This visit wasn’t anonymous but we did pay for our meal.
I don’t know how ‘bohemian’ having lunch with your mother, grandmother, or even one’s wife for that matter is. But Kaniska and I are good Bengali boys and we were with the women family at a new restaurant called Bohemian at Kolkata for a Sunday lunch.
Bohemian is the brain child and dream of ex Oberoi and ex-Oh Calcutta Chef Joy Banerjee. It is located almost at the entrance of Kolkata’s Bondel Road. Just before a white temple.
Kaniska, friend and food blogger, from Kolkata, had told me about Bohemian. He had often suggested that I eat there. Chef Joy is a friend of his.
Like most immigrants, my memories of my city are frozen in the past. When I visit Kolkata I try to make it to old haunts or at least old classics – Mocambo, Flurys, Shiraz, Oly Pub, Tung Fong, Jimmy’s Kitchen, Dolly’s, Kewpies, Nizams, Badshah, Kookie Jar. Rarely do I try out new joints.
Thankfully Bohemian turned out to be truly special.
Right from the start with crabs baked with kolmi leaves, pickled chilli and cheese. The combination of crab meat, the slightly bitter kolmi leaves, the heaty tart of pickled chillies and indulgent melted cheese was sheer wizardy. Didu, my granny, who had never eaten crabs before made as good a start in the world of crabs as possible.
Then came betki baked in cheese and pickled chilli. Again the heat of chillies piercing through the cheese that draped the very fresh, inherently sweet, betki fish was impressive though honestly over shadowed by the sheer brilliance of the earlier crabs.
The impressive start was followed up by some equally proud mains.
My favourite was what we ordered for Didu. Braised betki in cream spiked by ‘aam aada’, a slightly fruity local ginger. Yes, Chef Joy believes in keeping his carbon footprint small as he sources all his ingredients locally.
I am never a big fan of fish dishes but the fresh betki in the piquant sauce was an indelible food memory. Thank god didu was generous enough to not mind our digging into her plate.
Mom had a steamed betki simmered in pickled garlic. Interestingly tangy but overshadowed by the fish in aam aada sauce.
The problem that the poor betki starter and the garlic fish had was that of the batting partner of a Tendulkar, Ganguly or Sehwag in full flow. No matter how good you are, you will pale in comparison of sheer genius. Ask Dravid about it.
Bohemian serves pork but there wasn’t any good pork that day we came so mutton it was for the men.
There was a mutton cooked with baby onions, cheese and green mango. Green mango is often used to flavour dishes such as daals or pulses in Bengal. Its touch of tang along with the sweetness of onions and creaminess cheese and mutton made you feel like this was a most natural combination. While eating this dish you would never have thought that cheese is never used in traditional Bengali cooking.
This was served with a very subtle mustard flavoured rice. Mustard and mustard oil are perennial Bengali favourites of course. My mom was particularly besotted with this.
And then there was the Anglo Indian version of the Goan vindaloo. The dish looked deceptively like the Bengali kosha mangsho but was actually based in an interesting combination of dry spices which distinguished it from the sour vinegar based Goan vindaloo which has a much thinner sauce.
And then a bit of magic happened. Manishita, Mrs Kaniska, showed us that if you order salad with a thousand watt smile then Chef Joy actually gets you tiger prawns grilled in cheese! The prawns were as juicy as they get. Cooked with a lot of love and care which ensured that they were bouncy and full of life. Another delightful dish. If only all ‘salads’ tasted like this. I would have eaten more of that stuff.
But the inspirations didn’t end with the main course. Chef Joy’s sorcery continued with the desserts too.
There was a death by chocolate soufflé which was safe and dependable and then followed more flashes of brilliance.
A gondhoraj (king of fragrance) lebu (lime) soufflé. The zest and aroma of this much loved and worshipped home grown lime spiked and electrified the soufflé. The touch of Gondhoraj lebu reminded me of the flavour of kaffir lime leaves in Thai cooking. Made me wonder why it wasn’t used more in Bengali cooking.
And then there was a soufflé with the creaminess of tender coconut with an interesting after taste of mustard, the favoured Bengali condiment of choice. Sounds weird but tasted surprisingly natural.
And so the afternoon stretched as the five us chatted languorously. We finally left Bohemian but not before a few quick photos of the graffiti on the walls of the rest rooms of Bohemian.
I was truly privileged to be at the lunch table at Bohemian trying out some landmark examples of native Bengali ingenuity that afternoon.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, and evoking much ‘Bong rage’ and scorn, I must say that the meal reminded me of Bengali legend Satyajit Ray who combined Bengali traditions of story telling, Indian classical music with a very Western metre of film making.
Chef Joy Banerjee, that afternoon, adeptly presented the finesse and subtlety of the Bengali cooking tradition in a rather Western palette. Harmoniously and seamlessly. I have really high expectations from him now.
The bill, for all of this and a few soft drinks was Rs 3200 (60 USD) for 5 people. Very bohemian by Mumbai standards.
As Didu said, the food tasted as if she was eating at home, and she meant this as a compliment and remember she is the legendary chef in the family. Chef Joy’s desire to weave in some Bengali lovin in to Western cooking had worked.
Didu headed home after stating her intention to try using aam aada in her fish curries inspired by Chef Joy.
This octogenarian is a true Bohemian. After losing her crab virginity, she went to a Mall for the first time in her life where she was instantly feeling at home and soon planted herself on a couch at Cafe Coffee Day. She later had a chicken patties that we picked for her from Kookie Jar for dinner and another for breakfast.
Just what you would expect from a true Bohemian who is unfazed by whatever life hurls at her. The smile and glow never leaving her face. A beacon of positivity and a pillar of strength.
Just what you would expect a grand mom to be.