Bijoli Grill at Powai’s Hakone Complex has become a favourite pit-stop of mine on my way back to office after client meetings that side of town.
Unfortunately I was alone on my two previous visits here. Unlike Bengali restaurants at Calcutta, BG doesn’t offer thali or small portions. I had to give the Bengali dishes a miss in the past as a proper Bengali meal involves multiple dishes eaten in small measures. This is not possible if you are alone at Bijoli Grill.
I had the biryani the first time and luchi and kosha mangsho in my next trip. Both held me spell bound.
Then my luck turned.
I managed to get a lunch-mate for my last trip to Bijoli Grill. Once again on the way to work after a meeting. My colleagues, a fellow Bengali, joined me. He too has moved out of Kolkata. He too runs the kitchen at his house with his wife taking the backstage. He and I often trade recipes at the cafeteria. We are the new breed of Bengali men.
This afternoon we had a plan. A strategy. A unanimous one. We were one team even if we were from different departments at work.
The plan was to go for the traditional Bengali dishes at Bijoli Grill. Different from the Mughlai biryani that I had before. And we were going to order things that we do not cook at home. Between the two of us that rules out the basic doi maachh, kosha mangsho, machher kaalia, bhaapa ilish, alu posto, chholar daal and quite a few more.
This time we would order traditional Bengali dishes that we didn’t have much access to at home.
But before that we had to start with the Fish Orley. This apparently was the signature dish of Bijoli Grill. Many expats from Calcutta had asked me if I had eaten the fish Orley here as they tried to relive their Calcutta memories. So I decided to try the Fish Orley for them. And for Sachin of course.
Soon this French sounding dish was brought to our table. A yellow zeppelin-like thing reminiscent of the fish butter fry of the Benfish vans.
I gingerly took a bite into it. A slight crunch and the thin wall of gram flour and corn flour gave in and my teeth sunk through hot air and then hit the mother lode. A delightful thin bed of fish marinated in a very light ginger and chilly paste. The taste experience alternated from crunch to a touch of salt to vacuum and then to warm, zestful fresh fish.
I don’t know how French a gram flour coated batter would be but the sheer delicate complexity of the dish would do a Michelin starred restaurant proud. Just the dish that one of the Nobobs of Bengal or its many businessmen would have been proud to have served to the British of the East Indian Company. This would have got them in the good books of the colonial masters.
The Fish Orley of Bijoli Grill represented the hallowed club culture of Calcutta and it halcyon days of dinner jackets, Trincas, Roxy and the sixties. Decade later Rwitankar and I were privileged to taste a bite of it at the fringe of Mumbai.
And then it was time to turn to our Bengali roots.
We ordered rice and shukto to start with.
I went to the Iskcon complex at Mayapur with my grandparents when I was thirteen years old or so. I read in the house magazine there that shukto is often a starter to Bengali meals. It is mix of vegetables, a light stew with karelas or bitter gourd at its heart. The bitter gourd apparently acts as a cleanser to the digestive system and induces hunger for the meal to follow. The Iskcon meals were vegetarian and were apparently made with produce from their farms then. It was more than twenty years back but I remember enjoying the piping hot luchis, lovely daals and fragrant gobindo bhog rice. And the story of shukto.
I never took to the shuktos made at our house. It was probably made in the Bangal (East Bengal) style …slightly yellow, watery and a bit sludgy. Hotel New Bengal at VT and it’s terrace mess, where I used to go for Bengali food when I landed at Mumbai a decade back, opened my eyes to the wonders of shukto. This was probably cooked in a Ghoti style (West Bengal). A pleasant mix of sweet and bitter. Suddenly shukto didn’t seem like punishment food.
The shukto at Bijoli Grill was ethereal and delicate. A complex mix of flavours and tastes and texture… a mix of different types of vegetables – some starchy potatoes and unripe bananas, soft sweet pumpkins, fibrous drumsticks, the bitter taste of karelas… diversity blending together to give comfort. The shukto combined beautifully with steamed rice. A vegetarian dish that had two Bengali men, who would normally be wowed only by the non-vegetarian delights of flesh, in its spell.
Sheer poetry was being written here.
The sauce was slightly creamy and I wondered if this came from crushed poppy seeds or posto. ‘The sauce is topped with a touch of milk at the end which gives the creaminess’ said Avinash, our smiling waiter, in Bengali. An account of the meal wouldn’t be complete without a reference to Avinash and his competent, confident and patient answers to our questions on the dishes. He really added to the experience that day.
Rwitankar and I chose a tok (sour, pn. ‘talk’) daal. This was the regular fried or bhaja moong daal tempered with raw mangoes. My mom used to make it at home but we never have made it at our place. The raw mango gives a slight chutney like taste to the daal. I am talking of the Bengali ‘chutney’ here. A dish which acts as a taste breaker between the main meal and desserts.
With this we called for mocha (‘ch’ as in chair) chingri or banana flower with prawns. Mocha is a shredded banana flower dish which is tempered in a hint of garam masala. sugar and finely chopped coconut. In my experience only grandmothers can get it right.
And, as I found out, can the chef at Bijoli Grill.
Both Rwitankar and I couldn’t stop marvelling the perfectness of the dish. The joy accentuated by the tiny plump juicy prawns in the dish. The two combined wonderfully.
There is an interesting folk tale around the addition of prawns to vegetarian food which I had heard from my grandfather. This is from the Gopal Bhar series of stories. Gopa Bhar was the court jester in the court of the Bengali Hindu king Raja Krishnachandra of Krishnanagore. Slightly before the British rule of India if memory serves me right. There are a number of stories around the Raja and Gopal Bhar. A bit like those around the Mughal Emperor Akbar and Raja Birbal. Stories which show the wit of the commoner which even the mighty king would have to bow down too.
This is how the story goes.
Gopal Bhar needed to get something from his aunt (pishi) who was refusing to listen to him. He then formed a plan and went to visit her. Aunt cooked for Gopal and made him a vegetarian dish made with lau or Indian gourd or louki. She was a widow and therefore allowed to only cook and eat vegetarian food.
Gopal requested his aunt to get some water. The moment she stepped he took some cooked chingri or prawns out of his pocket and added it to the gourd.
“The lau chingri (vegetable with prawns) is very good” said Gopal to his aunt.
“Prawns. what are you saying? I am not even allowed to think of them. I didn’t add any prawns”.
“But you did add prawns” said Gopal and he showed her the dish.
So the aunt went “WTF (not really). What will people say when they find out?”
Gopal promised to keep quiet and got whatever he had come to take from his aunt in return. (I don’t remember what)
The story sounded really funny when you were nine years old and your grandfather told you the story in his lively style.
Many reviewers judge restaurants on various parameters and rate them too.
As a blogger I just look at one thing. Did I come out smiling happily after a meal? That day we both did at Bijoli Grill. We smiled widely indeed.
After three meals in two months and after having tried ten dishes I must say that Bijoli Grill, Powai, is currently my favourite Bengali restaurant at Mumbai.
There was a group sitting beside us. Work coleagues it seemed. At the end of the meal one gentleman looked at the others and said "pick me up please, I can't get up".
Our eyes met. We smiled. I knew exactly what he meant.