Old is gold, is what we keep hearing. It may only be half-true, these days. Amber on 11 Waterloo Street, Kolkata 69 used to be the Holy-Grail of Mughlai food. Every foodie in town, at some point or the other must have dined at, written or talked about this age old eatery just off the main drag on Bentinck Street. Everything is historically charming about this restaurant right down to it’s address: Waterloo Street. I wonder what prompted that name, had to have been named during the Raj days, I bet.
I have fond memories of eating at Amber during my growing up days. This used to be my dad’s favorite haunt and we (my sister, mom, dad and myself) would always end up going to Amber(pronounced Umber in our and a lot of other non-anglicized families) . The memory grows fonder, as I did not have to worry about paying the bill, could have had pretty much whatever we wanted, within reasonable means. My dad after all was a reasonable man, with only a reasonable income. We would get started off with pretty much the same starters – Fish Peshawari (or was it Amritsari) Tikka – boneless cubes of bhetki grilled in the tandoor to perfection; Chicken Reshmi Kebabs and at least one item from their ‘Today’s Special’ menu and some concoction of Tandoori Potatoes/Paneer for my vegetarian mother. Main course would mean Chicken Reshmi Tikka Butter Masala, Pindi Chana, Keema Matar and one new item from the menu, something we hadn’t tried earlier.
My dad would get started with his 60 ml whisky pegs, or screwdrivers (vodka with orange juice). Later on in my youth when my dad’s shoe would fit into my feet, with a wiggle; he let me order my own alcohol. I started out with beer or vodka. It was all cool, despite the occasional stare from my mom while she sipped her on cola drink; when I ordered that second beer.
Cut to present day – Life has come a full circle, I am myself a dad of a seven year old son, who has not taken liking to spicy restaurant-style Mughlai food, at least not yet. He is from the KFC, Pizza Hut and Mickey D – Happy Meals, generation. You ask a seven year old and they will tell you, it ain’t about that DARN food, it is always about that cool free toy you get with the happy meal. They don’t really know, there is no such thing in this world as a free lunch or a free toy. Some one is always paying for it !
So one fine late summer evening, me and a friend decided to give Amber a try. Now there is this unique trivia that makes it stand apart from most eateries. Bear with me here, as I give you the details. The restaurant is split into 2 or may be even 3 levels. There is a ground floor section (might even be closed now), then there is a first and second floor. They also have a separate Take Away counter now. First floor I believe is their family section, where you are not permitted unless you are in the company of a fine lady or ladies. So when you walk into double doors you see in the picture above, the doorman salutes you, with aplomb. You barely take a couple of steps and a really old elevator with metal collapsible gates, tattered red carpeting and glass walls, welcomes you. Now the liftman (still a reasonably well paying profession at least in Calcutta) salutes you and asks your floor preference and promptly operates the push buttons of the elevator, which no longer have the floors embossed on them. So you see it is only the liftman who can operate this elevator. Once off the elevator on your desired floor, depending on the hour of your arrival, if during non-peak hours several dinner-jacket-clad stewards will welcome you to the restaurant floor. Now let us do the math. Doorman salute – check, liftman salute – check, steward welcome nod – check. On your way out, you are expected to tip each of these guys in the reverse order. It has been an unwritten code of conduct of dining at Amber. They don’t ask for it but you can see it in their eyes.
Oh well, we settled right on to the second floor this time. The place was practically empty, it was a Monday evening. I was off from work on occasion of Labor Day, one of the few perks for working with an American company. After a quick browse of the menu, I promptly asked the attending steward for their ‘Today’s Special’ menu, and I was in for a rude awakening. My question was met with another question - “Sir, Veg or Non-Veg” – the Jimmy asked ? After a brief pause, I replied “Well, I just need the Today’s Special menu, what ever it got”. He hurriedly ran up to the cashier’s desk and after a couple of minutes, came up with a scratchy scribbled note on Amber stationery – it had just 1 item on it - “Chicken Chilli Kebab – Rs 240”. May be it were the Monday blues, but I could not remember an Amber dinner with just 1 item on the ‘Today’s Special’ menu.
Unimpressed by the steward, we called for the manager – one Mr. Khan (sorry can’t remember his full name). He echoed the same line, and that is all they had on today’s special list. Not to be confused with the similarly named Chinese - ‘Chilli Chicken’. He convinced us it was a really nice kebab and we must give it a shot. We ordered a cold beer to go with the kebab and of course the legendary Fish Amritsari Tikka.
Wish, I could say something nice about the Chicken Chilli Kebab, but would hate to be anything short of ruthlessly honest. The kebab was average not much different from Chicken Tikka, and not spicy enough to be sold under the label of Chicken Chilli. Fish Amritsari (sorry no pictures for this baby) was average wihout inspiring awe. Beer was icy cold though. We went through with the starters quickly and washed it down with beer to reduce the suffering of average kebabs.
Main course was Dal Makhani, Keema Matar. Have had better Dal Makhani, Keema Matar was the sole no complaint item. The Amber experience was concluded with small ‘Tutti-Frutti’ overpriced at Rs. 85 each + plus taxes. Total damage with 2 starters, 2 beers, 2 main course items, some breads and 2 Tutti Frutti’s was Rs. 1400. Pricy eh ? In the day and age of new age restaurants (like Flame’ N Grill, Barbecue Nation) that offer ‘All-you-can-eat-kebabs’, a buffet dinner, 1 free beer at Rs. 450 a pop. I would be hard pressed to return to Amber, except may be to ride their legendary elevator, second only to the tram-rides on Red Road :)
We said good night to the manager, Mr. Khan. He had been extremely courteous the entire evening. “How was everything ?” he asked. We replied “Oh it was really good”. A small lie for a greater good. It would have just broken his heart, had we blurted out the truth !
We paid the bill, tipped the waiter, and the liftman, and the doorman and headed out in the dark of the night. Only to be pulled in by one last temptation – मीठा पान(Meetha Pan) with गुलकंद (Gulkand – a sweet preserve traditionally made out of rose petals, hence the name). These pan shops are as much part of history as Amber itself.
A tale of two restaurants part II - featuring Mocambo on Park Street, will follow shortly. Till then Good night and Good luck !