A warm and hearty pocket-of-Pita

Here’s a quick note to recommend the ‘Pita Pocket‘ sandwich (seen above) at Cafe Turtle as a must-try. I will roll the caveat here – for those who are unaware, Cafe Turtle serves vegetarian food. There, that’s the big ‘gastro-mental’ hurdle to overcome. I usually find myself proximate to a Cafe Turtle only when I’m at the excellent Full Circle bookshop (which as a bookshop, is as omnivorous as they come). The last time around, I was not only near Cafe Turtle in the aforesaid manner, I was also near starvation.

The ‘Pita Pocket’ appears near the bottom of the list of Mains at the cafe, and offers a pita bread filled with falafel, lettuce and tomato, with tzatziki dressing. The sandwich was indeed filled with the promised goodness – the bread warm, soft and crumbly crisp, with the lettuce and tomato inside still crunchy. The falafel (2 of them), made with cottage cheese and bulgur wheat (from the menu, not that I could tell while eating it) were warm, dense and melt-y. I would have loved some more of the delicious tzatziki – drizzled liberally as it was on the outside, there was none inside. While it helped preserve the integrity of the stuff inside the ‘pocket’, a bit of tzatziki on the side would only have helped. Maybe I should have asked? So once again, here’s the hero of the piece.

Pita Pocket
Pita Pocket – Cafe Turtle

Hungry as I was, as you can see, I was unable to take a shot of the full sandwich. And I had to quickly take this picture before my other hand reached out for a second bite.

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Roll over…

You would all agree that for people like us, memories that have anything to do with food are often more vivid than any other. That probably explains the length of this post. It wasn’t meant to be this long but the memories just kept getting sharper and more detailed as I went along and I didn’t know what to omit. It is more of an experience than any review or such but hey, this is a food blog. So I was saying, food memories…being a Bengali, I consciously take an edge in these matters and since the experience I am about to narrate has a strong Bengali connection, even more so.

I was in Delhi last year for Durga Puja. And like all ‘probashi bangalis’, we too did not want to be left behind in our quest to wring out every last drop of the Kolkata pujo feel from our ‘awbangali’ milieu.

It was ashtami night, considered one of the busiest times to go pandal hopping. I’ve always wondered, with only three nights of pujo in the entire year, how can any be busier or busiest? People stepping out on saptami would think ‘ah it’s just the first day…others will go tomorrow or day after…there won’t be a crowd…and we’ll get the freshest food…’ On ashtami, people would think ‘oh tomorrow’s the last day… there will be a huge crowd, if we gotta visit, it has to be today…plus by now we’ll know which food stalls are hits…’ And on navami, people would think ‘since we have been busy (read lazy) yesterday and day before, we don’t have much of a choice…but there’ll be such a huge crowd…my god…hey hold hands while walking…there’ll be too much of shoving and pushing…and we’ll get bad food…oh they’ll fry those mughlai parathas in three day old oil…that too burnt…oh god.’ But I tell you what, it’s all in the head. The number of people belonging to categories ‘saptami’, ‘ashtami’ and ‘navami’ is equal. However what they say about the food is kinda right. The cribbing though lasts as long as the aromas of these fried delights don’t hit the nose. Not strangely, more people throng food stalls than the deity. ‘Arey god’s the same in all pandals… but I’ve heard the rolls here are better than last time…we must try.’

