi Cafe, Jamjar Diner and The Daily, in Mumbai; The Smoke House Grill and Trishna, in Delhi; Blue Frog, in Pune; Social and Caperberry’s tasting room, in Bangalore; and the charmingly pencilled Smoke House Deli across the country.
“Smoke House Deli is an exercise in parody. If you look behind the pretty wallpaper, you’ll see a lot of interesting stories,” he says. For example, in the one in Mumbai’s Phoenix Mills, there’s a hand-drawn shot of open umbrellas. Subhas Chandra Bose had once addressed a group of millworkers there, when it began raining. This illustration was Bose’s view from the podium — a sea of umbrellas. Another one says, ‘April 14th, 1944. The day began like any other’. On that date, a ship containing 1400 tonnes of explosives and 31 crates of gold bullion had exploded at Bombay Harbour. People, in fact, had died in Bhendi Bazaar after being hit by gold bricks falling from the sky. “Each Smoke House Deli exists as a tiny city museum. We’re looking for the tangentially weird stories. The idea is to present this whimsical, surprising and yet honest-to-god truthful view of the world, through a magical lens. We’d like to think some of these snippets made someone smile, and made their day a little more surreal,” he says.
Of course, as far as braveheart clients are concerned, Basrai struck gold with restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani. “Right from giving us our first break with Smoke House Grill, to allowing me to doodle on his pristine white walls to pushing our boundaries of what we felt the hospitality experience entailed, he’s been a constant source of inspiration for us,” says Basrai. “I’ve personally benefitted massively from his unending enthusiasm and hunger for new things.”
As much as Basrai loves the Mad Hatter touches, his design philosophy slants towards the traditional. “What really makes spaces is the vibe we feel, but are unable to articulate. It comes mainly from a progressive view on culture, in which people are trying new things to push culture forward. This is what differentiates stagnant places from pulsing ones. Some spaces work because of a commitment to good news; some work on stoner humour; some purely because their owners are truly cool people; and some because they highlight the best of the city. [I believe] it’s much nicer to start with grander
inquiries than materials and finishes.”
One of these grand inquiries has resulted in Basrai’s pet project, The Bandra Project, which maps the hipster suburb in detail. “A big departure from other heritage conservation projects is that The Bandra Project is focussed on people, and not architecture. Bandra has a very distinctive sound-scape — you hear birds, you hear Frank Sinatra, you hear the pounding of masalas,” he says. “We’re doing our bit to study what makes Bandra work, by pulling out meaningful knowledge, which can help make it better and more inclusive. [You can’t] replace something of exquisite beauty with something that looks like a jail.” In fact, he sees this as an extension of his day job. “I don’t believe designers have the luxury of pessimism. We’re here to make incremental upgrades to the world as we see it. There’s no time for excuses and armchair critiques. The city is an immediate happening, and it’s important to get out and contribute,” he says.
One of the many legs of this project is to revive the haggard-looking St. Jude’s Bakery, on Waroda Road. From this month, the space is going to host pop-up dinners, a joint venture between the tag team of Basrai, Amlani and chef Gresham Fernandes. The trio will serve beautiful food (at stiff prices), with new menus and cooks each week. Even the decor will change — there’ll be candles one time, pink LED lights the next. “We’ll just ask Bharat Tiles to give us all their junk,” says Basrai.