Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kolkata: In pursuit of Bangla flavors

When we planned to travel to Sikkim, we had to go via Kolkata. So we thought, why not visit Kolkata as well. I was brought up in Orissa and therefore quite familiar with the culture, cuisine and language of the eastern states . I wanted to re-experience those flavors that I get so nostalgic about.
As part of my research for sites to see, I called up my Bong friend at Kolkata. Her first response was,"What is there to see in Kolkata?" :) I understood her response perfectly. If she had called me to plan about a Hyderabad visit, I might respond in the same way. The metros/capitals have become so indistinguishable from one another. We have the same malls, the same restaurant chains, the same cinemas. Despite this invasive urbane culture across major cities in India I was hoping to catch the Bengali sights and smells.
Towards this process, I first drew up a list of the recommended places to see: the Victoria Memorial, the Indian museum, Dakshinewar etc. But there was something different in my visiting Kokata this time. I wanted to experience the real Kolkata, get the whiff of Bengal and catch all the Bengaliness in it.

For shopping, we went to New Market off Chowringhee lane and Dakshinapan in Ballygunge.
New Market is extremely crowded, chaotic, and filled with 'guides' who try to ensnare you into buying the exorbitantly-priced wares at their shops. We went there on two consecutive days as we got tired just from going round the complex. We went with the expectation that we will get everything we wanted there but found ourselves going round and round the same shops selling only clothes. May be because it was 'Pujo' time.The upside was the throw-away prices that you can bargain for. Got a kurta for Rs.150!
Dakshinapan was a more solemn and a quieter  place offering you khadis/cottons/hand looms  from every state in India. Got 5 khadi kurtas for a total of Rs. 1500! That too from a West Bengal government-run shop which doesn't allow any bargaining. Can't think of such bargain  prices anywhere else in India!
For authentic Bengali cuisine, I short listed three places: Bhojohari Manna, 6 Ballygunge and Sholo Ana Bangali. Of these three, we had time to visit only 6 Ballygunge. From my rudimentary knowledge of Bengali cuisine, at 6 Ballygunge, I ordered for one shukto, one bhaja, one torkari, one pulao and of course the Loochis. The steward assured me that this was more or less the perfect combination of a typical Bengali meal.
On the day of return, we were less than 100 meters from Bhojohari Manna where we planned to lunch but had to give up as we were afraid that we'd miss our flight back home.We got jittery even though we had  four hours for the scheduled take-off as we had experienced terrible traffic jams where we covered distances like 5 kms in 1 1/2 hours! So we just took a U-turn and ate at Halidram's--a quick snack would have to do for lunch.
Despite the fact that Kokata has a majorly fish eating populace, in a city as large as Kolkata, I thought I'd find some exclusive vegetarian restaurants but these were few and far between. When we went to try the Bengali food, we had a very limited choice as vegetarians but what was a satisfying experience was to recall the tastes from my childhood... especially of the posto and mustard-oil combinations. Of course, my family found it a bit tepid as the Telugu cuisine is known to be fiery by comparison!
If Kokata is known for its mustard-oil preparations, it is equally famous for its street food. I was dying to try it and went to Vardhan Market near Park Street. But on the one opportunity that we got to try the street food, it was raining hard. Just a few puchkas and we had to run for shelter. Elsewhere we did try the equally famous Singhadas but the rolls and chops got left out :( Knowing how yummy they taste, it made me really miserable at having gone all the way there and come away without eating it.
The real Bangla experience was waiting to happen just round the corner...what else...THE PUJO! But instead of waiting for it to appear, we decided to flee as we were warned of serious traffic issues during Pujo and we didn't want to stay back to experience it.

More on Kolkata in coming posts.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Stay at Pelling, Sikkim: Hotel Hill Retreat

We were driven to Pelling, a distance of 110 kms from Gangtok, through a mountainous terrain. It is at a higher altitude than Gangtok and increasing altitudes leads to lowering expectations of the quality of accommodation.
Our tour operators chose some other accommodation for us but we got it changed to Hotel Hill Retreat which is ranked#2 as per Tripadvisor. Below is the picture of the room that we were allotted.

