"Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night". William Blake’s words spring to mind as you slip into a booth at the Royal Bengal Tiger cafe, bite into a crisp Mughlai paratha and other traditional Bengali quick bites and let yourself be mesmerised by the icy glare of the majestic animal.
The ‘Tiger cafe’ as it is known by the locals, has a setting that reminds you of India’s pride – the Royal Bengal tiger in the wild.
With captivating paintings of the big cat in vibrant hues by well-known artists Pradeep Maitra and Sanatan Dinda hung on the walls, stack of books by tiger experts and mascots of the beast on the colourful menu, merchandise and notice boards, you can’t escape its piercing stare.
Sunshine filters in through the clear glass walls inside the spacious yet cosy, hip eating joint in south Kolkata that serves quintessential Bengali snacks in a modern avatar in contrast to the coffee chains that have popped up in every nook and corner of Kolkata. It also doubles up as a hub for promoting home-grown talent.
Its distinct hospitality format has a purpose.
According to owner Pranab Chatterjee, the cafe seeks to preserve the "endangered" Bengali heritage (food and arts) as well as the animal species.
"Because of the mall culture and onslaught of food chains, we have become like robots used to a specific food format and are losing touch with our heritage," Chatterjee told IANS.
"We want to encourage people, especially youngsters, to come and try the traditional snacks and street food in a setting that is in sync with the international chains which attract youngsters," he said.
The two-month-old joint has already got a steady following of customers, including foreigners, students and locals.
The unique name symbolizing India and Bengal is a draw in itself. Chatterjee, an architect and urban planner by profession, reveals ad-gurus advised him against the name.
"I want to take the cafe national and international and Royal Bengal tiger instantly reminds one of India," explained Chatterjee.
The chefs swear by the Mughlai paratha platter comprising triangular pieces of fried flat bread stuffed with eggs or chicken or mutton, with a side dish of curried spicy potatoes, tomato sauce and salad.
The other Bengali favourite on the menu is the ghugni (spicy yellowish gravy of white pea with spices), which is a popular evening grub.
The quintessential fish fry and a gamut of ‘chops’ or patties – mochar chop (banana flower patty), mutton and fish patty – on the menu are a constant reminder of the variety that Kolkata streets throw up.
If you are game for some innovation, try the shorshe chicken (mustard chicken) sandwich with French fries and juice, chilli chicken sandwich with omelette and juice and other interesting takes on typical Bengali fare.
Despite the strong presence of routine espressos, lattes, cappuccinos and cold quenchers, nuances of Kolkata’s street food culture seeps in with teas and wholesome meal options.
The breakfast segment is broken up into distinctive styles reminiscent of the thriving Marwari, Gujarati, Bihari, Anglo-Indian and Chinese communities and distinct pockets of the eastern metropolis like Gariahat, Burrabazar and Park Street.
There are the wholesome luchi cholar daal/begun bhaja (fried bread with lentils or fried brinjal), non-Bengali options like poori bhaji (fried bread, vegetables), masala chilla (pancakes of either gram flour or semolina) and parathas with curd as well as grilled sausage, cereals and eggs.
Dimsums and fish balls signify the breakfast market at Tiretti bazaar in Kolkata’s China town.
Apart from the familiar brownies, cakes and muffins, the dessert section includes the ubiquitous malpua (fried pancake in sugar syrup) with rabri (a milk-based sweet dish), hot pantura (the Bengali equivalent of gulab jamun) served with vanilla ice cream, nolen gurer (jaggery) mousse and patishapta (pancake stuffed with jaggery) with rabri.
"We are not trying to be pretentious and we are affordable, therefore, the food is a good mix of basic cafe items and Bengali fare, so that it appeals to all," clarified Chatterjee.
As for its contribution to conservation, the cafe has on the cards awareness campaigns and activities (lectures by animal conservationists) to engage visitors in helping the tiger population survive.
"We are a dynamic cafe and believe in spontaneity. So the paintings and menu will change every few months and suggestions from customers will be taken too," Chatterjee said.
Separated by glass walls, on the side facing the street, is a modest semi-open seating area with rustic wooden benches, plants and an elevated platform for live jigs. There is also an easel.
"We are promoting local, young talent. They can perform, paint and explore creative pursuits. It is also open for shootings. The paintings will be auctioned and part of the proceeds will go to the ‘Save the Tiger Fund’.
"The experience will be that of an organic cafe culture seen in cities like Paris but with an Indian essence," Chatterjee quipped.