Chowing Down on Bengali Homecooking at Cafe Dhaka
- Melanie Wong Aug 9, 2006 08:30 AM
On Tuesday night 16 chowhounds from all 'round the bay made their way to Cafe Dhaka in Santa Clara to explore Bengali/Bangladeshi homestyle food. To make it easier on this small restaurant, I had preordered in consultation with "jhinky" and using the advice in a previous thread. Communicating with the owners by phone and via email went smoothly for this non-Bengali speaker. They handled our large group, two tables of 8, with ease.
Our dinner menu included -
4 - Loochi (2 pieces per order), $1.99
2 - Channa dal, $1.95
2 - Aloor dhom, $3.95
2 - Fusca, $2.95
2 - Moglai Porota with beef
2 - Plain rice, $1
2 - Mocha bhajee with shrimp, $6.95
2 - Labra, $4.95
2 - Muri ghonto, $6.95
2 - Begun bhaja, $3.95
2 - Plain rice, $1
4 - Shorshay ilish, $6.95
2 - Chitol kofta, $6.95
2 - Tehari with beef, $7.95
2 - Mutton (goat) rejala, $7.45
2 - Mishti doi, $2.95
4 - Gurer Shondesh, $2.95
The quantities shown are for each table of 8 and the unit price per dish. Our total came to $344.52, including tax, tip and 15% cash/group discount, or less than $22 per person. Chai at the end was complimentary.
Serving sizes are larger than typical by about 25% for Indian restaurants at this price point. If I have any complaints, it would be that we could have halved our order for some of the dishes and still had plenty to go around and then some. The stacked array of neatly labeled to-go styro boxes with our leftovers took up another table.
This dinner was the relaunch of the Curry Dive chowdown series. However, none of us would call Cafe Dhaka a dive even though tht prices are no higher than more stripped down dhabas. The restaurant has a shiny newness to it with pleasant, Indian classical melodies playing in the background. The dinnerware is very nice here and we had an appetizer plate, plus a change of dinner plate in the course of the meal. The service was quite gracious and paced as we had requested, and the staff checked repeatedly to see if the food and timing were to our liking.
Now, let's hear from the 'hounds to describe the dishes we tried and opinions.
3284 El Camino Real @ Pomeroy
Previous Cafe Dhaka thread -
after a fantastic chowdown yesternight in which 16 hounds descended upon the newsworthy Cafe Dhaka, I had to file a report for the benefit of the Bengal tigers and tigresses on this board, to whom I am but certain a kid goat in the field of Bengali cuisine. Standouts from the appetizer course were Moglai Porota, with chicken, chased with fresh onions, and Fusca, which disappeared fast; these golf ball size bread cups ("yeasty!" exclaimed my tablemate) came in a group of six, and held garbanzo beans, chopped tomato and cilantro (also called coriander leaves in India) and were accompanied by a tangy tamarind sauce. The fusca were the first things out of the kitchen and a sharp contrast to the sparkling clean plate of each seated gastronaut, in from a waning sun, behind white cloth tables on restaurant turf newly scouted, with a prominent framed golden Koran to remind us we were on halal ground. The fusca were confirmation yet of more treasures to come from the kitchen.
The five course dinner started off with appetizers, then the main course, followed by courses of fish and meat, topped off by dessert and capped with chai. Standouts were mutton (goat) rejala, hilsha fish, pan-roasted eggplant (Begun Bhaja) and dal. Additional standouts: the 20% group discount arranged by Melanie for us, Melanie and David for organizing the expedition (kudos guys!), the menu (me-noo?) prepared by Urmi, cooling trays of leftovers to carry back home, and oh, the gurer shondesh. All praise and thanks be unto Allah, our Guide for safe passage on the road. May He grant me more dreamy Bengali desserts so that I may have stories to taunt my homesick Indian coworkers with.