Anyway, without further description, I will proceed with our little food incident that happened on the ‘crowd-wise safe’ ashtami night. We left late – just ma, baba, grandma and me. Minto Road and New Delhi Kali Baadi were our only destinations. Dinner would obviously be had at one (or more) of the many stalls at both. When we reached New Delhi Kali Baadi, the first disappointment hit us. The road outside the temple that used to be packed with food stalls with the most ridiculous spellings of ‘birayni’ and ‘roles’ was starkly empty – (over-hyped) security reasons, they said. Surprising how a harmless mob merely busy satiating their souls and stomachs can cause any sort of nuisance save some scattered tissue papers and cheap plastic cups that will shamelessly be reused. But thankfully before it caused me any further pain, a whiff of something caught my nose. Couldn’t care less what it was, as the smell blared ‘FRIED FOOD’ in my ears. That was sufficient to add a spring to my step and the rest of the distance to the pandal was covered in a dream of digging my teeth into chunky mutton rolls and fish fry in a matter of minutes. Might be sacrilege to most, having non-vegetarian products being served within a temple’s premises, but it is a must-have for us during pujo. Pandals without this will be branded a failure. But such cases are not only rare, they are absent, because such pandals do NOT exist. So after less than 3 minutes inside the pandal, performing the perfunctory darshan, we were headed you know where. Second disappointment now – no mutton rolls or fish fries or biryani. Ok, we found one place that survived without the obvious. All we found were some shriveled vegetable chops that they were refrying. Leftovers from what – last year? My olfactory senses had misled me. Or probably my mind grew a nose of its own – dreaming up mutton rolls and the like out of THIS. With my heart sunk beneath my feet, ma tried to cheer me up by reminding me some foul ice cream memory of the previous year at the same pandal. They had taken the dessert a bit too literally and had probably mixed chunks of ice with sweetened flavoured cream of some sort. This place isn’t really that good for food, she said. You’ll be better off at Minto Road. The wounded soldier rose. And off we were.

I am ashamed to admit that when we reached Minto Road, my eyes, nose and ears searched first for the food stalls. The deity came later. You can imagine the relief when I spotted a limp greasy banner with the words I could have given anything to read – MUTTON ROLLS AND BIRYANI – beckoning to me like an oasis to a parched camel. With my heart back in place but laden with guilt, I prayed to the deity and asked for forgiveness for rating food over her. I was soon to find out whether she forgave me.

Elbowing our way through the crowd that I missed noticing in my search for the stalls, we found ourselves stuck less than halfway through. It would have been impossible to reach any of the stalls serving what I wanted in less than an hour. And I did NOT want the soggy papdi chaats that the bored owners were not even trying to sell at their stalls. What added to my agony were the people crossing us with their hands and mouths circled comfortably around those sumptuous rolls of fried dough, spiced meat, lemony onions and hot chutney – the sight and the smell competing with each other to flirt with me and both winning. My disappointment was almost child-like and the people who had brought me up and were there with me understood exactly what I felt. Waiting for our turn was out of question. The only other option was to snatch one of those rolls from whoever’s hands. But however much I wanted to, I could not bring myself to carry out this act of barbarism in the house of the goddess. I figured she had not forgiven me yet.

Not being able to eat anything at a puja pandal was the worst nightmare ever and tonight it had come true. With feet, knees, legs made of lead, I made my way out with comforting words from my family. Oh, and it was almost 11:30, so the option of eating at a restaurant was pretty much out. But since that was our only chance at getting dinner that night so we had to give it a shot. We went to Gol Market in Connaught Place, which was the closest to Minto Road. As we reached the place, we saw Nathu Sweets, the last to shut there, pulling their shutters in front of our eyes. We didn’t even have to stop the car. Ma baba got bouncing off and striking out options. Don’t even remember the names of the roads but there was this particular one we took where a restaurant served good food that baba had heard about. We slowed down, rather, we had to, because of the crazy number of cars that seemed to suddenly spring out from the road, all headed towards the very same restaurant. There still are hungry people to be found in Delhi at that hour. Good to know. Anyway, a small board caught my eye and I read Gujrati / Rajasthani thalis. I told my folks what I read and we exchanged glances. Beggars can’t be choosers but we begged to differ. If we’ve thought of eating meats, hell, that’s what we’ll do. And this place certainly would take generations to convert. In all probability, it never will. Then suddenly, like a brainwave, ma suggested Colonel’s Kebabs in Defence Colony, about 20 minutes from where we were. I’ve never seen my father driving at that speed. Hah! The things your stomach makes you do. But none of us complained… obviously. On the way, we also crossed Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium that had witnessed the closing ceremony of the CWG the previous day. We expected to see some lights still on but guess they probably thought enough had been wasted already. Baba slowed down a bit for me to try and see some structure or something through a crack in the boards lined along the Jawahar Lal Nehru flyover. He almost started explaining and realized who was he kidding and hit the accelerator and within no time we pulled up outside Colonel’s Kebabs.

