Apart from some outstanding Darjeeling and Nilgiri teas, pure and unadulterated like the mountain air, the renovated Tea Centre at Churchgate serves some interesting food items, including apple tarts and pecan pies at Rs. 25 per slice. A visit is more than recommended, go for breakfast, brunch or high tea.
Writing about it is a bit of a problem. Should I write about its various teas, which are the cause d'Ítre, or should I write about the food? I think I shall begin with the food.
Breakfast is from 9 to 11.30 a.m., and they give you a sumptuous breakfast special for Rs. 100 only. It includes corn flakes, two eggs, any style (you may order an omelette with a choice of three fillings), hash browns, a grilled tomato, one veg order on side, toast (take your pick from white, whole wheat and rustic oats bread), and a cup of tea, naturally. Outside Cafe Mondegar on the Causeway, show me a restaurant or tea house in town that provides a breakfast this elaborate and this cheap. There is also a cheaper breakfast, considerably cheaper, Rs. 40, plus taxes as applicable. Eggs to order, including an omelette (but plain, not with fillings), hash browns and a grilled tomato, plus toast and a pot of blended tea. Other breakfast specials include oatmeal topped with hot milk at Rs. 25, and cold cereals (museli, corn flakes, wheat flakes). There are also waffles and pancakes to die for, served with butter, maple syrup, honey or fresh cream.
The omelettes are available through the day, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., made in large greasy frying pans, expertly turned up plump and fluffy, stuffed with bacon, ham, chicken, mushrooms, olives, green peppers, tomatoes, cheddar. So are the sandwiches, through the day, and with your choice of meats and vegetables, or a wide array of cheeses, from edam to gouda and smoked gouda. You have your choice of bread also, whole wheat, mini baguette, grilled, toasted, plain, with a generous application of mustard. And ask them to use the Bengali mustard, kasundi. I understand it is grounded in the Calcutta winter, by widows (at least, it was by widows, in the old days), the mustard seeds grounded only in one direction, the powder soaked in vinegar in casks for two to three months. It is strong, with a slight vinegary taste. The Tea Centre uses it on its sandwiches, for its salad dressings, and there are customers who order it, pour it on steamed rice and eat it. Yes, these are Bengalis. And, yes, there is rice also. But that's brunch. I'll come to that later. First, let me tell you something about the place.
Tea Centre has been there since 1956, but not many people have noticed it. It began with pomp and ceremony, but then, being a government enterprise, run by the Tea Board, it got neglected and floated on. Thirty years later, Pralhad Kakar, ad man (Genesis), operator of scuba diving schools in the Lakshwadeeps and Andamans, food aesthete, comes in. He was, asked if he would help out. He did. You step into Tea Centre, you will not recognise it. For those not familiar with the place, it is at Churchgate, on the ground floor of Resham Bhavan, that's two buildings from the station, the building next to WIAA, almost bang opposite the Asiatic Stores. It's bright, well laid out, air-conditioned, waiters in turbans, fine silver, bone china, the charming Shaheen Adenwala as manager, piped music, a grand piano, which opens up at 3.30 in the afternoon, in time for High Tea, and any customer can play it (they are looking for a regular pianist).
The tea is the main thing and it comes direct from misty tea plantations and Kolkatta auction houses, and is brewed and served in the correct style. Every Saturday, a row of cups, silver spoons to slurp the brew, and a large spitoon to spit it out and move to the next brand. The tea is the best quality available, fragrant Darjeeling, robust Assam, velvety Nilgiri. There is a fine tippy golden flowery orange pekoe (FTGFOP), it is a second flush, with a peachy fragrant taste and character. It is the most expensive, a two-cup pot for Rs. 75. Another Darjeeling, more aromatic, is Rs. 65, and a slightly stronger Darjeeling is Rs. 55. These are drunk without milk and sugar, though all the teas at the Centre are served with milk and sugar, it is up to you how you want to drink them. The Assam teas, between Rs. 65 and 40, are more full bodied, some of them are advised with a splash of milk, others with a twist of lemon. There is Earl Grey, consumed by ladies at afternoon bridge rubbers, and what is known as the truck driver's tea, what most of us drink (Rs. 15 for a large cuppa), and flavoured teas (strawberry, black currant, peppermint), which you may have iced. No, there is no coffee. That would be like having Coca-Cola at the World Cup.
Brunch is noon to 3 p.m., and daily there is a special, a non-veg at Rs. 125 and a veg at Rs. 105. It is written on a blackboard at the entrance, or you may ring up Ms. Adenwala (204 1699) and ask, what's the special today? The chef is Tarun Chadha, young, talented and inspired, ex-Viva Paschim. He comes out with rare combinations, Khakras with boursin cheese, and Mangalore pomfret with garlic toast. Not every dish is equally exotic. Occasionally, there is mutton dhansak, supplied by a Parsi lady, it is known as Mrs. Cooper's dhansak. I have not tried it yet, when I do, I will let you know. And the chef himself makes Goa fish curry and rice, with pomfret, rawas and sometimes with bomil. The last, you have to try, and let me know your verdict. I have tried the chef's Mangalore fish. It is ravas, crusty but with tender flesh, with a thick layer of roasted masala. For the masala, he had roasted channa, tur and udad dals, coarsely grounded them and cooked them with chopped onions, tamarind and kokum, imparting the fish with a smokey, sour taste. It was accompanied with bread, salad. I have also had his paneer. It is not an ordinary paneer, it is a malai paneer, the most expensive variety. Most chefs do not use it not only because it is expensive but also because it fragments in cooking, the chef has to be very careful. It taste like brain, pan fried, and it comes in a spicy gravy. There is a round pat of fine grained Basmati rice along with it.
From 3.30 p.m., it is High Tea, the waiters going around with their tea services, the aroma of tea gardens in the air, lemon sponge cakes and banana-walnut loaves, the tea sandwich platter, pakodas and samosas (unfortunately not the Bombay kheema samosas), and the finest french fries in town (putting into shade McDonald's), to be eaten with the Bengali mustard. Thank you, Parched Kakar, for rediscovering the Tea Centre.