Thursday, September 30, 2010

The French Experience

I have now lived in Salt Lake for only a little over 5 years. However my love affair with the satellite township dates back to the early nineties. Back then I lived in Bangur Avenue, a residential colony, just across the canal.  Salt Lake was a destination of choice – be it for stealing a smoke away from the prying eyes of neighbors and friends of my parents, be it for walking my girl friend to her school, be it  just to escape the madding crowd. Salt Lake was an oasis of peace. The over-rated ‘para-culture’ was missing and people let you be; without sticking their noses and meddling into your private affairs - ‘pun intended’ !

Salt Lake of the 90’s has changed or rather metamorphosed would be the term. City Center mall came to Salt Lake in early 2000’s and completely changed this sleep township for ever. Now Salt Lake is a preferred destination and really remains the most livable neighborhood of Calcutta. For the most part it is self-contained and you can avoid having to run downtown, every time you need something.

One brand after another – be it restaurants, banks, even businesses are making a beeline to enter Salt Lake, their adopted home. So did I, back in 2005 when we relocated to Calcutta from Stateside. Salt Lake is beaten with a stick by residents from other part of the city for many-an-evil. Truth be told, I would easily trade off any of those for the peace and tranquility this place offers.

I still experience a child-like joy and excitement, whenever a new ‘brand’, a new ‘store’, a new anything comes to Salt Lake. Really missed having a decent stand-alone bakery here. There are enough shops selling – cakes, pastries, and snacks (read ‘snakes’ – a gujju pronunciation. No offense ‘Mota bhai’, all in good humor). However we have always lacked a decent bakery selling a bouquet of breads, dinner rolls and French loaves.

In comes – The French Loaf.


This is a good looking store that was just inaugurated this past Sunday (9/26). It is a part of a national chain having stores in Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Pune and Calcutta.  This is their second store in Calcutta – their flagship store is on Sarat Bose Road (near Minto Park) in central Calcutta. They have a third one coming up in South Kolkata on Southern Ave. This store is located on First Ave, at Ground Floor, AB-10, Sector I, Salt Lake City, Kolkata 0 700068 (near PNB island).



The store wears a stylish look, with bright yet subtle interiors in hues of brick red and Starbucks green. The staff is very courteous and welcoming. They get the door for you if they see you walking in and hold it ajar when you are leaving them. The stock a good variety of pastries, cakes, tarts, pies, breads, and savories. The presentation is very nice and it all looked very nice so far.

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I stormed into the store and was browsing their collection and checking them out, so to speak. Within about 2 minutes of my entering the store, a counter clerk from behind the counter asked ‘Sir – are you looking for veg or non-veg ?'. This is a common question you get asked a lot in India.

Few seconds later I divulged the fact that I write and am there to cover their new store. I saw their eyes lit-up and that was a game changer. I then asked them if it was ok to click a few pictures of their store and what they have to offer. They readily agreed.  When I briefly paused after clicking some pictures – Rajdeep, who I believe was their store manager brought over ‘chocolate fantasy’ – a pastry. I was told it was on the house. Little perks of writing/blogging. I thanked Rajdeep and dug in. I got to say – it was one of the better Chocolate cakes I have had. I personally do not care for bitter chocolate, which is the forte of Kookie Jar, another Kolkata based chain. The chocolate cream was consistently smooth, the right degree of sweetness, the texture was soft yet firm, not mushy. The amalgamation of bread and cream was optimal. In other words – I relished the experience.

They have broadly 4 different sections in the store. Starting from cakes, pastries and mousses are kept in a chilled shelf, the snacks and savories are next (vegetarian and non-vegetarian are split on different shelves) some of them are interestingly named like – Curious Tandoori Chicken and then there are the regular stars like Chicken Ciabatta and Chicken Calzone, so on and so forth, next is baked desserts like the apple pies, brownies, walnut-crumbles,  doughnuts, cookies, tarts etc.

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The wall opposite from the cakes and bakes shelves was lined with different kinds of bread. There was plain white sandwich bread interestingly named as Day Breaker, whole wheat breads, multigrain breads, rye breads, Asian curry loaves, crusty breads, garlic breads, cheese breads, focaccias, and last but not the least the signature French loaves. Being a bread lover, my eyes glittered.





