Sunday, January 24, 2016

Leap of the Perfect Masala Dosa - Vidyarthi Bhavan Revisited

It was year 1980 and the month was December. In the biting winter cold, I was walking towards Shanker’s Book Library in Basavangudi Gandhi Bazaar area along with my cousin Premakar Shenoy, who was going to introduce me to Shanker, the owner of the library. Shanker ran his library in the garage of a home near Basavangudi Police Station, and he had many books and magazines of interest to me, especially Asterix comics and Mad magazine and books. Premakar also introduced me to a traditional Udupi restaurant perched in a small old house on Gandhi Bazaar Main Road named Vidyarthi Bhavan. He said, the Perfect Masala Dosa takes birth there, and conquers the gastronomy of those who wait in line outside to get into the restaurant on a busy evening, such as the one that day.

I was peeking through the iron rods embedded in the closed painted wooden doors and windows and drooling over the divine smell of melting butter mixed with onion potato curry stuffing as people gorged on the crisp and hot masala dosas dipping them in a pool of spicy chutney. I had also determined to go for two of them, even before I had tasted them for the first time!

Finally the doors opened and we were allowed to enter. All those who were waiting with us ran quickly and occupied available seats in the lengthy dining hall that resembled the chair car of Indian Railways. Premakar said “Let’s go inside and sit on the bench outside the kitchen. That’s the only place where we can get a chance to sit and eat, unless you prefer to stand and eat!”

So we went inside and sat on a wooden bench next to a grinder in which chutney was being ground nonstop. As one batch of chutney was ready, a kitchen helper came out and collected it in steel buckets and poured soaked gram daal, green chillies, herbs and spices into the grinder to make more chutney. I could also make out most of the ingredients but not the proportion. Each batch of chutney tasted the same because they added right amount of green chillies, mint leaves, coriander leaves and salt, if not some secret spice!  Then they served us dosas without even us ordering them! It was understood that those who came there mostly came for eating masala dosa and very few who could not resist drooling over their neighbours hogging on hot dosas ordered a rava vada, medu vada or a khaara bhaat. That’s the usual scene in the evenings even today at Vidyarthi Bhavan, haven for the ‘Perfect Masala Dosa’. I became a fan of Vidyarthi Bhavan instantly, and needless to mention here, that my first and the subsequent visits were incomplete without gobbling up two of those lovely masala dosas at a go! Sometimes my cousin Premakar would get dosas home packed in banana leaf, when I or my brother Dr Radhakanth Shenoy visited his home. Those of course never remained as crispy as we get them served hot at the restaurant.

Now why is it called as ‘The Perfect Masala Dosa’?

Masala Dosa at Vidyarthi Bhavan is a big half moon shaped dosa which is thick, crispy dark red outside and soft and spongy white inside. It is stuffed with a simple but tasty potato onion bhaaji(dry curry) and fresh melting butter oozes out as we break the dosa, scoop a little potato curry and dip it in a pool of chutney. As we relish the dosa, an array of flavours dance on our tongue and invigorate the senses, if not elevate the mood! The crunchy sound of dosa being masticated between the jaws releases juices in the mouth of the watchers by, making their hunger multiply and decide to go for at least two dosas at a time! Thus I think, the title ‘Perfect Masala Dosa’ suits the dosa at Vidyarthi Bhavan, which has been a phenomenal restaurant, rather a heritage restaurant for the connoisseur of fine dining over the last 7 decades! Bengaluru without Vidyarthi Bhavan could be somewhat like Bengaluru without Lal Bagh! There may be hundreds of restaurants serving masala dosas in Bengaluru, but Vidyarthi Bhavan has been an iconic restaurant not only in my heart, but also for at least a hundred thousand other people settled all over the world!
As per information available on official website of Vidyarthi Bhavan, this hotel was started by Venkataramana Ural from Saligrama near Udupi in the year 1943, in a small house in Gandhi Bazaar. It first used to cater to students (Vidyarthis) but later it was let open to public. His brother Parameshwar Ural then took it over and ran the business. No wonder noted Kannada scholar and Yakshagana exponent Dr Shivarama Karanth’s birth place has also given birth to able people, who have perfected the art of making masala dosa!

Later in 1970, Ramakrishna Adiga hailing from Shankarnarayana near Kundapur took over and started managing the restaurant. What changed was just the management, but the name, tradition and recipes remained the same, so was the service standards of many of the employees. The overflowing demand and its profound popularity should be the prudent evidence for its unchanging taste, flavour & delicacy. Vidyarthi Bhavan has seen noted scholars, actors, artists, politicians and philanthropists frequenting there for the Perfect Masala Dosa. Few years ago the restaurant was refurbished and dining area can now accommodate more people, at the same time old grandeur has been maintained with Coastal Karnataka style high terracotta tiled roof with natural light and air allowed through proper ventilation. A waiter named SV Murthy has drawn sketches of scholars and scribes during his pastime, which are framed and displayed on the walls from end to end.

Arun Kumar Adiga, a young Engineer who quit his technical job and joined his father in running the show, manages almost everything about Vidyarthi Bhavan today. I met him online while browsing through Facebook one day when I saw my brother Dr Radhakanth Shenoy, another fan of Vidyarthi Bhavan liking a post on Vidyarthi Bhavan’s page. I posted the link to the video I had made two years ago about Vidyarthi Bhavan which I had uploaded on youtube, and Arun immediately recognized my work and communicated with me via message, inviting me to Vidyarthi Bhavan during my next visit to Bengaluru! I accepted his invitation and visited there recently, but I also made it a point to take my cousin Premakar along with, who had introduced me to Vidyarthi Bhavan way back in 1980 December.

