Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Steakhouse, Jor Bagh Delhi : Lee Chongs Grocery Store, Cannery Row

Speaking to a colleague today, i.e post Christmas, I realised, how well marketed is Christmas is, it has a brand mnemonic, cuisine, Santa, gifts, involves children. It fuels a sagging economy. Everyone gets a gift. In India its normal in a household with school going children to decorate Christmas trees, sing carols, get gifts from Santa, buy marshmallows, Christmas pudding, Mince pies. As a contrast, Lohri a north Indian winter festival involves, rural population of Punjab, punjabi couples (newly married) and families in their first year of marriage (first Lohri). Rewri makers and wood cutters and sellers benefit. That's it.

This not about Christmas or Lohri this is about an afternoon, at a store in Jorbagh,(two days before Christamas and how it is similar to a store in John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row and in that, Lee Chong's store(Lee Chong's Heavenly Flower Store).

Steak House : Jor Bagh Delhi

Located at the sanctum sanctorum of the New Delhi's Old rich District. In the tiny and full of character Jorbagh market. This was my fourth or fifth shopping visit ( incidentally I have been billed twice, in excess). The blue blooded Dilliwallah doesn't care or check their bills. The store was set up on 12-12-1963. A break away from Khub Chand and Sons ( a famous store in CP in the 60's, however the piggery by the name Khub Chand and Bros survives). The one act play that follows has the following characters:

The Lady (shopping for bacon and ham, spectacles, fair and professor like giving- free advice)
The Daughter (from the mother and daughter separate bill duo)
The Mother (from the mother and Daughter separate bill duo)
Bikram (the overweight food show host)
Cheese buyer (gives advise on buying cheese, specs blue round neck sweater)

Parthasarthi (bureaucrat shopping on way home from abroad asks for some credit to pay for Christmas pudding from the establishment)
Kuldip Shenker (the owner of the establishment)
Vir Singh (billing, been with establishment for 42 years)
Two uninterested and demotivating store attendants call them Thapa 1 Thapa 2 (largely responsible for uncourteous behaviour)

I had gone to the store for our Christmas food shopping waiting to be served in a brown skin and brown clothes. I was giving Wengers the pass this year and was ready for a more gastronomically interesting Christmas, this year. On the list was cheese (a Pondicherry Gouda), Ham, Sausages, Rum soaked raisin Cake, Christmas pudding and if possible a cured leg of ham.As you enter the store you get an unexplainable smell a blend of stale air, cured meats, matured cheese , yeast and groceries rolled into one.

Started with buying Cheese and overheard the The lady and The Daughter go.... If it wasn't for their ham and bacon I would never come here. The Daughter: The Le Marche at Select City Walk by Sugar and Spice cuts out great slivers of ham, great for sandwiches. The Lady : Sugar and Spice sucks. I added, no, there some great cold cuts stocked at their Khan Market outlet. The Lady: Oh shucks I was just there. Under their breath The staff here is so unhelpful and impolite.

At the cheese counter, I look, I hear, The Daughter tastes smoked Gouda I try and choose the smoked gouda and pepper gouda. I talk about the Flanders's Mozzarella, The Cheese Buyer, says Flanders has a shop at Meher Chand Market In Lodhi Colony and by the way Amul's Mozzarella is the best. He buys his cheese and leaves.

I spot a Bikram an Unknown Food show host,who I had seen on TV,he had been to the Santa Village at Lapland and had covered a restaurant and Spa which offered a meal, unlimited food and Spa @ Euro 300 ! Steep ! We get talking, he asks what are you buying, we discuss my quest for the perfect sausage, he says Calcutta, I ask, in Delhi, He says Pigpo Breakfast Sausage a few Shops away, deep down I don't agree as I have tried it, my quest still continues.

Meanwhile, The Mother says out, aloud, a recipe for Pork Chops (she is getting them dressed, like she is buying and then deciding on the recipe). Bikram suggests, marinate in salt and pepper half cook, smear apple sauce and roast. Kuldip Shenker (the owner), dishes out the right foriegn "expensive"brand of apple sauce bottles and the sale is made.

