Once in a way, a dining experience makes an impression. If you are well-traveled and eat out more often than not, that kind of experience becomes especially elusive. That’s why I am happy to report that I recently discovered an experience of that sort – pretty much on my own doorstep. It’s called Naati Manae (naati = rustic/country-style; manae = house), serves only typical Karnataka cuisine, and (this was a surprise) as of now, only non-vegetarian dishes. K. Girish and B. Ravi Shankar, Koramangala-based friends and real estate developers, got so tired of having to schlep off to Cubbonpet or Malleswaram every time they needed a fix of honest-to-goodness local oota (meal) that they decided to go the DIY route. The result is an unpretentious little eatery that dishes out specialties like raagi mudde (raagi = finger millet; mudde = balls), donne biriyani (biriyani served in a cup made of dry leaves), naati koli saaru (naati koli = free range chicken; saaru = a thin, soupy curry), and more. Disclaimer: In a break with my standard policy, I have only dined at this restaurant ONCE. It was good enough to share.
Naati need not mean nasty…
When my Big Brother, a.k.a. Annavare, mentioned Naati Manae to me, I painted an elaborate picture in my head. This was a “military hotel”, or a “mess-style” hole-in-the-wall establishment, I thought to myself. Dark interiors would disguise the grime on the floor and walls. Acrid kerosene odors would permeate the air, and the clatter of steel dishes would make conversation impossible. You’d have to close your eyes to the dirt, your nose to the smell, and your ears to the clamor. But you could most definitely keep your opening your mouth, because the food would be fabulous. Steeling myself for one of those nasty-yet-nice dining experiences, I dragged The Spouse off for what I thought would be a somewhat unconventional afternoon date.
Naati Manae is located in an old, tile-roofed home. Traditional warli paintings decorate the exterior walls (yes, I know warli isn’t a Karnataka art tradition, but if you’re trying to establish a rustic theme, warli does the job). A gigantic rooster mural greets you as you step into the restaurant. Red-oxide flooring and wood carvings on the wall timewarp you back to the time when Bengaluru was Bangalore – the slow-paced, gracious Pensioners’ Paradise. Tabletops inset with whole spices and painted terracotta tiles add an all-too familiar contemporary touch. The restaurant is fairly small – it can probably seat a maximum of 45 people across the eight or nine available tables, plus a few more in the an air-conditioned “family room”. No clatter, no unpleasant odor, and definitely no grime. The place is impeccably clean; wait staff is neatly dressed in dhotis and the cleaning boys wear hairnets. This is definitely not a “military hotel”.
Cuisine of Karnataka – non-vegetarian only!
Once I had set aside my preconceptions, we were able to turn to the Thing That Matters Most – the food. Naati Manae’s menu is presented on a dark wood plaque. Don’t be worried if you are unable to read Kannada – just flip it over to find an English translation. Be sure to preface your meal with a glass of majjige (spiced buttermilk), (Rs. 20). Not too sour, not too spicy, and laced with fresh coriander, this cooling beverage is the perfect midday refresher.
There were so many dishes on the menu that The Spouse and I wanted to try, and narrowing it down was quite a challenge.
We started with a portion of Mutton Liver Fry (Rs.75) and one of Thalae Maamsa (Rs.75) (thalae= head, maamsa=meat). Anyone who has tried to cook lamb or goat liver knows how hard it can be to ensure that it does not end up with the texture of an old leather boot – especially if you also want it to absorb the flavors of the spices with which you’ve seasoned it. Naati Manae’s kitchen delivers spongy, soft chunks of liver lightly glossed with a simple, tomato-rich masala that offsets the liver’s natural bitterness with a slightly acidic tang. Although the portion size looks tiny, it is very deceptive – liver is a very rich organ, and even though I split the plate with The Spouse, it filled me up pretty quick.
Thalae maamsa, for those of you who don’t know, is not brain. Instead, it is exactly what it declares itself to be: meat from the head of a lamb or goat. Succulent, tender cheek pieces and fat-rich meat cooked semi-dry in a punchy green masala makes for a unique, unforgettable marriage of flavors and textures. Yum!