My nephew Darshan Pai took us to Vidyarthi Bhavan in the morning at around 10:45am. It was as crowded as always, and I sent my business card through the gentleman at the main door controlling the crowd. Arun Kumar Adiga appeared after 10 minutes, and after formal introductions and exchange of greetings, I went around with my camera clicking the photos of people gorging on masala dosa and other delicacies. Arun permitted me to enter the kitchen which is now in a different location within the premises and I had a chance to see how 25-30 masala dosas are made at a time by two experienced cooks and how expert waiters stack plates with 14-20 masala dosas balanced in one hand at a time and serve them without any effort! That phenomenon has been in vogue even when I first saw those serving dosas in 1980. Nothing has changed much as far as quality control and cleanliness are concerned. The old mosaic flooring, the wooden tables and seats, the plates and tumblers are all maintained clean and shining. Clean filtered cooled water is served and billing is done by machine.
Arun led us to the corner table and ordered masala dosas and coffee for us. Premakar said he will take a dosa packed for consumption at home and was happy with a cup of strong filter coffee. Premakar also insisted that he will pay for the packed dosa for old time’s sake. Arun could not stop him from paying for that dosa anyway! Arun spoke at length about how they manage the show in this millennium when availability of labour is scarce. He explained how they refurbished the house without demolishing any permanent structure and that too retaining the old grandeur! He also mentioned about the heritage walkers of Bengaluru who periodically take a long walk visiting various restaurants and tasting one item at each place, he proudly expressed his feelings about the accolades and awards won by Vidyarthi Bhavan for maintaining standards and also about their place of family origin Shankarnarayana near Kundapur. 

"It gives us immense pleasure and makes us feel good, when someone from a far away place or abroad visits us, relishes the dosa and reminisces over the past! Many bloggers and media people come here and cover the place for articles. We get motivated by them and carry forward the 70 year old trend set by the founders of Vidyarthi Bhavan." Arun sounded candid and contented.

Premakar had some fond memories to share with us, especially about the day in summer of 1961, when he visited the restaurant with his father as they were coming back with the prospectus for his admission into BMS College of Engineering in Basavangudi.

He said “Well, that day as my pop told me he will take me to Vidyarthi Bhavan and buy me a masala dosa which is a specialty there, I told him, look! Vidyarthi Bhavan is for students, and they may not allow you in! Contrary to my apprehension, my pop was not only allowed inside but he also relished the dosa with me that day! Then I started frequenting here and have been a regular here since last 5 decades"

After clicking a few photos with our host Arun Kumar Adiga, we also met Ramakrishna Adiga, Arun’s father who mostly manages the cash counter. He is a silent and friendly person with a broad smile. He was impressed to know that I had covered Vidyarthi Bhavan for a youtube video documentary titled ‘Bombaat Bengaluru - Part1’, two years ago. With the taste of the Perfect Masala Dosa and strong filter coffee lingering on our taste buds, we left Gandhi Bazaar and reached home.

As Premakar opened the parcel, we were in for a big surprise! The Masala Dosa was a tubular one as against the half moon shaped dosa we ate at Vidyarthi Bhavan and it was neatly packed in a carton lined with waterproof material. Chutney was sealed in a disposable plastic tub, which ensured zero spillage! Not a single drop of oil had dripped in the box, nor did the dosa lose the crispness, which signifies the quality of packaging. I said hats off to Arun Kumar Adiga in particular, and Vidyarthi Bhavan in general, for the innovation!

There ended revisit to my favourite hangout for the Perfect Masala Dosa, this time with more meaningful time spent with Arun Kumar Adiga who made us feel good. Needless to mention, that leap of The Perfect Masala Dosa from the kitchen of Vidyarthi Bhavan to the dining table of Premakar’s home was pretty neat!

With inputs from: Vidyarthi Bhavan official website.
Address: No-32, Gandhi Bazar Main Road, Basavanagudi, Bengaluru - 560 004 INDIA

Phone: +91 80 266 77588


Monday-Thursday: 6.30AM to 11.30AM - 2.00PM to 8.00PM

Saturday,Sunday & Public Holidays: 6.30AM to 12.00PM - 2.30PM to 8.00PM
Weekly Holiday  :  Friday
Bombaat Bengaluru Part1 - Vidyarthi Bhavan


maria . K said...

why not give us the recipe?!

Rajanikanth Shenoy, Kudpi said...

Vidyarthi Bhavan is a restaurant with 73 years of history. Their Masala Dosa recipe is as old as the restaurant itself. They are still running the setup with same old menu and masala dosa is the prime item on their menu.

Hence I doubt if they spare their recipe!

maria . K said...

haha --- not fair!
Im sure you will come up with it one day!

Rajanikanth Shenoy, Kudpi said...

Maria, Vidyarthi Bhavan owners Adigas may FRAME me and HANG me along with noted scholars' pics inside their restaurant for wrong reasons, if I came out with the recipe.

maria . K said...

I am very sure I will thank you one day!

Unknown said...

Fantastic coverage! It's a complete entourage of VB to its core. I'm going there today evening with my family to relish!!!

Rajanikanth Shenoy, Kudpi said...

Thank you.


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