I hesitate over the ‘Sweet/salted?’ question. I start saying “Sa-”, see the pained expression on Tony Singh’s face and change my mind. “If you are looking at real Punjabi lassi, please have it sweet,” he says. The sugar is enough to shatter a glucometer, but it brings back memories of the sleep-inducing lassis on hot northern highways, which is what any self-respecting faux dhaba should aim at.
No truck driver has ever reclined on the charpoys of Pritam da Dhaba and dunked rotis in its dal makhani or murg makhanwala. Or tried its teppanyaki tandoor. It would have set him back by at least Rs400. The food is tuned to city palates. The dal tadka does not sear the throat and no one sprinkles red chilli powder on it to liven the proceedings. But for all that, Mumbai treats Pritam as its First Dhaba.
Singh’s family has been running the Pritam restaurant since the 1950s when a monthly meal credit cost Punjabi actors such as Raj Kapoor and Dharmendra— aching for food from the pind (village)—all of Rs36.75. From there to starting a hotel to setting up eateries in other cities, Tony Singh has overseen a lot of changes in the Pritam establishment, taking the business up by Rs100 crore. (Incidentally, there is not a single Pritam in the Singh clan. The patriarch who started the business was Prahlad Singh Kohli, who wanted a name that meant ‘beloved’ in as many Indian languages as possible. But every reigning Pritam chief gets knighted as Pritam Seth anyway.)
Now, after feeding Mumbai rich Punjabi fare for decades, Singh has stepped into totally alien terrain. Last winter, he acquired the right to retail Versace tiles in the city.
Singh was touring Italy with a friend last year when he walked into Cersaie, the famous ceramics fair held annually in Bologna. “I was impressed with the Versace tiles. And I was keen to get into something exclusive,” he recalls, sipping his healthy iced tea. Fortuitously, the design house was also looking for a retailer in India and the deal fell in place.
Nothing could be further from popular food than Versace tiles—it would cost you between Rs5 lakh and Rs15 lakh to redecorate your bathroom with these. He sheepishly admits that he is stunned at how exclusive Versace wants the retailing to be. The idea, he says, is to remain exclusive through short supply. Which means, Singh will have to turn you down if you wish to do up the six bathrooms in your stately new manor with Versace. The hotelier is stunned at how keen affluent society is to invest in this exclusivity. He started his venture by promising to sell two containers of the tiles and found he ran out of them fast enough to seek more within five months. “We have professionals who could advise you on how to use Versace tiles in a manner that would cost you less. You don’t have to plaster the wall end-to-end with them, you could use bits for effect,” he says.
But the hotel business is where Singh’s heart really is. He has picked up a large property at Juhu and another near the Bandra-Kurla complex where he is planning to set up five eateries. Not all of them, he says, will replicate the Pritam pattern or name because the Punjabi flavour has been done to death. Light eating is in and he would rather head the sushi/continental way.
Unlike a popular competitor in the suburbs, Singh will not include a dieter’s menu at Pritam. “You cannot come to a dhaba and ask for diet food,” he protests. “This is food meant for truck drivers who actually require manual labour to turn the steering wheel. They drop anchor for a few hours of the hot afternoon or night at a place where they can bring out their homemade dabba of ghee and have a sturdy meal. It can’t be light.”
Lazy cooks, he says, are responsible for giving Punjabi cuisine a bad reputation. It is not all that cholesterol rich, just as healthy as mother makes it. You get the satiny texture of the maa di dal by slow-cooking it overnight over embers, not by cooking it in cream, he insists. And the chicken releases its own fat during cooking; his cooks do not add any butter to the chicken curry.
When his grandfather started the restaurant business in the 1930s, the plan was to feed not homesick truck drivers, but Mumbai’s cabbies. His first venture was located at the junction of Apollo Street and Hamam Street in the Fort area. But while lunch hours were packed, the busy office area turned desolate by dusk. The mill area of Dadar with its population of Maharashtrians and the neighbouring Sion-Koliwada with its Punjabi-Sindhi pocket seemed like an ideal location (the largely vegetarian Gujarati areas were never on Pritam’s list).
The family rented space at a building known then as Shivaji Bhavan from the family of Sardar Angare, the Scindia family lieutenant. It then picked up properties around where the Pritam restaurant and hotel today stand as landmarks. Singh inherited the venture in the late 70s and started the dhaba, which, to the average Mumbai dweller, was a novel idea. In the evening, the dhaba is alive with families at dinner, children running around the charpoys, the mandatory palm reader and now, a teppanyaki counter that serves Punjabi favourites.
Singh’s fascination for the teppanyaki concept started two years ago when he launched Indiyaki, a fusion restaurant, in Pune, a venture his son Abhayraj runs. He also owns Nirvana, a Punjabi restaurant in Toronto. Starting a new and distant venture does not faze Singh. He banks on what he calls the Pritam factory. He believes, like his grandfather did, in hand-picking his kitchen staff. Even a cleaner has a chance to don the chef’s hat if he shows enough interest. With the benign sort of patriarchy that the Pritam establishment is, the staff tend to stick around for years. The slow but dignified Gopal or Shriram who serves you Gobhi-Aloo-Methi and Choora Parantha has probably also served matinee idol Rajendra Kumar. But Singh is equally quick to deal with mutiny as he advises his Pune-based son on how to deal with errant staff. “The Pritam factory is never short of people, don’t worry. Just concentrate on the business,” he says, doing some quick long-distance counselling. Singh’s strength lies in people management and logistics, which is why he is supremely confident that he will pull off an ambitious catering venture he plans to start after the monsoon. He is not willing to talk about it, except to say that it will offer exceptional service.
“It is a question of locating an opportunity. I often see this man at the Mumbai airport taxi stand, with a huge pateela of mutton curry, another of rice and a stack of chappatis around noon. By this time, cabbies who have been waiting at the stand for four to five hours, are ravenous. The airport restaurants serve rubbish and the nearest food stall is way out. So, in less than an hour, this man’s pateelas are wiped clean. Mark my words: In two years he will be running a restaurant,” he says.
Name: Tony (Amardeep) Singh
Education: Graduated from Dadar Catering College
Work Profile: Took charge of Pritam restaurant in 1976. Created Pritam da Dhaba to surprise his ailing father. Set up restobar Indiyaki in Pune and Nirvana in Toronto. Obtained exclusive retailer rights for Versace tiles in October 2006