Wednesday, January 04, 2006

An Ode to Cafe de Paris

About seven years back I first heard the name Café de Paris, my husband often mentioned it whenever I asked him where he had had lunch. This place seemed to be a favorite hang out during the various sales calls he used to make in the Dalhousie area and I often heard him singing praises of the pudding he ate there. The name brought visions of the cafes one sees in Paris while walking along Champs Elysees; of course I knew that what I visualized was quite far fetched for a busy street on Dalhousie.

Though I was curious and always very eager to explore all kinds of eating joints, Café de Paris was forgotten in the midst of the daily din of existence. Then one fine morning we made a decision to move to a city with greater opportunities and better careers and the first step in doing so was to go and purchase railway tickets from Koilaghata. It quite slipped our minds that we could have purchased tickets from Ballygunj station as well which was quite close but anyway we had made the journey at almost crack of dawn to secure a position in the already snake like queue, after standing for two long hours without any food and water we did manage to get our tickets to a brighter future. In a buoyant mood we walked towards the bus stand to catch a bus back home, however we could not ignore our rumbling stomachs so we stopped right in front of Café de Paris!

All my visions and pre conceived notions crashed, it resembled a hole in the wall, and two broken steps led into a dark room with soiled brown walls, marble topped wooden tables – eight of them in all with four chairs per table. Most were in a state of extreme disrepair. At the entrance there was a cash counter with a rather sleepy looking gentleman and above him was a huge portrait of the founder (freshly garlanded) of the place who was long dead and gone. My husband informed me that this portly gentleman of the portrait was my Mother in law’s uncle. Well maybe that is why he patronized the place!

My husband was in his element, he knew the waiters by their first names and he seemed to know the menu by heart as well – I don’t remember seeing a menu card though, all items available were usually rattled off by the waiter attending the table. So the order was given with much fanfare, one kobiraji (chicken breast cutlet coated with egg whites and deep fried), one moglai porota (dough stuffed with egg and meat mixture and deep fried), one chicken afghani (I cannot describe this one!) and one pudding and a few buttered toasts. My husband insisted that this was a feast fit for kings while I waited with my many reservations, snootily turning my nose at every other thing.

The food arrived promptly served on chipped plates and slightly bent knives and forks and I started digging in with trepidation but the moment I put the first bite inside my mouth I was transported to heaven, all that I ate was equally wonderful and I couldn’t quite decide what I liked best. My husband had this ‘I told you so’ look on his face which I ignored completely. Later after boarding the bus I grudgingly admitted that it was the best food I had ever eaten.

In my mind, Café de Paris truly symbolized the beginning of the good times and when we returned to Kolkata (as it is spelt now) we did always go back and savor the taste of success and tipped the waiters handsomely who were suitably shocked by the amounts. This year when we planned our itinerary, Café de Paris had its rightful place on it and we were to stop after we visited the zoo (which again is a must do activity till the children reach the age of 10). We took a taxi from the zoo to Dalhousie peering out of the window so that we don’t miss our ‘hole in the wall’! We peered hard but even my husband’s trained eye could not locate it so he crossed the street, searched in vain and finally asked a shoe shine man about its whereabouts. We were informed that the place had shut down in late 2004 and now the shop was to be some hardware store or some such thing.

Seeing our woebegone faces the shoe shiner kindly suggested that there are other such eating joints just round the corner but we were not really listening. With heavy hearts we walked back dejectedly to our taxi and went home hungry. It was an end of an era – this restaurant (if it could be called that) had been around since World War II and fed innumerable hungry people on the move for almost 60 years. Perhaps this place was too weak to handle the great winds of change blowing across and perished but I do hope the loyal will pass the place and remember that here I once sat and enjoyed every bit I ate.

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