For a long time, Park Street was the only place in the city where there were posh restaurants, even though, all of them served a very similar colonial cuisine. Other than a couple of Chinese restaurants, all the others had the same European dishes and almost similar North Indian dishes adorning their menu. After the success of Bhojohari Manna, there was an explosion of small and medium tier Bengali restaurants all across the city. For years, the only cuisines which worked were Chinese, Mughlai and Bengali along with a few North Indian restaurants. The city was deprived of any innovation or exploration in terms of food. However, things did change in the last 5 years or so. Suddenly the ‘cafe’ concept caught on, then came the hookah joints followed by the pubs. Today, almost every lane and by lane of the city has one hookah joint or a cafe. The pubs are there too, however being a late entrant; it is still in its nascent stage. While all this sounds very promising and positive, the reality is completely different.

As a part of my job for being a city critic for a table reservation portal, I had to and still have to, on a regular basis, critique the food at various restaurants, cafes and pubs. During the last one year, I have witnessed the cafe culture of Kolkata. While the numbers may have increased exponentially, the quality of the food remains a question.

There was a time when I went to a hookah bar/ cafe almost twice or thrice a week. At every single place (without any exaggeration), I asked the waiter for a suggestion for their ‘best’ appetiser and the answer was the same at every place- ‘crispy chili babycorn, ma’am!’

Deep fried baby corn in a batter and tossed in Chinese sauces, crispy chili babycorn seems to have overtaken the city’s ‘fish finger’ with a vengeance. Not much can be done here since most of the new cafes or hookah joints are vegetarian only. Well, other than the babycorn, you will get cheese stuffed mushroom, loaded nachos and kit kat shakes. All of them have lasagne made with heavy tomato sauce and too floury béchamel sauce (of course made with vegetables).The cafes which are non vegetarian would do a chicken lasagne made the same way. Not to forget the pasta in ‘pink sauce’. It was the Americans, who had in their love for ketchup, popularised the use of ketchup with heavy cream along with vodka and Italian herbs in pasta and called it a Vodka sauce. The original Rose sauce is also known as Marie Rose Sauce and is a typical British sauce used in shrimp cocktails and is a blend of tomatoes, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and pepper.

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chef Sagar and his team at Bodega offers something different all the time

The cafes which are non vegetarian are not doing any better. Even they have heavily sauced chilli chicken and hakka noodles, chicken stroganoff, fish finger and beer battered fish fry. So, where is the innovation? There are perhaps, a handful of cafes and restaurants which are serving up quality food with love and care. There are innovations too but it’s rare. In recent times, I have simply loved the food at The Grid. Even they do some of the usual stuff but most of their dishes are local delicacies from various regions across the country and the world. It is food in a simple form and made with a lot of care. The simple grilled fish at The Grid is elevated with the lemon butter sauce and spiked with chili flakes. Same goes for Mamagoto, where there is the usual Thai food or the South East Asian street food but its value for money good street food and the taste of every dish is lipsmacking. Try the Bali Bamee noodles or the gyozas, they take you straight to the streets of Thailand. Bodega Cantina Y Bar may not have adhered to the rule of large portions while in this city. However, a few of their dishes are simply fit for the gods. Thei innovations in tacos are simply outstanding. Recently I had this Baja fish taco which was a part of their anniversary menu. This one had fish crumbed in oats and then baked instead of fried. But what set it apart was the addition of salsa made with sweet mangoes and boom! every bite had layers of taste and texture in the mouth. Protein Bistro- a small time cafe in the corner of Vivekananda Park, is doing excellent stuff with their food. Each dish on the menu gives the count of proteins and the quality of the ingredients used is top class. Everyone offers bacon wrapped prawns but these guys do a fantastic job with perfectly cooked and seasoned prawns.

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Bhindi Bazar chicken tikka is a starter offered at The Grid . Image – The Grid

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The Grid crispies with condiments . Image – the Grid

Sometimes, I feel that one need not innovate. Our country has so many regions with such varied cuisines; there is no harm in exploring the regional cuisines. I love the idea of modern representation of regional food at We.Desi. Calcutta Stories was bold enough to start a restaurant with migrant cuisines of Kolkata. While a few of the cuisines does not sit well with my palate, dishes like pork boti kebab and Bandel cheese kebab are profoundly insatiable. Gabbar’s Bar and Kitchen and SpiceKlub are also doing gastronomic innovations in regional Indian cuisines. My favourite regional cuisine restaurant remains The Coastal Macha and after numerous visits, they seem to rock. Every time I have the mutton ghee roast with an egg appam or a prawn sukka, I start calculating my next visit.

So, despite all the negativity, there is actually hope for the city. To all the restaurateurs or planning to be one – The city is ready for innovation. The city is open to change.

Next time you visit a new cafe or a hookah bar ask whats the fast moving item, ask whats the best dish – let me know the answer