Cafe hopping in Kolkata. Chop cutlet and kobiraji at Allen Kitchen & Mitra Cafe and some Central Avenue nostalgia for dessert

With Kaniska Chakraborty and his two loves.
His wife Manishita and Allen Kitchen
This post has lot of pictures so keep scrolling on

Kolkata beyond noir

Trips to Kolkata for me are about family, friends and nostalgia and my recent trip was no different.

I stopped for a couple of nights in Kolkata recently on my way back from a Cathay Pacific and Mandarin Oriental hosted food trip of Hong Kong (more on that later).

My intention was to spend some time with didu, my granny, in Kolkata and I feel grateful that I got an opportunity to visit her. I used Ubers to move around Kolkata which made it so much easier than before. 

Kolkata is the city of surly and scheming Ambassador cab drivers after all. Sorry but I can't get romantic about them. 

At times, change is good!

Didu and me
When friends become your grandparents

Didu felt bad that she couldn’t cook for me. She is my favourite cook in the world but there is no way I would let her cook at this age. And she needn’t have worried really. I was staying with my friends, Kaniska and Manishita, who spoilt me as if I was their grand child. 

My adopted grandparents:
Kanishka and young Manishita (you can't call a lady a grandma)
Guests are exempt from wearing red pants in their house

One morning, Kaniska made my favourite French toast for me. The Bengali French toast, of course is savoury, and way better than the Western version if you ask any Bengali. There are versions of this across India.

Bengali French toast in the making at Kaniska's

Another morning, Kaniska and his cook, Droupudi, made me luchi and shada alur torkari. The latter is called alur chhokka in North Kolkata someone later told me on instagram. Now the thing is, my granny used to make us luchi and shaada alur torkari when we used to visit her. Then age got better of her and she can't fry them now though she would given half a chance. 

So I took some luchi and alu for her from Kaniska’s to tell her that I was being cared for.

Kanishka and Draupudi

Shada alur torkari and luchi (left to right)
Allen Kitchen and the magic of its prawn cutlets

Kaniska always raves about this place called Allen Kitchen and its prawn cutlets. He has even taken Rick Stein for a TV shoot there. 

Allen Kitchen is at Sova Bazar in north Calcutta. Being a south Calcutta boy, I’ve never been there. After all there’s a bit of a Game of Thrones like North South barrier in Kolkata after all. The Metro makes crossing across the city easier now compared to my Kolkata days.

Kaniska said we should Uber (the post is not sponsored by Uber) it and not take the metro. Just as I would choose an Ola or an Uber in Mumbai over the local train. 

The drive down empty roads in the evening took about an hour. 

Tip: If you are a tourist, I would suggest taking the metro as Allen is just outside the Sova Bazar metro station 

Sova Bazar metro. Your gateway to good food

We drove down Central Avenue to reach Allen and this road (CA) is very broad. My surroundings looked different from the image of congested lanes with dilapidated buildings that I hold of the north. Based more on hearsay, than experience, I must confess before you outrage. In fact there is a Café Coffee Day just outside Allen which is probably where K would have sat and waited for us as grunge eating is not her scene. 

Kaniska explained that the narrow, cloistered lanes of the North lay across the Wall. Sorry, for the excess of Game Of Thrones references but we are recent converts!

Down the alleys lie the north

The devotees of food stood outside

The name Allen Kitchen (sic) is very apt as the first thing you come across when you enter the two room establishment is the kitchen. You will see elderly gentlemen there frying chops and cutlets with Zen line composure. There was a slightly chubby uncle who would smile but not say anything. And a thinner uncle, who I was told, had come to work here as a kid and had stayed on. He didn't smile much

Circa 2016
Some can't wait to eat

The teddy bear of chefs

He came here as a kid to work and stayed on

I am told that Allen Kitchen is roughly a 130 year old establishment, started by a Scotsman named Allen. Kaniska said that the original location was at Chitpur before they moved to the current location. It is now run by the Bengali descendants of Allen’s staff whom he (allen) had left the shop to. Just as Kalman’s, the meat shop in Kolkata's Free School Street, was left by the Hungarian trapeze artist turned butcher, Kalman, to his Bengali staff when he left India.

We went and sat in the small room inside where there were a few marble topped tables with chairs. Very Spartan, no air-conditioning. Clean and not smelly.

Typically happy faces at Allen Kitchen
Tip: Kaniska says that you should buy your drinking water from outside

We shared a prawn cutlet. Well not exactly shared. Wahab, Kaniska and I did as Manishita wanted her own.

Prawn cutlet, fish roll and mutton chop
Allen Kitchen

The prawn cutlet  consisted of a butterflied (cut and flattened), large but juicy and not over-cooked at all, prawn, encased in a maida (refined flour casing) and deep fried in ghee. The batter and the prawns were delectably flavoured, not spicy or hot at all. The excellent quality of the prawn showcased brilliantly by the maida batter. The excellence of the prawn cutlet at Allen was a good example of why I would blindly trust Kaniska with meal choices.

