In many ways, ITC Royal Bengal is a microcosm of Kolkata. It’s one of the larger luxury hotels in India and along with the ITC Sonar Bangla next door offers an inventory of close to 700 rooms. Just like Kolkata, the hotel has multiple layers, nowhere more than its three meal buffet restaurant – Grand Market Pavilion. The Hogg Market (a.k.a. New Market), established in 1874 was once the treasury of produce for the entire country. It’s this market that serves as inspiration for this busy buffet restaurant where table reservations are still not easy to come by, six months after its launch.
Spread over 9500 sq.ft. and with seating for 200, this might remind you of one Las Vegas’ luxury hotel buffets in terms of sheer size. But unlike Vegas, the sheer diversity of food options spread across its seven stations is what makes this one of India’s standout buffet restaurants. And it’s the cuisine from India’s North East that truly shines here. If the 2010s were about restaurants going global in their quest for the exotic, I believe that we will see more of India’s hyper-local cuisines in the spotlight through this decade. With over 300 ethnic communities, tribes and sub-tribes, the North East’s cuisine remains largely unexplored by well-heeled diners and chefs alike. From fiery chillies that power Naga cuisine to the Buddhist and Nepalese influenced fare in Sikkim, each state brings its own distinct flavours to the table.
ITC has celebrated Indian cuisine over the decades and it’s new flagship hotel in Kolkata is probably best positioned to showcase the flavours of the North East. The Shyaphalay, with origins in Tibet set the tone for my meal. These pot stickers – minced country chicken are encased in a crispy shell and served with a fiery Raja Mircha chutney. Along with the Sikkimese Kauri – handmade sea shells tossed in to a flavourful broth with an array of condiments, the Shyaphalay is the best way to kickstart your North East discovery at Grand Market Pavilion.
Earlier that day, I was at Tiretta Bazaar, a fresh food market that’s in the old Chinatown area and I spotted fresh chives – a rare sight at an Indian market. One of the most delicate dishes on the menu is Maroi Nakupi Ga Khajing Kanghou – stir-fried Manipuri prawns that depend on the subtle flavours of chives. Farm to fork concepts may be trending in restaurants and Netflix documentaries, but local produce has been the mainstay of North East cuisine even before these food trends. The unique sumac (a spice from a flowering plant) adds a wonderful flavour to the Bhekti fish while the Mylliem Pepper Chicken from Meghalaya gets its flavours from a roasted onion gravy. It could be my predilection for black sesame, but it’s Awoshi Ngo Atsu – Naga-style Black Sesame Pork that was the highlight of my menu for the day.
The North East selection is certainly not a lost cause for vegetarians, from banana flowers to mushrooms, an array of ingredients dazzle in the restaurant’s vegetarian selection. The Chakhau Amuba Kheer with the fragrant Manipuri black rice was the perfect finale. But the sight of the restaurant’s North East Chefs from areas as diverse as Sikkim and Nagaland interacting with guests at the buffet is probably the image that will define my dining experience. It’s wonderful to see North East cuisine showcased in a luxury setting.
Grand Market Pavilion is at the ITC Royal Bengal, JBS Haldane Avenue, Tangra, Kolkata. Phone: (033) 4446-4646 (www.itchotels.in) Meal for 2: Rs 4,000/-