I met Mohit Balachandran, AKA Chowder Singh, last evening.
Mohit’s an interesting character in the food world. He started his career as a chef and then moved into business development apart from managing a kitchen. He works with a home grown high end chain of restaurants. Three years back he began food blogging. He blogs at Chowder Singh. His blog is very different from his professional life where we he deals with the high end of the Indian hospitality business. Chowder Singh, the blog, focuses on street food and gets as basic as it gets. Apart from street food Mohit also features regional Indian recipes as cooked by home cooks from across the country. He has his youtube channel too.
Mohit and I met at the new Oh! Calcutta Which has opened at Khar at Ramee International where Mah Jong used to be. I was quite excited to see the place come up and wanted to try it out and was looking for company. Years back when Anjan Chaterjee of the Speciality Group opened a Mainland China at Bandra I asked him why he hadn’t opened an Oh! Calcutta there. Chatterjee said that while Oh! Calcutta is his passion, given Bandra rents he would not be able to sustain a regional restaurant. I am glad that he finally brought Oh! Calcutta to the hood.
Oh! Calcutta was one of our favourite restaurants. With hardly any Bengali food places around then we used to like the food there and the hospitality. We used to go the Tardeo outlet. Then with Bong Bong and the now shut Arsalan opening close by and then Bhojohori Manna winning our hearts with their deglammed yet soulful food, trips to Oh Calcutta reduced. With Oh Calcutta coming to Khar it was time to renew one’s acquaintance with them.
Oh! Calcutta, Khar, turned out to be a nice place to meet. I was wondering whether I should have chosen a ‘Çhowder Singh place’ to meet Mohit but we also wanted a place that we could chat in. We spent a couple of hours at Oh! Calcutta without being hurried. The atmosphere was pleasant. The aircon good. The wait staff, largely from the Tardeo branch, attentive yet not pushy. We had a great time as we exchanged notes on our experiences in blogging and I got an insight into Mohit’s fascinating forays into street food and regional food.
The conversation sparkled. And the food?
I started off with a favourite and crowd pleaser over the years. The crumbed betki fry. I noticed quite a few black specks on the crust when they got this dish which was unusual and probably a result of charring. The taste was pretty good though. The fish juicy and the chilli seasoned bread crumb crust livened up the dish. Combined well with the thick Bengali mustard sauce, kasundi.
Next on was kosha mangsho and luchi which seemed to have come from ice station zebra. The luchis were cold. As was the kosha mangsho. The meat thankfully was not as tough as sometimes it would be at Oh! Calcutta but was consistently cold and had bits of bones all through which one got with every bite which was very disconcerting.
I later told our waiter that the meat was cold and he said I should have told him and they would have changed it. Why a high end should serve cold meat in the first place was beyond me. The rest of our dishes were brought piping hot after I pointed out the cold manghso.
Mohit had a point of view on the décor. He felt that it represented an Indian fine dining experience which was frozen in time popularized by five star hotels in India. Soft chamber music (Rabindra Sangeet in this case), dull plating, white china, passive service, trying to emulate an aristocratic rather than a vibrant feel. Now Mohit would know as he is part of the team which has successfully launched a reinvited Irani café in Gurgaon. I am not taking names intentionally as Mohit keeps his professional life separate from his blogging one.
My one comment on the service and plating was that if you want to provide a fine dining experience then you can’t have the curries spilling across the bowl. You should wipe the rims and present it neatly. I wouldn’t bother about this in a Bhojohori but there my meals costs one fourth of what the Oh! Calcutta meal cost us.
By the way could anyone explain the baseline of ‘most awarded cuisine’ of Oh! Calcutta to me? Journalist Kanchan Gupta also wants to know why the restaurant is named after a British burlesque act in the first place.
Coming back to the food I moved on to fish after the meat though ideally meat should follow fish. I was looking for the simpler home styled dishes you get at Bhojohori but the menu only offered the kaalias and doi maaches of wedding feasts. On asking I was told there was pabda too and not just betki and rohu and ilish but was not mentioned on the menu.
I chose for a katla doi machh. I requested for and got a peti. The piece was from a big sized fish. Cooked well. Tasted fresh and succulent. The curry was rather monotoned, bland and didn’t have the sharp flavours which I have got used to in Bhojohori or Bong Bong. The sauce was a bit thin too compared to regular doi machhes though one must admit that there is quite a variance in the interpretation of Bengali dishes.
The plating was awry. The fish was hidden in the sauce and the skin was facing down and I had to turn it around. Even a home chef will know well enough to place a peti piece in a where the skin faces the top. The don't care about making the food look good it seems at Oh! Calcutta which is a pity given that it positions itself as a fine dining place.
Monotoned again was the curry of the chingri malai curry that I ordered. The malai curry in Bong Bong packs in a lot more flavour. Their prawns are juicier too. I remembered Oh! Calcutta serving tough prawns before. That’s what happened yesterday too. The prawns were overcooked, not fresh and were tough to break.
I had a bit of a bad stomach after I returned and the next day too and wondered whether the prawns had anything to do with it.
As I told Mohit (who didn’t fall ill though) I have never fallen ill after eating street food so far. Mid range places and five stars have felled me though occasionally.
For desserts we went for a pudding’ish bhaapa shondesh. Mohit felt that nole gur flavours have been over done in Bengali restaurants and much to his disquiet, the shondesh was redolent with the flavours of nolen gur.
The other dessert that we tried was a chaler payesh or rice pudding. This dish was nice, subtle, simple like the home styled dish that it is. A nice ending after the promising start given by the fish fry. Some kishmish or resins in it would be nice though.
Pity that the middle of the meal was muddled despite the good start and ending. The food reminded me exactly of the meals one used to have at Oh! Calcutta when one frequented the place a few years back. Mumbai has seen better Bengali food with a lot more character and verve since then.
Net net, Mohit and I agreed that Oh! Calcutta was a nice place to spend time in.
We have decided to focus on food the next time we meet.
The dinner for two with no alcohol cost us about Rs 2,600