Hotel Hill Retreat, Pelling, Sikkim
Definitely not as big as the one in Gangtok. It is about 3/4th the size. What is comforting is that the room was carpeted wall-to-wall. And warm water is provided for drinking. These two factors are a must, I realize, or else it is difficult to handle the cold temperatures.
Pelling is chosen as a tourist spot because it is closest to Kanchenjunga. And the view from the room is awesome!
The hotel is housed in a lovely building, the size, space and design is something that we in Hyderabad would die for. But it looks like once it was built, people had no idea as to what to do with it. The service or the amenities do not match up. First, they still have the archaic bell system to call the reception and not the telephone. And to top it, the bell wasn't working! So whenever you needed to call the help, you had to walk down two sets of stairs. If you are ranked #2, one expects the best.
Getting hot water through all the taps in bathroom is compulsory in Pelling. Yet, the tap supplying hot water in the wash basin was broken. You had to go downstairs to let them know that you need hot water and only then the geyser switch is turned on at the reception. They switch it off once they feel everyone in your room had had his bath. The bathroom did have the basic amenities but not really well-maintained. Also, the towels provided had some marks on them and were dirty. We could not use them and it is on this last leg of our journey that we had to take out the towels that we carried as a stand-by.
The bed is also a bit small for two members. The curtains instead of being thick were rather flimsy and we couldn't block out sunlight before we were ready to get up in the morning. And remember, sun-rise happens at around 5 am there. So you keep lying in your bed tossing and turning after 5, wishing to block out the rather too bright sunlight.
Breakfast on both mornings we were there happened to be the same: aloo paratha and bread toast. Meals are cooked for you on request but we got a delayed order as there weren't many tourists when we were there. Food and the restaurant are quite decent. The food is slightly expensive though.What they are really good at are their 'phulkas.'  Small round, thin rotis, fresh off the stove...awesome in taste.
Because the hotels in Sikkim cannot compete in amenities with the bigger cities, all they can do is provide superior service.  But, there was nothing in the service that I can say went beyond expectations.
Yet, they don't fail to put the Tripadvisor logo on the front door, proud to be recommended by them. To be ranked# 2, you need to provide much better services and amenities. My rank would be a 2.5/5.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Stay at Gangtok, Sikkim: White Conch Residency

I must begin by saying that as far as hotels in hill stations are concerned, the expectations, as per my experience, are pretty low. They are so far from the plains and not really easy-to-access. It would be too much if one has expectations as from the hotels in a bigger city.
Hence, when we went to Gangtok, we were prepared for a not-so-great accommodation. But when we stepped into the room, we were all smiles when we saw the size. Huge! And all the three beds ready and prepared. Here's a pic of a room that we were allotted (from Tripadvisor):

White Conch Residency, Gangtok

Pretty decent, don't you think?
The pluses of the room was the size, neatness and came equipped with all necessary furnishings. We weren't into the pricing details as the accommodation came as a part of the package that our tour operator provided.
The room was quite well-lighted as it has glass windows all around. The view from the largest window is that of the Kanchengunga mountain range and it is a sight worth waking up to! This teeny town has its greatest and one of the two shopping complexes, on the MG road very close by. The wooden floor helps absorb cold and you can dare walk bare foot despite the cold. 
A huge plus is the size of the double bed and the excellent mattress used. Quite firm and gives you a comfortable sleep. 
The staff is very courteous and try to help you in which ever way they can. The manager at the desk is quite informed about Sikkim and it is a pleasure to interact with him.
The minuses: Despite the fact that this is a hotel in the capital, they don't have the amenities provided in a larger city. Apart from the toilet roll, a soap and a shampoo sachet, there really isn't any other more-sophisticated stuff in the bathroom. And you don't really mind. That they have hot water from all  taps 24/7 is enough. The best part is that the manager knows this and admitted that they, of course, can't compete with hotels of a bigger city.
Another funny incident was that when we left the room, we had agreed for a room service. They seemed to have outsourced this stuff to a couple of cleaning ladies. When we came back, we found that all the plastic covers which we used to carry our extra pair of shoes, all the bigger 2 liter empty bottles which we kept as stand-by, all were thrown away. The ladies had gone around the room with a comb and trashed all that they thought needs to be. LOL! During travel, I am wary of throwing away anything till just before the last leg of the journey and was now at a loss as to how to wrap my extra shoes. This concern was more so as Sikkim, blessedly, doesn't allow plastic at all. When I told about this, the staff provided me some cloth bags. So if you go there, rule out room cleaning, especially if your stay is short like ours was.
We had agreed to this hotel as it had advertised itself as a hotel with a vegetarian restaurant but when we went there, there was no restaurant at all. It was supposed to be under renovation. Our lunch, on the first day, was brought from outside and arrived after an hour of ordering by which time we were like half-starved to death. 
For all other meals, we ate at the MG road before we came back to rest at our room. They provide a breakfast free with the package, though not a buffet.
By our Hyderabad standards, this hotel might not stand a chance but as per Sikkim standards, I would rate it a 3.5/5. This is for sheer courteousness of the staff.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Stay at Kolkata: Casa Fortuna

