Disclaimers and excuses:
Though my articles are never just about food, this one has more stories and emotions attached than others. So if you are someone who likes posts that go straight away into dissecting food, this may not be for you.
It has taken me months to write this post. Not because I did not wish to and definitely not because I lacked material, but because when it comes to this particular hotel, there is so much to say that I do not know if I will land up doing justice. So I penned a few lines a week, felt they didn’t make sense and restarted! A labour of love if there was any!
I have stayed in many hotels around the world, dined at many more and loved quite a few. But Taj Bengal (TB) has remains home in more ways than one. The second major 5 star hotel to open in Calcutta, the city of my birth and residence for more than a decade and a half, it was my first place of work after completing hotel school.
I was summoned back to Calcutta by my father who’d had enough of his only child studying in Bombay. My return was bittersweet; initially a little more bitter than sweet because though it felt good to have home comforts, I missed college and Bombay intensely.
And then Taj happened to me. I started my training in the Main Kitchen and had the privilege of working with some of the craziest, funniest and most talented chefs I have met till date. I eventually moved to various outlets starting with Esplanade, the uber popular coffee shop.
I soon grew to know and love the hotel with beautifully designed rooms, arresting atrium lobby, tranquil poolside and bustling restaurants. I loved the little pastry shop which sold my favourite chicken patties; the buzzing coffee shop that had guests queuing up for succulent steaks and delicious waffle sandwiches amongst other items; the gorgeous, rustic Indian restaurant with the best Kakori kebabs the city had tasted and the Chinese restaurant that had attained legendary repute within a couple of months of the hotel opening. The fervor with which people patronized the outlets left one in no doubt that TB served some great food. It were these, along with charismatic leadership and a dedicated team that made Taj Bengal a force to reckon with in the nineties.
It has been decades since I left TB but make it a point to drop by whenever I find time during rushed visits to Calcutta. And it is a delight to find some of my old favourites, both people and food.
Now the present!
The new all day dining, Cal 27 has been revealed with much fanfare on 9th November 2017 and I feel very deprived being away from the city. Something about the lovely interiors and happy faces of special invitees make me feel like I should have been there too! But, but, but…God is kind as always and a sudden work trip to Calcutta pops up late November. A fortuitous conversation with Samrat Datta, the charming General Manager of Taj Bengal and I find myself in the hotel one sunny afternoon.
I like the name which is a simple combination of the city Calcutta and the pin code 700027. It is simple yet upmarket and trendy which is exactly what the outlet is.
I learn that a team of French architects spent a long time studying the space and creating design options. Since they were accessible and surprisingly amenable to suggestions, the local team recommended that the essence of the city be retained in the new outlet. Hence the designers went off to scout the sights and sounds of Calcutta, from posh villas to crumbling old homes. They fell totally in love with some of the stately manor houses in old Calcutta and decided to model the new all day diner after them.
Cal 27 really is like a noble Bengali mansion from Calcutta of yore. Beautiful and gracious while being full of energy and entertainment. I can imagine a newly wed bride peeking from behind the green slatted windowpanes on the upper level, taking in the hustle and bustle below. And almost visualise a musical soiree with elegant attendees, clinking glasses and muted conversations. The restaurant is so striking that I am at a loss to identify it’s most discerning feature. Would it be the sparkling black and white, checkerboard marble flooring? The unique wrought iron and copper chandelier? Or the expansive French windows offering views of the lovely poolside?
The old heavy staircase has been replaced by a sleek elevator which takes us to the upper level of the restaurant. This space with plush seating is reserved for small private parties and offers a bird’s eye view of the restaurant below. I love the elegant island buffet counter overflowing with goodies and guests thronging the neat array of mains at the end of the restaurant. From here it is easy to see that behind the languid charm of Cal 27 lies a very efficient system which keeps the team on it’s toes and guests coming back for more.
Having toured the restaurant and decided on a la carte options instead of buffet, we settle at a table by the window, look at the brand new wine rack and sip on the signature cocktail of Cal 27. This is a heady mix of white rum and sugarcane juice flavoured with the very distinctive Gondhoraj lemon. Chilled, aromatic and evocative.
