Braving the brined waves of Mumbai’s waters to cross over to Alibaug for a fish thali seemed like an unnecessary adventure — after all, Mumbai’s famed Malvani cuisine is a firm testimony to the glorious seafood it boasts of. Yet, when we heard of the man who kept his family recipes a closely-guarded secret for 40 years (and till date ensures only family continues to make each and every masala), there was no further discussion; just prompt research on when the next ferry to Alibaug left.
Those who know of the ‘Hamptons’ of Mumbai are no strangers to the fresh seafood that graces one’s steel plate at Hotel Sanman. For some, it is a weekend pilgrimage, for us, it was something we needed to tick off our Thali Trail. Perhaps one of the best things about visiting Alibaug is the lack of foreplanning that is required, thanks to the steady stream of ferries that go to-and-fro. The only issue we faced was having to fend off the hefty dues we paid to get our tooshes to Hotel Sanman — a fee you can avoid simply by doing a little research on what time the (free!) bus leaves from Mandwa port to Alibaug city. If you don’t mind shelling out INR 300 - INR 500 for a ride though, feel free to skip the bus.
As we happily strolled around the jetty, unaware of these bus timings, we made do with a cab who took us straight to Hotel Sanman’s doors. At first glance, Hotel Sanman looks like any other restaurant and as we pointedly look at this seemingly popular spot, we notice we’re being looked back at as well, by the men waiting by the door, the denizens living above the restaurant, as well as casual passers-by — a strange notion considering Sanman’s main occupants are largely made up of outsiders.
Set up in 1981 by Dinkar Gaitonde, the establishment is now run by his son-in-law and wife, Mangesh and Poornima Mhatre. “We took over in 1996, but till date, we continue to use my father-in-law’s recipes. Only my wife and I know it, which is why you’ll find us in the kitchen every day. We make the masalas ourselves,” says Mangesh Mhatre, with immense pride. He attributes this very dedication to how they’ve managed to maintain their quality over the last 37 years. He continues, “If we relied on our cooks, the taste would differ — everyone tends to cook in their own way.”
When they first started, Hotel Sanman was a meek hall, serving up seafood on stainless steel with no qualms. It was only until three years ago that they expanded into an airconditioned section, which Mangesh states was purely for customer comfort. When asked what led to the actual idea behind this hotel, he explains that his father-in-law and brother had a restaurant in Mumbai as well — but he decided to move on, taking inspiration from his Goan roots, to give the people of Alibaug a taste of seafood with a touch of Konkan flavours.
Their fish thali is a no frills sort, they stick to what they know, and they do it damn well. Each thali comes with rice, a choice of Indian bread, Sol Kadi, Sungta (dried prawns), fish curry and a fried slice of the fish you opted for. Take your time to dip a spoon into each bowl, and properly savour the mix of spices that’ll send a little tingle right to the tip of your nose — and fear not, no one will judge you for pouring your curry all over the mound of rice whilst digging into it with your hands. There’s absolutely no better way to enjoy a thali in all its glory. With just the right amount of tang and spiced to perfection, there’s little else one would want but since you’ve made the trip out here anyway, we’d suggest getting a side of Prawn Masala or Shellfish; they’re the most popular sides, besides fried Pomfret and Bombay Duck.
“We stay true to the Gomantak-Goan style of cooking. Coconut is used in all our curries, it makes for a major ingredient through our entire menu. People come for this — our no-fuss, homely food. We get a crowd from Mumbai, Pune, Nasik….it’s all through the year, especially in November-December and April-May,” says Rajendra Singh Pardesi, a close friend and Marketing Manager of Hotel Sanman.
If you’ve not been able to make it to Alibaug as yet, buckle up — Hotel Sanman is planning on making their way to Pune as well. However, if we were you, we’d hop on to the next ferry and make a weekend of it. There’s little else like a wholesome meal that makes you feel at home, away from home.
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