My sleeping stomach woke up like a dragon at the first whiff of smoking kebabs and spicy curries. It was dark and I wondered if it was the residual fragrance of a long evening of delectable roasting. For those of you who have not been to Colonel’s Kebabs in Def Col, it is not really a restaurant. It’s a take away joint and there is no entry door. It’s along an inside road of the famous Def Col market. So the only proof that it’s still open is if you spot glowing pieces of charcoal in the grill and meats of all sorts roasting on spits and skewers, which was hard to see sitting in the car. I could only see a few people clearing up a bit. Baba dashed out of the car and was out of sight within moments. But after a painful two minutes, during which a parking attendant tore us a ticket (earning money for his dinner…no, he mustn’t have waited that long to have his dinner like us…maybe breakfast), baba came back in sight. As soon as he realized he had caught our attention, he walked towards us beaming, with both his hands in a gesture of victory, with a flimsy yellow piece of paper fluttering in one of them. It was the menu. We were going to get dinner…

Before I could read the dishes listed, baba ma suggested we go for the chicken reshmi tikkas that they had tried earlier and had loved. And roomali rotis and some spicy chicken curry – forgot the name but it sounded superlatively Mughlai. 30 seconds after he came, he left to place the order. Now was the time to read the menu at peace, imagining and savouring each printed word preparing my stomach for what was to come. The food came in decent time and I was entrusted with the job of holding the piping hot foil packets of tikkas, rotis and curry sitting snugly in a paper bag. Hah! You think that was good enough to stop the fragrance from oozing out? Even if it was, the state we were in, we were capable of smelling out food buried 10 feet under the ground. And so we headed back home, the fragrance from those packets overpowering all the Guccis, Bosses and Ambipures that the car was smelling of earlier. Baba challenged his speed on our way back home. Ma felt sorry for me and said why don’t you start eating in the car itself? I challenged my will power and gulping down copious amounts of drool, said no, I’ll wait.

With the not so distant dream sitting at the dinner table with mouthfuls of steaming chunks of juicy chicken reshmi tikkas and small packets of roomali rotis wrapped around spicy pieces of chicken dripping with golden yellow gravy I closed my eyes with a smile. The goddess had forgiven me…

Icons

Every city has a few iconic places to eat – restaurant being too pretentious a term for some of them – that are part of the city’s social and cultural history. It is not only about the food they serve – which is usually fantastic – but about the ambience and quirks of the place. Somehow, these have become part of the image of the place, adding to the legend.

For all of them, the aura is as important as the menu. Many of them have been described as over-rated by non-regulars. There have been complaints of poor service. That is again part of their charm. Old-timers, wanting to keep the riff-raff out of their favourite adda, even tacitly support this!

This post is the first in (hopefully) a series in which I try to recount my experiences at these places.

Bangalore – Koshy’s

I love the way they put a table cloth when you order a beer. I love the way old-timers refuse to sit in the AC section. When I asked a friend why he didn’t want to sit inside, he said “That is not Koshy’s. That is Jewel Box. Koshy is out here.” I love their Brain Masala. Of course, I have been repeatedly told I should always be ordering the steak at Koshy’s. Its location – at the cusp of St Marks Road and MG Road – is as iconic.

When I was in Bangalore, there used to be a night-club called 180 Proof (now Hard Rock Café) just ahead. I remember clearly a discussion I overheard at Koshy’s on the meaning of 180 proof and whether absinthe was 180 proof alcohol.

It was as if I was back in Calcutta. How better can I compliment a place?

Picture courtesy: Iyer Matter.

Bombay – Britannia & Co.

