Grunge, grand and green. When it comes to eating out, Kolkata has it all.



Koraishootir kochuri & ghoogni at the ITC Sonar, Kolkata
The post is on my recent trip to Kolkata. The biryani that I had at Aminia and the mutton rolls at Badshah at Esplanade, the lovely meals put together by two young chefs, Auroni Mukherjee at The Salt House and Saugata Ghosh at the JW Marriott and room service indulgence in our suites at the Oberoi Grand and the ITC Sonar. Do read to the end to reach the Kolkata photo stories from the trip

Kolkata grit and grunge

“What are your lunch plans sir?”

I was asked the question at least four times by the well meaning staff members at the Oberoi Grand, Kolkata, after I had checked into the hotel on Good Friday. I smiled politely each time and said, "I have grown up in this city. Will check out some old favourites in a bit." 

Not every meal in Kolkata is great to be honest. Luckily
I found good phuchkas in the Lindsay Lane leading to
Badshah at this stall after having some mediocre ones
near New Empire the previous day

I had actually made my lunch plans while boarding the plane at Mumbai itself. The Oberoi in Kolkata is located at the New Market/ Lindsay Street area which was the place to head to when I was in school and then college here in the late 1980s and early 90s. Going by the crowds that jostled us this time, I doubt if anything had changed even if 'cooler' hotspots have sprung up in the city.

The plan was to go to the hotel room, shower, change and then step out for lunch. 

The scent of a biryani

The goal? Biryani. The destination? Aminia Restaurant.

Why biryani? Well, with all the Bengali food that we cook at home and order in from local restaurants here too, I do not really miss the Bengali food of Kolkata when in Mumbai these days. It is the city's Mughlai food, especially biryani, the phuchkas and rolls of its street corners, its kochuri and luchi breakfasts that I still miss, and that I try to get my fill of on when I visit Kolkata. I had come to the city primarily to visit my grandmother and my uncle and aunt and I knew that we would get soulful Bengali feasts at both.

The gentleman at Aminia who helped me land the perfect
biryani

Aminia (estd 1929) at Dharmotala/ Esplanade is a restaurant that I have always found to be bankable when it comes to biryani in that area. I had first visited the restaurant in 1990 after I had gone to Maine Pyar Kya at the Elite Theatre next door after our school exams with my classmates. I developed a crush on the heroine Bhagyashree (go judge me) from the movie that afternoon and fell in love with the biryani at Aminia too. While I grew out of my Bhagyashree fan phase soon, the biryani at Aminia remains close to my heart after all these years.

I’d been to Aminia for dinner a few months back with my friend Kaniska. We had sat in the AC section that night. I chose the non-ac section this time. I love the atmosphere in the non-air-conditioned section at such places. The ac section in contrast is usually musty and rather inert and sterile. I must add that it did not feel hot at all in the non-AC section at Aminia on that hot and sweaty April afternoon in Kolkata.

An elderly waiter came up to take my order.

“Ek mutton biryani,” I said. I was tempted to order a chicken chaap too as the one going to the neighbouring table looked lovely. I exercised restraint and did not do so though. 

Why did I do such a stupid thing (not order the chaap)? 

Bear with me for a bit and I will tell you why I did not order the chaap. It might make sense to you too then.

“Achha mutton piece dijiye.” (Please give me a good piece of mutton)

“Achhi boti? Zaroor.” Sure I will, he said with a smile.

“Aur alu.”

“Woh to rahega hi.” Of course you will get a potato.

I don’t know why I asked such a question in Kolkata.The city of biryani with alu.

Not Instagram friendly for sure but yet looked so pretty to me. As it always did.
With apologies to Mark Knopfler.

Our Methuselah at Aminia soon came back with a plate of mutton (goat) biryani for me. I valiantly tried to click a picture of the dish first even though I was very hungry and the aromas of biryani that enshrouded me the moment I sat down at the restaurant had made matters worse.

There was a problem though. The thing is, no one had told the folks at Aminia that there is nothing worse than white tube-lights to kill food photos taken on the phone. Except blue ones. 

Aminia had  them both! Which was a shame given the abundance of natural light around. 