For our main course, we opted for a raagi mudde (Rs.15 per piece) each, and shared a bowl of Mutton Saaru (Rs.80).
I have been a mudde aficionado since I was a kid – this is one of those childhood comfort foods that I believe my mother makes best. The Spouse had his first raagi mudde experience in my parents’ home, and hasn’t looked back since. There is a knack to and cooking and eating mudde. Traditionally, mudde batter was cooked in an earthen pot, and stirred with a mudde kolu (kolu=stick). A well-prepared mudde contains no lumps, and is smooth and soft. It’s supposed to be sticky, (but not too sticky) and large (but not too large). The correct way to eat a raagi ball is to drench it in ghee and curry, then break off a tiny piece, roll it into a ball, and swallow it whole. You’re not supposed to bite into it – it’s a rural lunchtime staple meant to fill the stomach rather than please the taste buds; also, the dense, pasty texture isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The Spouse and I, however, both like the sticky texture, and take great delight in mashing the mudde against the upper palate to fully experience its nutty aroma. Whoever is making Naati Manae’s raagi mudde knows what he (she?) is doing. They are the perfect size, texture, and density.
The mutton saaru, with its distinctive green-masala notes and soft, tender meat turned the humble raagi mudde – food of farmers – into an unforgettable experience.
About three-quarters of our way through the mudde, The Spouse suddenly decided that it was absolutely imperative to taste the Naati Koli Saaru (free-range chicken curry) (Rs. 115) – we were after all, sitting in a restaurant whose name contained the word “naati“. I do not approve of mudde being consumed with anything but mutton saaru, bas saaru (basidu = to drain off vegetable stock from cooked vegetables), or the green-gram-based mas saaru (maseda = mashed). Nevertheless, I chose to sample the chicken saaru. In one word: wow. Naati (free range) chicken is so much tastier than the standard broilers we have all become accustomed to, and the fragrance of freshly roasted whole coriander seeds elevated the curry from the simple to the sublime. In my opinion, an akki rotti (or two!) would have been the perfect accompaniment.
In addition to other Bengaluru staples like donne biriyani (Rs.95-Rs.130), mutton kheema (mince) fry (Rs.100), paya (trotter) soup (Rs.40-50), and chicken ghee roast (Sundays only), Naati Manae’s menu also features a couple of Andhra specialties, like the fiery Guntur Chicken (Rs. 90) and the tangy Gongura (sorrel leaf) Chicken (Saturdays only).
For the vegetarians
At the moment, vegetarians must make do with dosas, thatte idlis, and vadas. However, a little probing revealed that the owners are working on adding vegetarian options to their menu. Unfortunately, a sneak peek at the proposed vegetarian options revealed an entire family of ick-worthy “manchurians”: paneer, gobi, babycorn… you get the picture. I spent a good half-hour exhorting Ravi Shankar not to dilute the restaurant’s concept, and to instead cater to vegetarian customers by offering indigenous dishes like the aforementioned bas saaru, hitkida avarekai (skinned hyacinth beans), uppitu (spiced semolina), chitranna (lemon rice), puliyogare (peanut rice)… the list is endless. If you agree with me, please do comment below, indicating your desire to sample Karnataka’s vegetarian culinary repertoire rather than a host of Andhra-Chinese alternatives.
Things to “no” before you go
- No vegetarian food. Yet. See above.
- No Mondays. This is their weekly holiday.
- No liquor, fruit juices, or mocktails. You get water, bottled beverages, or majjige.
- No air conditioning. For the most part, the restaurant is cooled by fans – the small air-conditioned area can only seat up to 10 people.
- No spoons and forks either. You eat à la indien – with your hands.
- No dosa, vade or idli at lunchtime – or so the menu says. Although these are only supposed to be available at breakfast, we noticed a couple sitting nearby order and receive dosas with their lunch.
- No desserts. Yet. Mysore badaam halwa (almond fudge) would be great!
#334,17th ‘C’ Main,
5th Block Koramangala,
Phone: 080 – 40986161 /40986160 / 9535197899