Any restaurant which shuts on Sundays and opens for only 4 hours on other days gets undying admiration from Bengalis. I mean, the bugger doesn’t care about money and only about the quality of the food. Wah wah – one more Caramel Custard, please.

The red-check table cloth. The chatty owner shuffling from table to table. The bow-tied waiters. Even the hideous-tasting ‘unique drinks’ are part of the Britannia lore. It is a small matter that the legend was started by Berry Pulao and the Dhansak – which are quite fantastic.

I had lunch there again yesterday – after a gap of nearly five years – I was a little apprehensive whether I would like it as much as I did the first time. I needn’t have worried. From the first spoon of the Pulao to the last mouthful of Caramel Custard, it was beautiful. The warm sun outside, the patience of the waiting crowd and the sleepiness of Ballard Estate on a Saturday were all just as beautiful too.

Did I tell you that their Sali Boti is even better than their Berry Pulao? Well, try it and tell me if you agree.

Calcutta – Peter Cat

Very few restaurants – actively or passively – discourage mobile phone conversations nowadays. Peter Cat not only puts a tent card requesting patrons not to speak on the mobile phone, the stewards walk up and whisper polite warnings if you do speak!

Peter Cat is all about legend. As I had written some time back, an overwhelmingly large number of Calcuttans have been to Peter Cat after their first salary and that is a sentimental high no other gastronomical creation can match.

And their iconic dish – Chelo Kabab. No single dish in any restaurant in the world would form such a large part of the total orders as Chelo Kabab does in Peter Cat. It is currently described in their menu as ‘the protected regional product of West Bengal, our special kababs prepared in rare spices blended with Persian herbs and served on a bed of rice with butter and an egg’. Whoa!

When I was in Peter Cat last, I took a picture of the menu with my mobile phone camera. As I took out the phone, the steward frowned and started towards me. When I pointed the camera at the menu, he smiled and turned away. Must be happening a lot in there!

Delhi – Karim’s

There is nothing left to say about Karim’s that Lonely Planet, HT City Eating Out Guide or Time magazine hasn’t said already. Except that contrary to popular belief, the restaurant did not start in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time. The descendants of the Mughal emperor’s chefs started the restaurant in 1913 (CENTENARY ALERT!!) and has been serving soul-stirring food ever since.  Which means no other restaurant in the world is probably as Mughlai as Karim’s.

Part of Karim’s charm is, I think, the inaccessibility. Jama Masjid and Nizamuddin, I can understand. Even their Malaviya Nagar outlet is particularly bad for turning and parking. I guess you feel the food better when you work hard for it.

I don’t know if there is any one dish that Karim’s is really famous for because I manage to forget every item I order by the time I visit next. Actually, I forget the dishes by the time I walk out of the restaurant. All that remains is a whirl of meat, ghee and spices that tend to engulf one’s senses. In fact on the way out, I manage to lose myself in the bylanes as well. How does the second left matter after Chicken Jahangiri?

Hyderabad – Paradise

How many places in the world do you know where a street or a square is named after a restaurant located there? Paradise Circle is the only one place I know of.

For those who think biriyani is paradise, Paradise is biriyani. In a city known for biriyani, they have taken it to a different level altogether. Actually they have taken it to three different levels altogether – the air-conditioned section upstairs, non-AC downstairs and the terrace outside!

Their chicken-mutton mixed biriyani is an innovation that deserves a Nobel Prize – either Chemistry or Peace. And their take-away section deserves one in Economics – for the most efficient revenue generation. Their hermetically sealed packages of biriyani and kabab are handed over in one smooth motion after the money is handed over and you are back in your waiting cab even before the ignition is switched off.

Visits to Hyderabad are incomplete without a sealed packet of Paradise in your hand baggage. Don’t tell me you’ve not done it even once!

Lucknow – Tunday Kababi

They have opened branches in malls of Lucknow and Delhi. And yet, their original shop hidden in the labyrinth of Aminabad remains the touchstone of all carnivores. I had written about it once earlier and haven’t eaten there recently to add on that.

Except that I’d give anything to eat there right now.

Picture courtesy: Outlook magazine