El Chico — Of Food, Friendship and Memories

If you’re in Allahabad, then you need to visit El Chico at least once. The restaurant’s range of eat treats is sure to bring you back.

In 1964, a young man named Ganesh Rai went on a world tour. Among the many things he brought back with him, was the love for the café culture of Europe. So enamoured was he by the cafés that he decided to replicate them back home. Soon he bought a coffee machine, only the second in the country after The Oberoi in Delhi, and set up his own place in a shed erstwhile used as a godown.

“When my uncle opened this place, it served only coffee, pastries and sandwiches. The cappuccino cost two paise and the pineapple pastry was sold for five paise. The coffee shop was an instant hit with the who’s who of the town and soon became the place to be seen at.”

We are in the famous El Chico Restaurant in Allahabad, talking with Gaurav and Mohit Rai, who manage the family-run restaurant now. It is a busy day, but the brothers have graciously agreed to share stories of the 54-year-old legacy they have very proudly inherited from their uncle Ganesh Rai. Everyone who knows Allahabad knows El Chico. It has, for the past 50 years, been an integral part of the city’s foodscape, and while everything around the restaurant has changed in these years, the place itself remains as it is.

 

A ball on a plate

 

“El Chico is like home, and it has been like that since I was young and came here with my father. Nothing has changed since — the menu, the staff, the food, and most importantly, the feeling of being home,” SK Srivastava, a senior advocate in the Allahabad High Court and a regular at El Chico for over 40 years, tells us passionately.

Incidentally, most of the regulars here are either senior advocates or judges from the High Court. Others include administrative officers, doctors and lecturers from the Allahabad University.

“There was a time when everyone who came to El Chico knew one another. They, of course, knew uncle (Ganesh Rai). The menu was completely English and candlelight dinners were the order of the evening. There was music and dance too. Waiters knew exactly what everyone wanted; chefs knew exactly how they liked it. It was like sitting in a large drawing room among friends and family and having a ball, quite literally,” says Mohit, who manages the day-to-day operations.

From a café that opened in a shed to serve coffee and sandwiches, El Chico soon went on to become a full-fledged restaurant. Today, it has over 150 items on the menu, that range from Continental and Chinese to Indian. Then there is an entire section dedicated to desserts and beverages. Presumably, El Chico was the first — and the only place — to serve Continental food in Allahabad.

 

A ball on a plate

Streams of guests have now started pouring in and the restaurant is fast filling up. Liveried waiters flit between tables with scrumptious starters, fragrant gravies, and steaming mains. Having spent a lifetime here, they know exactly what to recommend, and sometimes, they order on your behalf too.

Because we want to try continental fare, Nizam, the elderly man serving us, recommends baked fish, mutton roast, garlic bread and sizzlers. We readily agree.

The bread arrives first. Flaky, buttery and loaded with the right amount of cheese and seasoning, it works wonders to whet our appetites. Fish baked in bechamel sauce, follows: delicate, mildly sweet, and creamy. It melts away in the mouth, even as we look forward to second helpings.

Mutton roast is next in line. Tender, juicy, saucy, served with sautéed vegetables and fries — the dish is a meal in itself, but of course, we are far from being done. There is a mix meat sizzler too. Made up of fish, chicken, mutton, sausage, eggs, vegetables, and fries, it turns out to be as flavourful as it is noisy — and impossible to finish.

To say that every dish here is better than the last will not be exaggeration, for what we have next is outstanding.

A ball on a plate

 

“The El Chico pudding is famous world over. People come back only for this. Of course, our food is legendary too, but there is something very special about the pudding. We make it every few hours with fresh cream, tinned fruit, vanilla ice cream, and home-made sponge,” Nizam tells us, when we thank him for the superlative dessert.

The pudding, served in silverware (yes, they still use silverware), is unlike anything I have eaten before. A soft mixture of sponge, fruit and ice cream, it is served topped with whipped cream. Every bite has a balance of the tartness of the fruit, the smoothness of cream, the chill of ice cream, and the fullness of sponge — all in all, it is a showstopper.

“I still remember the first time I came here. I would have been seven then and we sat by that window. I was served tomato soup with croutons and French fries with ketchup. I felt so important,” Pooja, who’s been listening to our banter, intervenes. She’s back to Allahabad after a long gap and has now brought her seven-year-old daughter here, so that she can experience the same joy. After having spent close to three hours here already, we have no doubt about that.

This story first appeared in The Hindu.

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