Done with clicking around I finally decided to order something to take away. I got myself the following :

1 Blueberry Mousse (looked like Blueberry Cheesecake), 1 Carrot Nut Cake, 1 Apple Pie and 1 Walnut Brownie. From the snacks shelf – I got me a Curious Tandoori Chicken, and a Chicken Calzone.

Now the much-awaited reaction. Blueberry Mousse was the best part of my order, it was silky smooth and even though it was made from blueberry preserves and not fresh berries. It was wholesome.  Carrot Nut Cake – was good, but had a strange aftertaste – that I could not recognize. Apple Pie was BAD – it was crusty and had very little apple chunks in it. Even 2 for a $1 Mc. Donalds – Apple Pie would beat this hands down. Walnut Brownie was just about average, it lacked the punch and had a similar metallic after-taste to it. But the worst is yet to come. The snack items were truly the worst of the lot. Both the Curious Tandoori Chicken and the Chicken Calzone were doughy, with way too much bread and very little if any chicken. There was probably less than 15% of chicken by volume. Chicken Calzone was hollow filled with a mix of air and chicken !

I tried 2 loaves of the Asian Curry bread, to beat the midnight hunger pangs. It tasted nice, nothing like I have ever tried before. It had spices like mustard seeds, curry powder, and curry leaves embedded into the soul of the loaf ! Good.

Overall, I would give the store 3 out 5 on food quality (individually breads are 5/5, cakes and mousses 4.5/5, pies and tarts 2/5. Snacks and savories 1/5, I would give them 0 but that would just break their heart).  At the same time I need to add the staff members were extremely polite and courteous. They had may be not excellent knowledge of their wares, but a good knowledge about what was in it. I was also told that they are also going to be start serving beverages like tea and coffee before the Pujo market warms up.

They also added that their flagship store on Sarat Bose road has a different format as it has a full service restaurant, with live sandwich counters. That sounds good, gotta try it out sometimes. Let me know by commenting on this piece, if you have already tried their Sarat Bose Road location and how did it fare on your scale. It is only a year old brand in Kolkata. I certainly hope their improve on the quality of meat in their snack items, if they want to compete with the other vintage brands like Kookie Jar!


**Trivia – Old timers will recall a store called ‘Hot Breads’ on Sarat Bose road, close to the Minto Park / A.J.C Bose Rd. intersection. There used be a ANZ Grindlays bank in the ground floor of the same building. Now both those brands are gone. The folks at The French Loaf, told me that they are from the same parent company and they have repositioned their branding.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

দখিনাপনের Dolly

Done with a sumptuous lunch @ Peter Cat; the Sunday afternoon lethargy was settling in. Next in line was দখিনাপন near Dhakuria bridge, which is normally closed on Sundays. However remains open 24 * 7 (the Kolkata version of this much maligned term means it is just open 7 days, 24  is just a filler) towards the build up for Durga Pujo. You ask a thorough breaded resident of South Kolkata and this is a preferred shopping destination during for Pujo shopping. Markets such as these suffer from stiff competition from swank malls. Had it not been for the bargain hunters, the state emporiums from all across India dealing in handlooms, handicrafts, textiles, fancy goods, and imitation jewelry, the sheer nostalgia of the place; this place might have stood desolately or downed shutters. It is necessary in my opinion for places such as these to co-exist alongside the modern malls, despite the onslaught brought upon it by them.

We pulled in their around 4:30 in the afternoon to find that this place was all abuzz with activity, true to the tradition of Sunday afternoon Pujo shopping, there were people everywhere. Even though it has ample parking spaces, there was a long line of cars waiting to enter the overflowing parking lot. Most shoppers judiciously brought along their chauffeurs so that can they wait in the line for long hours, till kingdom come or they found parking – which ever is earlier. Now parking in CoolKata is a skill that might compete with the best of adventure sports out there. You just gotta have a knack for it ! It is a skill you acquire after years of driving and parking in nooks and crannies of the city. My skills are only about average in this faculty and I am a work-in-progress.



