Friday, January 18, 2019

Fine Eating in Delhi's Connaught Place - United Coffee House

This appeared in The Hindu 

United Coffee House turns 75 - The Hindu

Read the unedited version here...

Flash back of 75 years...

“Archived dishes are a very big homework. We have an archival recipe record of nearly 400 – 500 dishes which we have served in our restaurant in the last 75 years. They are not original or authentic recipes but our adaptation of these to the taste of our customers and the time.” Says Akash K Kalra, Managing Director, The United Group, “of these around 150 – 200 dishes are on the menu all the time. We keep going back to these, bring it back to our customers, adapting it to suit their palette and trend of the day. I look at myself as a custodian of this heritage which I want to retain and take it forward,” finishes Kalra.
Despite this emphasis on food and cuisine from all over the world, it comes as a surprise to know that when United Coffee House started, food was not its focal point. It was more of a place to meet and chat – an adda of sorts – to enjoy a cup of coffee with snacks, to wrap up the day. As Kalra says, “this place was more of a hangout where people could meet. For many, this was a place to walk in on Sundays after listening to the Military band play and watching the fountains at Central Park to walk in here for a cup of coffee with snacks. It was a part of a Sunday ritual for many.”

The establishment of the first coffee house in Delhi in 1942 was the brain child of Lala Hans Raj Kalra (Akash Kalra’s grandfather), the son of a liquor baron who had a flourishing liquor business in Sialkot in Pakistan. The family moved to Delhi and were based in Chandni Chowk. They also owned a liquor bond and a liquor shop in Chandni Chowk. The first foray into hospitality came with the setting up of Esplanade Restaurant & Bar in 1938-39 to cater to the American GIs who had their barracks at the Red Fort. It proved to be very popular but since it was meant for the GIs it wound up with their moving out after the war in early 40s. Around that time, Hans Raj Kalra heard of an affluent shopping arcade in Lutyens Delhi called Connaught Place which had been built in the shape of a horse shoe to bring luck to the traders and its customers. Going there, he found little bakeries were the Memsahibs sold homemade goodies, equestrian shoe makers, drapers…However what it lacked was a Coffee House. Coffee Houses were “in” those days especially in England, and there was none here. He bought the place and opened United Coffee House. As Kalra says, “he called it United because it was a place where people could unite for coffee.” Thus Hans Raj Kalra also sealed the family business into hospitality moving out of the liquor trade they were in.

Initially in the 40s, the place was open from 11 am to 8 pm typically selling street snacks of Old Delhi. People would congregate for coffee. As Kalra says, “food then was commercial food and Bibiyana food or that which was made at home. No one would eat home food outside so it was only commercial food – omelette, chana bhatura, tikka...” Post independence in the 50s, the hours extended and by 60s it became a full fledged restaurant. The cuisine initially was a mix of the Old Delhi Kayasth food and Frontier Province Pakistani food.  The menu expanded and during their life time, the place has served everything from commercial food, Bibiyana food, Madras Club Food, Bombay Club Food, Calcutta Club food, Anglo Indian, Khansama cooked Memsahib cuisine, newer variants of continental food, Asian, Mexican, Lebanese and of course Indian including popular appams and dals. Having been conceived in the British Era, there is still a fondness for the Old Raj cuisine especially British Club food – Cheese balls, cutlets, samosas, chops, cutlets…English breakfast. The Menu in itself very interesting offering a host of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes (breakfast, tea snacks, main course, starters and more..)

Though there is such a range of dishes available, Kalra says, “We are known for our keema samosa, cheese balls, tomato fish, chicken a la kiev. These have not been invented by us. But our variation is a huge hit, it is amongst our signature dishes.” Apart from these there are plenty of staples – the Chaplee Kababs, Railway mutton curry, Dak Bunglow chicken curry, Chicken Maryland, Coq Au Vin, Chicken a la princess.. Kalra explains, “my grandfather had the acumen to get some of the finest cooks of those times to work for us. With their feedback and my grandfather’s insight a dish would be perfected after much trials. For example a chef from Lucknow might add raw mango and bay leaf to a Dak Bunglow chicken curry which made the taste entirely different from the usual one. It is such little variations which adds to our dishes and taste.”

To commemorate the 75th year, a new menu will be unveiled in May. Classic dishes which have not been on the Menu for 20 – 30 years are being revamped and brought back. Kalra enthusiastically says, “Fuyong, Chow chows from Asian, butter milk burgers…amongst others. Again these dishes are being adjusted to suit today’s palette. So if a baked salmon was served with boiled vegetables then, today we would be doing it with braised Bok Choi.”

What works for the UCH is that it still retains the old world charm of the 1950s. The food has been adapted to suit today’s nuances but yet the ambience is one of relaxed uncluttered luxury. One actually feels one is back in time when one steps into the restaurant - the laid back era of fine dining, huge chandeliers, unhurried knowledgeable waiters, the attention and care to the patrons with a sense of discreet familiarity.

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