Hrishikesh and I visited the Panorama Hotel for lunch after spending our morning on an arduous two-hour walk along the quiet trails and smaller roads in Mahabaleshwar. Visible from the sunny street that leads to Mahabaleshwar’s market, Panorama’s restaurant looks dreary, cluttered with faded orange table-chair units clumped under lazy fans. On my own, I doubt I would have picked it from the hundreds of similar hotel restaurants in the hill station, but Hrishikesh recalled that he enjoyed their South Indian food as a child. So in we went to try it, that first time, and on many visits since then, walking through the maze of plastic chairs on swivels and peering through the darkness at our reflections in the large mirrors that cover one wall. We walked through the gloom to the outdoor balcony, where the plastic seats looked more appropriate, overlooking the bright, empty pool and small lawn where plump children scattered like stubby bushes.
Tired and hot, we slumped into orange chairs and ordered two frosty glasses of chaas. Creamy, chilled and sprinkled with a smattering of cumin, the buttermilk was instantly invigorating. Refreshed, we started flipping through the menu, which, with the goal of pleasing diverse crowds, contained a variety of cuisines. After a cursory glance at the Chinese, Gujarati and Punjabi fare, we focused on the South Indian food. Hrishikesh, who likes his dosas plain, crisp, and cooked in ghee, ordered the Paper Dosa, a burnished two-foot cone of such uniform wafer-thinness that tearing pieces was impossible: we had to crack them off. We dipped some in the milky coconut chutney, the sweet, oily sambhar, and the potato and onion masala, but we liked our dosa best unadulterated, and relished each bite of crispy browned butter as Panorama’s perfected craft. After that, we tried the disappointingly greasy Onion Rava Dosa, and the engorged Dahi Idlis sitting placidly in yogurt, pushing both aside midway through the meal. However, the Onion Tomato Green Chile Uttapam, a savory rice and dal batter pancake that was so rich and soft we had to lift our pieces with a fork instead of our fingers, restored our spirits and our appetites. Cooked to a light caramel on one side and a crisscrossed with lacy brown on the other, it was crammed with seared and sweetened vegetables and tasted like a great pizza, South Indian style.
After a meal filled with these tactile thrills- a crackling dosa, a velvety uttapum bursting with sweetness and spice, we had no desire for dessert. Instead, we shared one more glass of chaas, the cold, milky drink our version of an ice cream ending.
A meal at Panorama costs around Rs. 200