| (From top) The south Indian spread at India Gate; the Ganesh Chandra Avenue restaurant; the bar that gets busy after sundown. Pictures by Rashbehari Das
There are not enough places in the city where one can get good south Indian non-vegetarian food. Of course, the scenario has improved in the last few years with the opening of Tamarind and Spice of Life (where you get the coastal cuisine of the south) and a few places, not mainly south Indian, have introduced items in their menus from this cuisine.
Prior to this, there were only one or two very small places ' one in Park Circus and one on Lake Road ' where Kerala-style non-vegetarian items could be found.
South Indian vegetarian restaurants, where you get breakfast or tea-time items ' idli, dosa, vada ' as well as delicious thali meals, abound in the city, and like good Gujarati or Rajasthani vegetarian places, a meal there can transport you so that you won't miss fish or meat, even if you are a dedicated omnivore like myself, but that is not the point. It's that the wealth of fish, meat or seafood preparations of the south is not represented well enough.
When a friend told me about a place where some of these items were available, I had to give it a try. It's called India Gate (69, Ganesh Chandra Avenue, diagonally opposite Hind cinema) and a sudden decision on a Sunday afternoon found me there, perusing the menu. The appams had been recommended, and I found them under South Indian Specialities ' Appam with Vegetable Stew ' but it took me a while to locate Chicken Chettinad and Mutton Pepper Fry because these were actually tucked away along with the north Indian curries.
So for starters there was Mysore Onion Pakora, followed by Vegetable Stew and Chicken Chettinad, with appam. A man can only eat what he can eat, so the Mutton Pepper Fry was packed, to be taken home. The appams were thin and crisp at the edges and soft and thick at their centres, retaining the shape of the wok in which they were made, the best I've had so far. Full marks (in my personal opinion) for the Vegetable Stew and the Chicken as well. Satisfied and feeling benevolent, I returned home for a Sunday afternoon nap.
I would gladly return to India Gate repeatedly for these dishes, but actually they were culled out of a huge menu, with innumerable tandoori, north Indian and Chinese ' even a few Continental ' dishes.
A typical central Calcutta 'office para' menu, with something for everyone. Chicken 65, Vegetable Au Gratin, Tomato Soup, Saag Gosht, Kadhai Paneer, Fried Rice, Chilli Chicken, it's all there. Easily over 200 options. And another feature typical of 'office para' ' with your drinks, you get a couple of bhujia-type mixtures, but also that stroke of genius from whoever invented it first ' raw ginger juliennes.
Meanwhile, I had gathered that by night India Gate has another personality, because there is live entertainment. Having slept off the excesses of the afternoon, I was back there at about 10 pm to check out the band. I also wanted to express my compliments to the chef, and ask him for recipes.
Things were in full swing. The place was packed, mainly a male clientele ('office para', remember, where these restaurants act as watering holes on the way home from work), with Julie at the mike, captivating, very poised and dignified in flowing silk sari. There were four other singers who took turns at the mike ' Gautam Jain, Imran Akhtar, Megha and Gouri.
Keyboards were played alternately by Sanka and Manna, on guitar was Chhoton, Babul played dholak and congos and Somnath played octopads. They regaled us the whole evening with film songs from Bollywood, mainly the older, haunting melodies. Gautam did a moving rendition of Nafrat ki duniya chhod ke khush rehna from Haathi Mera Saathi and Julie obliged with my request ' Mere naina ' while Imran showed his skill with the songs of Mohammad Rafi.
Occasionally a guest would get carried away and dance a few measures but nothing got out of hand and the age-old custom in our country of expressing appreciation by sending money to the performers was much in evidence, but there was not a hint of sleaze anywhere. I am told that in central Calcutta there are many bars with live bands and singers and some of these places are not the best choice for an evening with your in-laws, but India Gate is not such a place.
My host, Bull Banthiya, who set up India Gate after years in the textile trade, is proud to say that many families are regular visitors in the evenings.
Last thing on the way home was to talk to the chef. He showed me the special, heavy iron wok with a tight-fitting lid in which the appams are made. Lid and wok are pre-heated so that when the ground rice, toddy, coconut milk, water, salt, sugar and sweet soda mixture is spread in the wok and covered, the moisture generated is drawn in by the heated metal, allowing the appams to emerge crisp.
The Vegetable Stew is made by sauteeing whole masalas (cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorn), chopped onions, curry leaves, ginger and green chillies and the vegetables (carrots, peas, beans, potatoes and cauliflower) in coconut oil. Water is then added and when the vegetables are nearly cooked, coconut milk and a little cornflour are added.
For Chicken Chettinad, a combination of nine spices including star anise, aniseed, cumin and garam masalas is sauteed in oil with grated coconut, curry leaves and garlic and this is made into a paste. Then chopped onions, tomatoes, curry leaves, ginger-garlic paste are stir fried in oil, the chicken is added and when almost done, the first paste made is added to finish.
Mutton Pepper Fry is made by boiling the mutton till half done with turmeric and salt. Chopped onions, tomatoes, curry leaves, ginger-garlic paste, red chilli powder and coriander powder are stir fried, the mutton is added and ground pepper, garam masala powder and cumin powder are sprinkled on top to finish the dish.
Quite a Sunday. Good food and live music. Almost took me to the days when Rohit, Vinod and Amrik Singh sang on Park Street.