The meal starts with a delicious, foamy Mushroom Soup. Mushroom soup is my favourite and a well made one is worth it’s weight in gold. This one ranks very high on that list.
Peruvian Asparagus Platter – I am intrigued by this dish because I have never seen asparagus being served as a main in an all day eatery. I discover that these melt in mouth, herbed asparagus tips are grilled to perfection and served with a fresher than fresh house salad and divine saffron cheese sauce.
Pork Chops – pork is my favourite meat. Give me pork and my soul sings. Cal 27 gives me perfectly marinated, lightly grilled chops with salad, grilled mushrooms, garlicky grilled tomato and red wine jus and my soul performs an entire opera.
Post grills come three extremely interesting dishes from the Taj Autograph Collection which is a selected list of speciality items curated by top chefs from the global Taj family. The Autograph Collection is not just about creating the dish but about getting it spot on. And chefs from India have been sent to the international hotels to learn how to get it just right.
Chicken Bunny Chow – this is one of those rare dishes of Indian origin which was not readily available in India, a lacuna that Taj Hotels have filled. Bunny Chow dates back to the arrival of migrant Indian workers in South Africa. Certain accounts suggest that these workers who were employed as labourers in sugar cane plantations devised a simple way of carrying their lunch to the fields by putting curry inside a hollowed out loaf of bread. The Bunny Chow in Cal 27, a sophisticated take on this commoner’s dish comes in vegetarian and chicken versions, all the way from Taj Cape Town.
Fish and Chips – considered one of the national dishes of England after Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding (though some might argue Chicken Tikka Masala has pride of place!), the humble fish and chips is possibly the most famous takeaway dish of the country as well as some other Commonwealth nations. Addition of beer aerates the batter, making it lighter and crispier. Cal 27 offers a platter of inimitable Calcutta Beckti fried in traditional English beer batter with a hint of pepper, served with chips, soft, mushy peas (how I love these!) and tartare sauce, straight out of the exclusive St. James Court London.
Lamprais – derived from the Dutch word ‘limprijst’ which means a packet of food, traditional Lamprais or lump rice is a Sri Lankan speciality consisting of a variety of cooked items wrapped in banana leaf and baked. The main items are mixed meat curries, Frikkadels (crispy fried, Dutch meatballs), Vambatu Moju (sweet sour pickled brinjal), Seeni Sambol (condiment made of caramelized onions speckled with bonito flakes), Prawn Blachang (dried prawn relish), Ash Plantain Fries and rice boiled in meat stock. It is a ‘filling ‘occasion meal’ that probably started as a Sunday speciality when ladies had time to get together and cook. Cal 27 offers both vegetarian and non vegetarian options, as found in Taj Samudra, Colombo. I absolutely relish the richness of the non vegetarian plate.
Chilli Chocolate Parfait – I am not a chocolate lover. I am not even a chocolate eater. And I find it easy breezy to refuse chocolate items. But when Samrat Datta says this is a not-to-be-missed dessert, I am curious enough to try. And I am impressed. This rich, cold, velvety chocolate dessert stops short of being overwhelming thanks to the chilli kick. My friend the chocolate expert certifies it as a winner and I have to say I agree!
Mihidana Rabdi – I have a longstanding love-love relationship with ‘Mihidana’, a childhood favourite along with Sitabhog. Mihidana literally translates to ‘fine grain’. Óriginally from the district of Burdwan in Bengal, this has been described as the micro cousin of the popular Boondi. Mihidana is deep fried dessert granules made with ground rice mixed with gram flour and saffron. The Rabdi is a surprising but inspired accompaniment given that it is usually served with crisper desserts like Jalebi and Malpua.
I look around the restaurant during this lovely meal and am delighted to see a steady stream of patrons walking in. By the quality of food and service I know that Cal 27 will be right up there for Calcutta foodies for a long long time.
** MCT verdict – This all day diner is definitely in my list of all time favourites.**
This post is a tribute to Taj Bengal and it’s teams past, present and future. It also goes out to all my friends and colleagues in the Taj family, especially to Ms. Shirin Batliwala who was the General Manager when the hotel opened and Mr. Samrat Datta, the current General Manager.