We also had a fish roll and a mutton chop too which were both quite tasty. These were fried in refined oil I think. The fare at Allen consists of chops and cutlets which you typically get in roll shops of Kolkata. Except that they are more liberal in their use of fish and meat here, unlike in the street-side roll shops where its more potato and thicker batter and breadcrumb coating, than meat or fish, in chops and cutlets. The spicing at Allen is more nuanced than in street side places where they chilli quotient can be higher and the oil used not as good. I am guessing the prices at Allen are slightly higher. Our order and some take-aways cost Rs 550 I was told.  

Definitely a place you should come to if you visit Kolkata. 

For vegetarians, they do have vegetable chops and we picked some for Kaniska’s mom. These chops are more like home-made chops, than roll shop ones, larger in size with a thicker mashed potato shell and seemingly more juicy than crunchy. I am going by what I observed visually as I didn’t have the vegetable chops.

A phone video from Allen:

Kobiraji and Afghani at Mitra Cafe

I wanted have a mutton kobiraji and Kaniska took us across the road to Mitra Café for that. 

Mitra Café is 100 years or so old. As Kaniska wryly said, “everything here is 100 years old.”

The Mitra Cafe Ktichen

Mitra cafe

Playing 'spot the celebrity'

Bill of fare

This gentleman kindly moved to this table so that
the four of us could share a table

Happy meals at Mitra Cafe

The kitchen at Mitra Café is located beside the shop. There are a few tables when you enter where you can sit at. This place, unlike Allen, is more marketing savvy and has pictures of their media coverage and that of local celebs, none of whom I could recognise unfortunately, who have eaten there. 

When we went in, an irate customer was vexing about the cashier not taking 10 Re coins. A fall out of the recent demonitisation led cash chaos. It didn’t seem like a good idea to remind the gentleman of our soldiers at Siachen! 

There is an aircon section inside, which we were directed to, which smelt like it was last cleaned when the café was opened 106 years back and we were much happier to sit outside.

Kobiraji and kasundi at Mitra Cafe

Tip: Sit in the outside section at Mitra Cafe, order the kobiraji, always avoid raw vegetables at small joints if you are wary of infections. Freshly fried stuff are a safer bet

The mutton kobiraji at Mitra cafe was pretty brilliant. It is like a high octane version of the Parsi lacy cutlace/ cutlets (lacey becuase of the frilly egg coating). The kobiraji consisted of a spicy goat meat fiiling, coated deep fried in an egg batter. You can also get fish and chicken versions. I normally find the egg in kobiraji cutlets too crunchy and overwhelming to finish. The egg batter at Mitra Cafe was silken and more delicate, and yet eggy, compared to the ones I have had in the past, and the mutton stuffing was beautifully flavoures too.

Another great Kaniska Chakraborty pick.

The other dish that I tried was mutton Aghani. The waiter described it as a cutlet soaked in gravy, a concept which reminded me of the Parsi cutlace gravy of the Irani restaurants of Mumbai and I wanted to compare the two.

Mutton Afghani at Mitra cafe

The cutlet of the mutton Afghani at Mitra was bigger than the Mumbai Irani cafe cutlace. The bread crumb coating thicker. The cutlet was soaked in a thick, onion and garam masala based kosha mangsho like gravy. The caramelised onions made the gravy a tad sweet and there was a faint touch of what seemed like rose water. The gravy was different from the Irani café gravies which are usually tomato or dry fruits (crushed nuts) based. Barring the rose water, I quite liked the dish and was very happy with my choice. Kaniska wasn't that impressed by this.

Mitra café has a far more elaborate menu than Allen, which includes cutlets and chops, biryani, and also chicken kosha and roti which a gentleman at the next table was having with relish.

Phone video shot at Mitra Cafe:

Chandni Chowk at night: "When the music's over, turn out the lights" (The Doors)

We then took the Metro and went to the Chandni Chowk station for some Moghlai fare at Central Avenue. Mutton stew and biryani at Aliah and rezala with roti in Shabbir were Kaniska’s recommendations. My brother is a big Aliah fan too,

What we did not realise is that Central Avenue is not a good place to go to for dinner. Being an office area, it was pretty empty at night. At past 9.30 pm, it was like reaching a wedding hall when the bride and groom have left and the guests too.

We went to Aliah and sat in the air-conditioned section upstairs which was neat, clean and rather sepulchral as it was empty.

They were scraping the bottom of the barrel at Aliah at that hour, or so the food served to us, not very cheerfully, seemed to indicate.

Need to go back at lunch some day to see how
the biryani, mutton stew and phirni at Aliah are at their best
The roti was hot and fresh, the chai bitter
Given the high praise Kaniska and Manishita, and my brother too, bestow on Aliah, I will go back some day for sure.