Me: Desperately looking for Christmas Cake Or pudding I am offered Indian Palco which I can buy from my Anda Breadwallah, or expensive imported cake at Rs 1100/- a pound. Finally I chat up with the establishment he dishes out Mrs Walia'sStuff, ( a relative of the Mrs Bhicoo Manekshaw who runs Basil and Thyme , who I ran into at this store once before i.e Bhicoo), from under the counter. Its the Christmas puddings packed in a steel container. I ask for one.

Parthasarthi: (the bureaucrat) who is buying Ritter Choclates overhears and begs for one as well. We both get one each. Parthasarthi discusses the exotic way his wife will steam and flambe it. However , he is short of some Indian currency and asks for credit as he is coming from abroad (no credit card ? in this day and age ??)

We all patiently wait to be billed, first The cheese buyer who see buys and leaves, Bikram (buys expensive Cheddar, baked beans and some other stuff), the lady, Parthasarthi, Me, The Daughter and The Mother with separate bills and I then move out. It was more than a visit to a store it was like a congregation of foodies, at the local shrine.

This was a slice of life from an afternoon at Steakhouse, so different from the proletariat and pedestrian places I hang out at. As a part of the experiences for a Salesman's guide to eating out under Rs 100/-. This was so different and so detached. I felt like the rich old Delhi Boxwallah albeit, for a little while, raised me from my middle age and middle class existance.

So why the name Of Lee Chang's Grocery in the title of my post. You need to read the Cannery Row by John Steinbeck to see the similarity in the two stores. The cult attraction, the conversation. the late evening hangout, the exchange of recipes and everything in between.

Chong's Grocery in Cannery Row By John Steinbeck

Lee Chong's is the first location we are introduced to in the novel, the hub of commerce in Cannery Row. Lee Chong's store is truly a "general store" in which you could buy, "clothes, food both fresh and canned, liquor, tobacco, fishing equipment, machinery, boats, cordage, caps, pork chops. You could buy at Lee Chong's a pair of slippers, a silk kimono, a quarter pint of whiskey and a cigar. You could work out combinations to fit almost any mood." Almost everyone in the area owes money to Lee Chong, but he is generous with his debtors because he has found they will usually pay him back rather than make the long trek to the next nearest store over in New Monterey. Its also said what you cant get at Lee Chongs Heavenly Flower Grocery you can at Dora's.

Unfortunately, there isn't a Dora's at Jorbagh.

The parting shot.

Today is Boxers or Boxing Day : Why is it called That ?

What the estimated price of Christmas pudding for a pound and two pounds at your favourite outlet ?

So Long !

I know a lot of you are reading, please do leave a comment its quite easy. Love and wishing you all a Happy new year. 2009 will be fine.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kwality and Gaylord:The First Family of Restaurateurs (Restaurant wallahs)

It all began with ice cream. The British had a settlement in whats now Palika Bazaar and Iqbal Singh Ghai and Purshottam Lal Lamba started making hand churned Ice Cream, sold at the Regal building in Delhi. This was in Circa 1939 . In 1942 an American dropped in and tipped them to keep their business open after the late night show at Regal. This changed their fortune and friendship grew into family and Lamba married Ghai's sister and then what, they got into the restaurant business and started Gaylord. The "G" from Ghai and "L" from Lord. Thank goodness they did not call it Lordgay. But, those were innocent times and gay in the 40's in Delhi was an unknown word (in the current context). Though some historians feel Lord Krishna was termed as Gaylord in the indian context in an innocent way gay meaning happy.

PL Lamba started the Kwality resturant (misspelt as a marketing gimmick that Absolut vodka would follow 4o years later). I think Lamba meant Quality in the Punjabi way. Then came the partition of India and Pakistan and lots of family came and settled in various parts of India, there was a Kwality every where started in Bombay, Calcutta and at my last count there was or had been a Kwality in Mumbai, Kolkatta, Bangalore, Amritsar, Chennai, Nagpur, Chennai, Chandigarh, Patiala,Jamshedpur,Kanpur, Pune, Dehradun, Nagpur, Baroda,Goa, Agra, Mysore, Lucknow, Udaipur, Dalhousie , Vizag and some others I could not trace. All had some family linkage, brother, uncle cousin, son in law, old employee and so on. To the extent my friend and senior blogger Sandip Ghose tells me (he was in HUL, then HLL) that they had to buy the Kwality brand many times over as there was so many other claimants after the deal was done.

