A plateful of memories at The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata

The steak sandwich at The Oberoi Grand

I am always game for a good story to go with my meal and as stories go, it doesn’t get any better for me than the one on the plate in the photo.

Once upon a time there was a chubby little 7 year old boy who had moved into Calcutta with his parents. Life was very different from what he was used to so far. The people were different. The language was different. The food was different.

Ironically he had come home to Kolkata after spending his earlier years abroad and yet he yearned to go back 'home'. His dad used to spoil him it is said and would do anything to make his every wish come true.

The young hero of our story was (still is, the legend goes) very fussy when it came to food.

His parents once took him to a cocktail party at a hotel called The Grand. The most famous hotel in town. It was 1981 and India was playing  a test match against England. Earlier in the day he had gone to the Eden to watch the match at the Club House and lunch was catered by Bijoli Grill in special boxes for the players and the select spectators at the Club House.

They entered the cocktail party at the Grand when a member of the staff came and told them that the cricketers had said children were not allowed as alcohol was being served. 'Sunil Gavaskar said,' they told him. 

You can tell 7 year olds anything. It took his coming across the book, Sunny Days, a few years later for him to forgive the captain of the Indian cricket team and to become his fan again.

The child threw a fit that night. His dad took him and his mother to a restaurant in the hotel for dinner.

He ordered a dish called a ‘steak sandwich’ for our young gourmand. The child liked it so much that his dad would often take him back to the Grand for a steak sandwich after school.

These were one of the last memories he had of his dad.

I have no recollection of the steak sandwich now. Of how it looked. How it tasted. What was in it. 

After my dad passed away, The Oberoi Grand belonged to a world far removed from the more Spartan one my mother brought us up in. Eating at the Oberoi was just a memory and one would at the most step into its lobby to use the washrooms during trips to New Market.

When we booked ourselves into The Oberoi Grand for a night in Kolkata recently, they asked me if we had any requests. I wrote back asking if the steak sandwich was still on the menu.

Turns out it is as I was informed by Sabrina Dey from the F&B team.

This was the second time I was staying at the Oberoi. I got my office then to book me into The Oberoi the first time I had to stay in a hotel in Kolkata when my mom was not in town. For someone who has grown up in Kolkata in the 80s it doesn’t get more special than the Oberoi and I chose it over the more modern hotels I was entitled to then.

The room was tiny and looked onto a busy street. The bathroom even tinier. The room was sound proofed though and the was done up very tastefully. The service was very warm. I felt very very special.

Mr Amitava Sarkar who has been with The Grand
since the early 80s.
The only other hotel in India where I could imagine
 someone like him being there is the Taj in Mumbai

Nabeel from the new generation at The Grand.
He was in my school, St James'

This time K was going to stay with me. We had often said that we must stay at The Oberoi in Kolkata at some point in our lives. Last year we had stayed at the Taj in Mumbai on K's birthday. An aspirational hotel for anyone who has grown up in the city in the 80s. Now it was time for The Grand in Kolkata.

There's nothing like living a dream

Read: Our stay at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace

I requested the hotel for a pool facing room since the two of us would be there and this was not just a business trip. 

I was pleasantly surprised to see that we were upgraded to an amazing suite with two pool facing balconies. 'One for each of you to have tea in,' said GM, Varun Chibber. The bathroom was still tiny and what’s with free wifi for half an hour in a 5 star, but that apart this was the Princess Diaries life.

The hotel has apparently been in operation for 130 years which makes it one of the oldest running hotels in the world possibly. How’s that for class?

Living the Kolkata dream

First glance of the room

My blog was turned into edible art to welcome us

We had dinner at the La Terrase restaurant at The Oberoi Grand the night we checked in. This is their multi-cuisine restaurant which has some traditional Bengali offerings too. There was a buffet laid out in Le Creuset pots. They say Kolkata is all about nostalgia and the buffet looked more like one would be in banker’s home in a vintage Alipore building, or a Matheran Parsi holiday home, than it would be in a 5 star in Mumbai where there are so many live counters. You felt you were in an old club dining room at the most rather than in a hotel.
Everyone smiles at The Oberoi
There was an exquisite pork and chicken liver pate in the buffet  which took me back to Gallops in Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Race Course and the first birthday of K that the two of us had spent together. She introduced me to the pate at Gallops that day. I was so enchanted with Gallops, that it became the  restaurant where we later spent our first Valentine’s dinner together as a couple and then had our wedding dinner there too with our immediate family.

