| The interiors of Marco Polo; (above) the Continental spread. Pictures by Rashbehari Das
A chef's lament can be as heart-rending as an artist's, as he watches in horror while some freak accident ruins a masterpiece in the making.
Over the years, during conversations with these gentlemen who work their art in the kitchen to tantalise our tastebuds, one has heard some hair-raising tales. Like the one about the customer who asked for roasted poppadum and chopped onions and proceeded to garnish his spaghetti Bolognese with these.
On the one about the brat who doused his Thai prawn curry with ketchup. Or the family that ordered jacket potatoes stuffed with a delicate blend of herbs, cheese sauce and mushrooms, meant to be eaten in halves, but asked for them to be cut into eighths so they could eat them like cocktail snacks, with their kebabs!
It can sometimes be a hard life. You work away at your calling, you fall in love with the subtleties of a particular cuisine, you try and keep it as authentic as possible, but every now and then someone fails to appreciate the effort.
The other day I visited a place where I was pleasantly surprised by the menu selection as well as the effort that has been made to produce the genuine articles. It is not a new place ' about four and a half years old ' and I had passed by it many times; it is called Marco Polo and that suggests Italian and other cuisine from neighbouring countries, which is basically what it is, except that they do North Indian as well.
There are selections from Italy, Spain and Greece, and further east like Lebanon and Turkey. It is an imaginative selection; the same team of people has been together from the start ' which always makes a difference ' and in the last couple of years, I can't think of more than two or three other Continental meals (for want of a better word) that have been as enjoyable. Speaking for myself, of course.
I walked in and for starters I asked for Champinones al'Ajillo, a Spanish dish made with fresh button mushrooms. The mushrooms are first washed in white vinegar and flour (this apparently preserves their colour) and then in plain water. Olive oil is heated and just before it can begin to smoke, chopped onions are thrown in, followed by chopped garlic (lots of it) and chopped celery. These are tossed together, and then the mushrooms (which have been quartered) are added, and cooked on a high flame to seal in their flavour and juice and then some red chilli flakes are added, followed by red wine and seasoning. The dish is garnished with chopped spring onions.
A really healthy and tasty starter, the mushrooms tight and juicy, not wilted, their earthy, dusky flavour intact.
Next up was Sopa de Mariscos, a clear seafood soup. Here again, olive oil is the medium. This is heated and then strips of julienne vegetables (celery, leek, carrot and bell peppers of all colours), chopped garlic and very thinly sliced onions are sauteed first and well-tossed before the seafood ' bekti, silver pomfret, crab and prawn ' is added. After cooking these together for a while, thyme and oregano are added and then fish stock and white wine. The soup cooks till the ingredients are done and it is seasoned, and finished with saffron.
Sopa de Mariscos is done Venetian style, and is served with garlic toast, which is a simple enough item but in most places is quite forgettable. At Marco Polo, it is crunchy and fresh, the edges singed the way I like it, and they form an ideal accompaniment.
The main course was Pithakia, a Greek dish of roasted rack of lamb ' a portion of the rib section of a lamb. At Marco Polo, they serve a portion containing four ribs. The meat is marinated in a little mustard, white wine, salt, white pepper, oregano, chopped garlic and olive oil. It is left for about two hours at room temperature, and then grilled to seal in its flavours and juices and kept aside.
In a pot, a gravy is made by sauteeing sliced onions in olive oil and then adding whole garlic, celery, leek, tomatoes, red wine and oregano. The meat is added along with stock, the pot is covered and the dish simmers for about an hour and a half. Again the meat is removed, the gravy strained and reduced and the two are amalgamated once more and the dish is served with roasted potatoes and vegetables and a separate portion of the gravy, like a sauce.
There was no room for dessert, though looking around me it was clear that their Tutti Frutti (can any Calcutta Continental outlet leave this out') was a hot favourite as a finale for most guests, whatever cuisine they had dined on.
I went back in the evening to meet the chef, and while I took notes I sampled the Prawn Cocktail. And here I must say that I feel it rates among the best in the city ' thick, with generous doses of prawn. The glass, though, was a bit shallow; the deeper the glass, the more it will hold.
They have a good selection of pasta, poultry, fish and shellfish as well, including bekti poached in wine and Prawn Neuburg.
Years ago, this stretch of Lansdowne (Sarat Bose) Road ' Marco Polo is at no. 205 ' was traversed by me between two and four times a day on my way back and forth from the bus stop on my way to and from school. It was a sleepy, residential area with a few small shops and a bank or two. Who would have thought that one day there would be a place with a tasteful, upmarket ambience, serving Moussaka, Carbonara and Fish Mornay'