Meanwhile Gaylord made inroads abroad, 1946 to 1957, there was a Gaylord Indian Restaurant in Delhi, Bombay, London, Japan, Chicago New York. These were more stylised restaurants with a continental food experience, with a live band and an esoteric feel of a european fine dining experience. While Kwality stuck to the North Indian cuisine and popularised and immortalised the humble channa bhatura (the Pindi channa, a recipe of a halwai who came in from Rawalpindi and Lamba met in 1948 on a vacation at Mussorie). The dish is still a show stopper at Kwality, Delhi and in all their catering do's.

The story of Jay and Veeru progressed (Lamba and Ghai) expanded their footprint Kwality into Kwality Ice Cream amd the mantle from Pl Lamba was taken over by his astute son Sunil Lamba. Who further, expanded to Kwality catering besides expanding the footprint to 49 restaurants. Mean while the sons of Iqbal Ghai (Ravi and Sanjeev) were busy with Gaylord restaurants abroad, The Natraj hotel on Marine Drive (1960-1999)(which is now The Intercontinenal at the Marine Drive in Mumbai). It had the legendary RG's discotheque named after Ravi Ghai. They even started the Gaylord Ice cream with Yankee Doodle Ice cream parlours (though they now hold the Baskin Robbins franchise in India). Now have expanded to Mayfair Banqueting and Hot Breads.

So what was it that drove these men to develop brands which like the Moti Mahal which are faked in most cities in the world from Vegas to Kobe, from San Francisco to Sacramento, London to Birmingham there is Gaylord or even a Kwality everywhere in the world Krishan Kripalani has made a huge business out of Gaylord restaurants in the whole of North America without paying a cent in franchise fees to the Original owners. We think they had a tremendous vision to involve friends family and employees to set up businesses across India and across the world. Perhaps the only mistake of not registering the brand worldwide (there were hardly any systems to monitor it).

Kwality had a simple model make and sell Ice cream (a dream with cream) , and open restaurants with family for families to dine in.When Sunil Lamba came to handle the helm of affairs, his big ticket was at the Asiad Village in 1982. He opened a series of restaurants in the complex, Angeethi (frontier cuisine), Ankur (Indian Cuisine), Chopsticks (chinese cuisine), Tonic the bar amd another American fastfood restaurant, the name I forget. Which has been taken up further by his son Dhruv Lamba starting , Kwality express and Chopsticks express in Malls and Hospitals and Breads and More all over. Kwality also caters at the Delhi Gymkhana Club.

My experiences, began as a child at the Kwality restaurant at Vizag (aka Visakhapatnam), where the owner Mr Johar would call his waiters as Samosa, Bhatura and me and my brother Sanjiv found that very funny and even do so now. While my wife Praveen while growing up in Patiala and Chandigarh, had many fine dining experiences to share about Kwality.As we grew and met we had visited several Kwality and a few Gaylords all over India (like adding dot pins to the map of India).
So quite like a Sher -e -Punjab Dhaba there was a Kwality everywhere.Who can forget their first Choc bar, or the Mango Duet, the Choconut and the even now, prevalent, Kassatta (much copied but never the same)

Niloufer Billimoria my then boss at Times of India at Mumbai, many years ago perhaps in 1993 took us to the Gaylord (at Church Gate, Mumbai) and ordered a hearty meal of Waldorf Salad, Baked Alaska, Chicken Strogonoff and ended it with an ice-cream and she ordered coffee. As a dining experience we have had better experiences at Gaylord than at the Kwality which is largely remembered for the exhorbitantly priced Channa Bhatura and perhaps the butter chicken.

Add Image

I tip my hat to these extraordinary gentlemen i.e Ghai and Lamba who taught most of India how to use cutlery a serviette and the table cloth made of Damask and offered a fine dining experience and fairly good and sometimes great food at an affordable price for the middle and upper middle class India. In a recent Big fat Kapoor wedding a few weeks ago I savoured the Fish Orly and fat Kakori Kababs, the Biryani, Taar Meat and of course the Channa Bhatura. Impeccable.

