Where BengalÂ's on a roll

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  • Published 29.03.06
The interiors of Babu, the Bengali restaurant at Manhattan opened under the Kathi Roll Company banner; (below) Payal Saha, the Loreto House, Calcutta, girl.
Pictures by Anil Bathwa

It all started with a cart. She wanted a cart, just like the one serving egg-chicken rolls on the corner of your street. Except the street was miles away from Calcutta. It was in Manhattan that this story started.

Not one to be discouraged by the 20-year wait for a street-cart license in New York City, one balmy summer evening in 2002, Payal Saha, a determined woman from Loreto House, Calcutta, opened the Kathi Roll Company, instead. Helping her in the restaurant was just one other woman ? her Tibetan cleaning lady.

Today, her first restaurant is one of the most popular ones in New York’s bustling West Village. And she is also introducing the world to The Bengali Roll with the opening of a second eatery in mid-town Manhattan, just round the corner from Times Square.

Payal Saha, 32, moved to New York from Mumbai in 2000 with husband Anil Bathwal, creative director of an advertising agency. Not wanting a nine-to-five job, or, a return to an ad-filmmaking career like the one she had in India, she took an instinctive decision to do something new.

“I thought Kathi roll will work in a city like this ? it is cheap, it is fast and I love the product. I think roll is great food and it doesn’t need too much inventory; you need like five things to make it,” says she.

Daughter of a retired Loreto College professor and fish-exporter father, with no training in the restaurant business, Payal took a leap of faith. Self-funding the project with help from her husband and drawing clever correlation to a recognisable food item, the American Wrap, she soon found an eager clientele.

Anil designed his wife’s restaurants in his own signature style. With original 60s and 70s Hindi film posters lining the walls of the two restaurants, Kathi Roll Company now attracts a diverse customer base, ranging from the hungry desi student to the American corporate banker looking for a fast, quick bite. The Kathi Roll Company has been featured in most New York press, with the popular Time Out terming the food as “the loveliest wrap since the pashmina”!

And that’s where this story took a turn. Having introduced New York to Calcutta’s quintessential street food, Payal wanted to do more. “I used to think that representation of Indian food in the US is totally north Indian, and that is a shame because our country has so much more. I wanted to introduce regional cuisine and with Calcutta food being so diverse I thought it might work.”

So, she opened Babu, a 40-seater restaurant last year, a Bengali restaurant in Manhattan.

Here soft jazz music welcomes you, tasteful mood lighting entices you, and as you try to decide if the red Merlot or the white Chardonnay wine will go better with the Dab Chingri, the kanshar plates all the way from the bylanes of Kalighat transport you to another time and space.

While many Indian restaurants serve the huge Indian diaspora in America, for the most part they offer no more than Dal Makhani, Butter Chicken or Masala Dosa.

Babu therefore stands out. Xaverian Sushmit Daniels, brought in from Calcutta, is the head chef offering a wide, eclectic selection that includes traditional Bengali along with Mughlai, Chinese, Anglo-Indian and Tibetan food ? a little of everything from Calcutta.

With three restaurants in less than four years, Payal today employs nearly 30, many of them Bangladeshis.

“I love the fact that I live so many miles from home and can conduct my working life in Bengali, that is very comforting to me,” she smiles.

So what’s next? Plans of opening Kathi Roll Company in New Jersey, Boston, California and London and a wish to use the ever-increasing popularity of the brand not just to expand the business but also to further a social cause.

And, of course, introducing New Yorkers to Lau Chhokla Bhaja and Kakra.