The first time I knew I wanted to eat at MTR was when Vasundhara Das hosted the Bangalore episode of the show Indian Rendezvous on Discovery’s Travel and Living Channel (TLC). I don’t remember anything from the episode except that when it was time to eat, she went to MTR.
But if that wasn’t enough to trigger my curiosity/taste buds, I watched Padma Lakshmi do the same in an episode of Planet Food on TLC.
This was eons ago, when I was still in school, here in Bangalore.
Years passed by and I moved out of Bangalore and moved back but MTR didn’t receive a visit from moi. (I don’t know why but this explains the need for a Project Bangalore a little more, doesn’t it?)
Then, a couple of weeks back, when I was planning to sign up for the Lalbagh walking tour and read that the walk would close with breakfast in MTR, I knew it was time.
That day after the walk, breakfast with Vijay and the walkers was so good I had to go back. Okay, I also went back because I needed a few pictures to share in this post. But only for you guys.
A little about MTR: Firstly, the abbreviation stands for Mavalli Tiffin Room, but nobody calls it that. MTR is a household name in Bangalore for traditional south Indian food like idli, vada, pongal, dosa and delicacies of the state of Karnataka like chow chow bath and bisi bele bath. The restaurant is one of Bangalore’s oldest – it dates back to the 1920s when it was started by the Maiyya family on the Lalbagh Road.
Today, MTR has many branches in Bangalore as well as in Udupi, Singapore, Dubai and Muscat. MTR also sells packaged foods like instant curries and idli batter mix in supermarkets. But I wouldn’t measure the quality of food that is served at the restaurant by those. In fact, even the other branches in the city don’t compare to the flagship.
The MTR at Lalbagh Road is unlike any of its branches. It retains its yesteryear look with simple furniture, dim lighting and walls wearing nothing but lackluster paint and a few old black and white photographs. A row of wooden benches serve as the waiting room, where you sit till the “maître d'” calls your name when a seat is vacant at a table that you share with strangers because the restaurant is so packed. Uniform-less waiters run the show, the menu is recited to you, there is no time to peruse or ponder and men in lungis clear the dishes and clean the tables in rhythmic intervals.
The restaurant looks deceptively small but it unravels as you keep walking through it. When I had breakfast there after the walking tour, we sat in an air-conditioned room tucked away in a corner of the restaurant that I doubt I’d have found, were I by myself.
During that breakfast, I learnt that MTR apparently invented the rava idli. Vijay also said that the restaurant was once in the city’s league of fine dining joints and that food was only served on silver plates. But, Vijay said, “like everything else in India, those were stolen.” Oops.
However, coffee is still served in silver tumblers. But only in the sit down areas of the restaurant, not in the ‘Coffee Room’ on the ground floor – a small hall where people stop by for a quick cup of filter coffee, consumed hot, while standing and in ceramic cups. This is probably because the Coffee Room is right near the entrance and it’s easier for people to sneak out with a silver tumbler. Or someone to walk in and lift one.
Now, the most important part, the food.
But first, I feel like I need to tell you that I’m not a breakfast person. No need to panic. I love breakfast food, like any sane person. I’m just not very big on the idea of waking up, whether it’s at 5 AM or 10 AM, and stuffing my face. That said, I do make an exception every now and then. (As if I’d say no to the breakfast buffets at hotels!) So if revisiting MTR meant waking up at 7 on a Saturday morning, then that’s what I did.
Here’s what my friend and I ordered: One pongal, one plain dosa, one masala dosa, two Gulab Jamuns and two filter coffees. All for the low, low price of INR 343. The rava idli wasn’t available that morning but I’d already tried that on my previous visit.
The pongal is served with a raita. Dosas are served with ghee to drizzle over the dosa and coconut and coriander chutney to dip into. Mmm… ghee…
The masala dosa comes with a spicy potato and onion filling. If you order the plain idli, it comes with a side of sambar. The rava idli comes with the same little cup of ghee, coconut and coriander chutney, and a more viscous version of the spicy potato and onion filling.
Here’s our verdict (this is not a review):
The pongal, mildly spiced and well-complemented with the raita, was a little soupy for my liking. It had little bits of coconut that I quite liked but if you’re craving for or want to try pongal for the first time, this is not the one I would recommend.
The dosas were heavenly. Crisp on the outside, soft in the center and buttery all over. Just the way a dosa should be.
The gulab jamuns are so, so soft! They’re doused in sugar syrup and simply melt in the mouth. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you don’t want to miss this when you’re in Bangalore.
And finally the filter coffee. Is there any better way to end a south Indian meal?
Even if you aren’t a coffee person, filter coffee is something you should drink copious amounts of when in south India. Silver tumbler and all, the filter coffee at MTR is quite ‘delish’, and strong!
My mother says that when she was growing up in Bangalore, eating at MTR was a big deal, it gave you bragging rights. Special occasions like birthdays called for a meal at MTR. The place was always teeming with bigwigs and politicians. It probably still draws in its fair share of VIP guests.
I don’t know about bragging rights anymore but as a part of Bangalore’s history, MTR will always be special to the city and its people. I would definitely recommend a meal at MTR if you’re new in town, visiting Bangalore for the first time or have just never been there (like me a few weeks back). Do it for the gulab jamuns, or Padma Lakshmi.
Are you an MTR patron or a have you been there recently? What do you love about it and what do you not? Go crazy in the comments, won’t you?
You can find MTR on 14, Lalbagh Road, Mavalli, Near Basavanagudi. They are open every day from 6:30 am to 11 am, 12:30 pm to 2 pm and 3.30 pm to 9.30 pm.