Usually a bit bleary-eyed when I go through the newspapers first thing in the morning, I had to rub them in disbelief when I saw a piece in Metro last Friday saying that Sky Room, the jewel in the crown of Park Street's restaurants for over three decades, was going to reopen in just over a year.
After a run of 36 years, Sky Room closed its doors on December 29, 1993. An important chapter in dining out on excellent Continental cuisine came to an end. It is not that they had an exclusive menu; all the established Calcutta favourites, which were already available at a number of places, and still are, were what they offered. But there was a close-to-universal unanimity about their excellence, and even owners of other restaurants I have talked to have acknowledged that they were a cut above.
What was the secret' About nine years ago I spent a few hours with a gentleman who was closely associated with Sky Room and he told me that insistence on the best raw materials and ingredients, constant supervision in the kitchen and the use of generous amounts of even the expensive ingredients played a major part in maintaining the quality of the food.
For example, only the smaller, tender, country-raised chickens (the desi ones), and the eggs of these birds, were allowed into the kitchen. All the items involving mayonnaise or any other sauces with egg yolk were made only with the rich, red or bright orange yolks of these eggs. Fresh cream was ordered in daily and wherever a recipe called for butter, either as a cooking medium or an ingredient, it was used lavishly ' dollops of it.
Probably their most celebrated item was the Prawn Cocktail, which did not involve butter, and was basically prawns, mayonnaise, cream, tomato ketchup, lemon juice, salt, pepper and a dash of Tobasco sauce, and was so consistently good and full-bodied, with substantial pieces of prawn coming up with every spoonful right to the bottom of the tall glass, that it is hardly surprising that it was flown in freezers regularly to Delhi to grace the dining table of Mrs Indira Gandhi.
My friend Mr Rajan Bali, a man of many parts including being a food and travel writer and also a man of the world whose taste and aesthetics I have a healthy respect for, also mentioned the Prawn Cocktail first up. But he also mentioned many other things which were not really exotic or esoteric.
'They did so well with the simple things,' he said. 'Their soups, for example. Cream of Chicken, or Cream of Mushroom. In so many places they will use a weak stock, which gives you a pain in the stomach. Not so at Sky Room. Genuine chicken stock, and their soups were rich and creamy made using traditional methods and keeping the traditional, full-bodied taste in mind. Your tongue would smile first, and then your stomach!'
Bali also recalled with pleasure their bakes and grills, the desserts (they pioneered Calcutta's much-loved Black Forest cake), the friendly service and relaxed atmosphere with the clientele having grown into something of a large, happy and well-fed family.
'Good dining experiences with Continental fare could be had elsewhere as well,' he said. 'There was The Oberoi Grand and Great Eastern, with the plus points of entertainment and bar licenses. But the atmosphere was a bit snooty, where as at Sky Room you could just focus, like everybody else present, on a relaxed, hearty meal which never disappointed except perhaps towards the end.'
That was a point to ponder. Located on Park Street, where right till the early Eighties this restaurant was surrounded by places where quality entertainment and alcohol were available, you still never got a place unless you booked a table in advance. And it was more expensive than other places as well, though not unreasonably so.
Once, shortly after receiving my confirmation letter in my job as a sub-editor for a newspaper, to celebrate, my lady friend and I went to Sky Room for diner, booking first, of course.
We had the works. Prawn Cocktail, of course, a warm Dinner Roll with pats of butter. Then Cream of Asparagus and Cream of Tomato Soup (the latter served with crisp, crunchy croutons). The main courses that day were Baked Bekti in a tomato-based sauce and Chateaubriand Steak with Mushroom Sauce (a sublime affair). The accompaniments that went with these dishes ' vegetables like peas, beans and carrots lightly boiled and then glazed by tossing them in butter, or mashed potatoes, were as inviting as the main items.
For dessert there was Baked Alaska and Black Forest Pudding. We were there till almost closing time and then wandered out into the balmy September evening, thoroughly satisfied and my friend hopefully suitably impressed. Browsing through the bookstalls, we meandered our way to Chowringhee.
'Nice evening for a bus ride,' I said, my resources on the ebb, as a new, bright red double decker bus on Route No 3 (Shyambazar to Kidderpore) rolled up, looking quite empty. We managed to board it, and found a seat, right opposite the steward who had looked after us all evening!
Sky Room is slated to reopen next year. It will be a tall task to meet up to the expectations of so many of us.
Will there be the Whole Spring Chicken stuffed with a mixture of noodles, mushrooms, almonds, raisins, chopped chicken liver and cocktail sausages' Or Pork Chops split open, stuffed with a similar mixture and then egg-and-crumbed and fried' Or Chicken a la Kiev, with butter spurting out as you pierced it with a fork' And will they get calls from New York or Manchester, to keep a table ready'