My table was in charge of the appetizers, fish course and the mishti doi. I'm supposed to report on the moglai porota, so here goes. It was going to have beef inside (since Cafe Dhaka is a Bangladeshi and thus Muslim restaurant, beef is served), but it ended up being chicken, to nobody's dissatisfaction. This was one of the most popular dishes at our table. Everyone seemed to like it, and it was several people's favorite. I think that includes me, although the mocha bhajee with shrimp and the channa dal give it competition. As the word "porota" suggests - it's a variation on "paratha," a word that appears all across the Indian subcontinent to describe flat fried breads of various kinds - this was a flaky fried bread, wrapped around a filling, along the lines of an empanada, but bigger. The filling was mainly chicken, onion and egg, and was light and mild; the egg made it a very comforting dish. Jenny compared it to Chinese scallion pancakes, but noted that it was light and fluffy inside, while still good and crisp outside. Peter liked the morsel of jalapeño that he found in his.
Other people will doubtless chime in with their dishes, but I'd like to comment on a couple, just briefly so I don't stomp on anyone's reviewing toes. I thought the channa dal was delicious, and it had a lovely, firm texture, with each lentil distinct and fibrous, if that word can be a compliment. I'm generally not a dal fan, but this was a fragrant and dynamic exception. The loochi (akin to a puri, it's a flattish fried pocket bread) went well with it, but the aloor dhom, which was also meant to be eaten with the loochi, didn't really stand out. It was bland and watery - possibly a good breakfast, as the waiter said, but dull at dinnertime. The fusca were a nice pani puri cousin - little fried pockets of chickpea and cilantro, with a mild, thickish tamarind sauce - but also not especially memorable.
In the second course, the mocha bhajee with shrimp was a wonderful dish, made out of banana blossoms with smallish shrimp. It was mild but flavorful, and the vegetable had a creamy texture, reminiscent of hearts of palm (as Michele said) but with a nicer flavor, in my opinion. The labra was another mild dish, more tasty and interesting than its basic description as a potato and eggplant stir-fry would imply. The muri ghonto, or fish head curry, was terrible. I actually thought it tasted literally like dirt. The begn bhaja, or eggplant fritters, were delicious, and though soaked in oil, had a light and fruity flavor.
The fish course included shorshay ilish, a famous Bengali dish made out of the national fish, hilsa. It had several thousand tiny bones, but a nice flavor. The chitol kofta was a delicious fish meatball, with warm, sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom.
The last dinner course was the meat course, composed of tehari with beef, which was a bland and dry biryani, and mutton rejala, which was a nice, sweetish, goat curry.
For dessert, the mishti doi was a cooling, sweet homemade yogurt. It didn't have a strong, recognizable flavor, despite its pink color, but it was very pleasant. The gurer shondesh (gur is the same as jaggery; basically a Sugar in the Raw-type unprocessed turbinado sugar) was a square cake with a texture much like that of a laddu, or a moist sesame halvah. It was molassesey, nutty and very nice.
Overall, I thought the restaurant was very good, and the staff were very solicitous; they took us and our questions seriously, and seemed pleased that we wanted to eat their specialties, instead of chicken tikka masala or something. Thanks to Melanie for organizing a great Chowdown!
re: David Boyk
oh yeah I loved those Moglai Porota bites, they beat the average scallion pancake by much in my book! The fluffy crust coupled with a fragrantly oozy eggy center was great, I'll go back for that one alone
I liked the flavorings of the seafood/meat dishes, although the mutton rejala was on the tough side(though still very good). Thanks to Melanie and everyone else for an awesome chowdown!
That was a very interesting dinner for me - and much thanks to Melanie for flawless planning! We did end up with too much food but what is a good meal with no leftovers for the next day...
First, general impressions about the restaurant - the staff and owners are very eager to please and were quite excited by a large group of non-Bengalis wanting to eat Bengali specialties. Its clean and spacious and quite unlike what I was expecting. As an aside the owners said that they were from the Barisal distt of Bangladesh and not Sylhet or Chattagram which is where most Bangladeshi restaurant owners in the US (and UK I believe) typically come from.
I'll focus on a few of the dishes that either stood out to me or I have more specific feedback about.
As David says - the Moghlai porota was the stand out. It was fried but not greasy at all. The combination of chillis and cilantro gives it the typical Bengali/Bangladeshi snacks flavor. I have had it before served with a thin curry (kind of like a cross between south east asian murtabak and roti canai) but this one was a standalone version. It was improved by adding the tamarind sauce from the fusca to it.
