Monday, September 3, 2012

Oh Calcutta

3rd Floor, Silver Arcade, 5 J.B.S. Halden Avenue, E M Bypass, Kolkata

Oh Calcutta is a nationwide “upscale” restaurant chain that serves Bengali food.  I visited the one in Delhi in 2005.  This time we went to the one on the Eastern Bypass in Kolkata.

For someone living in the United States, it is a pleasure to walk into an Indian restaurant with normal décor.  No hints of the colonial British Raj, no splash of Bollywood colors and tonality, none of the gimmickery used to promote Indian restaurants in the West.  Rabindra Sangeet, instead of sitar, wafted through the loudspeakers—Ei Monihar anay nahi shajey—the song Tagore wrote as he rejected his knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh incident.

We started off with Mocha (banana flower) Chop and Prawn Cutlet as appetizers.  Preparing mocha is a labor-intensive process, and is therefore convenient to have at a restaurant. Eaten with a kasundo (mustard) dip, the “chops” were perfect—a crisp, browned batter free of oil on the outside, and a mashed matrix of mocha inside.  The prawn cutlets were also well made: the chopped prawn filling had a satisfying texture, and it was garnished with little bits of chili and coriander. 

As the main course, the four of us shared three plates.  One was Daab Chingri: prawn and coconut milk cooked inside a green coconut and then served inside the coconut.  The second dish was Kumro Pata Aam Achar Ilish—hilsa fish (shad is a close American relative to the hilsa) cooked with pumpkin leaves and a mango pickle. These are not every day household Bengali dishes, and are culled from old recipes going back two or three generations.  The third dish, Railway Mutton Curry, owes its name to the goat curry that is served on Indian trains, and is a straight up concoction of goat meat, potatoes, generous amounts of gravy, and fresh roasted spices.  These dishes, as is the Bengali way, were had with white rice.  The Daab Chingri was terrible.  A graduate student could cook better with a can of coconut milk and some garden variety frozen shrimp.  The other two dishes fared much better.  The deboned hilsa was tender and the mango pickle gave just the right highlights.  The railway mutton curry had nostalgia written all over it.  It is a simple curry that, with rice, can spin a devilish web of overindulgence.

While at the restaurant, we noticed the barman concocting some South Indian coffee for a customer, where the coffee is aerated by pouring the hot liquid repeatedly between two tumblers at a vertical separation of about three feet.  We asked for some, but were politely turned down-- this was not in the menu and was being made for a special customer.  The VIP lifestyle is sewn in to the Indian way of life! 

For dessert we settled for Nolen Gurer Ice Cream—ice cream flavored with liquid date palm jaggery (made by boiling the fresh sap of date palms).  While Nolen gur, a traditional syrup that is best had during the time of winter, is used extensively in the making of traditional confections, its introduction into ice creams is a recent development.  It had a somewhat fibrous texture and it was not unpleasant.  It will take me a few more tries before I can endorse it whole heartedly.

All in all, Oh Calcutta provides a decent array of Bengali food that is somewhat uneven in quality.  The food is not in the same league as in Kewpies, the Bengali restaurant near the Forum.  It is a chain restaurant and therefore there is some unavoidable routineness to the dishes. It is a quiet place with tasteful wooden décor, and a nice place for a business meal.

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