I short listed some hotels for our stay at Kolkata. The typical middle-class me tried different deals to get some discounts. Make my Trip was one of those. But later, I realized that you get a better deal by directly talking with the hotel rather than going through any agent. Especially, if you are not clubbing it with a tour package.
I also learned that using TripAdvisor is like using a spell-check in MS Word. Some things may not fit your requirement but are still okayed. This applies especially to Kolkata Hotels.
The hotel we selected, Casa Fortuna, ranked 7 as per TripAdvisor, was Rs. 6000/- per day for a teeny-weeny room. An extra bed, and there was no room for maneuvering. We had to wait to give space when another person walked by. They are so crunched for space that the bathroom had a sliding door with a mirror which doubled up as a dressing table. If you have the other person in the room wanting to use the bathroom, you find your dressing table sliding away like in a bhooth-wala cinema.  The room reeked of cigarette smell, doubly unbearable as none in my family smoke. On complaining, we had some kind of a triangular devise which was said to absorb the smell! 
We arrived in batches of two. One person in the morning as per his train timing and two of us by the noon flight. This was clearly told to the hotel. Upon arriving at around 1330 or so, we were very starved as we had had a meager breakfast at 0730 before we caught the flight to Kolkata.A welcome drink was part of the deal. We had to ask for this welcome drink (imagine). And then it arrives a good forty minutes later as we were just about to leave for lunch. Sometimes a warm moist napkin accompanies your welcome drink but what I was unprepared for was a small towel almost dripping with water along with our drink (canned juice). 
The house-keeping services were pathetic too. When we left the hotel for lunch and came back late evening, we found that the dishes ordered for breakfast were still not cleared though someone had stepped into the room to take away the smell-absorbing device.
And due to the highly congested traffic, during the time of check out, we barely were left with any time to talk to the hotel for the discount discussed earlier, and though we overstayed by 2 1/2 hours, we were charged for one extra day despite the fact that we had had complementary breakfast only on two days and not three days which is supposed to be a part of the package.
To top it all, the hotel calls itself a Boutique Hotel. LOL! They need to search for the meaning of the term before calling themselves one.
If one were to pay the same amount in Hyderabad, one gets a far superior room and amenities. For less than half this price, we got an excellent room, much larger and with same amenities in a tiny town like Rourkela (Hotel Radhika) in 2010. And to our great surprise, it had such a vast spread for a breakfast, that we couldn't do justice to even half the fare.
Casa Fortuna, the plus: Proximity to many significant places, including the Metro. A decent breakfast buffet. Noise-free room. No unnecessary intrusion from the staff.
My take away: Take any review of Kokata Hotels with sackfuls of salt as the expectations of a room, amenities and service seems pretty low. Rooms priced as they are with the service provided would not last two weeks in a city like Hyderabad where hotels are compelled to provide services exceeding expectations all the time.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Annual Vacation: to the top of the world

