It is a Sunday afternoon in Calcutta. This being August the weather is lovely, and anyone who knows me or Calcutta knows that there can be no better place than Park Street to idle away your Sunday afternoon. The IT job does not provide much by the way of physical activity and the thought that I have been eating out way too much never does sit comfortably in the mind. Besides, the Sunday afternoon mutton kosha is making its presence felt in the stomach. So, Park Street it has to be. We are not particularly hungry. Plus, we should not be eating so much. A café it is then. But which one?
I may be the biggest sucker for everything Calcutta but I will be the first one to admit that Calcutta does not have too many nice cafés. Not as many as it should. I do not say this in comparison to other Indian cities, no way, but compared to some of the European cities that are, how do I put it less offensively, umm, enlightened like us. Yes, we have the Coffee Houses which I love – one at College Street, one at Chandni Chowk and one at Jadavpur. We have cabins from the olden days. I have been frequenting them recently. I plan to write about them soon. But those are from long back and it saddens me to think that there has been no enthusiasm to open new cafés in the City. Barista is good. But the fact that they are so uniform and lacking in character makes it hard for me to think of them as a part of the City’s cultural fabric. Walk into a Barista (or Good-sense forbid, a Cafe Coffee Day) and you could be anywhere. I understand that this ambience is an intended effect for a franchisee-based coffee shop. However, I do not like that.
So, it was with some excitement that I had been following the City’s food scene from my pit down in Madras and I read about a couple of good cafés that had come up. If you have not been thrown off the track by my pointless ramblings, you, reader, will remember that we are at Park Street looking for a café. Let us survey the options. There is one very nice Barista (my favourite Barista in the City) and about seven Cafe Coffee Day outlets (really, somebody ought to stop them). This is the point in the story where the spanking new Amber Cafe makes its entry. And we make our entry in to Amber Cafe.
Soon after walking in we realise that this is not a café. Not even at all, like Barney would say. The decor is quite snazzy and modern in hues of green. Green stripes and pastel chairs are alternately arranged to create a pleasant outcome that feels more like a restaurant than a café. And the menu turns the suspicion into conviction. The coffee is out of, hold your breath, a Cafe Coffee Day vending machine. We order a Mocha Frappe (90) and a Chocolate Explosion (75) hoping that the combined sugar rush of the coffee ice cream, the whipped cream and the chocolate sauce will rescue the insipid espresso. They can not. The ice cream topping is stale, it smells of several objectionable things and has developed ice-crystals. The chocolate explosion is marginally less watery but smells of cheap cocoa.
Our next orders are a Herb, Olive and Cheese sandwich (125) and a Waffle Affair with maple syrup, ice-cream and whipped cream (110). The waffle arrives before the sandwich. It is clearly the best dish of the evening, which is sad, because it is not very good. The waffle is underdone and the ice cream is not fresh. The whipped cream is nowhere to be found. The sandwich is eatable. But the cheese inside is processed Amul/Britannia cheese which is still hard and chewy from the presumably short sojourn in the grill. The oregano is overpowering and the olives, well, they are alright. Pickled, canned olives chopped up. The sandwich is accompanied by potato wafers that come out of a packet. The translucent thin beauties seem to have been thoughtfully thrown into the microwave to create the flimsy delusion of actual potato chips.
I look at the tables around us. Most of them are old or middle-aged people eating the platters. These platters consist of a choice of Indian vegetarian or non-vegetarian dishes that Amber (the original awesome Amber on Waterloo Street) is known for – albeit in meagre quantities. Like a box meal or a thali. They looked as delicious as Amber has always been known for. So, my question is, why call it a café? And who are they targeting with the new age look and feel? If I had to eat what was being served in the Platter I would head straight to Waterloo Street and order my regular roti, sabzi, kebabs, and baked fish (oh yes, you don’t want to miss that). If I were looking for fine dining I would go to the Silver Arcade Amber. Why this?
If you call your place a café make the coffee right. The coffee at the Waterloo Street Amber is amazing. They serve Arabica filter-coffee in a pot with sugar and milk on the side. It is non-pretentious and wonderful. Don’t fix what ain’t broken – is all I can say. And do something about the refrigerator.