Sabrina Dey and Chef Rajat who planned a special dinner for us

The pork and chicken liver pate

Chef Rajat of The Grand was happy to indulge me in my nostalgia and got me a prawn cocktail. A dish which I associated with old school Kolkata places like Mocambo (not been there in 5 years at least), of the devilled crab and fish a la Diana fame, and Jamshed Uncle’s Royal Bombay Yacht Club in Mumbai.

Prawn cocktail

They offer chaats with the buffet at La Terrasse. There was a hot kachori chaat the night we went. It reminded me of the chaat that I used to eat at the Hindustani (any non Bengali and non ‘Madrasi’/ South Indian) chaat-wallah’s stall outside the Park Street Metro. I would stop for chaats there on sultry afternoons on the way back from high school before taking the Metro home.

I am skeptical of the ability of posh luxury hotels (though we love staying in them) in being able to land good street food or home food.

The Kachori chaat

They made me eat my words with the chaat at La Terrase as it took me back to my Park Street chaatwala from 25 years back when I weighed 25 kilos less. The chaat  tasted brilliant and was perfect. The medley of the hot kachori from the tava meeting the coolness of the tamarind chutney with jhuri bhaja or sev giving a lovely textural contrast was epiphanic. I loved the fact that they kept chaat simple and true at The Grand rather than doing any of that foam and spherification stuff. I am told that they have phuchkas too on some days.

I saw this brilliant simplicity replicated the next morning. We were on a breakfast included package, as I was the last time too. I remembered from my last stay here that they don’t mind serving you the breakfast in the room if it is part of the package at The Grand.

Given that we had such an aristocratic suite, we didn’t want to step out and hence called for breakfast up. K had fried eggs and I had koraishootir kochuri (mushy peas stuffed fried flatbreads) and alur dom (a Bengali garam masala based potato curry). 

If I had shut my eyes, I would have thought someone’s grandmom had made my breakfast and not a 5 star hotel chef. And I mean this as a compliment.

Koraishootir kochuri and alur dom

Who wouldn't want to have breakfast in this room?

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Getting back to the dinner, chef Rajat had made us a Baked Alaska to keep the nostalgia theme going. The flames of the flambĂ©ed dessert led to flashbacks of special meals at Floriana at Park Street for me.

The baked Alaska

We tried one dish from the modern menu. Tea smoked Hilsa (Rs 1200 ++) which was brilliant and inspired. The flavours of the fish combined with the citrusy fruits artistically making this a dish which we will not forget in a long time. Really pushed the boundaries.

Tea smoked Hilsa

You could say that between the Baked Alaska and the tea smoked Hilsa, it was all about reliving old memories and recreating new memories that night.

And what of the steak sandwich you ask?

Well, the steak sandwich today is served with cream cheese and an onion jam I am told. However, chef Rajat called up a retired chef from the Oberoi to find out how it used to be made in the early 80s and recreated the dish for me.

The 'sandwich' looked like a 'roll' one would find in Candies. A toasted hot dog bun stuffed with a Chinese flavoured (black beans sauce I think) stripped tenderloin filling.

The beef, Chef Rajat proudly said, was local from New Market just behind the hotel. As they do in ITC Sonar, they use local beef at the Oberoi Grand too.
I grinned widely as I finished the whole sandwich. I could imagine why a 7 year old would love this in a 5 star hotel. The dish was simple, uncomplicated and yet slightly different from everyday food. The big hand cut fries which came with it were a deal clincher.

If a meal could tell a story then steak sandwich at The Oberoi Grand did it very well.

I felt like the pampered 7 year old again.

The chubby 7 year old is back

And this time he was not alone

Note: The Oberoi Grand is very centrally located. We stepped out into New Market and had phuchkas on the street and a roll and a biryani at Nizam’s and then walked to an Uber (since he refused to come to where we were to K’s chagrin) and drove to Flurys. You could walk it down too.

Biryani and roll in Nizam

At my happiest

I Periscoped a food walk at New Market and 468 people joined in live from across the world. You can see it on YouTube

And here is a video I did at Flurys

Disclaimer: The meal at Le Terrasse was hosted by The Oberoi Grand and they gave us an upgrade on the room. Some thanks are in order. To Mallika of Oberoi Gurgaon for connecting me with the folks at Oberoi Kolkata. To Sabrina for trying to get me my steak sandwich. To chef Rajat for ensuring that I did and to all the smiling folks at the Oberoi who made us feel so warm and fuzzy