Nor had anyone told them that serving the biryani heaped on a melamine plate, whose designs had faded with time, was not Instagram friendly either. I tried to use the portrait mode of my iPhone but the gentleman at the table facing me decided to go into an extensive teeth cleaning session with a toothpick at that point and that sort of killed the frame.

Disappointed with the pictures, I put my phone aside and dug into my food instead. 

What the first bite told me is that while the folks at Aminia might not know how to make their food look pretty for Instagram, they sure knew how to make it taste gorgeous. 

The rice lay snug on the plate in the juices of the stock of the meat and the melange of spices. It was so wonderfully and yet subtly flavoured.  

And the mutton! Chacha had promised an ‘achhi boti’ earlier and he turned out to be a man of his words. How tender and succulent was the piece of mutton in the biryani that afternoon? It was truly symphonic

As was the potato. Comforting as the alu in a biryani in Kolkata always is. This was a  plate that told you that you were back home.

I paid (Rs 200) and was about to leave when I got the perfect frame for Instagram! 

The biryani station at Aminia. Eating for Instagram

Sitting at the counter behind my table was an elderly chef who removed the lid on the deg (vessel) of biryani whenever a waiter came up with an order. Steam would come out of the vessel when he did so and through that, the chef would dig in a small plate into the gigantic vessel and take out a portion and put it on a plate. 

In that tableaux, I had the perfect frame. Even our elderly waiter was in one corner of it. 

The lighting was perfect and I did not need to edit it further either. 

That’s when it struck me that when it comes to food, true love needs no (Instagram) filter. That passion will always shine through as it had at Aminia that afternoon.

The Oberoi arcade. No Fitbit can measure
the number of steps that I have taken here during
my Kolkata days and later too

I stepped out of the hotel in the evening and went to what is loosely known as the New Market area . This time with K, my wife, who had fallen in love with Kolkata ever since she first visited the city after our marriage. 

The Badshah of rolls

Our first stop that evening, and the reason why I stopped at just the biryani and had no more at lunch, was the Badshah Restaurant (estd 1969). The restaurant is located beside Sreeleather at Lindsay Street in what was once the Globe entry. It is popular for its mutton rolls and has a roll counter at the entrance. You can buy your roll there and sit on the bench by the cash counter and eat it or step out and do so. It has a sit down section which is popular with shoppers at the New Market and I had been there a few times when I was in college. I reckon that ordering from inside the restaurant would turn out to be more expensive than outside. 

Badshah mutton roll on my second visit in two
days with the New Market at the background

While Badshah is not as famous as neighbouring Nizam’s (where rolls are said to have been invented) for rolls, it has its fair share of fans too. A former boss of mine from my market research days in Mumbai, who had studied in Kolkata, had once even gone from the airport to Badshah to have a roll and then gone back to the airport during a transit flight to Dhaka. We did not always agree on things at work but definitely saw eye to eye on our love for Badshah’s rolls. I usually go to Nizam’s for rolls when at New Market but was very disappointed by the poor quality one I that had when I last went there last year.  I had decided to go to Badshah the next time I was at new Market since that day and was glad that I did so this time. 

And this the answer to the question as to why I had had just the biryani at Aminia and did not order the chaap. I wanted to keep space in the Travelling Belly for the Badshah mutton roll. 'Chaap pore jeto,' otherwise as we say in Bengali.

I placed my order at the cash counter by the roll section at Badshah. 

One mutton roll. No, nothing else. No, not an egg mutton roll. Yes, just one (Kainaz said she didn’t one though I knew that she would nibble on mine).

Can you fry the onions please?

We don’t do that here, said the person taking the order with a smile. A smile which seemed to say, put yourself into our hands and all will be well.

I was a bit flummoxed when I got the roll (Rs 50). It looked really tiny. Like Arya Stark’s sword, the Needle. 

I took one bite, and immediately did a double take. The thin paratha was the perfect foil for the moist and succulent mutton boti (kathi kebabs) inside, kebabs which gave in lovingly to your bite. The spike of raw red onion, the heat of the green chillies, the tartness of the lime juice added at the end…were all in perfect proportion. Our man was right, the onions were good raw. There was no need to fry them. He knew his stuff.


