A few days back, I started this discussion in facebook – Which one is the first Bengali fine dining restaurant in India? Yes, I asked in India as the purpose of asking was to figure out who had the guts to take the plunge. About a couple of decades back, Bengali food never had a ready fan following across the country. With the brand ambassadors like roshogolla (which no longer can be called a Bengali dish though), mishti doi and machh bhat (fish rice), it was always a feel good food for many but again, what most didn’t know was that the brand ambassadors were only the tip of the ice berg.
Today the scenario has changed. Oh Calcutta, 6 Ballygunge place, Bhojohori Manna and many more are now the current hits with a formidable geographical presence. Isn’t it fascinating to figure out where it all started? Paise (pronounced as pice) hotels were always there in Kolkata and even today, you will find some of the best paise hotels spread across the city. It is believed that the Paise hotels started many years ago with a concept that meals were available at a price of a couple of paisas (the time when 1 or 2 annas were relevant). From a personal experience, I can assure that these places still offer some of the best fresh meals and if you can be oblivious of the hygiene aspect, then go for the kill. Wooden tables and benches, low cost furniture and fixtures and excessive energy of both the guests and the servers serving you hot piping food, can take you to a different trance altogether.
Over a multitude of comments and views, there was a sincere debate between whether it was Kewpies or Aaheli and the debate also turned towards the definition of fine dining. I will look for this answer and in my opinion, fine dining is also person specific. Keeping aside the debate of whether it is a fine dining or not and which one started earlier, nothing takes away from these two leaders in planning to sell Bengali food (and not Kolkata food, as there is a difference between both) in Kolkata. Kudos to Rakhi di and Pia di of Kewpies and Mr. S K Roy from Peerless Group for taking the leap.
On a working day, we step in to Peerless Inn to look for some more stories as well as taste the food. On a Thursday afternoon and with demonetization effect, the place had considerable number of guests. We had a small surprise at the entrance when the restaurant manager Mr. Pradipto could recognise me as a food writer (at times its good to boast about self). As we started chatting, like a mining expert I started digging for the stories related to this place. And when Mr. Pradipto’s stories had dried out, we were joined by Mr. Asheem, who has been there with Aaheli since its inception.
Aaheli started its operations on 15th May 1993 after a month of operation of Peerless Inn. The insider story says that when Mr. S K Roy, the chairman, had planned to launch Aaheli, there was a strong resentment from the Board on the business viability of a Bengali restaurant in the fine dining segment in Kolkata. Thanks to his persuasion to the Board, today we have a whole new segment of food business which perhaps, had it not been for Aaheli, would have taken more time to become popular and demanding cuisine. Although it seems Suruchi – a NGO run restaurant where Rakhidi and others played an important role in setting up the restaurant was the first Bengali restaurant, it was more of a benches and table set up rather than fine dining.
As we continued the discussion, we placed the order and what better to try out than the signature dishes. We ordered for Rui macher patishapta (a rolled up pancake with stuffing of rohu), posto bora (poppy seed fritters), Chingri Bati chorchori (prawns made with mustard and other spices) and the hot favourite- Kosha Mangsho (in my opinion, it is one of the best we have tasted in town). Every dish was finger licking delicious.
Since the beginning, there have been two chefs who have been managing the kitchen of Aaheli and although one has passed away, there is Chef Jana in the team. Chef Jana has retired now, however, he oversees the kitchen and the focus on preparation of the food is immense. Mustard oil and Ghee are the only cooking medium for the food and no other oil is used. Unlike a number of Bengali restaurants, Aaheli does not use tomatoes in the cooking (which is how it is supposed to be traditionally). Almost 80 percent of the team running the kitchen has been there since the beginning which assures the quality and consistency of the food. Being the oldest Bengali food joint in the city, this place has seen almost the who’s who of eminent personalities coming over for an experience. However, the food does remain the focus and the showstopper without a doubt.
Without an iota of doubt, Aaheli has already made itself a permanent fixture and the important beginning of any book which will get written on Evolution of Bengali fine dining. Here’s to the great path breaking initiative which paved way for many different sized foodpreneurs to have the guts to open up Bengali restaurants in various formats and presenting the Bengali cuisine to a larger audience.
Aaheli is located at
12, J. L. Nehru Road, Kolkata-700 013
Phone: +91 33 4400 3900, +91 33 2228 0301
Fax: + 91 33 2228 1270
P.S. The poor image quality is due to the fact that we didnt carry camera as we wanted to enjoy the meal hence the images are captured with our mobile phones.