Request anyone to give the current and exact price of :
A) Channa and Bhatura's at Kwality Delhi (as they are priced seprately) ?
B) The Price of the Kassatta ice cream (Kwality Walls) Currently ?

So Long !

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

St Stephens Cafe : Then and Now

I did not go to St Stephens college to study. However, like the children of a lesser God. I have visited the Cafe, (as it was and is called instead of the commonly called canteen) several times. The last I must have visited would have have been in circa 1985. When I was studying at KMC (lovingly called Karl Marx College, which was fashionable then and perhaps again with fall of capitalism).

I visited The Cafe at St Stephens college today with a colleague Shantanu. It was like shaking hands with an old friend, like the smell of a place I have been before. I was a little lost in the maze of corridors as we entered from the western side. The students and visiting students had distinct differentiators in the looks and clothing department. The students, gentlemen, wore, sweaters, sweatshirts, jeans (unwashed), floaters, slippers sandals and a sling bag, with an emphasis on mufflers and long scarves. Pretty much what they wore in the winter in my salad days (23 years ago). And the ladies very pretty much dressed in the same shaggy look as the unwashed men. The fashion for both gentlemen and ladies, is to flaunt their intellect and not their looks. They are the shishyas (disciples) of Amitav Ghosh,Upmanyu Chaterjee, Alan Sealy and Khushwant Singh.

We walked in through a large hall with rattan chairs painted yellow, read the menu on the notice board and calibrated my memory 23 winters ago. Its uncanny as we sat down, the old waiter "Bhaiyan" or Jadunath emerged from the kitchen and said, mince and scrambled, I said yes, with toast. This was exactly my or our standard order then (they offer it to the veterans I suppose). We absorb the atmosphere, a few foreign (White Caucasian) students with a Kinley water bottle on the table. Mahesh Rangarajan, the psephologist and political analyst immersed in finishing his Veg lunch plate of rajma and rice. More shaggy sweaters and mufflers. Some getting their order of chicken curry and rice. We get talking with Mr Varma, the college employee and manager of the Cafe. It's managed by the college and the hostel mess. No contractors here. Bhaiyyan brings in our order. Its two scrambled eggs each, three toasts each, two mince cutlets each and a nimbupani. All of this costs Rs 97/- for the two of us. Much below my Rs 100/- mark (for the Salesman's guide to eating out- Local exotica). This would have cost about under Rs 20/- in 1985.Its quite a large plate and helping.

The taste was just as I had left it 23 years ago, the brilliance in the mince and the quality of the nimbu pani. The mince was a potato cutlet with a keema embryo, nice. The toast and butter, as toast and butter is supposed to be. The scrambled egg had all the shortcomings it had even then, onions can never cook with the eggs and tomatoes, so you have crunchy onions, with a gooey, egg and tomatoes with a strong eggy smell, almost like a parsi home in the morning. And no, ketchup to dowse it. They served a feedble mint and tamarind chutney masquerading as a sauce. Listen how much can you talk and mince words and over analyse, a mere Rs 97/- lunch. However there is no price tag for these memories revisited.

When did the Stephens cafe slip in the lunch plate veg as well as non veg plate is something I forgot to ask. I would urge the more knowladgeable Stephanians and other children of a lesser God like me (visitors and guests to the cafe) to enlighten us. Well today i.e , December 03, 2008 the non veg plate was, chicken curry and rice at Rs 30/- and the veg plate rajma and rice was Rs 20/-. At seeing the punjabisation of the menu was almost like paradise lost. But, what the hell everything else was pretty much the same. The same waiters, Jadunath has been their since 1976, the rattan chairs have been there since I visited last. And more importantly the original menu of scrambled and mince was absolutely the same at the cost of repeating myself.

Filled to the gills we stepped out to the tea and nimbu pani stall in the memory of the two miles (3.2 km ) onSundays, so called cross country open to all students and ended here with free nimbu pani and a samosa. We had one each,what the heck.
Now for the parting questions,
Who is the owner of the Nimbu pani and Samosa stall, name please ?
Can someone also please tell when did the cross country stop and why ?

So Long !