With The Needle of mutton rolls

The roll at Badhhsah was pure Valyrian steel. Arya's Needle indeed.

Not a Game of Thrones fan? Well, what this means is that the roll was so good that I went back to have another one at Badshah the next evening as we were still at the Grand that day. This time K stayed in the hotel room and napped and I did not have to share my roll! 

Love and all is fine, but the Badshah mutton roll is not to be shared!

Cinema Paradiso at New Market 

Something funny happened in the first evening at Badshah. We needed to buy some tea and we asked folks at Badshah for directions to any tea shop that would be nearby. 

Deep inside 'Hogg Market'

Some suggested that we go to Lal Bazar where there are wholesale teashops.  Our ‘no fried onions’ guy suggested New Market and kept referring it to Hogg Market and explained it to us as if we had come from Mars. I smiled and tried to explain that Kolkata is where I have grown up and that the New Market and its treasures were a big part of my life then and continue to be so. Memories that continue to draw me back to Kolkata.

Cinema Paradiso. Now playing at New Empire

Perhaps I should have taken him with me on a New Market Finely Chopped Walk and shared some of my memories from there with him. Memories of the food truck opposite the New Empire cinema where we used to have chow and which now seems to have become a permanent snack bar with the truck gone. Memories of the movies that one had seen at the New Empire theatre. The most special place to watch English movies back then (the 90s). The hall displayed a Hindi film poster this time and there were so many QSRs and restaurants at the ground floor now that I even wondered if they still showed films here of, if like the other legends of New Market... Tiger, Globe, Jamuna and Lighthouse ... New Empire too was just a house for commercial premises now. 



I could have shown him the Globe gulley, the lane where I had lost my pav bhaaji virginity way before I moved into the  pav bhaaji city of Mumbai. They serve buns here and not the Mumbai pav. The Portuguese being responsible for both. I could have shown him Shreeram Arcade where we went to enjoy the air-conditioning after watching a movie and then an alu and not mutton roll at Karko at the end of the month when that’s all the ones empty wallets allowed. Or Regent, the cabin restaurant, where my grandparents had taken me in 1986 or so when the Metro had started in Kolkata and we took a ride from Park Street to Esplanade, the first two stations to open.


Regent. Where dadu and didu had taken me for a snack
After our first Metro ride. Park st to Esplanade


Inside, the ‘Hogg Market', whose name our man at Badshah kept repeating to us, I could have shown him Chamba Lama. the Tibetan jewellery shop, where the girls in my class in college would come to buy trinkets from. Or the snack bar at the middle of the market where we used to have cold coffee at. The snack bar remains, the cold coffee costs Rs 40 now. The cannon kept beside it gone.


The shop where we bought tea from at New Market. We
bought packed teas for folks in Mumbai. They had loose tea,
which people in Kolkata love, too. 

Green-shoots


While there are many memories that I could have shared with our young roll counter salesman and you, I do not want to fall in the trap that probashi Bangalis (expats) often fall into while writing about Kolkata. That of getting lost in nostalgia.

There is a lot that is happening in the city that is new too. Let me tell you about a couple of meals that we had this time, to make my point that the new gen behind Kolkata's dining out scene today look promising too. 

There's curry in your pocket



Auroni Mukherjee's mangsho ravioli at the Salt House. It has alu too!


The first of these was at the Salt House in Kolkata, where we were hosted by our friends Kaniska and Manishita. This was my third visit to the restaurant whose head chef is a young expat Bengali named Auroni Mukherjee. 

With chef Auroni and some lovely roast pork belly & a Goan choriz pulao

Auroni is a former ad agency creative person found his calling in the kitchen and has moved into Kolkata to pursue his career as a chef. The food that he creates at The Salt House is of the sort of contemporary European fare which is fairly new to Kolkata, the city where the classic French influenced ‘continental’ fare (think heavily sauced stroganoff & tetrazzini and baked Alaska) still rule. He keeps trying new things in the kitchen and the dishes that he comes out with show a good understanding of both technique and taste pairings. Some of which would be what one calls 'fusion'. In most cases, they work.