I have a little story about the parking woes in the city. Actually it is pretty interesting, what fun would it be to drive into a huge monstrous parking lot and find plenty of open spaces and park in any. That would just take the fun out of the game. So a couple of winters ago, it got into my wife that we need to take our kid to the Alipore Zoo.  So we did, reaching there around eleven-ish. Same story another day – no parking was to be found for a couple of miles on either side of the zoo. I looked across the street from the zoo, and had an Eureka moment !  It was a brilliant idea, if it worked. I had to take my chances. After dropping my wife, my kid, the picnic baskets, the backpack and other zoo effects, at the zoo gate. Drove across the street, pulling into The Taj Bengal. Pulled up to the loading/un-loading deck and handed the keys over to the valet. My car was now in a safe cocoon. I did not have to worry about it being towed away or being hit by another car. I walked into The Taj and into their washroom, freshened up and walked out, and then finally out of the elite address. Crossed the busy street ahead of me, and joined my wife and kid. Mission Successful ! On the way out, simply did the much needed washroom routine after a day at the zoo. Called for my car at the valet desk, tipped the valet Rs. 50 and drove away into the setting sun !



You can barely see the ‘Puchka-wallah’  in the above picture, just outside the main entrance of the shopping complex.  He is drowned in a sea of customers. Puchka is undoubtedly the king of street food. It enlivens the shopping spree. দখিনাপন was real busy, and people were shopping as if there were no tomorrow.




Now returning to the main subject matter at hand. Anyone who shops here, stops over at Dolly’s Tea Shop. It is a landmark and really one of it’s kind. Amidst a sea of new-age coffee shops, tea is a forgotten drink. It is not considered trendy by generation-x except for may be resurgence of iced-tea, which is considered a cool drink by the youngsters. Tea remains a choice of the baby boomers generation, and most like it hot ! 


You can see Dolly’s is a preferred stop and provides for a welcome break for the shoppers. You walk into Dolly’s and you are welcome into a cozy world of aromatic tea, sepia tea chests lining the wall, paper lanterns, and dainty cane furniture. The place has a romantic vibe about it and has been very tastefully done. I am sure many a love story have been woven around this place. Dolly is NOT an equal opportunity employer, as she runs an all female enterprise :)






A huge cuppa is placed on the reception desk with a wire mesh keepsake kettle sitting in it. It is things such as this that makes a first time guest in awe of this place. It is truly a boutique tea shop with a number of knick-knacks strategically placed which gives it a look of something like a curio shop.


A simple yet quite an elaborate menu welcomes you, with categories like Hot Teas broken down by the tea growing areas of India. Darjeeling tops the list, followed by Assam, Uttaranchal and Nilgiri. There is a separate section for Dolly’s Specials and Green Teas. About 20 different types of Iced Tea. It was a warm balmy afternoon so we went with – Green Iced Tea with Ginger and Lemon. There is everything from Pineapple, Orange and Mint. Personally am not a big fan of multi flavored teas. I like my ice tea to taste subtle, so I can taste the tea in it. The iced tea with ginger and lemon was just right and lightly sweetened.




While I was sipping my tea, Dolly made an entry into the store. It took no second guessing that it’s her who is walking in. She walked in and took her seat at the end of the store. She took notice of us and greeted us with a gentle nod of her head. Suddenly the ladies who were serving and manning the store, became more alert with the magnifying presence of Dolly.

I struck a conversation with Dolly and she started to open up a little. ‘This ice-tea is great’ – was my pick-up line ! The loose tea at her store is pricey, starting from Rs. 400 a kg, going all the way up to Rs. 10,000 per kg. She some how mistook us to have deep pockets and started offering us the best the money could buy. We had to tone her down, and told her that despite our looks we were no connoisseurs of tea, and would not be able to tell the difference between a 400 Rs/Kg when compared to 5000 Rs/Kg tea. The conversation grew over iced tea, while we heaped praises on her preparation. That got her talking. Her store, she said was about 22 years old, as old as the shopping complex itself, I would guess. She sources her tea directly from the gardens and tastes it herself. She is also a consultant tea taster to other tea companies – a very elite and exclusive profession right since the days of the East India Company.

