Paradise Lost or Where not to eat Bengali food in Mumbai... Howrah

I never thought that I would miss Bengali food till I moved in to Mumbai more than a decade back. Oh Calcutta or Only Fish as it was called then was too expensive for a trainee's wallet. Which is when I discovered Hotel New Bengal. The iconic honest  hard workings digs for those landing at Mumbai's Victoria Terminus from Howrah Station. My grandparents had stayed there when they had come to Mumbai.

I would go to its 'mess' or dining room with fellow Bongs and non Bongs for the seventy Rupees thali. Home cooked food, a lot simpler, coarser and affordable than Only Fish.  The restaurant was located on the terrace of the hotel. No air con of course. Creaking fans. Hotel guests strolling in. Antsy children. Their mothers in shapeless nightgowns...the very antithesis of Victoria's Secrets. Patriarchs in sleeveless vests and white pyjamas, the antithesis of 'low rise', ending at the ankles. We felt completely at home dining with the Bengali traveller who is adept at making the world his oyster. We dipped into the simple daal, thick rice, tiny pieces of rui, shukto... the bitter gourd based appetiser we would never touch at home and tomato chutney. Almost as if your mother was making balls of rice with her hands and feeding you as she told you stories of kings and queens and Mickey Mouse (er that's my mom). Twenty somethings, away from home for the first time. Washing our hands after dinner with a well worn bar of Lifebuoy soap.

Even K was fond of the New Bengal Lodge. We used to go there when we were dating. As she said today, "the food was yummy". Then one day we found that the simple mess had become Howrah. The restaurant was rebranded with a new name, menu card and higher prices. We packed food and took it home. I fell ill. Didn't taste the same. We stopped going there. Till yesterday.

Finely Chopped turned three yesterday. I was frazzled at work. Without a lunch mate. Still thought I should do something special. Plus it was Mahalaya, the start of Durga Puja.

Howrah with its Bengali food and memories on the side seemed a good idea.  Drove down from Fort, skipped JJ flyover and reached New Bengal Lodge. It is located just beside where the flyover started after VT. A bit ahead of the the Crawford Market Circle. A path K and I would walk down after work in search of food.

VT, now known as CST

Crawford market

Things have changed. The mess at the terrace was gone. Howrah was no longer in the first floor. It was now at the ground floor behind a huge sign which said 'Zafraan'. I entered the restaurant. The first thing that struck me when I sat down was the unpleasant smell of fish which leaped out of the table and slapped you. And if I still didn't get it then I should have known what would happen when I saw the waiter's sleeve dip into my food when he served it.

I skipped the thali (a modest Rs 180 now) and went for individual dishes. I thought that I would make a start with vegetarian food. Rice, bhaaja (fried) moong daal and mochar ghonto made from the stem or stalk of a banana tree. Or is it the flower? My grandmom is an expert at making this.

The food arrived. The portions were huge. The reason why it is so difficult to eat alone at a place like this. The portions are geared to make you stick to just one dish.

Well the daal lacked salt, was watery. The promised 'bhaaja moong' remained elusive. I dreamt of the aroma of moong daals made by Bong Moms. Was confronted with prison gruel. The daal was searing hot. An obvious sign of reheating. An ineffective way to disguise the absence of any taste.

The mochar ghonto was enough to feed four. It was an insult to the cooking tradition of Bengali grandmothers. This traditionally well textured, slightly sweet dish with bites off the odd soft potato and the crunch of the odd coconut bit was presented here as a hot, squishy, desaturated, lifeless lump of despair. The potatoes were hard and uncooked. It was almost as if an evil witch had cast her spell on this dish and thrown grandma into a prison. It looked like and tasted like utter crap to put it politely. Again obviously stale and reheated. Flavoured with the waiter's shirt sleeve.