Pui green and pumpkin ravioli. Kolkata winter hangover


This time what won my heart are his winter peas hummus with cauliflower salad and the ravioli with pui greens & pumpkin puree (all winter favourites in Kolkata), the mangsho ravioli in bone marrow broth (perfectly done ravioli pockets which spoke of mangshor jhol/ mutton curry Sundays in Kolkata the moment one took a bite and which had potatoes too to make the picture complete) and the chingri malai curry spaghetti (a take on the malai curry risotto from the menu which he made for K who does not eat rice)

Mangsho ravioli


The mangsho ravioli and malai curry risotto are big hits Auroni told me. His malai curry uses European stock cooking techniques and the sauce is intensified by the use of the head and brains of the scampi. This is very Bengali too as the head and tail of prawns are relished here and are chewed at the end of the meal. 

Malai curry risotto
I found the malai curry risotto a bit underwhelming I must admit. The sauce a bit too runny. The rice too demure to add flavour to the dish. It was with spaghetti and not rice, that the dish came alive in my books.

He served the malai curry spaghetti to K with spaghetti (the spaghetti is made in house). I tasted a bit and this version was indeed life redefining for sure. It transported me back straight to Penang and the pan mee that I had there. The noodles and malai curry when combined had a distinctly Malay touch which was fitting given that the malai curry of Bengali has originated from the taste memories of Bangalis who had gone to work in Malaysia at the time of the British (Malay = malai). A sort of reverse ‘ghar wapsi’ one could say.


Prawn malai curry spaghetti. Pan mee'd me

Chef's Table, Kolkata chapter 

We had another very impressive dinner while in Kolkata and this was the brainchild of another young Bengali chef. This was at a four course sit down dinner which our friends Rukshana Kapadia and Suneha Saha had organised for us at the all day dining restaurant at the JW Marriott, Kolkata. The chef in question is Saugata Ghosh. A Kolkata boy and a professional chef who had started his career at the Hyatt Kolkata, then worked at the Hyatt at Muscat and has now returned to Kolkata, this time to the JW Marriott.

Prawn and squid tartare with pepper water chilli oil. Refreshing in the heat
and so Spanish in concept

If Auroni’s cooking had flashes of ‘fusion’ in it, Saugata’s was all about native European (Italian/ French) brilliance. K and I both agreed that this was one of the best examples of the genre that we had experienced in India. 

Everything, from the technique to the portioning, the balance of flavours, the quality of ingredients, the presentation and above all, the taste of the dishes, were truly world class. The young chef came out with his colleagues with each course, explained what was being served and how one should eat it and then headed back to the kitchen for more. It was soon clear that one had  experienced something truly special that night.

Fettucinne with noisette butter. Flavour perfection.
Texture perfection too.

Whether it was the burst of freshness in the prawn and squid tartare  in chilli oil that he started the dinner with, or the great technique used to amp up the flavour in the fettuccine (beautifully textured pasta) with noisette butter, or the 70 mm blockbuster of wine soaked tenderloin, done medium rare to perfection and with Gorgonzola sauce, which he made for me after my last minute request for a steak, made with local New Market meat and which tasted as if it could be at home in Italy, chef Saugata had left me spellbound.  The steak was so good that I ignored the fact that I was a fine dining dinner table, ditched the cutlery and used my finger to wipe clean my plate. Social niceties and table etiquette be damned.

Epic steaks. #eatlocal

#chetepute



K had the bhetki instead of the tenderloin and had sweet tales of love to whisper about it.

What both chefs Auroni and Saugata had proved through the two dinners is that the young chefs of Kolkata are ready and up there for being counted among the best around when it comes to cooking contemporary global dishes. That the city which ruled the country's 'continental' eating out scene for long thanks to the legacy of the British Raj, and had then lost a bit of its sheen for a while, is now all set to stake its claim in the sun again in 'new India' too.

