Mumbai has always been a city that welcomes a wide variety of cultures. This particular aspect is more evident when you look at the city’s restaurants, and the many seasonal festivals that it hosts. One of these communities that have a wide presence in this city is the Bengali community, and you wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find some of the best Bengali restaurants strewn across the city.
Earlier this month, The Leela, Mumbai, notched the game up by hosting the second annual Bengali food festival, in collaboration with Aaheli. Those who have been to Kolkata, or belong there, would need no introduction to Aaheli and the iconic status that it enjoys. Set in Central Kolkata’s business district of Esplanade, Aaheli is one of Kolkata’s most iconic restaurants when it comes to authentic Bengali food and getting a glimpse of the perfect Bengali dine-out experience.
Having known a lot of Bengalis through my life, I’ve always been somewhat familiar with Bengali festivals, and the cuisine itself. It is safe to say that I have a particular proclivity for the Bengali platter, and it is only when you get a real glimpse at the finest options that Bengal’s menus have on offer, do you begin to see the reason behind the pride and aura behind this community’s dining necessities.
At Jamavar’s Bengali food festival in The Leela, Aaheli’s Head Chef Hafeez and his team were flown in from Kolkata to curate a special Bengali menu with items that enjoy an iconic status at Aaheli. But, the dining experience goes well beyond just the food. The Aaheli Experience, as I now love to recall it as, begins with welcoming guests and striking a conversation over a refreshing welcome drink – very intrinsic to the Bengali culture.
“Appaayon,” is what it is called, chimed in my Bengali friend, who shifted to Mumbai from Kolkata almost four years ago, and claims he cannot get enough Bengali dinners even though he pretty much has Bengali food every week. Naturally, when I mentioned Aaheli to him, he went on a Shakespearean monologue narrating childhood memories of family luncheons, and how bhetki’r paturi at Aaheli was nothing like he’s ever had.
Not to my surprise, though, The Leela’s EAM, F&B, Mr Abhishek Basu, had the same reaction as my friend. “They’re bonding over fish,” thought I. But then, wouldn’t it have been surprising had they not bonded over fish? Soon enough, it was time for us to begin our multi-course meal for the night.
Now, here’s the thing – I could go on and on critiquing every aspect of what we ate. I could tell you about how the chanar patishapta was nothing like I ever had before, or how the peyaj posto’r bora had the perfect balance of flavours and texture, or even how the shonali moong dal was heaven for every dal lover. I can go on describing each of these in more detail, too, but that’s not what this dinner was about.
To say that Aaheli is possibly the best Bengali dining experience one can have in Mumbai is like being surprised with Virat Kohli’s genius on the cricket pitch. It is something that does not warrant criticism of the art that it excels at. Rather, getting a slice of Aaheli at Jamavar in The Leela is an experience to be savoured, for this is one of the best dining experiences you can have across the calendar in Mumbai.
This particular night was all about striking conversations – about how certain dishes evoke memories of childhood, and even lead to stories that date all the way back to grandparents, the partition of Bengal, and hidden family secrets that are all beloved and intrinsic elements of the Bengali culture. There is pride in the food they serve, because this fare warrants pride. From pitch-perfect flavours that are so distinctly Bengali, to me feeling utterly stuffed but still not willing to let go of the platter, Jamavar’s Bengali food celebration was all about highlighting Aaheli’s status back home as one of the best restaurants in town – one that has stood the advent of many equally alluring restaurants in the city, and still continues to carve its niche as one that serves unparalleled bhetki’r paturi, kasha mangsho and much more.
Aaheli, like my Bengali friend proclaimed in equally dramatic fashion, is not about an overwhelming assortment or the perfectionist’s art canvas that is fusion cuisines. But, for anyone outside the Bengali community, the sheer number of items of the platter, the excellence of their tastes and the wonderful, amiable hospitality does make for an overwhelming dining experience, one that you would not wish to forget in a hurry.
The annual Bengali food festival will hopefully return to The Leela next year too, although we hope they bring it back sooner than that. Chef Hafeez said that he has been spearheading the Aaheli kitchen for over 15 years now. For a restaurant that has managed to hold on to the exact same taste for more than a decade now, you know how good and exclusive this experience is.
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