Thursday, April 23, 2009

Democratic Dinning : Parliament House Canteen

Democratic dining has many facets. In the largest democracy, what better place to find dining options, other than the burrow of democracy,The Indian Parliament House.Inspired by the Café and restaurants in Westminister in London. The parliament House has set up several restaurants and cafes in the premises in New Delhi, astride the Raisina Hill within the Parliament House complex.

Inspired by , watching telecasts of "Yes Minister" on Doordarshan in the 80s and repeat telecasts afterwards. I had to go, to the canteen that served our Ministers and Members of Parliament. I tracked a friend, Chandrashekhar, working with the Loksabha Tv, and invited ourselves for lunch on a hot summer afternoon in April 09. He was apologetic that he could not arrange passes for me and Shantanu (my lunch partner) for the sanctum sanctortum, the Pariament House where the MP dine during the parliamentary sessions. Besides, security, now after the terrorist attack , a few years ago, is very very tight. We park in the adjacent Rakab Ganj Gurudwara and proceed.
There are three Canteens or Restaurants, one in the Library complex, one in the Annexe (Secretariat complex) and the one I have already mentioned in the centre of the Parliament House.

We enter, frisked thoroughly , we get a pass with a mobile (though offices of Reliance and Honda have more stringent checks with a digital photo taken and printed on the entry pass). We walk in the Library complex, which also has a parliament museum. Its a great set of buildings made in sandstone, air-conditioned, with staues in thick bronze of Rabindranath Tagore. Its very clean with thick wooden doors, almost looks like a UN office.

We enter the Cafeteria, high ceiling dome, chaos, its lunch hour and Dinesh Kumar at the cash counter for pre- paid bills and coupons is doing the job of perhaps 8 counters in Mc Donald’s . Its chaotic but he is efficient. Our host orders conservatively (we have to re-order). We have two plates of chicken curry, one plate of mutton curry (ummm, nice), Channa, Matar Paneer , 10 rotis and two plates of rice, (phew), a bottle of mineral water and three sweet lime juices all for handsome amount of Rs140/-

Firstly, our host is taken aback with our appetite, he is a vegetarian and pecks on his food, secondly, the mutton carry is amazing, old world railway mutton curry taste (rest is passable), thirdly, the prices are amazing and lastly we are served in crested crockery with the emblem of the round parliament house.
The prices are subsidized to the level of Rs5 crores a year by the funds of the speaker / parliamentary affairs ministry (and these funds are not auditable) which in turn are allotted from the central exchequer which is raised from the taxes. So, I subsidized my own lunch in a round - about fashion.

On the scale of, Salesman’s guide for eating out, it more than qualified, a sit down meal for three for Rs 140/- is a steal (though the benchmark is rs 100/- each). The service is sloppy. The siphoning off, of free food is immense. Overall , an interesting experience. I am told the parliament house consumes 200 kg of chicken a day , with all the pilferages, it looks like a well fled place (that’s when the parliament is not in session).
There are several cafes and kiosk’s run by the Tea Board and Coffee board apart from the three restaurants run by the Railways, which serve hot beverages and sandwiches.It may be good idea to try and go in the non prime hours perhaps for tea and try the exotic sounding tea menu of mutton cutlets, omelets and fish orly.Let me know, we can go, when you are upto it.

Parting shot
While the rest of the nation battles with rising prices of their chosen basket goods and empty wallets in the beginning of the month, our MP's enjoy subsidized dining (prices were increased once 1985 and then in 2003) and do their horse trading after the elections in the 5 star hotels. It feels great to get a subsidized meal out the same MP's Canteen.
When was the first restaurant set up in the House of Commons in the Great Britain ?
So Long!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Recession Drinking and Dining: Press Clubs Unlimited

I have spent seven and half years with Print (Newspapers and Magazines) and nine years with Television. I was told Print is all about dressing down that is La Rive Gauche or the left bank in Paris (southern bank of the river Seine). It was the home of artists, writers and philosophers (Pablo Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway) you get the drift and guys in television were called the suits, tight crocheted pants, uncomfortable shoes and suits (with Discovery Channel being an exception).

This post is more about the lifestyle of Print and TV executives and more about the dining or eating out options. I have lived both the lives, high street dining options as Discovery Channel and a Star TV Executive ( Lunch at TKs at The Hyatt Delhi, which was our Canteen (sic) in the wonder years of Television and long dinners at The Oberoi Mumbai and lunch at The Great Wall at The Leela. While in Print as profession you meet so many different people and the foodies also talk about economy. Though, I was spoilt silly by the Directors Lunch room at The Times of India at Mumbai. The real print wallahs do proudly go to the great Institution and watering hole the Press club.

Honestly, my stay with Print has not been entirely, a slum dog existence, I have had good gourmet exposures. However the last 4 years , I have devoted, largely to a slum dog gastronomic expose of eating out and sometime drinking out in under Rs 100/- ( local exotica as a part of my Salesman’s Guide to eating out).

