Were you alive when Trincas rocked, Usha Uthup and Pam Crain crooned and it seemed like Park Street was the centre of the universe? I was. But sadly, I didn’t get to Calcutta till I was 29 and so, missed the heyday of that glorious street.
But I do remember Churchgate Street in Bombay, where the restaurants were laid out side by side, the sound of the waves of the Arabian Sea rang in our ears and the crowds came to roam (and eat!). You could split open your Chicken Kiev at Gaylord, while Sweet Lorraine sang. You could go all vegetarian at Purohit. There was frothing cappuccino at Napoli (which was called Expresso, alas, contributing to a familiar confusion that persists to this day). And deep inside what seemed like a cave full of sculpture there was more music at Talk of the Town: Ajit Singh strumming his guitar or Usha Iyer – the days before she went off to Calcutta and married Mr Uthup – gently crooning Hurry Sundown.
And what of Connaught Place (or ‘Kunnot Place” as the locals call it)? As a young boy, whenever I visited Delhi from Bombay, I found the city impossibly grand (which the centre of New Delhi still is) and Connaught Place elegant and so classy. I don’t remember the restaurants that much: my parents were Gaylord loyalists so we went to Gaylords all over the world (Bombay, Delhi, London and even – in that era – Bangkok). But I have vague memories of Embassy, of the United Coffee House (some of my parents’ friends would go there every single day!) and even of a place that had cabarets and to which I was never taken. (Could this have been true? Were there cabarets at Connaught Place restaurants in Delhi in the Sixties? Or is this a false memory?)
By the time I moved to Delhi in the mid-’90s, Connaught Place – like Park Street and Churchgate Street – had begun to lose its lustre. It was still the centre of the city, but one that you needed to visit less and less. The colony markets had developed to a level where each colony was largely self-contained with its own shops and restaurants.
Nothing prepared me however, for the decline of Connaught Place in this new century. Its character changed, large sections of it were dug up, the streets were filthy, beggars hung out at every corner – and after dark they were sometimes replaced by streetwalkers.
All this took place when Delhi was booming. There was more money pouring into the city than ever before. But with each surge in its prosperity, the centre of gravity moved further and further away from Connaught Place. The Gurgaon boom seemed to sound the death knell of the old New Delhi and eventually, places that had been considered far away, even in the ’90s when I moved to the city, such as Vasant Kunj, suddenly began to seem not just central but also upmarket.
But over the last couple of years, something strange has happened in Delhi. While Park Street and Churchgate Street still seem like relics of a vanishing Calcutta and Bombay, Connaught Place has suddenly revived. I went, a couple of months ago, to the new Mamagoto, and was startled to see how packed the area was with people having fun. The streets were cleaner too. The construction debris had been removed and Connaught Place was rocking.
I marvelled at the resurrection of Connaught Place when I went for lunch last week to Junkyard Café, down the road from the Hindustan Times building, on the site of an old gymnasium. That block is packed out with restaurants. There were the old ones like Blues and Taste of China, which was once an unofficial HT canteen and went by the name Waste of China. (When I once gave it a bad review I was berated by angry colleagues who feared that vengeful cooks would now spit in their soups. I’m sure they never did – Taste of China was more hurt than angry and the chef wrote me an emotional letter.)
Junkyard Café is owned and managed by Umang Tewari, whose group also includes three other restaurants in Connaught Place and who is planning two more.
I asked Tewari, whose move to Connaught Place has been relatively recent (a year or two), why he was investing so heavily in a part of the city that had once been regarded as dead?
He had some interesting insights. First of all, he said, even when people thought the area was done for, its restaurants continued to do well. He gave the example of that much-loved old Embassy (of Dal Meat fame) which, he said, had always been a money-spinner. More recently, he said Q’BA had attracted a hip, affluent demographic.
But Tewari, whose restaurants are earning him the tag of the King of Connaught Place, thinks that something new and different is happening. We don’t realise, he says, how affluent West and East Delhi have now become. While people from South Delhi might brave the traffic jams to go to Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub, the rest of Delhi sees no reason to go to Gurgaon. And so Connaught Place, which is relatively central, has once again become the point at which young people from all over the city congregate.
The new rules for running a successful restaurant are, he says 1) avoid malls where rents are high – somewhere like Connaught Place is much cheaper. Then there’s 2) pay attention to the food – at his restaurants, the revenue is equally divided between food and alcohol, because people only come back if they like the food. Finally, there’s 3) make it multi-cuisine. People tend to go out in large groups so they like the idea of menu flexibility.
Tiwari is a smart and insightful guy who knows what he is talking about, so I tend to believe him when he says Connaught Place will continue to boom.
But there is one other factor. This week sees the opening of Masala Library on Janpath, just off Connaught Place. The Bombay Masala Library is immensely successful but it is at this, the second branch, that chef Saurabh Udinia has finally found his voice. A preview meal is often better than one served in a busy restaurant so you should keep that in mind, but I was completely blown away when I went for dinner just before the restaurant formally opened.
Saurabh is one of the many Manish Mehrotra protégés in the business, but with this restaurant he has finally shed the shadow of his old boss and devised a menu of his own that is utterly brilliant.
Right from the amuse-bouche of Fake Eggs – coconut and mango made to looks like eggs – the food was unlike anything I have eaten in Delhi. The cooking was rock solid. A kanda bhajiya would have been a perfect bhajiya even if he had not done a charcoal variation over it. The tawa keema was delicious even without the chef’s touch: pickled karela.
Zorawar Kalra, who invented the Masala Library concept (and who will soon be on our TV screens as a judge on Masterchef India), gave Saurabh a free hand and urged him to travel widely. From those travels have come two delicious variations on North-eastern dishes: Naga pork and a Mizo stew with black rice.
Somehow, it is fitting that the new Masala Library lies at the edge of a gloriously revived Connaught Place. Now, the resurrection is complete.
All that remains is for someone like Zorawar to take a bet on Churchgate Street or Park Street and to open a brilliant new restaurant. If Connaught Place can show the way then why can’t other cities follow its lead?
From HT Brunch, July 24, 2016
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