We stand in line outside Flurys. At tea time. “Isn’t this kind of ridiculous?” I mutter. It’s hardly a night club in Manhattan. Or a Guajarati thali joint in Mumbai. A grim overly-muscled bouncer elbows me in the ribs when I try wriggling past. I roll my eyes. He rolls his. Ah, Kolkata! Always so much drama. No wonder it’s addictive. Like anyone who has lived in (cliché alert) the City of Joy, I dream about the food. Pungent jhal-muri wrapped in the powerful scent of onions. Thin, spicy, deep red fish curries aromatic with whole spices. Soporific aloo-posto, with those distinctively grainy, golden poppy seeds. On a quick trip back to attend a wedding, my friends and I hit all the high spots. Tea at Flurys, yes. (Highly overrated, by the way. I prefer its earlier dingy avatar, perfect for hefty plum cakes, flaky puffs and sneaky romances.) Cello kebabs bursting with butter at Peter Cat. Blistering rolls at noisy street corners, paired with mud pots of milky tea. I also impress all the bride’s uncles by eating an embarrassingly large number of rassogullas at the wedding lunch. (In my defence, I was hungry and the rassogullas were small.)
In Chennai, it’s Shree Annapoorna of Calcutta for my Bengali food fix. Hot, crowded and cramped, it offers no-frills and memorable food. The day’s specials are written on a blackboard in Bengali: delicate Paturi, fish slathered in a rich mustard marinade, wrapped and steamed in emerald banana leaves. Little bowls of chicken curry tangy with tomatoes. And to end every meal, dollops of cool, sweet, quintessentially Bengali chutney. You eat elbow to elbow here, squashed between strangers who — depending on your luck — will slurp down their lunch delightedly (best case scenario) or carefully deposit all their fish bones right between your plates. Once the meal is done, you shuffle up to the counter to pay. The owner flips through dozens of little papers scrawled with numbers and produces your bill with the air of a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. The grand total? Almost always under a few hundreds.
For days when you feel like a little more luxury — table mats, cutlery and a waiter who doesn’t scowl — try the recently opened Kolkata Q at Ganga International. We head there for lunch, and spend the first ten minutes staring at their coffee shop menu, which spiritedly tries to be edgy. Breakfast is titled “Breakkkkk the fast.” (No typo there. I actually counted the number of Ks and made a note — much to the manager’s bemusement.) The dragon potato, paneer tikka and vegetarian wontons are grouped under a mysterious category called ‘Kick Thee Start’. Our favourite? The chicken pepper fry, roast chicken and fish masala are thoughtfully put under ‘From the house of butchery.’ (Which coming to think of it would make a great title for a 3D, B-grade horror flick.) The hefty thali arrives with a flurry of dishes. There are fluffy pooris, puffed with hot air. Begun bhaja, fried brinjal with a squishy middle and crisp skin. Sukto, vegetables laced with that distinctive flavour of paanch phoron. (A mix of seeds: fenugreek, nigella, cumin, fennel and black mustard or radhuni.) We try the steaming rohu, fried golden-brown, carefully picking through its wickedly sharp bones. Mutton, in a rich, velvety, aromatic curry. And we eat Macher kaliya, with sweet Katla fish balanced by a spicy, bay leaf tempered curry. Priced at Rs. 250 for vegetarians and Rs. 375 for non-vegetarians, the thali is substantial, offering an interesting variety of flavours. Some of the vegetarian items are admittedly lacklustre, but if you like Bengali food; you’ll enjoy most of it. Despite its inexplicable plastic roses and polka dotted cutlery, this restaurant is unapologetically authentic. Most dishes are laced with mustard oil, food is mildly spiced and the chingri malai curry is proudly afloat with beady-eyed prawns. (The Bengalis keep the heads in, believing they add flavour.) If you’re a cautious eater, try the items more likely to appeal to a mass audience: kachoris, rolls and yes, mishti doi. (Do I hear howls of delight?) We end with Pantua, best described as a rassogulla with sunburn. Crusty outside, soft, sweet and spongy inside. This, I will stand in line for.
Shree Annapoorna is on Pantheon Road in Egmore, next to the Police Commissioner’s office, tel: 2852 3037. Kolkata Q is at Ganga International, 88, Bazullah Road, T. Nagar, tel: 2814 1340.