Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Queue up for the Kebabs

A recent lunch at The Astor Hotel revived a few good memories and reinstated my faith in the "good old". My earliest memory of dining at the heritage property with its bright brick-red facade and pristine white windows, dates back to the early 90s. I must have been 5, or 6 at the most, at the time. I had accompanied my parents, their friends Sonali aunty, Tutu Mashi for me, and Sudipto Uncle, and their son Rahul, to dinner. 

My parents had met Sudipto Uncle and Tutu Mashi on their trip to Puri, way back in 1983 and the four became the best of friends. At the time my parents had been only married a few months, and Sudipto Uncle and Tutu Mashi were in Puri for their short honeymoon. They chanced upon each other a couple of times, on the bus, in the restaurant, one the beach at sunset, they finally struck on conversation and have been friends ever since. Incidentally, my Ma and Tutu Mashi share the same name, Sonali. Anyway a few years later Tutu Mashi and Sudipto Uncle moved to Australia with their one-year-old son Rahul, I was born a few months after, but on their bi-yearly visits to India we have had great times together. 
         Coming back to that dinner two decades ago, I was served a bowl of soup, cream of chicken I believe, my staple dine-out dish those days, and a soft bread roll. Rahul had the same thing in front of him and he didn't seem to mind. I had decided I won't marry him anyway, like his mother suggested, so it didn't matter. But my eyes were on the platters of juicy kebabs the elders were feasting on. Earlier in the evening, my father had raved about the kebabs at The Astor incessantly. I was restless. Rahul ate quietly. Finally when I thought no one was looking I grabbed a kebab off a plate. My mother let out an awkward laugh, grabbed my greasy fingers clutching the kebab tight, and I knew I was  in for trouble. And yes I  was.  Somebody really got hurt that night! 
      So, on my recent visit to The Astor Hotel's Indian Specialty restaurant Kebab-e-que, when delightful platters of the Murgh Burra Kebab and Fish Lahsuni Kebab came to my table, I couldn't help the flashbacks. The old-world charm that the place still preserves only added to the nostalgic trip. To a Calcuttan, Astor's Kebabs are legendary. And my recent experience only confirmed that it is no myth, not an empty legend,  that The Astor does serve some of the best kebabs in town. 

      I was at Kebab-e-Que to sample their everyday lunch buffet and while the buffet offered quite a  variety, an eclectic mix really, of Indian classics, the kebabs definitely stole the show. On the buffet were kebabs like the Murgh Burra Kebab,and the rather uncommon Prunes kebab - chunky bits of prunes tossed into a mash of carrots, potatoes and peas, spiced subtly, shaped into seekh kebabs, then lightly grilled. The mushy texture of the kebabs with the sweet and tangy surprise that were the prunes make it a delightful choice for vegetarians. 
       I was a little skeptical about the Burra Kebab though; for me a Burra Kebab is synonymous with mutton and I have had some good Burra Kebab in my time. So chicken.....I wondered why, I wondered how. But this one didn't disappoint - gorgeously spiced chunks of chicken on bone, grilled on the charcoal for that melt-in-your-mouth goodness. I savoured it with some mint and coriander chutney and sweet mango chutney, a rather wicked combination I tell you, the heat, the tang, the sweetness -- its salsa in your mouth.  

          But what blew my socks off, was the Fish Lahsuni Kebab. The hotel's Marketing and Communication Manager Supreeta Singh, a dear friend too, who had in fact invited me to sample the food, had it specially ordered, though it was not on the day's menu. And I am glad she did.  Now I love garlic and anything garlicky. But that isn't why I have this soft spot for this Lahsuni goodness. Tender pieces of fresh fish subtly flavoured with garlic (garlic can be overpowering and an overdose ruins a dish), dripping with juices, which flake perfectly cannot not win your heart. I have had fish kebabs at places that are quite the in-joints and yet the fish has been stringy, over-cooked...that isn't the best way to eat fish, not for me. But here were chunks of fresh, juicy fish, fragrant and seasoned just right, that flaked perfectly -- with a dash of lime it made for delightful bites. The Mutton Seekh Kebabs we had ordered for were ok, nothing out of the ordinary. 
    As for the buffet, there were a few dishes I was delighted with and few that didn't inspire or excite me.On the menu that day, they change the menu every day, there was Dahi Ka Shorba, followed by a selection of salads, of which I quite liked the simple chicken and pine-apple salad, especially because I have a soft spot for the combination. The shorba was spiced with let's say poise, but for me it left a slightly bitter after taste I wasn't particularly fond of. The Aloo parantha was good though, soft and not too greasy, and the stuffing was evenly spread unlike the ones which have stuffing concentrated around the rim. I was surprised by the Bhaja Mooong Dal though. It was absolutely dry, perfectly cooked but there was no trace of any liquid..It was like fried moong dal only softer and with the Ghee laced rice and crisp fried potatoes it made for the ultimate comfort food. 
The typical Bengali-style Mustard fish, Shorshe Machh, boneless chucks of fish grilled in a spicy marinade and cooked in a lovely pungent mustard sauce, delivered a punch but the Murgh Tikka Masala was quite a let down. It wasn't seasoned to my liking and the spices failed to trump up a flavour explosion in my mouth, like a Tikka Masala should do, ideally. Besides, I prefer my Tikka Masala bone-free. The home-style mutton curry earned points solely owing to the tenderness of the meat. It easily fell off the bone. The curry was tasty but nothing unusual, not that it aspired to be, the curry in fact remained true to it's name - light on the palate, just like a mutton curry made on a summery Sunday in your own kitchen should be.  The kind we have with a squeeze of lime and mounds of rice. 
          The dessert selection comprised Swiss Rolls, Caramel Custard and the usual ice cream.And while the Swiss Roll was impressive, the caramel custard failed to impress. I take my caramel custard very seriously, but this one time I didn't brood over my disappointment for long, after all it had been a good meal. 

Pocket Pinch: The Buffet is pried at Rs 450 plus taxes 
When : Everyday, of course. 
Where: Kebab e Que, The Astor Hotel
15, Shakespeare Sarani, Kolkata 

Recommended for their awesome selection of Kebabs. 

Photograph courtesy The Astor Hotel

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