The Telegraph
Saturday , October 6 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Every boat was at ready on the evening of the 17th (September) at Raichak on Ganges, where Sonar Tori, inspired by Tagore’s eternal poem, waited for a special guest. Post-sunset, there were the chugging barges, the country boats plying the now cadet-grey river, and the clustered “installation” of noukas, poised stylishly at the epicurean Bengali creation — Sonar Tori.

The guest of honour was the first citizen of Bengal, governor M.K. Narayanan, accompanied by wife Padmini, who performed a beyond-traditional inauguration with vermillion-filled vats and oil diyas, as they entered the portals of the rough-hewn but regal museum-cum-restaurant — Sonar Tori.

Standing before Sonar Tori, what you see is the clay exterior of a massive hut structure, complete with thatched roof. The person who ideated this is a wacky man of vision, Harsh Neotia, whose creations are all spaces infused with a huge sense of creativity, combined with a dignified contemporaniety. His justification for the design concept of Sonar Tori? Conserving “nature and culture”. The creators he has chosen but are not present that evening? Channa Daswatte, the Sri Lankan architect who retained the pristine feel of a Bengali village, and artist Narayan Sinha, whose nostalgic collectibles dot every part of the myriad rooms in a preservation and exhibition of heritage.

Grace and style and gourmandising spelt the rest of the evening. As Harsh and his wife Madhu, a hostess with amazing attention to detail and a winsome charm, led the guests through their initial exploration, each one was indulging in a serendipity, an almost childlike wonder at finding something from the past.

But I must set speed to introduce the glister of guests. We are at a bar, with high billiard chairs in the drinks area, and the guests seat themselves at tables where the tops are from slatted wooden windows, the chairs classic, but discarded Burma teak, an iron safe as a side table, a Murphy radio and the walls dotted with memorabilia — Hexymentus pastille boxes, Ross Lander pocket compasses, fan regulators, irons and teapots in metal. And plenty of pictorial peeks into the past in mini-framed splendour, including pages from Thakurmar Jhuli and Bharatvarsha.

The first couple are completely at ease with new people, being so disarmingly candid and so full of anecdotal joie de vivre. While Padmini Narayanan, now known to a lot of people as “Ammu”, takes a keen interest in the large group, trading her own experiences with theirs, the Governor’s trademark brand of wry humour adds a special frisson to the evening. At the Governor’s table, jeweller Raj Mahtani boldly begs him to trade “spy stories”.

Governor M.K. Narayanan with Shobhaa De, wife Padmini and Madhu Neotia

At the other table, superstar Shobhaa De, in a slinky black gown, regales a group with her anecdotes, where there is couturist Anamika Khanna, in her own red creation, Hi Blitz editor Shalini Sharma, who has twirled the strands of jasmine round her neck like a chunky art piece, choreographer and dancer Tanusree Shankar, in a beautiful Phulia white and red sari, artist Chittrovanu Mazumdar, adding his quiet but imposing presence, Shobhaa’s daughter Anindita, Subhra and Jayabrato Chatterjee.

It’s time for our epicurean adventure, but not before we wend our way to the private dining room, where haal khatas leap up at you from inside the long table, and to the Shisha Room, decadently beautiful, paan daans strewn around, Kalighat images painted into the vaulted ceiling. The inverted metal jug chandelier dominates the dining room, and as you look up, it is Tagoreana all the way, from his poetry and his sketches etched above, and the melodic Rabindrasangeet infused into it all. Have I dawdled too much before getting to the food? But after all, haven’t the gawking and the talking served as an appetiser?

As bell metal thalas gleam in greeting, with a sliver of Gandharaj lemon, a single red chilli and a wedge of onion, three types of achaars and the pre-arrangement with the mashed “bhatey-aloo, kumro, musur dal, ole, burnt posto, we know we have a long, long way to go. We are served red husk-flecked dhenki-bhanga rice spooned over with homemade ghee. The small-grained steaming Gobindobhog rice comes in next, with which we have an arahar dal pitti with dumplings, and saag with bora, gaanth kochu bhaja, thankuni paata bhaja and kochur loti with chhola, as the non-vegetarians get their loyyta maacher jhuri bhaja and kochu saag with shrimps. Before we set out on the longer journey of zamindari fare, we still have to contend with radhaballabi and aloo dum with peas.

Governor M.K. Narayanan with Shobhaa De, wife Padmini and Madhu Neotia

The platters change to large stoneware, as we set forth on another round. We are barely done with this lot when we eye the veg fare of mochar pulao, begun basanti, jhinge aloo posto, mochar narkol paturi and potoler dorma, as we are served four different kinds of fish. A tasty and tender chitol muitha, a subtle bhapa ilish, a moist bhetki paturi and a succulent chingri malai curry.

There’s more yet. The chitta ruti, which the Governor remarks is something like their stringhoppers, and the classic kochi mangshor jhol with potatoes. The veg get an equally delicious palak-chhanar kofta. Any favourites Mrs Narayanan? “The concept of the peasant fare with its simplicity and easily digestible quality.”

And the winner — the delicate mochar pulao. Hark! You cannot end yet. The palate must be cleansed with aloo bukhara chutney. Sweet endings with Jorda rabri, taaler kheer, shorbhaja and mihidana. Oh, and Oprah note — the super-celeb guests love using their fingers to eat. No other way to taste and savour this exquisite Bengali fare.

How, you might ask, will the rest of us get to experience all this? And what will it cost? A large menu awaits, with a huge set of permutations and combinations. Divided into three sections — the Peasant, the Zamindari and the Musalmaan, taken from a concept created by Sabyasachi Mukherjee at an earlier Gourmet Retreat. At Rs 800 plus taxes, you can have five vegetarian and two non-vegetarian items from the triple-palate menus, along with all the accompaniments.

The eating’s just one part of it. The exploration of times past can drive you to nostalgic distraction. Drive to it, then.