I think this course had the most 'different' items from usual Indian restaurants.
My favorite was the Labra which is by definition a mishmash of whatever vegetables are in season (though potatoes and either eggplants or pumpkin are always part of the ingredients). It had a sweetness from the pumpkin which I enjoyed and the delicate panch phoron based spicing that is so typical of Bengali vegetarian food. It went very well with plain rice.
The mocha bhajee was very different from my mother's version (or other versions that I have had). This version came in a sauce/gravy and missed the touch of sweetness that I associate with Mocha normally. It was tasty no doubt but I was disappointed as it did not match my expectations of it. I am glad people enjoyed it though.
What was called muri ghonto on the menu was grass carp heads in dal (machher muro diye dal) which is a an authentic dish but not a muri ghonto. A muri ghonto is made with rice (or sometimes poha) and other vegetables like potatoes and cauliflower along with fish heads. The fish head in this version suffered from not being fried enough and hence retaining the fishy / river fish smell that a lot of people find muddy.
The begun bhaja was fried eggplant slices - this would normally be eaten with dal and rice, not much to say about it.
Both the fish course items were good versions. The shorshe ilish was a tad bit short on the salt but the mustard gravy was nice and thick though not as pungent as it could be. A few skinny slit Thai chillies would have been welcome too!
The chitol kofta I liked a lot. It was minced Chitol fish belly made into balls and cooked in a onion based gravy with the typical garam masala combo (as an aside when Bengalis say Garam Masala they usually mean a mix of of whole or ground cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and joyitri - whose English name I am blanking on, and definitely no coriander or cumin in there).
The meat courses consisted of tehari - a biryani like rice with beef and Mutton Rejala. I was told that the difference between tehari and Biryani lies in the spices used. I was too full to eat more than a few bites of it but it was definitely fragrant with the right kind of spices and the meat was in bite sized pieces interspersed with the rice.
The mutton rejala was actually goat which I was happy about! It was fairly typical curry - milder than the Indus Vilage version for example. Both the meat courses were not at all greasy or too oily. In fact that is another thing I would say about the meal in general - except for the fried eggplant and some of the luchis - the food was not too oily. Bengali food does straddle the spectrum as far as spiciness or heat goes and this was mostly on the milder side.
I liked the mishti doi in spite of the bright pink coloring which was a little offputting. I hope they decide to leave out the coloring as the doi was good as it is - not too sweet but quite thick and creamy.
The sandesh was a superior freshly made version - like your favorite aunt would make. If your aunt was called rangapishima and was a fan of Uttam Kumar. Khejurer Gur (which is the gur/jaggery made from date-palms and not sugarcane gur which is more popular in North India) is used as the sweetener as well as for delicate flavoring for the Chhana or fresh paneer which has been ground fine by hand for the sandesh. This mix is then cooked over slow heat. This was the soft version or norom pak. I must reiterate though that this was a home cook's version and not the storemade kind and was not as fine ground as that would be but stood out for its freshness and mild sweetness to me.
Overall I would give them an A for effort and enthusiasm and between an A or a B for most of the dishes. I am going back to try their biryani because I liked the Tehari and also to go through the various fish items on the menu. I'll definitely get the labra again with some luchi and chana dal maybe and a moghlai porota to start with. Oh and the sandesh and the other sweets as I have a feeling their sweets in general will be better than most other Indian sweets stores.
Thanks again to Melanie and everyone else at the ChowDown for making it so much fun and letting my inner professor shine through once in a while :)
>joyitri - whose English name I am blanking on,
oh, that is MACE aka the outer part of the nutmeg [or more
formally, the aril: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arillus] ...
>Barisal distt of Bangladesh and not Sylhet
could you tell from their accent? i'm definitely
going to have to go with my parent now.
It sounds like they dropped the ball on the Alur Dum ...
I'd think even a half decent version with loochis would
have been well received.
>I liked the mishti doi in spite of the bright pink
>coloring which was a little offputting.
funny you say that ... i also thought the color of the doi in
MW's pix reminded me of the color it starts to turn when it has
been sitting in the bhand a little too long.
