Dining out is often about celebrating the little big things in life, isn’t it?
There was a time when many of our celebrations like ‘signed-up-for-the-marathon’-day, ‘just-broke-up-with-the-jerk’-day and ‘finally-put-in-my-papers’-day would take place at Howrah, a small, old-timer housed in the open verandah of the legendary Hotel New Bengal near Fort. Cheap (used to be Rs.150 for an unfinishable Non-Veg Thali a few years ago), accessible (we could slip out of Times of India and still make it back for the dreaded post-lunch presentation… yawn!) and truly authentic, with a College Street canteen feel. Given that there were hardly any other Bengali restaurants in the city, the only other option was to emotionally blackmail Mom into coming to Mumbai and have her cook you all your favourite dishes 😉
Things have changed quite a bit in the last decade or so. People today dine out more for a taste adventure, new food, or exciting dining experience. Unlike then, the options for Bengali food are now a-plenty. And… Mom doesn’t need to be blackmailed 🙂
The non-stop nagging by Mumbai friends (you know who you are, peeps!) to cook them Shorshe Pabda, Ilish Paturi, Luchi and Begoon Bhaja must have reached a sizeable crescendo for food entrepreneurs. Anjan Chatterjee of Oh! Calcutta spread out far n wide from the one outpost in Tardeo, and Soumitra Ghosh launched his chain of Bengali street food called Hangla which goes beyond the realm of the ‘Calcutta Roll’. Several other noteworthy places joined the bandwagon, like the generous and hearty Bhojohori Manna, the far-away Peetuk which possibly serves the city’s best Calcutta-style Biryani, the refurbished Bong Bong with its mouth-watering curries, the next-on-my-list Boda and Ithi, and the latest glittering arrival, 25 Parganas, at Hotel Sahara Star.
As one of India’s top entrepreneurs and head of the mutli-faceted Sahara Group, Subroto Roy must have heard the collective rumblings of Bong and non-Bong stomachs too. On a grueling business trip to New York, one taste of ace Chef Prasenjit’s specially prepared Bengali food convinced him about the need for an exclusive Bengali restaurant in Mumbai.
The idea was to showcase the best of Bengali cuisine, in a trendy yet traditional, classy yet homely ambiance, to appease the ever-growing population of Bong-food lovers of the city, and whet the appetites of those who have never tasted Bong food before (poor souls, I say!) So, ’25 Parganas’ was born, an imaginary 25th district of West Bengal, but a very real food destination for seriously good, authentic Bengali dishes.
Chef Prasenjit at the helm has spent 14 long years in New York, and for those who know their epics, this ‘vanvaas’ was no cakewalk either! But as all great and inspiring food stories go, he proved his mettle there returning victorious to the fold to rediscover his roots through what he knows best… food! And his menu at 25 Parganas reflects that rediscovery as you journey through Bengal, savouring the delicate yet distinctive spice profiles that it has to offer!
Like a good, food-loving Bong (is there any other kind???) I started where it matters – with the ‘Bhaja’ or the ‘Fried’ starters.
The ‘Beet Bora’, the Chef’s light n crisp take on the quintessential sweet-spicy ‘Vezitebil Chop’ that is available literally everywhere in Kolkata, is a must try with ‘Kasundi’, as is the pan-fried ‘Posto Narkel Bora’ (Poppy seed and Coconut Patties), which in its delicious avatar here is the vegetarian’s answer to the Shami Kabab prayer! My fingers kept inching back to it, despite the aromatic and inventive Steamed Seafood and Steamed Mustard Chicken Dumplings…
The main course arrived with a flourish of loaded plates. My personal ‘Litmus Test’ Kosha Mangsho (Dry Mutton Curry) was good, but a bit toned down, probably to suit the non-Bong palate, confirmed by a vigorously nodding, happy Teddy opposite me.
The traditional Shorshe Ilish (Mustard Hilsa) was sublime, with the right hit of mustard and green chilly, and Teddy’s ultimate favourite Daab Chingri (Prawns Cooked inside a Tender Coconut) was deliciously divine! There were platefuls of Jhuri Aloo Bhaja (Crisp Fried Finely Sliced Potato) and Begoon Bhaja (Deep Fried Brinjal Roundels) to complement the traditional Cholar Dal and aromatic ‘Gobindo Bhog’ Rice. As I poked a plump Radha Bollobhi (Puri stuffed with Moong), the Chef placed a tasting bowl in front of us… the painstaking delicacy called Mochar Ghonto (Minced Banana Flower), which has been many a new Bengali bride’s undoing – legend has it that a test of true cooking skills of a new, blushing bride would be how fine (Mihi) she could chop the Banana Flower with a ‘Boti’, a unique and frankly scary kitchen cutter that pre-dates the knife by hundreds of years!
Steering firmly clear of memories of my own not-very-happening tryst with the said Boti, I jumped straight into the desserts – a freshly-made Nolen Gur Icecream with a drizzle of liquid jaggery that’s just pure ecstasy, followed by some creamy Chhanar Payesh (Cottage Cheese Dumplings in thick, sweet flavoured milk), and the very essence of a Bong – a pot of Mishti Doi!
As a last bow, the Chef walked in with two shot glasses of a suspicious, green liquid. And until we picked it up gingerly and quaffed it down, we had no idea that it was liquid Paan! What a stylish, clever and uncommon way of serving the country’s most common digestive!
That last experience with the Paan shots is what pretty much sums up 25 Parganas. The pricing maybe at par with 5–star hotels, but the food is surprisingly non-5 star, rising above the ordinary and deliciously fulfilling. It’s like going back to a renovated and refurbished home – the walls may have changed colours, the furniture may have been spruced up and the kitchen may look swanky with an induction and chimney hood. But the food that comes out of it is still what Mom cooks, and the house still has that same unmistakable and familiar aroma of home…