By Sahana Ghosh
Kolkata: If Spanish food is your stress-buster, if carefree banter with strangers from distant lands is what you seek for a nirvana post a hectic workday or if you just happen to be in the cultural capital on a shoe-string budget, then find your way to the unassuming Raj’s Spanish Cafe.
Its recent foray into authentic Italian homemade pizzas has also hit the mark – of serving good food sans the frantic pace of fastfood restaurants, and with the emphasis on joie de vivre.
“This is not a fast food restaurant…the food is meant to be enjoyed…more like a culture than a need,” Rajendra Prasad Pal or Raj as he is addressed, told IANS on a visit to the Cafe.
It’s a world within a world as you locate the restaurant tucked away in a corner of the hippie-cultured Sudder Street in the heart of this bustling metropolis.
Plates heaped with sizzling Gambas Al Ajillo (garlic-flavoured shrimps), or Huevo Relleno (tuna eggs) or bowls laden with the fragrant Sopa de Marisco, ferried by Hindi-speaking servers find their way to Brits, Americans, Europeans, Scandinavians and city-dwellers seated across the 50 or so plastic chairs in a very informal set-up.
As you watch a large group of tourists exchanging anecdotes about their stay in the country with a fair amount of gelling going on with the locals over Spanish and Mediterranean delicacies, the bonhomie, simplicity and unpretentiousness hit you, along with hunger pangs of course.
“You can sit anywhere…with your own group of friends or with the tourists…there are no rules as such,” said Raj, a stickler for delivering the real flavours.
“The flavours are original and we do not modify the flavours according to Indian tastes. Though if you order a dish and if you want more of something or less of some spice, we do that, but then please don’t call that by the name of the original Spanish dish.”
The owner can be seen attending to each of the guests – young and old alike – and exchanges in Spanish with the Spaniards are commonplace.
“Youngsters usually look for chicken-based items and the burritos we offer are good options at a low price which suits their budget. Now the pizzas are becoming popular with them.”
While pancakes remain the top choice for breakfast options, salads like the Ensalada Mixta (Spanish variation of the standard green salad with olives, peppers and tuna) are filling too.
The quintessential Gazpacho (cold Spanish tomato-based raw vegetable soup) and the hearty Sopa de Marisco (fish and seafood soup) are much sought after.
“The seafood seems fresh and the flavours are uncompromising…it is affordable also. The tortillas are good,” said Laura, a volunteer from southern Spain, who prefers the Cafe over fastfood restaurants.
“Besides the Spanish fare, it has got other stuff which people like us from other parts of Europe can have…and the prices are well…pretty easy on us,” Luke from Austria added.
The easy-on-the-pocket aspect of the eatery is one of the reasons travellers make a beeline for this place – part open-air, part within a building. Rows of backpacks and rucksacks lined across the entrance speak for its appeal among the wanderlusters.
“When foreigners come they usually compare prices in restaurants to the cheap street foods…so we have kept the price as low as possible without compromising on quality,” Raj clarified.
Take for instance a plate of Huevo Rellenos that comes at Rs.60, inclusive of a generous salad, or the combo of chicken, french fries, salad and coke at Rs.150 – options galore.
What intrigues first-timers more is the the way to place an order. The servers, perfect gentlemen, will put a writing pad in front of you.
“Since our servers are not fluent in English, we have a pen-and-pad system where guests write down the name of the dish and the quantity,” said Raj.
That is not all. If you want the cafe to add to its repertoire, you can also put in a request along with your order.
As you get ready to explore the food, you are easily distracted with the aroma wafting from the domed custom-made oven in the corner that churns out well-browned thin crust pizzas.
Stroll over, chat with Carlo (a visiting Italian who helps out Raj and his men to make the pizza) as he readies the next pizza or watch as your own order is processed – no one will mind.
“We have deliberately kept the timings of the pizza service from 7 p.m. onwards as in the Italian tradition, pizzas are served in the evening and are meant to be eaten in a relaxed, unhurried way,” Raj pointed out.
Wash away the pizza or salads or soups or pasta with the refreshing Honey Lemon Soda or the Cafe Bonbon (espresso and condensed milk topped with whipped cream) but don’t forget to bring in a crowd next time you visit.