“Anirban! The middle-aged man has already called the name out thrice when he decides to stop and allot the table to the next person. Next in line is a group of women who are only too pleased at the unexpected promotion. Just as they are about to occupy the table, Anirban appears out of nowhere. “You called me, sir! He says panting. “You are late. Please wait for the next table.” The man rebukes him. Helpless, Anirban joins the queue again. No, this isn’t a scene out of a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film; it is an everyday story at Bar-B-Q.
Bar-B-Q, the much sought after Chinese restaurant stands bang in the middle of Kolkata, a city known for its passion for food and food lovers. The city is known for something else too – its authentic Chinese cuisine.
“Kolkata, according to Calcuttans, has the best Chinese food in the country. Some would say even the world. One would think these are presumptuous claims, but when you eat at a place like this, you know they are right.” Rajat Mitra, who’s grown up in Kolkata, and is a regular at Bar-B-Q, quips even as he chews on a large batter-fried prawn. The Golden Fried King Prawns incidentally happens to be one of the most loved item on the menu here.
“When my father, late Shailendra Shivji Kothari, set up the restaurant in 1960, it served Continental, Indian, and Chinese. Since the demand for Chinese kept increasing, we eventually turned it into a Chinese place, but we do serve a small selection of Indian food too,” Rajiv Kothari, the youngest son of the founder, and the current owner of the restaurant, tells us.
Designed by German architect, Messerschmidt, Bar-B-Q, is spread over three buildings on the up-market Park Street. Its vintage décor with large windows, winding staircase, solid-wood furniture, low ceiling fans, and indoor balconies, transports one to glamorous 60s. The din of the customers, interjected now and then, by hearty laughter tells you how popular it is even today. Livered waiters are quick and courteous, and, if you are new, they even help you decide what to order from the elaborate menu. (The restaurant has two separate menus – Chinese and Indian).
The table next to us is occupied by a large group, and is laden with food. There are bowls of gravies, plates of noodles, and platters of starters; there is rice and salad, stir-frieds and grills. The fragrance is enticing; the food inviting and it is not hard to imagine why the place has been so popular for over 58 years. “Most of our customers have been coming here for decades; very often we see three generations of a family dining together at our restaurant, and they know what they want. But if someone needs suggestions we do help them,” says Rajiv, smugly overlooking a large spread on the table.
Our food arrives soon. Unlike the regulars, we have sought help of the manager, Mr. Steven Chou to place our order. He has recommended Bar-B-Q Special Chowmein, Stir Fried Chinese Greens, Golden Fried Prawns, and Konjee Crispy Lamb. Since we want to eat it all, we have decided to ditch the soup, and have jumped straight onto the starters. The Golden Fried Prawns are crisp, tender, hot and juicy, all at the same time. Served with fresh and crispy fried peppers, they are lightly coated and beautifully fried. The Konjee Crispy Lamb is crunchy, chewy (in a good way), full of flavour, and goes brilliantly with beer and soda.
The tables around us are packed with large groups. There are friends, families, youngsters, and elderly. Some one is celebrating a birthday, someone has come to meet old friends; some are bidding farewells, some are welcoming guests but everyone seems to be having a great time.
“Bar-B-Q is like home. In fact, this is the first place I come to whenever I am in the city. If I come by train, I take a direct taxi to Park Street and even wait outside until they start service; if I fly in, I dump my luggage in the hotel and head here before I do anything else,” says Akshat Srivastava, who lived and worked in Kolkata until a few years ago. “While you are here, you must have the double fried pork and moon fan rice, its brilliant.” He recommends before joining his friends. Our main course arrives meanwhile.
On the table now is Bar-B-Q Special Chowmein, Stir Fried Chinese Greens, and the quintessential Calcutta staple – chilli chicken. The Chilli chicken is fantastic, the Stir Fried Greens are fresh and crunchy, but the showstopper is the Bar-B-Q special Chowmein. A bed of pan-fried noodles topped with a wholesome mix of chicken, prawns, pork, and assortment of vegetables cooked in a flavourful white sauce. Topped with fried egg, full of umami, the preparation is a complete meal in itself.
The food is great, and the portions are enormous, and we have barely been able to finish what we had called for, when Mr. Chou sends us the trademark darsaan – deep fried honey coated flat noodles, served with ice cream. And even though we can eat no more, we instinctively reach out for the crispy golden noodles. And that, perhaps, makes Bar-B-Q what it is.
A version of this post first appeared in The Hindu.