2009 saw an extensive 20-day tour of Rajasthan; 2010 was Orissa; 2012 saw two trips: Kerala and now Sikkim. And Sikkim has to happen via Kolkata.
These days we no longer do things as we did when younger; viz getting up early in the morning and rush to catch (pre-booked tickets on) the state bus to visit the designated local sight seeing.
Things are planned much more elaborately. We do a lot of research on the best accommodations; best tour packages;  even customize the tour packages; cabs to book; the most recommended places to visit; places where we get the best local cuisine;  places where we get to explore the local markets for the best shopping and so on....and thus it is a good 3-4 weeks of planning to optimize the tour experience.
Trips have now  become much more personalized, more comfortable and customized to meet our personal comfort levels resulting in now sitting back to enjoy the trip rather than a breathless frenzy of a series of sight seeing places as marked in the government agenda.
Sikkkim has been an out of world experience. I will be writing more on the trip in the next few posts. Yet, to sum it up in a few lines:
Sikkim: a land of hills, slopes, waterfalls, steps going up and down all the time, hazardous roads and routes.
Kolkata: a land of huge huge traffic jams. Most of the time all that we did was sitting in the environs of our AC cab waiting to reach our destination.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ohri's @ Banjara Hills

Reviewing an Ohri's is as though one is trying to review the Chutney's. Both the restaurant chains are so well-known across Hyderabad that a review seems redundant!
Yet, the glaring difference between the two is consistency. Where Chutney's has a consistent taste across its branches, Ohri's is not so. The taste varies according to the location.  The cuisine isn't consistent either. Each Ohri restaurant has its own menu AND price. The quality varies too. If one were to have at Ohri's at any of the malls, one finds a much watered-down version of the taste (though not the price). I therefore steer clear of Ohri's at food courts at any of the malls/multiplexes.
I happened to visit the Ohri's at Banjara Hills. I had had their à la carte fare earlier and today I was in the mood for a buffet. I keep seeking the USP of a restaurant while writing its review. If a restaurant doesn't have its distinguishing feature, why would any one feel compelled to visit it again? Well, the Ohri's @ Banjara is clear about its USP, it truly offers a  huge spread: a feast for the glutton but wasted on small eaters like me. Given below a list of all that they offered on the day of my visit: a weekend.
It offers both veg and non veg. I have omitted the non-veg items but noticed that there were about six of those too.

Started with Veg Shorba

Shangai baby Corn
Banana Pakoda

Pasta Papaya Salad
Chilly cucumber
Tomato Chat

Main Course:
Pudina rice
Veg Biryani
Dondakayi kura
Dal Makhani
Jeera Aloo
Khumb Kadi
Shahi paneer
Bhindi Adraki
Sabzi hariyali

Macroni Alfredo
Vegetable Marinara

Veg in Soya Garlic Sauce
Veg Soft noodles

Chaat Counter:
Pani Puri
Papdi Chat
Dahi Puri

Curd Rice
Dahi Bhalla

Live Counter

Five kinds of sweets
Four kinds of ice creams

Get it? That's the spread! They have tried to cover a varied cuisine. I think it is difficult for anyone to eat so many items. The suggestion, therefore, so as not to waste food, is to help yourself to just one spoonful of each item were you to decide to taste everything. I couldn't do even that as I felt too stuffed eating slightly more than half the fare.
How was the quality of the food? It was quite good. None of the items can claim to be insipid. And in keeping with the norm of the restaurant requirements at Banjara Hills, they were mostly oil-less in preparation and also the masalas toned down a bit. I have no complaints about the quality of food.
The price for weekend is 395/- inclusive of all taxes. During weekdays, it is lesser.
The staff was quite courteous too. The restaurant being one of its older branches has not worked on its ambience for quite some time, and therefore though pleasant, well-lit with well-spaced tables, it wears a jaded look.
Will I go for their buffet again? No. That's because I want my buffet meal to consist of a variety of salads and appetizers, and concentrate  less on the number of  main dishes. The three nondescript salads were virtually non-existent for me. As for the appetizers, there was truly only one: the baby corn. The other one, banana pakoda, don't we prepare it at home frequently? So, whats special about it?
Eating so many sweets, however much of a sweet tooth one may have, does lead to a tumultuous tummy, doesn't it? And tell me truly, don't we have just one sweet at the end of a meal at home?
So, this restaurant is ruled out for a revisit for its buffet.
My favorites still are the BBQ Nation, à la Liberty and Bikanerwala...the last two being vegetarian restaurants.