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City-centre taste bud tickler to dish out new-age clones

Amitabh Bachchan lunched here five days a week much before he became the Big B. Raj Kapoor and his entire Jagte Raho unit gorged on the trademark brain masala and rogan josh after a hard day’s shoot. The food for Indira Gandhi used to be served from this kitchen whenever she was in town. From Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi to Kapil Dev Nikhanj, all have savoured its celebrated chicken reshmi butter masala and fish masala kebab.

For 44 mouth-watering years, Amber restaurant has been tickling the taste buds of the famous and the not-so-famous from its 11, Waterloo Street outlet in the heart of the city. And basking in the simmering glow of the taste brand it has created. Now, with trimmer and trendier competition sprouting up all around town, Calcutta’s favourite north Indian restaurant is ready to reinvent and reach out.

“We are looking at one more Amber within the next year and at least three more in the next two years. More than 40 new eating houses opening up in the past 18 months in the city is a wake-up call for the trade and no one can afford to stagnate any more,” observes owner S.K. Khullar who, along with elder brother, late Rajpal Khullar, had launched Amber in 1959.

A chaotic traffic scenario, a perennial parking problem and lots of options closer home have combined to trigger a steady decline in fine-dining traffic in recent years, admits Khullar, immediate past president of the Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI).

While there has been a drastic (30-35 per cent) erosion in the lunch crowd, evening footfall is also showing signs of a slowdown. “We can’t realistically expect people to come all the way to central Calcutta braving the mad traffic,” he says.

The answer — spread out in the form of smaller eateries with spartan yet elegant décor and a trained and compact workforce; stick to the tried and tasted Amber signature of northern cuisine by operating out of a centralised kitchen.

The first “new-age” Amber — a 125 to 150-seater restaurant with banqueting facility for around 150 and spread across 3,000 to 4,000 sq ft — will open its doors next year “south of Park Street”.

“Dated concepts and laid-back work culture must be phased out. Some of our staff have been with us for more than 40 years and we can hardly expect new inputs from them,” observes Khullar. He feels the 300-strong workforce at the 400-cover Waterloo Street Amber is “extremely unwieldy” in these trying times. “For a 125-seater place, a 60-odd staff strength is enough. Overheads must be manageable,” the 69-year-old restaurateur points out.

After reaching out to south Calcutta with “one or two outlets”, Amber has plans to take its tandoor delicacies to Salt Lake and also to “a more viable locale” in central Calcutta. “At the FHRAI catering institute coming up in Greater Noida, we are introducing a specialised two-year course for restaurant staff. We would like to replicate the same concept at the Calcutta institute once it comes up,” he says.

Amber has started laying greater stress on outdoor catering in recent months. “We are also catering to Bengali wedding receptions with a mix of north Indian and traditional Bengali dishes. Outdoor catering now constitutes over 20 per cent of our total turnover,” says Sanjay Khullar, director of the restaurant, echoing his father’s views — think fresh or perish.

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