Of the gargantuan amounts of cities, towns, villages, mountains, countries, lakes and bloody temples that I have visited in my life, very few have a magnetic pull on my soul to return to. Sure, I can have a great weekend out in LA, spend some quality time with friends in Cape Town, shoot the shit in Kuala Lumpur for a while... but very few places have me missing them as much as Kolkata does.
Sure, this may be a bizarre location to exhort with such gusto, but you have to understand. I used to visit Calcutta frequently as a child when we were boarding Biman International from Dum Dum Airport to go get new visas for India so we could continue our schooling. Yes we met Mother Teresa. Yes we stayed in dodgy hotels downtown squabbling with all sorts of undesireables outside our door. But despite all the tide pushing inwards, Calcutta has this soul, this depth that very few places on earth can hold onto. No surprises as to the fact that many of India's greatest writers, film directors, poets spawned from this insane city (Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Nikhil Banerjee etc).
The streets are filled with a hundred miseries, and a thousand joys. People just trying to make a living selling their wares on the curb, cooks serving steaming bowls of goodness for mere pittance to office workers under black tarpaulins, beggars scouring the ground for lost money or gazing upwards momentarily to catch the glimpse of a generous tourist, doormen proudly allowing you into the bosom of their protection, shoe shiners accepting the heaviest of loads whilst sitting cross-legged and demurely in the stifling heat.
Much like the rest of India, Kolkata is a city of contrasts. Perhaps not as polarising as Mumbai or Delhi with the rich-poor gap, but still within the confines of a society that values music, art, poetry and chaos in equal measure. Another thing that West Bengali's have going for them is their inherant lust for food. This is not a city of "eating to get full", regardless of caste, class or customs the priority for every living being here is to eat, and to eat well.
We only had a short week here, punctuated by various soujourns to find rare instruments in far flung suburbs of the city. Thankfully for me, my dear friend Puloma offered some fantastic advice on where to feed, and where to quench the eternal thirst.
The days stretched before us like tired pig skins begging for sunlight. We crawled out of our dwelling, sought food, searched for instruments, found solace at Oly Pub, ate like proverbial Gods, and had an altogether phenomenal time.
Oly Pub ($$)
This time-worn relic of ages past still punts out beers and whiskies to loyal customers cramped around tables discussing politics and poetry. After a few visits here the waiters remember who tips and who doesn't and make a beeline for you the second you walk in, proud of the fact they remembered your exact order from the day before. Times have changed this place since I first went there almost 15 years go, but it still retains this nostalgic charm, and the location on Park St makes it convenient.
This famous Biryani place is behind Sunflower Guest House where I inevitably end up despite making other arrangements. The biryani is sublime, tender, moist, grains all seperated, meat hidden in a cocoon of love. The second time I visited we decided to try the Tandoori meats too, since there were 3 of us so sharing is caring. What arrived at our table was perfection. All differing cuts and marinades of the meat were mindblowing, so tender and yet so juicy. I'd struggle to remember better chicken anywhere in India to be honest.
Kusum Rolls ($)
Around the corner from Oly Pub, this Kathi Roll spot is utterly faultless. Churning out rolls like a well-oiled machine, to lines of hungry punters, they make other places look like amateurs. Get the chicken Kathi Roll with egg and tell them to hold the ketchup. Divinity in action.
Moulin Rouge ($$)
Not for dieters at all, but a rich North Indian place for buttery butter chicken, beers and the oldest waiters on earth. They show football here sometimes too so thats an extra plus point.
Hamro Momo ($)
I'll admit to being a little precautious myself when I caught a visual of this scruffy little den in a side street. The place doesnt scream SANITARY, but you'd be a fool to judge it on its appearance. Inside lies a miniscule Momo house that churns out food from its microscopic kitchen. We ordered a few different types of Momo and some Thukpa. The thukpa was largely forgettable, bland and uninspired, but the fried momos with this tomato sauce were utterly spectacular. Worth the journey alone just to get a plate of them.
Big Boss ($$)
Quite a drive out of the centre of Kolkata, nestled in the old Chinatown area of Tangra, this spot should be on everyones itinerary. Head out by cab or Uber, and order the drumsticks of heaven, the chowmein, the fish with black pepper, literally just go big and sample one of the best Chindian feasts you'll ever have. They serve alcohol also, which is always a plus.
We ended up having a magical night there seeping over to the table next to us and having a veritable chin-wag with the hungry crew. They were surprised that we had found the place (explained we had local friends), and kept telling us it was the best place in Tangra, or even town.
After the meal we had, I'd hardly disagree.
Back home at the veritable Sunflower Guesthouse to pack bags and head off to Kathmandu the next morning for new adventures. Before we sign off, here are some other spots that we loved but forgot to take photos in:
Peter Cat - A Kolkata institution by all rights, serving excellent kebabs. Just don't ask the waiter for a Whisky Sour because they put an entire egg in there, yolk and all... EEK!
Bar-B-Q - A Chinese collossus on Park St, multiple levels with floors that sometimes feel like trampolines, and waiters suited and booted huffing under the strain of trays and trays of food pouring out of what must be a massive kitchen.
Tung Fong - Most popular for their huge buffets, this Chin-dian place serves top quality food, with a price to match.
The Bhoj Company - Dine here for Authentic Bengali Food, with some excellent fish dishes.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.