Print is quite honestly for the romantics… quite like the Left Bank. While TV is for the hard nosed businessmen with scant regard to the old world charm. My return to the proverbial press club is like going back to to the charming caress of an old mistress who I first met in 1993.
This is a Four Act Play……. About the Four Press clubs I have visited some frequently, like Mumbai and some infrequently, New Delhi, Chandigarh and Kolkatta.

Act One, 1993, New Delhi Press Club:

Nandu Manjeshwar (Response Editor a dubious designation, which meant editor at large for the advertising department, wrote what the advertisers would like the Times of India to write).In his largesse of heart and in happy mood with weeks of badgering, he took me and Anirban for a Saturday lunch treat or was it Friday. After Gins and Lime with fish fingers and during lunch of Keema and Peas with Rotis and another curry I forget, he raised his head philosophically and said, the pen is mightier than the sword. He was an erstwhile Colonel, who now wrote articles for a living. The expression still reverberates, did he mean the perks of the Press club (the grand meal and drinks costed under Rs 150/- then).
Me: But, Colonel how could the pen be mightier than the sword, when you Nandu Manjeshwar have been used to the prices in the Officers mess, even today the price for lunch and drinks hover around the price with the abdaars and Koi Hai ! In attendance.

Act One and Half, Cut to the present April 8, 2009:

Three of us, Vivek (lovingly called Dev D)Sandeep G again lovingly called Chaudhari saab and yours truly walked into the grey portal of the Delhi Press Club mentioned a name of a friend from Lok Sabha Tv. We are in ordering around, nobody takes us seriously, we give a Tip (to. ensure .prompt. service) and we are the jungle vips, suddenly waiters are handing over to next guy, as the shift is over and we stupendous service. We order pints of beer and peanuts, there is no menu, we see around, Veg Cutlets- yes, pakoras-yes, paneer bondas-yes-yes and vegetable salad chat, yes-yes-yes. The beer is cold we have 8 pints among three of us and the bill for everything is Rs 421/- Tips not included. Great fun especially in these times, besides its fashionable to be left bank.

Act Two Mumbai Press Club, Circa 2005
This long stay at Mumbai as forced bachelor with empty evenings with the company of Vikrant (the project manager), Shobhan (editor saab), Amblish (finance exec) and yours truly (all working with Times of India), needed a place to hangout. The summer beer promotion at Café Royale at the Regal circle was getting to be expensive as an everyday affair, hence. The choice was a seedy bar called Lalit or the press club.

The first few times, a few drinks (whisky/rum/vodka), snacks (dal masala, pakoras, anda pakodas0 and good homely food of chappati, bharta, kadi pakoda, dal subzi, anda bhujia and the four would rake bill of Rs 800/- all tips included for the four of us. We loved. We hung around there forever, even on weekends, saw films of great classic directors, sipped whisky. Qawali on a weekend, drank Grovers wine, an absolute evening of decadence could not drive our bill to more than Rs400/- a piece. I even took a friend from Manhattan and had a long afternoon of umpteen beer and snacks for the four of us total bill Rs 800/- Cheers to the Press Corps.

Act Three, Press Club, Chandigarh 2006

It’s a little bit of a haze, Mohit Sharma, my college at Hindustan Times and very supportive friend asks me, you are taking the team for drinks and dinner, do you have any money or do we stop at an ATM. Why ? They do not accept credit cards. Cool, we 12 of us drink like fish and eat and how. As I said it was a haze, we ordered everything on the menu. Yes the bill about Rs 2000/- in cash.

Act Four, Press Club, Kolkatta 2008
Manjeet Narwan the Business Head of HT and Rajiv Bagchi , Dada the editor, and I had done some mindless drinking at Chotta Bristol (pl refer previous post in July 2008). We walk in, the General Secretary of the Press Club, a HT staffer lays out the red carpet, food starts appearing, egg pakodas, fried fish, peter scot whisky, more kinds of fish and shammi kababs, we add to the drunken stupor. More people fresh from office join in. We step out in the backyard overlooking the maidan and smoke silly. All this is courtesy, HT gang my erstwhile employer. The print friendships run deep. People are very gracious hosts, not ostentatious they but do it with sobriety.

Left bank, you see.

So whats with, the Press clubs, how come they are so affordable, who subsidizes the quality, barring Chandigarh all my experiences have been excellent. I have met the most quaint characters with the most differentiated dressing, a man with a bushy and white side locks, a corner with Malayalees with bushy haired pony tails, guys with the most unusual stories that are perhaps unprintable. You meet the most quaint people in the Press clubs.

Viva to this unique Institution. Great for these recessionary times. You should know member, even better if you know the membership know. Or resort to tipping the Durban and the waiters handsomely and they will vie for your attention, pretty much what we did in Mumbai. Cheers to democracy, I do hope the Press Clubs outlive the Print Medium. Great fresh food , good service and very affordable drinks.

Parting Short !
When were the Press Clubs in Mumbai and Kolkatta set up ?
Do you have press club Story ?
So Long !