W is for Waldorf

The Waldorf is another of those Park Street restaurants that watched the starry decades of Calcutta dim and sober as India entered the 21st century.

The Waldorf is one of Kolkata’s oldest Chinese restaurants in a city famous for its proliferation of Chinese food. Kolkata began to fill with Chinese immigrants in the 18th century, working in the opium and tea trades of the British. The largest immigration flux of Chinese came at about the turn of the century, when Hakka Chinese, a wandering class, settled in Calcutta and took up the city’s tannery work. Although many of the descendents of these early settlers have since moved abroad or to other parts of India, Chinese is still the second cuisine of Bengalis, and a particular type of fusion Chinese-Indian cuisine has developed here. Interestingly, Chinese-Indian cuisine is now gaining popularity  beyond India. With a little effort, you can find purveyors in London, Toronto and New York.

Waldorf was the first restaurant in Calcutta to move out of Tangra, still today India’s only Chinatown, and make Chinese a mainstream cuisine for Indians. Opened by three Chinese entrepreneurs, Waldorf found a niche on Park Street and quickly became one of the landmarks of the street. It became famous for its food festivals that, for a weeks’ time, highlighted a particular ingredient — prawn, for instance — or a cuisine. We stopped in during its Southeast Asian festival and sampled Vietnamese lemongrass chicken, Cambodian prawn, and Burmese noodles.  I’m now going to have to find myself a Burmese cookbook.

Waldorf’s fate was luckier than some of Kolkata’s landmark restaurants; The Blue Fox and Firpo’s shut their doors long ago. Waldorf made it through the turn of this century, but not without a fight. Its story is quintessential of Kolkata today, where tradition battles with modernity and decaying history is not lovingly restored but demolished to make room for the new. Or worse, it’s just left to rot. But Park Street’s fortunes are rising, and its real estate is again prime property. In the early 2000s, the landlords of The Waldorf’s 24 B address already had their sites in mind for a new high-rise that could fulfill the demands of Park Street’s rising costs. It sent eviction papers to the restaurant, quietly barring and chaining the doors at night. When staff arrived in the early morning they were shocked to find a brick wall sealing off the entrance. They were even more shocked when their protests landed them in the Alipore jail.

Although the restaurant won its appeal to debar the landlord from demolishing the structure, The Waldorf had to change its digs. It now stands around the corner; on each linen-covered table sits a small placard that reads:

“We have shifted temporarily to Russell Street and we will appreciate your patronage of one of the oldest and premier Chinese Restaurants of Kolkata.”

Temporarily? The feeble hope almost makes you want to smack the owners to their senses if it didn’t make you feel like ordering everything on the menu in a show of solidarity.  Kolkata is perhaps the most nostalgic of Indian cities, and it just doesn’t seem right to kick a well-worn restaurant when it’d down. It’s like sending the Velveteen bunny to the trash heap. But we deferred, limiting ourselves to our three dishes and a couple of beers. Though we  vowed to come back for the Hilsa festival the next month.

Since we were on a roll that week, we thought we’d check out another landmark Chinese restaurant from Kolkata’s past. I’d passed Jimmy’s Kitchen in Park Circus before but always conjured images of a wandering American ex-pat who’d finally found his place serving up mutton burgers for the teenage crowd in Kolkata. Obviously, I was way off.

Jimmy’s also opened in the early fifties, and the small black and white portrait of its original owner, C.Y. Chen, hangs behind the main counter. The restaurant’s name is perhaps a nod to a Jimmy’s Kitchen that has stood in the heart of Hong Kong since the 1920s. Jimmy’s of Calcutta was never part of the restaurant elite. But it was famous as a watering hole for families and office workers that were building Kolkata’s middle class. Its homey, mismatched, kitsch décor (think red-lacquered wooden framework, deteriorating prints of the Chinese countryside, and an abundant use of mirrors) reminds me of the strip mall Chinese shops where my family picked up take-out orders when I was small. It’s small, it’s family-run, and it serves a huge menu with some particular Bengali favorites: sweet corn soup, prawn balls, chilli roast pork, and, of course, the Hakka noodles. The food was good, but I preferred The Waldorf. Jimmy’s chilli chicken, however, is still considered the best in the city. We didn’t order it that day, so you’ll have to come to Kolkata to see for yourself.

When we first arrived, the place was dead. All but one table was filled, and any anticipation I had vanished. But as we dug into our chilli roast pork, mixed Hakka chicken fry, and chilli prawn, the clientele picked up. Next to us, an older couple slunk into a booth. The gentleman, dressed in a rumpled button-down shirt and a bit unsteady on his feet, told the waiter in Bengali that he had 500 rupees in his pocket (about twelve dollars to you and me). Would that be enough to buy food, he wanted to know. The waiter assured him it would. Yet the man hesitated. He looked unsure. He scoured the menu, asked the question again – in fact, several times. After some deliberation, he settled on two plates of noodles.

Several minutes later, when the waiter came with the food, the man piped up again. Perhaps emboldened by the full plates of steaming noodles before him, he asked about having a whisky.

“I think you do not have enough for that,” the waiter replied.

Then he nodded his head and stepped away. The man and his wife picked up their forks.  The din from the restaurant had increased now. And as families poured in from A.J.C. Bose Road, we rose from our seats, smiled as we passed the couple, and left the half-eaten chilli roast pork behind us.

 


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