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The pursuit of classic Kolkata food

  • Published at 05:04 pm February 9th, 2019

It was difficult to wean myself away from the culinary attractions of Bengal Club, but I had only five days and I had to eat in other places of Kolkata. Three other restaurants worth mentioning during this visit are Sonargaon Restaurant at Taj Bengal, Trinca’s at Park Street, and Zaranj at Jawahar Lal Nehru Road

Eating in Sonargaon Restaurant at Taj Bengal was not planned. We had gone there just to check out the hotel as I had originally intended to stay there. There were several restaurants inside the hotel, but I was attracted to this restaurant for its name. I was not disappointed, as the restaurant menu contained a good number of Bengali dishes which was lacking at Bengal Club. Along with standard Mughlai features, the restaurant served a variety of Bengali fish curries (bhetki paturipabda jhol, and chingri malai curry), as well as typical meat dishes such as kosha mangsho and murgi jhol. It also served typical Bengali vegetable dishes such as narkel cholar daalpalong shaakmochar ghanta, etc. The food was expensive, but the cooking was excellent. At the end, we had mouthwatering Bengali sweets — rashmalai and sandesh.

Trinca’s at Park Street offered a mixed menu of Indian and continental food. I had been there on my first visit. I had liked the food and the ambience. I found the place as busy as before with people waiting for tables. We found a table in a room adjoining the main restaurant where a band was playing. Trinca’s mainly features continental dishes with a spattering of Indian food. Their sandwiches and cutlets were good, but they also served reasonably good tandoori dishes.

Of all the restaurants that we visited, the most outstanding was Zaranj, a most recent food outlet which was really upscale. Located not far from Chowringhee, the restaurant offered excellent Indian dishes mostly of Awadhi and Mughlai cuisines. It had also a Thai section which did not attract much crowd. We had to wait for over an hour for a table as, in those days, phone reservation were not easy.

We tasted a number of dishes, of which the dishes that tickled my taste buds most were tandoori chicken, hariyali kebab (skewered meat in coriander and spinach sauce), roghan josh (lamb curry), Amritsari fish, prawns sautéed in yogurt and hot pepper, and Kashmiri biriyani. The meal lasted nearly two hours, and every bite was worth the price (which was pretty steep).

I visited Kolkata again towards the end of 2014, after a hiatus of a decade. This time, we stayed in Park Hotel; again, not too far from Chowringhee. The legendary Park Hotel, which dates back to the British period, was recently renovated with upscale décor and stylish interior with black marbled floors. However, in spite of the attractions offered by the hotel’s many restaurants, we ate in different restaurants in and around Park Street and other parts of Kolkata.

One of my major targets this time was Bhajahari Manna restaurant which, by that time, had acquired a reputation for its typical Bengali cuisine and excellent cooking. I had heard of this restaurant from many sources, including magazines and TV.

The restaurant, which started from Gariahat , had by then branched out in several parts of the city and elsewhere in India. For my culinary venture, I went to the Gariahat branch of the restaurant. The menu was enormous, and difficult to choose from. It ranges from humble bhartas and bhajis of a dozen kinds, to a wide array of fish dishes that included chingri, pabda, rui, ilish (in season), katla, chital, koi, and what not.

The meat dishes included chicken curry of different kinds, and mutton, typical of which was kasha mangsho. After a lot of head scratching, we settled for daab chingri (large prawns cooked with coconut milk and presented in a green coconut shell), begun bhaja (fried eggplant), and chital fish curry. I used my fingers to eat: the proper way to enjoy a Bengali meal. We finished the meal with mishti doi and sandesh.

Three other restaurants that were worth going to were Kwality and BarBQ on Park Street, and Aminia near New Market. This was the third time I went to Kwality, but first time to BarBQ and Aminia. I always found Kwality food to be par excellence, and this time it was no exception. In fact, we went to Kwality twice this time, for lunch and dinner.

We went to BarBQ on a Saturday evening. Since the restaurant did not take reservations, we went straight to the place (a few hundred yards from Park Hotel) hoping to snag a table. As we approached the restaurant, we faced a serpentine queue winding through the stairs from the street all the way up to the third floor.

As I was debating with my wife whether we should join the queue and wait perhaps an hour or so, a Maître D’ type of person come down the stairs with a note book in hand, taking down names of awaiting clients. He was also letting people know the approximate wait time (which was an hour). When the person came to us and wanted to know how many people there were in my group, I told him we were only two. The man asked me immediately to follow him to the restaurant on the third floor, passing by the long line of waiting customers. I could not believe myself when he gave us a table, that too near the window. I do not know if it was the fact that we were only two, or my appearance that expedited our way to the table, but I thanked him profusely and sat down to order our food.

BarBQ, despite its name, offered Chinese dishes and grilled Indian food, but it is more liked for its Chinese food than the grilled varieties. The menu was so vast that I found it difficult to make a choice, particularly because I had not eaten there before. With some help from the waiter, we selected several dishes, some of which I did not have before. These were Manchurian chicken, Mandarin fish, King Prawns in a house special sauce, Singapore chicken, and Hakka noodles. The dishes were so plentiful that we could only eat half of each.

Aminia is a typical Kolkata Muslim restaurant, that has been in existence for the last 80 years or so. The main location is in Hogg’s Market (New Market), but it now has five other outlets all over Kolkata. The restaurant offers Awadhi cuisine specializing in biriyani, meat curries, and specialty kebabs. We went there for lunch and feasted on chicken tengri kebab, mutton kakri kebab, boti kebab, chicken biriyani, and mutton roghan josh. I had eaten at Nizam’s in the past, but while Nizam’s excellence is in grilled food, Aminia excels in biriyanis and meat curries. It was overall a culinary venture to remember.

Three other places that I have to mention are Flury’s, the legendary Coffee House, and a newly founded tea place in the upper floor of a book store. Flury’s does not need any introduction. Operating since 1927, the place offers the old-world charm of forgotten British days in India. It is known for its bakery items such as cakes, cookies, pastries and patties. The restaurant offers a scrumptious breakfast and lunch. We had typical English breakfast in the restaurant that comprised of eggs, sausages, hash potatoes, fish cutlets, and toast. The coffee was aromatic and heartwarming.

Like Flury’s, the Coffee House of College Street is a Kolkata legend. Although operated now by the Indian Coffee Workers Cooperative, and there being many Indian Coffee Houses all over India now, this original Coffee House has remained in the same building for the last seventy-five years.

I had gone to the Coffee House first in my 2002 visit but could not stay there for long. This time, I went there to spend some time watching people in that fabled place. The Coffee House - which had earned a reputation as a hub for young writers, musicians, and artists - attracts a lot of young people as well as tourists. It is known for its snacks, the most famous of which are Kaviraji Cutlets, singara, pakora, sandwiches, and boiled eggs. The food is good, but the wait time is too long, which does not seem to bother the customers, because they are there for ‘adda’ (idle gossip).

I would like to end this narrative with only a note on the Tea Place in Oxford Book Store on Park Street. This was, indeed, a discovery for me. While looking for some Bengali books at the store I was directed to the upper floor. There, to my pleasant surprise, I found a corner that had a fully functional tea room. The tea room offered snacks, tea and coffee. But when I saw breakfast items on the menu, I decided to return the next morning. The breakfast menu was simple, either continental or Indian. I opted for the Indian menu which included puri, chola, and bhaji along with dahi. It was indeed a satisfying meal, costing much less than my Park Hotel breakfast.

This is the final part of the two part article. 

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