Sabir's across the road, was shut by 10.45 pm. They said they had shut a bit earlier than usual as business was down because of the demonitisation created cash crunch. 

Sabir's where the rezala is recommended by Kaniska.
He says you should make a nouko (boat) with the roti and scoop it out

Kolkata has Udipi joints too
Tip: Try going to Chandni Chowk for lunch than dinner.

Kolkata Noir: My Cinema Paradiso moments at Central Avenue

Kolkata noir

We walked around the deserted roads of Central Avenue for a bit, where you could hear the sad strains of the music of cabarets from seedy bars on the one side and the yelling of police catching miscreants on the other. Not a place for single women at night if you were to ask me as there was no one on the roads barring a couple of friendly pups. Day time is when Chandni Chowk is full of life and when I would advise you to go there.

I then walked the the office of a newspaer where I used to come in search of the cash prize which I had won as a student and which they never gave. The paper’s almost dead now I am told. I guess I will never get my ‘cash prize’ eh Anjum?

I then walked past the building where another media house is located where I had tried to get me a cub writer’s gig when in college. I was keen to be a journalist when I was young.

The cabins of Chung Wah Restaurant
And  memories of fluttering hearts
Then I suddenly stumbled upon the Janata Cinema building, where my first ever office, that of a newspaper called Asian Age, was located.

I stood in front of the building and reflected on my life since then - trainee sub ed for a month at the Asian Age and then business school and MBA. Followed by years in market research agencies, with a bit of advertising thrown in, and a change of city in between. Now I was back on the same road where I had started my working life, now a food blogger, columnist and, hopefully, soon to be the author of a book.

Rocky Balbao’s lines from the movie Creed, which I saw on the flight to Kolkata, came back to me:

“One step at a time. One punch at a time. One round at a time.”

Yes, there is no point trying to predict life. One should keep moving on

In front of the old Janta Cinema Building
Asian Age, where I once worked, was located here
Could only see the Protidin newspaper signage now

Nostalgia is sweet, nostalgia is bitter. The important thing, if you ask me, is to move ahead and not get trapped in the past.

So here’s to coming back to Kolkata and creating new memories.

I will be back to see you
What I try not to miss in Kolkata (keep scrolling down, only pictures now)

Phuchka. I had some before dinner at South City Mall

Kookie Jar patties which I buy and have for breakfast
The mutton filling was spicy and moist. Chicken a bit chewy
The puff pastry compares with the best in the world

A Bengali meal. Manishita cooked one for me the day I left.
Since I couldn't make it to a restaurant,
my friends from my fav Bengali restaurant, Bhojohori Manna,
 sent food for us when I took granny to the hospital
Rolls. I've had them at Bandra prices (Rs 190 for egg chicken)
 at the Kusum outlet at the airport
In my last two trips
Mukhorochok chanachoor. My fav is jhal papri
Picked up from the airport in recent trips where it costs
Rs 110 for 150g at MRB

My favourite mishti in Kolkata: Kookie jar lemon tarts.
As I didn't manage to have any in the city,
Kaniska packed and sent some to Mumbai with me

Catching up with friends. Due to family commitments
I can't meet everyone I would like to and I apologise to those I couldn't
This time I finally got to meet
Anindya & Madhushree  of the blog Pikturenama
 I took a Jet Airways flight from Kolkata to Mumbai on the way back and was thrilled and proud when I saw my article in Jet Wings, an in-flight magazine I have been fond of over the years.

Links of Interest:

1. Kalman's Cold storage
2. Cutlets gravy at Stadium Restaurant, Mumbai
3. Cutlets gravy at Excelsior Mumbai
4. Maharashtrian breakfast food article on Jet Wings
5. Pikturenama by Anindya Basu and Madhushree Roy
6. Lyrics to When the Music's Over

My trip to Kolkata was courtesy Cathay Pacific who flew me to Kolkata from Hong Kong by business class on Dragon Air

The wide bodies seats in the Dragon Air business class
were very comfortable with lot of leg space
and I reached Kolkata quite fresh

I caught the movie Creed on the iPad they gave for in flight entertainment on Dragon Air
I was very impressed by the quality of the smoked duck in the salad
and the juicy leg pieces of meat with the pasta and the bread too
Tip: Be a bit careful with the iPad while having dinner as the space gets cluttered


Anirban Halder said…
The ‘Luchi and shada alur tarkari’ induced slurp! I love my luchi-tarkari and they make the best-tasting breakfast for me.

Loved to see your elaborate take on Allen Kitchen which is a highly revered place for knowledgeable foodies in Kolkata and the extremely popular Mitra Cafe which is a landmark. Allen's prawn cutlet is legendary! Do try the nearby Niranjan Agar (at Girish park metro station) for fish fry on your next visit. Missed your take on Aliah and Sabir. Will wait for the next time.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Thanks Anirban. I was not that familiar with these places while living in Kolkata so am discovering them now