Sonar Baangla at Sonar Tori

Sometimes I hear my father-in-law talking about his childhood. How he and his friends plucked ripe mangoes in a huge orchard in his ancestral village. How the taste of his grandmother’s duck egg curry has stayed on in his mouth. He wistfully recalls the times he crossed the Padma to reach his uncle’s home… the soft breeze of the evening lulling the boat in a gentle sway…

Nostalgia is a magical balm. We know that he will probably never he able to go back to his village of birth but when he tells these heart-warming stories to my five-year-old, I realise how the old man is deriving happiness by sharing these memories. The click at the end of his throat is overcome by the joy in his eye…

I wonder what would he say on tasting the Haasher Dimer Kosha at Sonar Tori? Would the tasty preparation match up to his grandmother’s… Would it again take him back to the languorous afternoons in Barishal, Bangladesh. Will he find the Maajhir Ilish Jhol as light and flavourful as he tasted on the boats while crossing the Padma? I’m yet to find out. But soon, I will…

A heavy dose of nostalgia kicks in once you enter Sonar Tori at Salt Lake City Centre. Especially if you are Bengali staying away from West Bengal. Like yours truly. Steeped in the elite Babu culture that Renaissance Bengal was applauded for, every corner of the fine-diner is awash with that opulence. In a very classic and colonial way although.

I first encountered Narayan Chandra Sinha’s ingenuity at Art Ichol, gallerist Ambica Beri’s art retreat in Maihar, about three years ago. A marvellous piece of work, every inch of the residency showcased the creative flight of this master artist. Artworks that take your breath away yet flaunt the ability to turn the mundane into majestic, Narayan’s installations and sculptures are different, unique and for the want of a better word, brilliant.

At Sonar Tori, Narayan, the artist wears the hat of an interior design maverick. To create a scintillating light installation for the ceiling out of 268 inverted spittoons one needs an acute sense of creative cunning. Fiefdom of yesteryear Bengal is flaunted with a flourish at Sonar Tori. The Bengal that ate out of gleaming ‘kasha’ (bell metal) utensils, where Hindustani classical music permeated through the walls of the Bonedi havelis and where a languid charm infused everyday existence. Sonar Tori has brought back that aura of opulence. Paintings and posters of archival value adorn the walls, rich handwoven tapestry find company in beautiful antique furniture. This place is an ode to the culture Bengal is celebrated for… the land of sweet music and language, the land of art and aesthetics. It is a place that reminds you that a Bangali Babu wears his love for hedonism on his sleeves and minces no word about it…

But all this effort would be just fluff and fancy if the eatery did not serve heavenly food. They do. The Bengali thali has a gobsmacking 16 dishes and the combos change every four days. Lunch here is all about that mind-blowing non-veg thali for Rs 850 plus taxes (they serve a compact corporate thali as well). During dinners, you would get that too, along with choices from the ala carte menu. Is it food that Bengalis would crave for right there in Bengal? Absolutely, yes. Because some of the preparations will surprise you. Like Mochar Aamshol, Chapra Ghonto, Bhindi tok, Puur bhora Bhetki Bhuna mangsho and desi murgir kosha. Lost recipes that have been revived. Preparations that bring together East and West Bengali cuisine gloriously. Dishes that my grand mother made but I did not have the mind to jot down. Dishes that my father-in-law’s grandmother lovingly prepared for the family. Dishes that could not withstand the ravage of time. Dishes that invoke nostalgia…

My lunch started with five starters--- Maacher dimer bora, Armani kebab, Kakra chingri bhapa, Puruliar Murgir pithey and Topshey fry. When I was a child, every special meal would start off with topshe fry--- the yellowish Mango fish fried in a spiced-up batter of gramflour. There is a distinctive raw smell to the fish that actually makes it so tasty. I wouldn’t recommend it to those who are wary of that pungency. But for us, it is the best fish fritter ever!
The murgir pithey was essentially a dumpling while the Armani kebab reminded me of the stuffed rolls we gorged on at Bedouin many years ago. I would have loved to try the kakra chingri bhapey if not for my sea food allergy. But I’ve heard the most pleasant things about this preparation. During monsoons, the carps fatten with a sack full of eggs. We Bengalis know how to deal with that kind of pregnancy. The Macher Dimer Bora is an instant of that!

The starters are served with a generous helping of mustard sauce that originated from Bangladesh. The chefs here at Sonar Tori namely Bhaskar Dasgupta, Sumanta Chakraborty and Swarup Chatterjee are working at making this in house. I wonder whether that will have the same kick!)
While I munched on the starters, I washed it down, first with a Bhuraan, a yoghurt and mint based coolant tempered with kala jeera and paach phoron (five seed spices that Bengali meals are incomplete without), and then with an absolutely refreshing raw mango mocktail…

Enough to prep me up for my main course thali, which when arrived, I could only sigh with bliss. Three kinds of boiled veggies (potato, pumpkin and ridge gourd), mashed and mixed with mustard oil. Luchi was served with cholaar dal and aloo dum. Accompanied by fried coconut and colocasia slivers and postor bora.
The second leg of the meal comprised steamed rice to be had with Maajhir Ilish jhol (the humble curry that boatmen on the Padma cook with freshly caught Hilsa) and Pomfret in mustard sauce. The pulao was reserved for the Haasher Dim kosha and the mutton stew (another import from Bangladesh).

The best part about Bengali cuisine is that nothing tastes like the other. While the fantastic duck egg in thick gravy was slightly sweet, the pomfret blended marvellously with the mustard paste.
The Ilish was the highlight. Light, aromatic and full of flavour. A humble dish but so spectacular in taste. It helped that the fish was top notch in quality. I found the mutton stew a little lacklustre though against these other luminaries.
All this food can leave you stuffed to your gills. But not here. The meal is wholesome, light and not particularly greasy. The play is on the spices and flavours instead of the oil. Also, to avoid wastage the restaurant insists on serving small portions. You can however, go for top ups as per your liking.

One part of the dessert arrived as Raw Mango Chutney accompanied by three types of Poppadums---Moong dal, Tapioca and Masala versions. While I found the chutney a tad lacking in sweetness, I waited with bated breath for the in-house speciality called Daab Sandesh.

I would call it a masterpiece in subtlety. The soft flesh of raw coconut is converted into a paste and set in the freezer. Home-made cottage cheese is mixed with the coconut water and served as a fat piece of cake on that sweet paste. When the two merge in your mouth, you should define it as happiness…
I don’t know whether we will ever be able to take my father-in-law to visit his ancestral village in Bangladesh, or taste Maajhir Ilish Jhol on the Padma one last time. Cross country politics be damned. But soon, very soon he will be tasting the Sonar Tori specialities from his homeland in Epaar Bangla… To new memories springing from old ones…

AT: Sonar Tori, B Block, Fourth Floor, Sector One, Salt Lake City Centre.
Ph: 033 - 30990508


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