With chef Saugato Ghosh. This meal was specially
curated by the chef & hosted by Rukshana Kapadia

The Grand life

While I had started this story by talking of the street food and the heritage eating houses of Kolkata, I do not want to fall into another trap that happens while writing about Kolkata by focusing just on that. Kolkata does offer some of the most luxurious experiences around, especially when it comes to hotels. We split our stay into two of them this time, both very unique and memorable as luxury hotels go, and were lucky to get room upgrades in both. 

Breakfast with Lady Mary


Breakfast in our room at the Oberoi Grand< Kolkata


The first was the Oberoi Grand, or The Grand as any Calcuttan would call it. A hundred year old hotel which was called just the Grand till the Oberois took it over and who have run it since as an iconic hotel. 

Eggs royale in the executive suite with inner view

As I sat down to a breakfast of eggs Royale (Benedict but with smoked salmon instead of ham/bacon) with excellent quality eggs (perfectly poached and with dark yolks) and perfectly done waffles (not too crisp, not too soft) in our suite at the Grand with K, and looked out of the balcony which looked onto the pool, I told myself that this is the closest that one could come to Downton Abbey experience. Or Darlington House for that matter (I saw the Remains of the Day on Netflix finally a few days after the trip). 

You would be hard put to find a hotel in India which could match this. You would have to go to London, Paris or Rome instead for an experience that is so classy and vintage. An experience to be cherished indeed.

Our gold standard

Koraishootir Kochuri and ghoogni in our ITC One room
at the ITC Sonar

We also spent a night at the ITC Sonar, which is one of our favourite hotels in the world. There was a strange sense of calm that came over me the moment we walked into the familiar ITC One room which looked on to the landscaped pond outside. K said that she felt the same too. 

I woke up the next morning to have a perfectly done Bengali breakfast of koraishootir kochuri and ghoogni  from the ITC Local Love menu in our suite. The kochuris were so marvellously cooked that K nicked a few bites from me too and we called for seconds. As we had our morning cappuccinos, we looked at each other and knew that one could never feel more at home in a hotel room than this. We do really look forward to our stays here.

Pampered at home

The two breakfasts that I spoke of, were arguably two of the best hotel room service dining experiences that one has had where the chefs had not led the obstacles that the format brings in come in the way of their delivering perfection.

I must also add that both hotels put firm mattresses on the beds at our request. A must today with so many folks having back problems and soft mattresses are like Kryptonite for them.

In Kolkata, its food first and that's what makes the city special


At the end of our meal at the JW Marriott Kolkata with our friends Rukshana
& Suneha, Manishita and Kaniska and the JW Marriott team

So, there you have, 72 hours of eating in Kolkata

Meals served with loads of passion... a passion that you would expect in a city where food comes first. Passion that leads to perfection on the plate.

A journey that featured grunge, grandeur and green-shoots too. Bengali, Mughlai and Continental treats. Street food, iconic eateries, cuisine nouvelle and luxe too. Doses of nostalgia, and tales of the new. 

Kolkata offers it all and that's why I love it so.


Appendix:

A video that we shot at Badshah. Please do subscribe to my YouTube channel, Finely Chopped TV by Kalyan Karmakar, to catch more such videos.




A story told in pictures

The lane behind Nizams. The other side of Lindsay Street

Nahoum's. The most famous food stop inside New Market

A favourite with the girls in my class when I was in college

Great rolls lie ahead
Proud Mohd raf fan outside Aminia in the city of Kishore. Niloy Guha told me on Fb that this is
the paan shop that the legendary singer (Rafi) would frequent when in Kolkata (updated)


The food truck outside New Empire is a snack bar now

The road leading to Aminia

Kolkata Chinese (never eaten here)

Lane behind Nizam's

Chowmein in roll shops became big when I was in high school
Rs 5 for a plate of veg noodles back then

'Mounties' meant there's a match at the Maidan


Bought Bandel cheese from New Market this time. Rs 10 a bob

Aam shokto. What you know as mango leather
Downton Abbey AKA The Oberoi Grand (The executive suite and Thai Baan with chef Pappu Singh)











ITC Sonar ITC One Room and with chef Nikhil Merchant at Eden Pavilion







It's all about friends and family
At the Salt House with Kaniska & Manishita and chef Auroni

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