The Nordmanns – Derek and Angelina – visit Kolkata every autumn and stay at the best hotels in the city, but when it comes to their meals, they prefer not the 5-star-fare but the unique cuisine of Mocambo.
It is not for nothing that this eatery commands such formidable goodwill among diners in our city and even from overseas. It is one of the last surviving establishments offering continental cuisine as well as colonial fare.
“Mocambo was set up by my late father (the legendary hotelier ‘Baba’ Kothari) in 1956 after he migrated from Lahore”, recalled its present owner, Nitin Kothari.
Kothari Sr. came from a very different background – he was managing director and editor of a newspaper called the ‘Sindh Observer’ (which has since merged with the Karachi ‘Dawn’) besides having interests in steel rolling mills and a host of other businesses.
The decision to step into restaurant business was influenced by his partnership with one of the great chefs of those days, an Italian gentleman named Prandhi. Remembered even today, his contributions recorded in the restaurant’s menu- the chef had experimented with the ingredients available in the post-Partition, post-Independence Calcutta and came up with Italian and Continental delights that grace the Mocambo menu even today.
His role as chef and manager led to the strong Italian influence on their offerings, explained Nitin Kothari, who, with his son Siddharth, today runs the business.
In parallel, the Kotharis managed to poach one of the great Indian chefs of the day, Lab Singh, from the kitchens of the Maharaja of Patiala, a legendary gourmand and host. Singh’s influence can be seen in the excellent Indian offerings on the menu.
“I would rate Lab Singh as one the best chefs I have ever experienced”, said Nitin. As any diner who has tucked into a plate of Mocambo Mutton would confirm, the opinion is not unjustified.
Despite the quaint red leather scoop-seats and benches, dark frescos on the walls and art deco lamp shades, Mocambo has a very loyal following, as Avishek and Sayantani Dutt from London would confirm.
Like the Nordmanns, they swear by the starters like Devilled Crabs, the Prawn Cocktail, the Garlic Toast or the Soup of the day.
Most experts would agree that where the restaurant really scores in the dining sweepstakes is with its wide variety of meats, sea food and even vegetarian items on the menu. From the Chateaubriand steak (beef), Singapore pork chops and Lobster Thermidor to its mixed grill, Fish Wellington, Chicken a la Kiev and Bhekti Meuniere, Mocambo can claim to be one of the oldest restaurants serving Continental food in the sub-continent outside British era clubs like the Bengal Club.
At one time, Mocambo had formidable competitors, like Skyroom on Park Street (shut down decades ago) or, in some respects, Firpo’s on Chowringhee (dawned its shutters even earlier).Today, it is not just an institution in its own right but an inspiration for the multitude of newer restaurants coming up all over Kolkata, seeking to serve Continental food (perhaps with a sickening vegetarian twist borrowed from Bollywood movies) and ending up with a fare that no citizen of the European continent may ever recognize.
Mention must be made of the legendary Mocambo Chicken a la Kiev, which is among the top favorites on the menu along with the Mixed grill a la Mocambo and the Beckty Bell Meuniere. For the more adventurous, there is always the Angels on Horse Back (sausage wrapped in bacon) or fish-and-shrimp combinations like the Diana or the Florentine and the enigmatically named Surf’n’Turf. The Lobster Thermidor and the beef or pork delights follow close behind.
Thanks to the contributions of Prandhi, the menu has Italian, French, Russian, Austrian and German cuisine using Indian ingredients for the complete Continental offering.
“I take visitors from any level of life, from any country to Mocambo for a meal because the quality of food is brilliant, the service unmatched and the experience captures all the nostalgia that we feel about our city” said Mrs Shikha Mukherjee, head of one of Kolkata’s leading welfare foundations.
The impeccable and unwavering high quality of food is a unique Mocambo trait. As diners who have been tucking into the goodies for many decades would confirm, its quality remains unchanged despite surprisingly reasonable prices.
The strategy is not to compromise from the ingredient stage to the time the food is placed before the diner.
“I was trained in cooking and hotel management in Europe and I apply my knowledge and experience to maintain our standards. In addition, I have trained 6-8 key members to check the food at every stage so that there is no complaint,” said Kothari.
“The art deco interiors, the prawn cocktail served on a silver plated cup set on ice, the dark carpets and wall paintings, the period lamps- these are unique and I don’t want them to change. There are places with modern stuff but I want Mocambo the way it is”, said Mrs Mukherjee.
“My greatest satisfaction is when diners seek us out for we do little self promotion. And my happiest memories are of the time when as a child, we served to Jawaharlal Nehru and thereafter to Mrs Indira Gandhi on her visits”, pointed out Nitin.
Beyond the starters and the main course, Mocambo is also a great place for desserts. There is hardly an outlet that makes a better Baked Alaska (brought to the table lit up by brandy-fuelled flames) or Caramel Custard, or even the post-meal coffee.
One differing viewpoint that comes across is that much of the menu comprises helpings that are rich in cheese and/or cream blended with the core non-vegetarian or vegetarian ingredient and baked into a smooth creamy texture.
These days, when every doctor advises a low cholesterol diet, a lot of the Mocambo menu may seem perilous from the cardio-vascular point of view.
For such spoilsports, there are lighter offerings, like the deligtful risottos or light Indian curries. Mocambo’s great food is supplemented with equally attentive service and a surprisingly high quality of sides like sauces and creams irrespective of whether its 3:30 in the afternoon or 11:15 at night. And be it weekday or weekend, there is always a queue during lunch and dinner hours.