When Audrey Cunliffe missed MTR’s signature dosa in Singapore, she decided to get the iconic brand to the land of the mer-lion. The author tastes the dainties and says it is almost as good as the big daddy in Lal Bagh
If it’s Tuesday, it must be Akki Rotti. Actually, it’s Friday and we are at the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms’ (MTR) latest outpost in Singapore – it’s first outside India. Polishing off a masala dosa, we watch covertly as a Chinese lady and her elderly relative conduct a lengthy conversation at the cash counter. They pore over a pictorial menu – and the young lady twirls her fingers to form a globe, and ‘sooft, whiite’ drifts to our ears, then there is a swirl and ‘crisp’, and you know they are deliberating between idly and dosa.
Singaporeans are familiar with South Indian cuisine – especially the dosa, which is available all over the island. And as a foodie nation, they are always game for more options. For entrepreneur Audrey Cunliffe, Managing Director of Samanvay Singapore Pte. Ltd. and an ex-Bangalorean, this was enough reason to bring Bangalore’s iconic brand to the city. “Food sells here”, says Cunliffe who also has business interests in Bangalore. “And I love Bangalore food, and really missed it here”.
All the way from Udupi
But when Cunliffe approached the Maiyas for a franchise in September 2012, she may not have bargained for the effort and iterations her team would have to put in. The journey to achieve MTR’s exacting quality standards abroad has been a circuitous one. Take for instance, the ghee served in the tiny bowl with your rava idly. When kitchen trials began in February 2013, various local brands were experimented with – and none passed the taste test. This was followed by a round of tryouts with ghee manufactured Down Under and from New Zealand’s famed dairy industry. So finally, who won the joust? A little store near Udupi, Karnataka which supplies ghee to the rest of the MTR chain.
Similarly, a good percentage of the spices, powders and dry groceries come from India. Experts from the home turf come by every two months to keep an eye on things – and it was deemed best to employ chefs from MTR’s Bangalore kitchens. And the results? This writer now prefers dosa sans ghee and cannot compare the experience with earlier MTR outings – but the potato filling (masala) was bang on – close your eyes and you are opposite Lalbagh. The filter coffee has improved since the initial days and is now quite close to the original. The chutneys are good too. The other dishes we tasted – vada, khara bhath, kesari bhath – are yummy, but have a little bit to go before they achieve that explosion of taste big daddy back home gives you.
What do customers have to say? Saket Samir who has eaten in MTR in Bangalore feels ‘there is not much of a difference’. Mukesh Mehta, who has lived here for seven years and tasted all things vegetarian Singapore has to offer from South India, says this new addition to the list is ‘excellent’. Ex-Bangaloreans, according to Cunliffe, are repeat customers. Entire families troop in, she says, across generations. Feedback almost always involves nostalgia. From ‘This is not the coffee I had ten years back at Lalbagh’ to ‘Don’t change this. It is exactly like what we ate 30 years ago’. The eatery has also scored well with locals and tourists. Long deliberations on what to order are common – especially the first time. The staff is patient with this process – and tell us that once favourites have been established – the same customers rattle off orders on later visits. The bisibele bhath, we are told, is a smash hit. Rava idly and bonda soup also get top billing. Kids, of course, vote for the poori sagu.
There are expectations the restaurant cannot fulfil – many of these often carried over from other experiences with Indian food. ‘You don’t serve masala chai? What kind of an Indian restaurant are you?’ ‘I know this is a vegetarian place. Do you serve egg dosa?’ Some of these people are won over with explanations and trials, some walk away. One entry on the menu which causes a lot of comment is the signature MTR dosa. Darkand thick - customers frequently compare it with the light–coloured, thinner version served locally – and hesitate to tear into. But, says Cunliffe, one bite puts that to rest.
There are no plans for expansion, but business is good enough for Cunliffe and her team to wish they had bigger premises. If that happens – you can buy instant mixes and powders here. In the mean time, drop by if you are in the red dot and looking for thindi. MTR is at 438 Serangoon Road, Opp. Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, Singapore 218133. Call 65 6296 5800. If it’s Friday, it’s set dosa.