Be scared. Very scared

I was a sucker for punishment and decided to order a fish dish. I went for a posto rui. I was looking forward to some nice fish served on a bed of intoxicating posto or poppy seed paste. I was presented with a huge bowl of ground posto and onion with no fish in sight. The salt here more than made up for the salt free dal. I eventually extricated the fish. A task as hard as towing a car stuck in a deep ditch. The cuts of fish were really base for the price they charged. They were from the lower half of a small rui. The sort of cheap cut of fish that I would never buy in a market. Full of bones. The fish was soft and tasted bitter. Disintegrated when you touched it. I listlessly chewed through a few bites and had the good sense not to order a dessert.

This disaster of a meal, blot on the Bengali culinary heritage, CIA conspiracy, Imperialist ploy, oposhonskriti (anti-culture) of a meal cost me Rs 400 (8 USDNetaji the Prime Minister of India and removing Saurav Ganguly from the captaincy of India and KKR as injustices done against Bengal and Bengalis.

My innards protested against the mauling they got at Howrah. Multiple trips to loo and an upset and rather angry stomach kept reminding me of the meal till late into the night.

I sincerely hope that the group at the next table, who had come here in search of home food, fared better than I did. They were nice souls. And the rocket fuel doused villainous luchis weren't served to their table after all. Chatting with them about fish markets and biriyani in Mumbai and our impending trips to Mumbai was the only pleasant memory of this sordid lunch. A lunch where my dreams were shattered, my memories were sullied.

But then as K said, just the place to eat on the birthday of a blog which had started of as a crib blog.

Moral of the story, stick to the classy Oh Calcutta and the more reasonably priced Calcutta Club if you want Bengali food at Mumbai.


Anonymous said…
Wow. You confirmed my hunch about Howrah. Three of us, Bongs, had gone there after a trip to the Himalaya Arts store nearby, looking for an evening snack. Two Bengali establishments side by side (the lodge and Howrah) sent us into a tizzy. We were already imagining ourselves gorging on fish fries. However, once we entered, the prices were a dampener, yeah we were foolish enough to expect a pice-hotel price card. The lodge next door with an unassuming name was misleading. The restaurant was empty...and when we decided to leave, the waiters were cocky enough for the snide comment, 'What, the prices are too high?'

That reeked of desperation -- I mean, a roadside cafe with waiters like that, may be, but in a place smacking of Oh! Calcutta-like ambitions?

I, for one, would not go back to it even if someone praised it to the skies. Long live my outings at Oh Cal, Calcutta CLub and the occassional home experiments!

Esskay :)
Sassy Fork said…
You forgot Hangla's... :)
Agree,no place like Oh Calcutta!
What a dampener! Thought Howrah would have improved with the years!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Esskay: they were acting pricey at Howrah???!!!

@Sassy Fork, well rolls are still snacks to a Bong
Spin said…
Hahaha, "CIA conspiracy, Imperialist ploy, oposhonskriti of a meal", hahaha. Are you Bonguly?
Scarlett said…
Your experience with 'Howrah' reminds me of my visit to Kewpies. It had been recommended by quite a few people. I thought I'd check it out - the interiors were shabby, the dal served to us had turned sour, everything that was served was heated in the microwave, and the portions were too little for the price they charge.

I watch Masterchef Australia and the judges rip the contestant apart if the meat they serve is semi-raw, as that can be a health hazard & lead to lawsuits against the restaurants by customers. Why are Indian restaurants so apathetic to standards of health/hygiene?
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Spin, yes and a fan of ganguly

@Scarlett, they talk human lives seriously outside india
Anonymous said…
boy, I do miss hilsha rice with bhaja and daal in one of the restaurant opp of howrah train station and right next to ganges river. how can I forget , I miss one of the filthiest/disorganized station in the nation. Also lucky not to be from one of the stinkiest/degraded ole metro city Calcutta. Proud to be an indian and belong in a small town Asansol.
Una said…
Lovely site with lovely pictures and information.great stuff.