|(From top) Baan Thai, the facade of The Grand, and Junction Bar. Pictures by Rashbehari Das
The story of The Oberoi Grand hotel is like a cameo of the last century or so of the history of Calcutta itself. It has seen the boom and the slump, two World Wars, the transition from the days of the Raj to the heady days of early Independence, several transformations, facelifts and mutations, and has proven itself to be a tenacious survivor, emerging triumphant and looking ahead at bright and scintillating times as a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.
Its origins go back to an avatar of being Mrs Monte’s Boarding House at 13, Chowringhee and then it passed into the hands of Arathoon Stephen, an American who became a real-estate baron, and under his ownership, it eventually expanded into a three-storey, 500-room hotel, with an expansive verandah overlooking Chowringhee and beyond it, the Maidan.
In 1938, it was taken over by Mohan Singh Oberoi, and shortly after, during World War II, it saw a complete turnaround when an estimated 4,000 soldiers were billeted in this gracious property, partying hard and long and raucously.
Back again to graciousness, elegance and top-class entertainment in post-Independence days at the hotel’s nightclubs Prince’s and Scherezade ' and the home, during winter especially, of princely guests from royal families across the country.
So what if Delhi had long been the capital of the country, Calcutta was the capital of class.
I first set foot in The Oberoi Grand in 1967, when Calcutta still had that particular smell about it, again especially in winter. Prince’s and Scherezade were still very much there, Park Street was at the height of its glory, and if the entertainment at the Grand ' still top class ' was old-world, on Park Street it was more trendy, with Trincas, the Mecca of what were called the ‘Beat’ groups, owned by Ellis Joshua, who started as a waiter of kitchen order tickets at the Grand in the early 40s, and rose to become manager, before moving on to Trincas.
The reason for my early visits to the Grand had nothing to do with food or entertainment. My friend John Brinnand lived there. His family, like other families before them, were permanent residents of the hotel and occupied two suites there for 17 years.
John was a student of North Point school in Darjeeling and spent three months every winter in Calcutta. I visited him at the hotel almost every day, and remember winter afternoons on a terrace-verandah with him and his brother Mike, having target practice with air rifles. Was it the same verandah built during the days of Arathoon Stephen'
In late 1968, John, myself and four others formed a band and started playing at Trincas. His family’s 17-year sojourn at the Grand had ended by then and they lived just off Park Street, so we were still in the heady atmosphere of what only Calcutta could offer. Through the early 70s, we returned to the hotel as musicians, to play in the cavernous ballroom and even after John left, I performed at The Grand many times over the years, at events like somehow-organised beat contests-cum-fashion shows, navigated deftly by that famous master of ceremonies Ken Stuart, to grand and formal events like the US Marine Ball.
And then in 1997, for the first time as a food writer, when Baan Thai was opened, which is the precise capacity in which I am writing now. If you take their two main food outlets ' La Terrasse and Baan Thai, there is absolutely no doubt that they are a leading hotel. The lunch buffet at La Terrasse, which is a combination of Continental and Indian food, is excellent. All five-star hotel buffets will offer you soups, salads, breads and cheeses, main courses and desserts. But what was impressive was the quality in the selection, taste and imagination.
At a La Terrasse lunch recently, we started with a salad tossed by the chef at site, and then a soup. On offer that day, was Cream of Spinach and Shrimp in Miso broth. I chose the latter. Miso is a Japanese ingredient, a paste made with fermented soya beans, and this is used to flavour the sea food stock in which the shrimps are cooked. It is used in delicate measure and this soup goes well with garlic bread.
Next up was the main course ' Chicken Breast stuffed with Feta Cheese and Olives. These are pan-fried, and the pan in which they are fried is deglazed with red wine, and this forms the very light sauce in which the chicken breasts are in their service dish. The soft and crumbly ewe’s milk cheese combined with olives gives it its Mediterranean character.
I also tried another main course item ' Prawns in Dill Cream, which as the name says is a creamy white sauce seasoned with dill in which the prawns are cooked. With dishes such as these, where the sauces are so individual in character, I never waste and always mop the entire plate with bread.
And then dessert ' home-made Litchi Ice-Cream. La Terrasse also has a new a'la-carte menu with a well-selected choice of international and Indian cuisine which was launched on July 1.
Even more recently, a lunch at Baan Thai which I am reasonably sure is the only speciality restaurant of its kind in the country. They have maintained standards well; frequently modifying their menu to keep it interesting.
When one eats at Baan Thai, it becomes clear why Thai cuisine, with its use of lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk, galangal, plum sauce, peanuts and other such ingredients, has such a distinct character among Oriental cuisines.
Dishes to strongly recommend here are chicken pieces marinated and steamed in pandana leaves and then deep fried (Kai Hor Bai Toey) which is a starter. Tom Kha Koong ' a mild soup of prawns and coconut milk flavoured with lemon grass and galangal ' is the best Thai soup I have tasted in recent times. Their green curry with chicken coconut milk and pen aubergines is among the best and another item I liked that day was Pla Kapong Samosasa (crisp-fried bekti in a spicy sweet and sour sauce) which goes well with rice noodles.
On Sundays, La Terrasse offers a special brunch buffet and any evening of the week you can drop in at the Chowringhee Bar to chill out with a sundowner and a game of pool.