The right address… 6 Ballygunge Place, Kolkata

I quite like this trend of converting old houses into commercial establishments that I saw in South Kolkata this time.

The facade of the house is retained. The building gets a new lease of life. The topography of the locality remains unchanged. The shops inside have a distinctive look and yet retain a bit of the past. A great way to keep up with the times and yet respect ones roots.

There is Kewpies, which I had gone back to recently, which has done this. Then Fab India in Hindustan Park and By Loom close by. One a restaurant. Another a handicraft store. The third a combination of both.

Each room, in the building the stores are housed in, tell a different story. In some cases spreading across two stories. Eating, or even shopping, take on a different hue here.

Then there is 6 Ballygunge Place which I discovered in this trip. Another of Kaniska’s recommendations when I was looking for options for a Bengali restaurant to go to for a family lunch. This too turned out to be a restaurant in the ground floor of a house spread across many rooms.

Kaniska told me that he liked the ‘homely’ feel of 6 Ballygunge place and I got a sense of that right from the start with the lady who took our booking on the phone. In a plaintive, non business-like voice, ahladi but not nyaka, that’s ‘affectionate’ for non Bengali speakers, she gave me directions to the restaurant. When I called the next day to say we were running half an hour late, she reassured me, again rather warmly, that it was all fine.

Part of our family was already there when we entered and I soon sipped on the gondhoraj lebu ghol (lime flavoured light lassi) recommended by them.

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The setting of 6 Ballygunge Place, like Kewpies, is that of a house with different rooms. Quite airy and yet cosy. We got a largish section as we were a group of seven. The place was disturbingly empty when I came in but got packed around 2 pm. It was Sunday after all.

The waiter who took our order was quite knowledgeable and warm. We conversed in Bengali.

Most of the family didn’t see the point in appetisers. ‘Let’s cut to the chase’ said the look on their faces. Bengali logic that you can’t fault with but being spoilt by Mumbai I did order a couple of starters before we got down to business.

A morola maachh peyaji which was tiny fish crisply fried, with onion rings and kasundi, or the spicy Bengali mustard sauce, on the side. Not a very traditional dish. Yet a dish which conjured visions of seaside resorts such as Digha or Puri that are favoured by Calcuttans. I have never eaten fried fish on the beaches there in my trips there ages back but you know what I mean.

An oily & fishy dish. Simple. Uncomplicated. Not gourmet but definitely the sort that would go well with a casual adda or chat.

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The other starter, deemer debhil (devil), or a Bengali take on Scotch eggs. Boiled eggs enrobed in a garam masala infused potato and mutton mince mash. Clearly the favourite on the table that afternoon amongst the starters.

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The ordering of the mains followed after varying levels of intense polemic debate.

The two other men apart from me, my mesho and cousin, were clear that they wanted mangsho. Father wanted it with luchi. Son with pulao. Ilish had to be ordered for the ladies across age groups. We went for bhaapa as well as patoori. After a lot of pondering a chitol peti was added by my aunt who loves to experiment in restaurants and ends up being disappointed with what she orders. I called for a shukto much to the bemusement of folks. Who eats shukto in a restaurant? And then as I was summing up the orders, Mesho said ‘begun bhaaja’ (aubergine fry). I remembered, and ordered the stuffed crabs’ which someone recommended on facebook. And a chholar daal for good measure ignoring the waiter’s valid advice that chholar daal doesn’t combine well with rice.

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They have no thaalis here in 6 Ballygunge Place unlike in Kewpies. They have a buffet but that’s on weekdays and I am ideologically against buffets. Stale food. Excessive eating. Dishes not of your choice. Naah, no buffets for me.

All things considered I think I did a creditable job of placing the myriad orders and the waiters, possibly used to this, did a good job of getting it all down.

Unlike Kewpies, couple of weeks back the food stayed piping hot till the end at 6 Ballygunge Place.

How was the food? The high points first.

The ilish patoori. Bone-less hilsa was the winner in my books. Cuts the hassle of picking through bones and yet packed with the flavours of hilsa. Steamed in a well balanced mustard marinade in banana leaves. Intense yet alluring.

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The curry in the bhaapa ilish was ethereal too and the fish so delightfully supple and pliant. Suddenly makes you realise how ersatz the ilish one gets in Mumbai is. The ilish I ate at Kewpies, at 6 Ballygunge Place and at home in Kolkata were truly worth their weight in gold.

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After years of disappointment while ordering it in Mumbai – Bijoli Grill, Bhojohori had all failed me on this – finally a blockbuster chital peti at 6 Ballygunge Place. Very juicy fish and one suddenly realised why chital peti is so prized and reserved by mother in laws for their son in laws on jamai shashthi. Or at least that’s what Didu had kept for my dad years back.

The kaalialike, ground onion based sauce in which the fish was cooked had all the texture and flavour and robustness which the kaalia in Oh Calcutta, Mumbai, for example so lacks.

For once mashi was happy with her offer and invited us to dig in. Which we did.

It’s worth travelling to the origin to taste the motherlode evidently.

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The mangsho or mutton was very well cooked. Tultule, voluptuous, meat that held no pleasure back.

The only hitch, as our group pointed out, was that it was more jhol than kosha. That is, had too much gravy to curry favour. Kosha, or slow cooked mutton, is supposed to be drier.

Yet, in absolute terms, the mutton with the luchis gave primal pleasure and that’s what finally matters if you ask me.

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I found the crab was too smelly and weirdly sweet though later mom lapped it all up and then gave a big smile and said, ‘should have packed it and made sandwiches’.

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In the vegetable section the begun bhaaja were beautifully bouncy and playful. Sliced differently from the one in Kewpies a fortnight back which makes the phrase ‘this is the way it’s done’ so contentious and redundant when it comes to food. Food is about enjoyment and not shibboleths and holy cows.

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The chholar daal reminded me of didu’s luchi chholar daal combo which were the only Indian dishes that I would eat when I first came to India as a chubby, spoilt kid. This time, Didu was with us for the lunch, and approved of the food on offer.

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The shukto was cloudy, dull and disappointing. Bhojohori and Bijoli Grill in Mumbai and Kewpies in Kolkata do a much better fragrant, ghee at its core, shukto.

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Desserts led to a bit of consternation with some folks wanting chocolate ice cream but we were told by the waiters that their chocolate ice cream was frozen and not good. And there was no hot chocolate sauce to go with the vanilla. The other combo sought.

As the probashi, or non-resident Bengali, the ice cream angst didn’t bother me. I wanted things the traditional way. A palate cleanser of tomato and aamshokto chutney with a side order of papad. Followed by a chhanar malpua and some mishti doi.

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The clichéd ‘sweet ending’.

The lunch at 6 Ballygunge Place was what trips back to Kolkata are all about. Great food of course. Family too. The chaos that comes with it. Coordinating schedules. Trying to get people’s attention in between all the side conversations going on. Trying to make sense of the chaos while trying to order food. The rapt silence that follows once the food arrives. Opinions not held back. On one end a sense of comfort that makes one forget that ones meeting each other after ages. On the other hand, there is always that nagging feeling and sense of discomfort at the thought that you would be leaving all this and heading back again.

At such times, it is best to dig into the food, while its hot, and have a great time. Create memories to be munched on till one meets again.

Where do you head for Bengali food when you are in Kolkata/ What are your favourites there?

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I had mentioned By Loom earlier. Here’s a few pics from its pretty cafe. Nice, though oilier than 6 Ballygunge Place, luchis. Hearty mutton chops though more genteel than egg roll cart chops. The kosha mangsho, oily  yet well flavoured. Some of the mutton edible without your teeth flying out. A pretty place.

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