It is best to ask for precise directions when you head towards Kolkata Callin’ because chances are, you will easily pass it by without noticing it – especially during daytime, when the black and white façade is hidden behind a large tree’s trunk. Once you enter, you get a surreal feeling of having crossed the threshold of a friend’s home. The dimmed lights from open-ended beer bottles hanging from the ceiling cast a soft glow on the white garden chairs all around.
Once seated, as we mulled over the missing ‘g’ in the restaurant’s name, our attention was caught by the bookshelves-lined brick walls. On closer look, we found a few Tintin comics in Bengali, which was the highlight of the evening for us – we did not even know that Tintin comics were available in Bangla! Kolkata Callin’ was conceptualised to recreate the famed Bengali adda where people gather to discuss everything from politics to literature to soccer. We think Kolkata Callin’ has succeeded in fashioning this environment.
While the strains of Bengali folk songs streamed from the overhead speaker, we spoke to Sanjay Mukherjee, an advertising professional who decided to chase his dream of introducing traditional Bengali food to Mumbaikars. Till some months ago, he had another outlet in Andheri offering Bengali rolls and other street food. “But I wanted people to enjoy conventional Bangla food with the warmth that Bengalis are famous for. Thankfully, we have been able to build our customer base, often having people travel from faraway parts of the city,” he explains.
A SLICE OF KOLKATA
Since we visited the small eatery on the occasion of Jamai Shashti, a day when sons-in-law are honored with a lavish meal, we decided to partake of the special thali. This comprised Aampora Shorbot, Fish Chop, Jhuri Alu Bhaja, Maccher Maatha Diye Mugger Daal, Tel Koi, Dhakai Chicken, Steam Rice, Sorshe Ilish, Basanti Pulao, Payeesh, Rosogulla and Mishti Paan, which we shared between two of us.
After quickly downing the refreshing Aampora Shorbot, which is the Bengali version of Aam Panna, and munching a little of the fried potato slivers aka Jhuri Alu Bhaja, we dug into the teardrop shaped fish croquettes with the kasundi mustard sauce. What struck us most was that one could only barely discern the flavor of betki fish in the potato and vegetable dominating cutlet, so you can easily fob it off to an unsuspecting fish-averse companion (which we admit we gleefully did!).
After being chastised for pulling this mean trick, we meekly ate the Maccher Maatha Diye Mugger Daal. The lightly spiced dal has crushed fish heads blended into it, but again we could hardly taste its presence.
WHY BE SUBTLE WHEN IT COMES TO ILISH?
We then tried what can be said the highlight of any Bengali meal – the Sorshe Ilish – and despite being warned about the pungency of the mustard it is cooked in, it still took us by surprise. The delicate Hilsa fish, venerated as the queen of fish in Bengal, maintained its delicate taste despite being dunked in the thick gravy, which can come as a shock to your palate if you are not used to the taste of spicy mustard paste. Gone was the subtlety that the earlier dishes had lulled us into; this dish unveils a roller-coaster blast on the senses, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Another revelation was the Tel Koi, but don’t be shocked by the sight of the fish swimming in oil. Cooked with a little bit of mustard oil and spices, this fish apparently exudes thrice as much oil during the cooking process. Though traditionally eaten with rice, you can just as easily have it with a Radhaballavi, a lucchi with a thin stuffing of potato-pea mixture. Now, like most fresh water fish, the koi mach is a challenge to eat with its numerous fine bones. Sanjay recommended that we bit it off and then chew it whole to absorb its oily taste and then spit out the masticated gob on a plate. Sure, it is indelicate, but Bengali food is meant for the soul not as a sight for the eyes!
Seeing the fish-laden table, my dinner companion cringed a little. Luckily, there was some well flavored Basanti Pulao with lots of raisins and Dhakai Chicken cooked in a tomato onion gravy with a fried boiled egg giving it company. The spiciness of this dish was so understated that it will fit any palate.
No Bengali meal is complete without the famous sweets. There was Aam Chutney, which instead of featuring as an accompaniment, made a guest appearance as dessert! The Rosogulla was nothing special; it is what you could pick up from any sweetmeat shop throughout Mumbai. The Mishti Paan had very large pieces of betel nuts, which made it tough to bite into and also reminded us that we needed to visit our dentist and pronto.
The best of the dessert quartet (we are dismissing the mango slices here) was the Payesh. The creamy cracked rice kheer with jaggery and chopped dry fruits was the perfect end to our meal. The polite service, especially from servers who could not understand English or Hindi well; the casual and non-fussy setting and the chance to get a slice of Kolkata on your plate – these are justifiable reasons to keep heading back to Kolkata Callin’, along with a chance to find out why the ‘g’ is missing from its name!