All the distractionary measures failed, she kept coming back to the subject of what loose tea are we buying. I would understand selling tea is her bread and butter while the prepared tea she serves in her studio is a frontal to the actual business. We finally were able to tone her down and convince her to sell us the-not-so-expensive variety of green tea at Rs. 400/kg and a second-flush black Darjeeling tea at Rs. 1200/kg. Only buying in small denominations of 250g and 100g.



Finding it difficult to move away after only sampling of one of her prepared teas from a wide selection of may be 100 different preparations of hot and iced teas. I asked her for suggestion of another iced-tea. She had me try the regular iced-tea made with second-flush Darjeeling black. I like my tea sweet, but what I got was way too sweet and I made my dislike clear and following which Dolly took the glass away from me and promised to tone it down some. Even after that though, it was still too sweet.

I told Dolly that I write, she wanted to know who do I write for ? I had to tell her the truth that – I am my own boss, at least as far as writing is concerned. I am still waiting for my first multi-million book deal, so I could afford her Rs. 10K/kg tea, I evinced. I took Dolly’s permission to capture her in my lens, to which she readily agreed.


I bid adieu to Dolly and promised to return the following weekend with my wife for Pujo shopping and tea drinking !

Here are some other pictures I clicked while walking around দখিনাপন.








Monday, September 27, 2010

Stephen C, Peter C, and Rahul G.


Before re-counting my recent rendezvous at Peter Cat, the name that needs no introduction. Let us all spare a moment for the victims of the dastardly fire that left a scar on the soul of Park Street, just over 6 months ago. In magnitude it may not have been comparable to 9/11, yet it was no less in pain and fury it caused among the residents of Stephen Court. A lot has already been written and said about the tragedy. So I am not going to repeat that here. However I would like to add my 2 cents to it. Public has a very short memory, such incidents are forgotten too soon. What follows immediately is an overwhelming response of media, coming to light of some local unsung heroes who saved valuable lives, but within a matter of few weeks – it is all history. It is even hard to imagine, how must it feel to be part of the family that was directly affected by such a tragedy. After the smoke died out and the ash is washed off the street, Peter Cat fans are glad it survived the fire and so did all the other businesses on the ground floor of this historical building. Even though, the show must go on and Park Street has limped back to business-as-usual. The nonchalant attitude of authorities and some citizens at large is disturbing.  Can the diners at this legendary address think about what must it have felt like to be trapped in the towering inferno that was on the fateful afternoon of March 23 earlier this year.

It is at least comforting to hear that the absconding building owner was caught and hopefully will be brought to justice. But what we really need is - a change in stance, more accountability from government departments, more dignity towards human life; so that such incidents can be avoided. But I fear the truth is – absolutely nothing has changed since this incident. I hate to be prophetic but there are a number of different such buildings which are just sitting ducks for similar incidents to happen. May God and some better governance of the city help us !


So my wife was a bit under-the-weather this past Sunday and our maid who cooks and pretty much for all practical purpose runs the house was on leave for Pujo shopping. Eating out was on the cards and on most of these trips I have an unnamed assassin, a buddy of mine who accompanies me. He wishes to remain anonymous and does not want to share any credit for this. What a magnanimous soul, God bless him. So lately Rahul Gandhi and dined and wined @ Peter Cat. Next day it became the talk of the town, given Rahul’s rock-star like popularity, second only to Peter Cat’s own Chelo Kebab !  Sycophancy or no sycophancy, the prince of the Congress party - a nick that he vociferously denies was a massive crowd-puller where ever he went. News paper carried reports of where he sat, what he ate. There were people wanting to go to Peter Cat the next day eat what he ate,  sit on the same chair he sat. Nothing against Rahul personally, but this is stretching it. Why does it matter to sit where he sat so on and so forth. Grow up people !

Grapevine has it though, that the restaurant management was not willing to accept money from Rahul, but he insisted and added that all MP’s are entitled to food allowance and he would like to avail of it. Would we ever know though, was Rahul a good tipper ? Do MP’s also get tipping allowance – would be the question ?

Watch the video below, beamed up on YouTube by a news channel.

