Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Return of the Icons

So, here I am - with the second instalment of iconic food joints across the country.
There was a mild frisson of controversy over the first instalment (read it here) as the venerable JAP pointed out Mocambo had much better food than Peter Cat and a senior colleague was quite distressed that Gajalee hadn't featured. Well, of course these two (and many others) serve out-of-the-world food but the point about icons is that they are not (necessarily) about food.
It is about the legend.
In an untraceable blend of history, society and serendipity, these places have become part of the folklore of the city they are located in. So, even a person who's never been to Calcutta will say "I have heard that Shiraz ka biriyani is too good. My co-brother was saying..."
Which brings us to the first name in this list.

Calcutta - Shiraz
A not-so-glitzy shop at the edge of the glitzy Park Street is known as The Golden Restaurant. The adjective probably refers to the golden hue of the rice and potato (Yes! Calcutta biriyanis have potatoes) that arrives in perfect heap on a gleaming white porcelain dish. The chicken biriyani would have one end of the chicken bone sticking out of the rice (to distinguish it from the mutton version, which is a plain heap of rice).
I have never seen the biriyani remain on that dish for more than 9 minutes. Be it the democratic open area in the ground floor or the AC section on the mezzanine, people just jump the biriyani the moment it arrives.
Of course, the rest of their fare is magical too. They have a sort-of-multi-layer-sweetish paratha (which is not really a lachha paratha) that - when served with their Chicken Chnaap - is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
While writing this post, I realised that I have never had kababs from Shiraz. I have gone through three-and-half decades of my life having tasted only 4 or 5 items of their menu!

Bangalore - MTR
This is one place I was totally unimpressed by. When I was in Bangalore, I could not voice my opinion in the fear of being lynched (or being mistaken for a donkey and sacrificed!). But I am completely convinced about its status as a Bangalore icon.
Its unobtrusive facade. The stern guy at the billing desk. The (waiting) coupon which always seems to have a number in excess of 400. And the queue seems to go on till the end of the universe. Even before you get a glimpse of their overloaded stainless steel thalis, MTR imposes its legend upon you.
Their serving style is old-style Bangalore - suffused with a confident lethargy. They know you'll wait. They also know the wait will be worth it. So, they stop of sniff the flowers before they let you sniff the sambhar! For people like me - used to inhale full plates of biriyani in 7 minutes - this art is lost on me but that is clearly my loss.

Bombay - Bade Miyan
This is clearly the one Bombay institution which divides the city right down the middle. Some people think it is over-hyped rubbish while others swear it is manna, dropped straight off carnivorous heaven. Without taking sides, I can safely say that any food that ignites such debate is an icon.
All my brushes with Bade Miyan came immediately after a longish booze session at Gokul (which could well be an icon itself) next door. After finishing the liquor that is served rapidly and cheaply, the steps are a little unsteady when you come out but the hunger is beating a steady rhythm. It is in this state that everybody approaches Bade Miyan. Be it the cheap rum at Gokul or the swish wine at Indigo, this small nondescript shop is the purveyor of protein in a sea of alcohol. And thanks to the inflammable nature of the liquid, Bade Miyan is never short of flying fists around it.
A food joint where fights happen regularly. If that is not an icon, what is?
While on the subject of violence and carnivores, read this post (and the comments with it).

Hyderabad - Chutneys
This is where Chiranjeevi comes for breakfast.
What? You are not convinced it is an icon. You Rajini fans, I tell you...
Located at the triveni sangam of Banjara Hills, Jubilee Hills and Punjagutta, Chutney's is just another restaurant serving dosas, idlis, uttapams and pesarattus to hungry souls. But their Baba Hotel Idli - oh god! Or their MLA Pesarattu... don't ask me why it is so named. I just thought its because it is as thick-skinned and oily as a MLA!
Like Swagath in Delhi tries to do a Chinese gig to increase menu pages, Chutney's also thulps in some North Indian delicacies. But I don't think they ever get any orders of those as people just jump on to the 70 mm Dosa and all is well with the world.

Delhi - The Big Chill
The wait. The massive menu. The four pages of desserts. The walls jam-packed with Hollywood posters.And the blueberry cheese cake.
The Big Chill serves a mixed menu that draws laughter from critics when it wins prizes for Best Italian at food awards but that's because that's the best category they fit in. Otherwise, what prize can you give them. Best Place To Take Girlfriend On First Date award? Or Desserts That Blow Your Mind, Diet and Wallet Award? In a strange inversion of the demand-supply laws, Big Chill seems to increase demand in Delhi as it increases supply. Every outlet they have opened in Delhi have got jam-packed within 17 minutes of opening the shutters. There are many places in Delhi that serve better Italian food and are quite reasonable too. But nobody packs it in like BC. And that's an iconic queue!
BTW, have you ever been to Big Chill and got to sit straight away? Yes? Hi Rahul. Hi Priyanka.
Picture courtesy: Delhi Photo Diary

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