“Archiving dishes is a big homework. We have an archival recipe record of nearly 400-500 dishes, which we have served in our restaurant in the last 75 years,” says Akash K Kalra, Managing Director, The United Group. “Of these, around 150-200 dishes are on the menu all the time. We keep going back to these, bringing it back to our customers, adapting it to suit their palate and new trends,” adds Kalra.
Despite this emphasis on food, when United Coffee House started, food was not its focal point. It was more of a place to meet and chat — an adda of sorts. As Kalra says, “For many, this was a place to walk in on Sundays after listening to the military nand play and watching the fountains at Central Park for a cup of coffee with snacks.”
Making the right brew
Established in 1942, it was the brain child of Lala Hans Raj Kalra (Akash Kalra’s grandfather), the son of a liquor baron who had a flourishing liquor business in Sialkot in Pakistan. The family moved to Delhi and were based in Chandni Chowk.
The first foray into hospitality came with the setting up of the Esplanade Restaurant & Bar in 1938-39 to cater to the American GIs who had their barracks at the Red Fort. It proved to be very popular, but since it was meant for the GIs, it wound up with their moving out after the War in the early 40s.
Around that time, Hans Raj Kalra heard of an affluent shopping arcade in Lutyens Delhi called Connaught Place, which had been built in the shape of a horse shoe, for luck. What it lacked was a coffee house. He bought the place and opened United Coffee House.
In the 40s, the place would be open from 11 am to 8 pm, typically selling street snacks of Old Delhi. Kalra says, “Food then was commercial. No one would eat home food outside, so it was only omelette, chana bhatura, tikka...”
Post-Independence, the hours extended, and by the 60s it became a full-fledged restaurant. The cuisine initially was a mix of the Old Delhi Kayasth food and Frontier Province Pakistani food.
The menu expanded, and during their lifetime, the place had served everything from commercial food, bibiyana (homemade) food, Madras club food, Bombay club food, Calcutta club food, Anglo Indian, khansama-cooked memsahib cuisine, to continental food, Asian, Mexican, Lebanese and, of course, Indian.
Conceived in the British era, it still holds a fondness for the Old Raj cuisine, especially British club food — cheese balls, cutlets, samosas, chops.
On the menu
Kalra says, “We are known for our keema samosa, cheese balls, tomato fish and chicken a la Kiev. These have not been invented by us, but our variation is a huge hit.” There are plenty of other staples — chapli kebabs, Railway mutton curry, dak bungalow chicken curry, chicken Maryland, coq au vin, chicken a la princess.
Kalra explains, “My grandfather had the acumen to get some of the finest cooks of those times to work for us. With their feedback and my grandfather’s insight, a dish would be perfected after many trials. For example, a chef from Lucknow might add raw mango and bay leaf to a dak bungalow chicken curry, which made the taste entirely different from the usual one.”
To commemorate the 75th year, a new menu was unveiled in May. Classic dishes which had not been on the menu for 20-30 years were revamped.
Kalra enthusiastically says, “Fuyong, chow chows from Asia, buttermilk burgers were on the list. These dishes are being adjusted to suit today’s palate. So if a baked salmon was served with boiled vegetables, today we would be doing it with braised bok choi.”
What works for UCH is that it still retains the old-world charm of the 1950s — the laid-back era of fine dining, huge chandeliers, unhurried knowledgeable waiters, the attention and care to the patrons with a sense of discreet familiarity.
In this weekly column, we take a peek at some of the country’s most iconic restaurants