Dining like a Nobab … Shiraz, Kolkata

Note: According to Vir Sanghvi’s  book, Rude Food, biryani was introduced to Kolkata when the British packed off the Nawab of Oudh to Calcutta. The potatoes were a practical addition to the biryani as the exiled Nobab or Nawab didn’t have enough  money to have all meat meals.

Biryanis and special occasions almost went hand in hand while I was growing up at Calcutta. These were restaurant meals so special. Yet not completely beyond one’s reach. A one dish meal and therefore worked out to be quite economical.

School farewell parties, school reunions (six months after one disbanded), alumni meals, scarce pocket money collected to watch movies with classmates, Christmas gala dinner and dance at the college canteen, treating the little brother to lunch when he dropped in at work … biryani was always the safe bet.
My biryani stomping ground was normally around the New Market.

Amina for its biryani before watching Maine Pyar Kiya at Elite. Or Nizam’s for biryani if before watching Tom Hanks’ Big at Chaplin. Yes I am that old!

Later it was Zeeshan for biryani and rolls as the restaurant was close to my first office. And when I left it fell on one of the roads to the airport at Kolkata when I became a Mumbaikar.

Oh, you didn’t know? Flights from Kolkata to Mumbai are full of ex Calcuttans carrying boxes of biryani, bags of mutton rolls, bhaars (earthen pots) of mishti doi and Kookie Jar’s chocolate boats and lemon tarts back to their new homes.

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I had heard of Shiraz at the Muslim side of Park Street. Mallick Bazar I guess. Xaverians must have gone there but as a Presidencian that never fell within my playing fields. So I never went to Shiraz.

I did eat biryani from Shiraz once before I left Kolkata. The place where I worked at then had a new wing and ordered biryani from Shiraz to celebrate the day. In the Mumbai branch of the same office that would have meant a batata vada or samosa and a kala jaam. That’s the part I miss about working at Kolkata.

Well the one thing I remember from that afternoon was being floored by the biryani at Shiraz. It was so non greasy, so non oily and that too in the context of biryanis at Kolkata which in any case are dry and non oily. I went “where were you hiding from me all this while?” I could hear the theme from Casablanca play in the background as I finished off the biryani and prepared to leave Kolkata.

Close to a decade later I was on a trip to Kolkata on work. Staying at a hotel at Kolkata for the first time. The reality of urban migration kicking in as my mom was spending some time with my brother at his house in his new city.

I checked in to my room. Was awed by the compact classic look and feel of grandeur. Checked the room service menu. Shut it. Quietly got into the car as I headed out to work. Made a quick stop on the way. For my first ever trip to Shiraz.

Folks saw the photos I later put up on Facebook and said that Shiraz has changed. I entered an air conditioned restaurant. Packed with tables. Each table seating folks eating with grim concentration … as if they didn’t want to let even a single flavour escape them. Probably this is what true molecular gastronomy is all about. The crowd was mixed. Spanning genders and social classes. There was a sari clad lady and her middle class family sitting beside me. Two slightly rough looking men sitting in the table beside me. Bullying the waiters for more alu (potato). One telling the other, ‘eat eat…don’t worry about anything’. And opposite me, sharing my table, was a gentleman who was taking a break from work…looked like someone who probably worked in a large shop. Quietly relishing his roti and chicken korma.

The service efficient. Waiters quickly taking your order and then getting your food. Keeping an eye on you in case you needed anything … water, salads, another dish. Getting a finger bowl to clean up once you were done. A quiet testimony to the hungry hoards waiting to be seated. Some waiting inside the restaurant eyeing your seat. The sign of a good restaurant. A place which serves great food.

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The biryani was exactly as I remembered it to be from a decade back. As delicate as the famous silks of Murshidabad. Exquisitely flavoured. The perfect example of a dish which could be so bursting with taste and yet so bereft of heavy spices and masala. The mutton juicy. Its glow radiating across the rice. The potato, so idiosyncratic of biryanis at Calcutta, chubby and soft…slightly baked and drawing in the flavours of the dish.
This was culinary perfection. So regal and yet served in a reasonably humble and completely no frills twenty year old restaurant.

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I had ordered a chicken rezala to go with my biryani. I requested for a leg piece and got a delectable one where you could gently peel the meat off the bone. The  gravy of the rezala had a very latent sweetness which came from a sublime symphony of grated onions and ghee (clarified butter) with the gentle touch of heat from dry red chillies… the short crash of cymbals in between a concerto. This was such good food.
What a warm welcome back for the prodigal son.

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I stepped out of Shiraz. Happy. Taking in the surroundings.

This was the Muslim end of Park Street which led on to Park Circus which was the home of the Johnny Come Lately and quite avoidable Arsalan and its biryani. This end of Park Street, unlike the swish old European end of Flurys and Trincas and Asiatic Library and Oxford Book Store, was shorn of glamour.

There was a cinema hall where people were pouring out. The sort of place where watching movies could still be called as ‘cheap entertainment’. A couple of mutton shops. An annexe for selling rolls at Shiraz.  A guy selling, crumbs and scrapings from cakes! Nothing is wasted here. And of course a nimbu pani or lebur jol or lemonade walla (salesman) quenching the thirst of those who were working hard under the cruel sun which offered no respite.