>rangapishima and was a fan of Uttam Kumar.
i guess less rang would have made for a more "uttam" doi.
yeh lal rang ... mera doi ...kora kagaz.
did they make any items with "boris"? that is another
ingredient not seen too often around here.
>mustard gravy was nice and thick though not as pungent as it
I was observing to MW ... and some other friends ... that there
isnt an english equivalent to the bengali word "jhanj" ... which
is the sinus-clearing mustard kick. it's sort of interesting
english uses the same word for temp-hot and and spicy-hot,
cooked rice and raw rice grains ... while some other language
[bengali, spanish, chinese, japanese] have specific words for
re: the ilish
>It had several thousand tiny bones
that's pretty funny too. i didnt think the ilish maacher jhol
type preps or the muri ghonto would be real popular here.
BTW, there are a number of essentially identical items which
have different names in diff parts of india ... loochi, puri,
samosa, shingara, jal, pani, noon, labang, pani puri, phutcka,
gol goppa, cholay, gughni ...
nobody sang the "shader lau" song?
re: >Barisal distt of Bangladesh and not Sylhet
could you tell from their accent? i'm definitely
going to have to go with my parent now.
Nah - no way could I have figured out that from the accent. I asked!
As for the color of the doi - well I asked and they said apologetically that yes they had added food coloring - that pink does not exist in nature - only some horrific barbie world! I wonder how the chomchom, roshomalai and the roshogolla are. The sandesh was a competent version - surprisingly. I should have gotten their other sweets to go - <slaps forehead> duh!
No boris to be seen anywhere - as an aside - the only bori my mother would deign to use when she visited was a spicy punjabi version from dana bazar. It worked in shukto - so hey I am not ocmplaining.
I knew I was in for something different as soon as I tasted the fusca and the accompanying tamarind sauce. The tamarind was many degrees less sweet and therefore more tart than versions I've had at other South Asian restaurants. The other difference came through in the color and piquancy of the dishes. As you can see from the photographs, the dishes for the most part are not stained red from cayenne or other dried red pepper. The ones that did have more heat acquired their spiciness from the fresh green chilis. This seemed akin to what's called "wet spicy" in Sichuan cuisine to differentiate it from the smoky red dried chilis. As you mentioned, there was also the distinctive bite of fresh ginger root and the pungency of mustard seed. The desserts were also far less sweet than I've experienced before. I claimed the leftovers of the desserts as my own and have been enjoying them. The next day the warm, rich tones of the carmelized sugar seemed even more prominent in the flavoring.
My favorite dish was the ilish. I was wishing I had a pair of chopsticks to tackle those tiny bones. Limited to the utensils at the table, I would smoosh the fish flesh, pick out the little bones, and then in the mouth I'd sort of roll it over the tongue one more time to try to detect any other bones. But it was well worth it, I loved the taste of this fish and the saucing.
I loved the aroma of the tehari when it came to the table. Among the dry and fluffy separate grains of rice were whole cloves and other aromatic spices. I was much too full to eat much of it at the table and wish I'd thought to take some home with me.
Since you posted in the Badal thread that you tried Cafe Dhaka this weekend, what are your thoughts on the food now?
Thanks to everyone for such a nice dinner. The descriptions above are pretty thorough, and for me the highlights were the parota, dal, labra (mixed vegs), shorshe ilish (mustard fish), and the dessert.
My comments about those items are similar to what's been said, but I'll add that I really enjoyed the sweet/creamy/sour combination of the mishti doi (yogurt). I liked eating it with the sandesh, and didn't have any problems with the sandesh's texture. I have trouble with some the cloying sweetness of some Indian sweets, but these were different. For my taste, the flavors were perfectly proportioned and very refreshing.
It looks like the restaurant has a steady stream of business from local Bengalis. When we arrived at 7 it was pretty empty, but business seemed to pick up later in the evening. The Islamic art in the restaurant is quite intricate and beautiful, especially the Koran page with golden caligraphy. And it's definitely much cleaner and brighter than other restaurants at this price point.
For me, this is a good once-in-a-while place. It would be nice if it had some Bengali competition to compare it to, as I'm not sure if some of the less sucessful dishes would be more appealing if prepared differently. But sticking to the "hits", I think one could have a very satisfying (and inexpensive) meal.