SACHIT Mehra knows it’s going to be a good day when he opens this newspaper and sees his smiling face staring back at him.
"I don't want to pretend that I've figured (restaurant critic) Marion Warhaft out, but if there's a review of our restaurant in the Free Press -- and the picture that's running alongside it was taken from inside the restaurant -- then I'm pretty sure it's going to be a positive write-up," says Sachit, the son of East India Company Pub & Eatery founder Kamal Mehra. "But if the photo is of the outside of the building, then I know we're in trouble."
With that, Sachit, 33, leans over and knocks his fist on a hand-carved, wooden wedding arch. "Luckily, every picture to date has been taken from inside the restaurant."
Nineteen-year-old Kamal Mehra wasn't trying to curry favour with Winnipeggers when he opened this city's first Indian restaurant in 1968. Rather, the University of Manitoba student -- who had moved to Canada from Delhi one year earlier -- was simply trying to grant his own stomach a break from a dormitory diet that relied heavily on burgers, fries and Kraft Dinner.
The Maharaja was located on the second floor of a Sherbrook Avenue walk-up. Kamal had plenty of time to maintain his GPA; for the first few months, a busy night consisted of two or three customers. "And it wasn't unusual for a week to go by without anybody coming in at all," he says.
That wasn't the case at Incarnation No. 2. One day after Kamal opened India Gardens on McDermot Avenue in the mid-1970s, he shut the doors because things were too hectic. "By then, my mom and grandmother were involved in the business, too," says Sachit, noting that the second locale was kitty corner to the Health Sciences Centre, and steps away from the Mehra family home on Winnipeg Avenue. "On their first day, they were absolutely bowled over: not enough cutlery, not enough plates... orders out the wazoo." (Reporter reaches for his Punjabi dictionary; looks up "wazoo.")
"But if there was one thing my father learned from his days on Sherbrook, it was that you only have one chance to make a first impression. So they closed for two weeks to reset themselves, and haven't looked back since." (India Gardens was actually a two-headed monster. For people not keen on navratan or butter chicken, the Mehras also served a variety of selections under the banner Mehra's Delicatessen. In fact, until 10 years ago, you could still order a Reuben or corned beef sandwich at the East India Company.)
The family moved to its present, 140-seat location at 349 York Ave. in 1993. They gutted the former Garden Creperie, and redecorated the space using dozens of imported artifacts and tapestries -- some as old as 450 years. "It was a full-on effort," says Sachit, who joined the "team" that same year, straight out of high school. "We weren't simply going to hang up a picture of the Taj Mahal, and say 'Come on in.'"
Points for authenticity: it's not unusual for Sachit to arrive for work at 9 a.m. and see the restaurant's Ganesh statue -- located just outside, facing the street -- covered in yogurt or cream. "Winnipeggers who believe in Ganesh (an elephant-headed Hindu deity) treat the statue almost like a shrine; they come here any time of day or night, and leave money or fruit, as an offering," says Sachit. "I'm usually the one who cleans it up, and one time I saw a family out front, pouring milk over it. I started coming outside to dissuade them, but stopped myself, thinking, 'Who am I?'"
The East India Company's signature, 21-item buffet has fed its share of famous folk through the years, including rock stars, political bigwigs and Blue Bomber football players.
And although you'd presume that hosting Sir Ben Kingsley three years ago ("Table for one, Mr. Gandhi?") would have been the ultimate coup for an Indian restaurant, Sachit was more star-struck by a guest who wasn't even due to be born for 325 years.
"I'm a Trekkie, big-time, and one time I looked up and there was LeVar Burton, who played Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, standing in front of me. I was like, 'No...' and he was like, 'Yep...'"
Turned out Burton was in Winnipeg for a month, shooting a movie called Taken in Broad Daylight. The USS Enterprise's Chief Engineer quickly became an East India Company disciple, showing up three or four times a week for dinner.
All four Mehra children are now involved with the business -- either in Winnipeg or at the restaurant's sister location in Ottawa. "I don't even refer to it as a business," says Sachit, who now has two boys of his own, ages eight and nine. "I call it a lifestyle -- it's simply what we do.
"Oftentimes, you hear people talking about what their fondest memories of childhood are; for some, it's going fishing or camping. For me, it's driving a Big Wheel (plastic bike) around the tables on McDermot, talking to doctors and nurses and students from HSC. Then going home with my parents, and staying up late, to talk about our respective days.``
WHEN Sachit Mehra's grandmother, Usha Mehra, moved to Canada, she brought along a taste of her homeland.
"Besides blending our own spices and making our own cheese, we also produce our own yogurt," Sachit says. "I'm not sure what you know about yogurt culture, but ours was snuck into the country in 1969 by my grandmother.
"It's been in the family for 75 years, and has been used consecutively during that time, from one batch to another batch to another."