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To me the Shiraz is a what good restaurant is all about. To hell with the plating and raspberry swirls, napkins in floral shapes and never ending wine menus. Food is not about the ‘latest’. Places to be seen at.
Food is all about ‘pleasure’ as Bourdain says and pleasure is what was served in double measures at every table at Shiraz that afternoon.

Comments

MaDe In Umami said…
i am always confused which of these joints to hit for the best birtyani so thanks for pointing me to the first among equals! :)
Jason said…
Kalyan Boss,you are on an overdrive taking us ex-Calcuttan's down memory lane :-)...not complaining though....

That whole Mallick bazaar area (never considered it Park Street) is a great area for Biryani.....Rahmania,just around the corner from Shiraz,has better Biryani,IMHO...

I remember from an earlier post,you were not a big fan of Arsalan because of the "gravy sticking to the meat" :-)...you might have caught them on an off day....but considering the fan following they have,they must be doing something right....

Oh that reminds me,Shiraz does a wicked Haleem.....but thats only available during the Ramadan period....

My favourites have been more towards Central Calcutta.....There is this place called Aliah (besides Paradise Cinema) and further down the road,Royal,which is pretty close to the Nakhoda Masjid....Sabir's used to be a family favourite and then it kind of deteriorated over the years......

The I discovered Bedwin in the Gariahat area,along with Chicken Bharta was one of the best Biryani combos......Haven't visted it since i left for Bangalore and then Toronto a decade ago.....

While visiting in 2009,a muslim friend took me to a place called "Zum Zum",its in one of the bylanes behind Frank Anthony Public School....One of the best beef biryani's ever....I found out later that it's a very popular place among the muslim population....Don't go there for the decor.....or just do a takeout....
One of the first things I eat on landing in Calcutta,is Chicken Biryani,a mutton chanp and a Parantha....doesn't matter which place it's from...but thats comfort food....
The knife said…
@MadeinUmami: well my favourite would be Shiraz. Yet to try the famous Royal

@Jason: well Cal is all aabout nostalgia so it's great we connected. Love all the Cal memories coming from you. Sher e darbar to me was always associated with Kala Mandir. I think I did have a roll there once before a music concert. Very different from from what it would mean in the context of a Jim Morrison concert of course
bongopondit said…
Thoroughly enjoyed this and the other food related Kolkata posts - combined nostalgia and drooling.

The 'Hajee Shaheb' mutton shop is somewhat of an institution as well. My dad always insisted on mutton being bought from their store. Weekends will usually find long lines outside their store - people looking for the perfect fat-lined raan. They are famous enough to have branches in the Gariahat and Ultadanga areas (perhaps more recently)!
The knife said…
Thanks sir. jason and your comments have told me about stuff that I didn't know. I had no idea that Hajee Saheb is an institution so I owe you a kosha mangsho for that
Well, I know its strange but I have never had shiraz biriyani. I don't know why, but I never have. And it pains me now because I have not been to Kolkata in 3 yrs and it will be some time before I do. And it is definitely the first thing I will do once I land in Kolkata. My favorite place to hit in Kolkata is however Amber. It is a little on the expensive side, but you get moti biriyani there which I love. They sell only this one kind of mutton moti biriyani, but it is awesome and you all should try it. My second favorite is zee shan, especially the ones they make at bier baris (Zee shan does a lot of catering).
RD said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
panu said…
I guess you haven't tried Dada Boudir Biryani, have you? It is this quaint little joint off Barrackpore, and it serves up a non-greasy, tasty Biryani that is one of my personal favorites (Arsalan being another favorite, and I do agree with another person who commented that you must have caught them on an off day. They make GOOD Biryani otherwise. Shiraz actually comes around 4th or 5th in my list of favorite Biryani in Kolkata). You might also like Aliyah which is on Bentinck St, and AMAZINGLY good, not to mention the favorite for a long time - Moti Biryani from Southern Aminia. Another favorite of mine is India Hotel near Fancy Market Kidderpore which makes good daryabadi Biryani. Try them the next time you come down to Kolkata.
The knife said…
Well Malati I am yet to go to Amber so next time we can trade places. I know Zeeshan pretty well. Office used to be there and later stop on the way to airport to pick up stuff for Mumbai

@Panu, no not been to most of those yet
IshitaUnblogged said…
Well exactly hits upon the point - 'To hell with the plating and raspberry swirls, napkins in floral shapes and never ending wine menus. Food is not about the ‘latest’. Places to be seen at.' This time when I went I even found the same old waiter serving from more than a decade back serving us. Shiraz is Shiraz and I'm so glad that Shiraz has opened it's kitchen in Dubai - all the masalas come from Shiraz Kolkata. Even the cooks are from the Old Shiraz. Will be updating my post by linking your post. Good addition about that Rude food and the potatoes!
Anonymous said…
Shiraz- my all time favorite in Kolkata....recently they have come up with several branches all over Kolkata.....biryani tastes exactly the same in all their restaurants......really love their amazing dry - not so greasy taste .....i feel they make the "perfect" Kolkata biryani.....Arsalan,Aminia,Nizams,Zeeshan,DadaBoudi...sorry, they are a close 2nd when it comes to biryanis and mughlai khana:)
----And well written.....long live Shiraz....the pride of Calcutta's Biryani lovers!