Notice the goof-up in a video-slide where Chelo Kebab was spelled as चिली कबाब.

To some people who are not aware of Chelo Kebab, it might actually sound like a TYPO.  Now many of you already know a thing or two about Chelo Kebab.  It has even become a recipe copied by some restaurants blatantly, but only at their own peril.  However I am not sure, if what I am going to share with you next is a known fact.  Read on further to uncover the secret properties of Chelo Kebab.


I am not sure of Rahul G, but mere mortals like us had to wait in a line for our table, it took about a half hour. We whiled away some time at ‘Music World’ next door and came back hoping our table would be waiting for us. However we had to be patient for a few more minutes, and our mouths watered as we saw people sitting against the French windows, chowing down their kebab platters.


Huh ? So is that why Chelo Kebabs are popular ? APHRODISIACS FOR THE HAREM !  Is that why Rahul Gandhi chose to eat this ? Is that why most diners who go to Peter Cat, be sure to order this ? I have had food here so many times, but never realized this caption on their menu.  Well now. I got NO harem, but the choice was clear.

26092010749 Peter had himself a cat !



Remember the silver beer mugs @ Mocambo. Similar beer mugs at Peter Cat , coincidence ? No. Both these restaurants are owned by the same owner – Nitin Kothari. Mr. Kothari is also rumored to own a restaurant in Japan by the name of ‘Maharaja’ !

They have three types of Chelo Kebab – The Original (which is Chicken + Mutton Seekh), Mutton Chelo Kebab – which was invented in 2008 during the bird flu scare days, and no offense to the vegans but the lackluster Vegetarian Chelo !

We got one of each, Mutton Chelo for me, and Original Chelo for my unknown buddy.


The Suave Original Chelo

26092010762 The Luscious Mutton Chelo

The first bite into the Mutton Chelo, and I was in seventh heaven. Meat so moist, and soft, I doubted for a moment if it were mutton. Spices just right, gone right through each cell of the mutton tissue. Really wonder what marinade goes into it, I wish I was able kidnap their chef and ask for the secret recipe as ransom. They serve mutton boti kebabs, small quantity of rice with dollops of butter (the qty of rice should be upped just a little), grilled tomaotes sprinkled with chopped corriander, two mutton seekhs and a wedge of lime ! I am pretty sure if I were on death row and they asked me for my last meal – it would be a double order of Mutton Chello with extra some extra rice and a chilled Thums Up to wash my sins away !

They have a pretty funny Wine menu, I captured a few pages of it on my camera, and they are reproduced here.


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I took a trip to their first floor washroom and on my way back was trying to click a few aerial shots of their ground flood dining room. I was interrupted and politely asked to pocket my camera. The steward said that some customers find it objectionable being photographed. To add to that, lately there has been eve-teasing incidents reported in the newspapers where a stalker was taking pictures of a lady at a metro station. The lady turned out to be quite brave and took it upon her and rallied support of her co-passengers. The guy got roughed up a little and was remanded to the cops. I pictured myself being chased by other co-diners and being roughed up on a pretty Sunday afternoon and the picture it painted was not pretty. So I pocketed my camera and gave a friendly pat to the steward and told him I understood his concern. However, me a stalker though ? Take a look at me again, I am so much in love with food, I don’t think there is space for any other kind of love anymore. Hell, stalkers need to be at least fitter than I am, so they can run when chased.  :)


This was the shot I took, before I was branded – A  Stalker.


The service was great too, we asked for two chilled Thums Up with lots of ice, and our demand was met peacefully.


An empty table for two at Peter Cat, as we were leaving. A rare sight.

With the carbonated beverages filling up any space that might have been left after the wholesome Kebabs, deserts were given a miss. Despite my love for all things sweet, I passed on it. Which is extremely rare, may be I was in a state of food induced coma or may be I had other plans. We walked towards the end of Middleton Row, where my car was parked and captured the following :

26092010769 I am sure this must be Alma Mater to some of you. Need a hint ? Men are from Mars, Women are from Loreto House.

Wait for my next post to find out our nefarious plans for later in the afternoon. Aaah the mystery thickens !

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