Monday, October 27, 2014

Hotel Subhalaxmi, Naraj

Hotel Subhalaxmi is a small, unpretentious dhābā tucked away in a village just beyond the farthest reaches of Cuttack.  It is not a particularly well-known place, nor is it given to offering exotic one-off preparations. But over time it has built up a local reputation for hearty everyday fare at reasonable prices. Denizens tend to speak highly of its mutton curry and fried fish. It is only a couple of kilometres away from our University campus, and some colleagues are regular lunchtime visitors. We'd been hearing about it for quite some time. So the other day we three of us - Bishwa Kallyan, Ramakrishna, and self - decided on a whim to check it out.

Ram had in fact finished a substantial lunch by then. He came along mainly for the good-humoured conviviality and camaraderie that make our little jaunts so memorable. That and a little fried fish on the side - he ordered um, four of them. Bishwa and I were fortunate he didn't want anything more. They had nearly run out of mutton by the time we arrived (at about 2.30) and could scrape together only two servings. To this Bishwa and I helped ourselves with an easy conscience since Ram was, of course, too full for another meal!

The place is typical of dhabas in Odisha. It is housed in a small single-storied cemented building, one among a row of shops. In front of the entrance is a kind of porch made of concrete columns topped by a canopy of corrugated iron. This serves to stave off the heat, and also provided some shade for regulars who sit there for a chat. What really caught the eye was the shop's startling colour-scheme. The columns are painted a bright lime green with a blue and, now much faded, at the bottom. Inside the green gives way to an equally vivid mustard yellow. Here the blue borders and edges are much more prominent. The sides of the cashier's desk, and the iron door at the back, also flaunt similar shades of blue. As is common practice among dhabas, the kitchen is situated right in front, with tables laid out for diners towards the back. The inside is spartan, with the furniture tending to granite-topped iron tables and backless wooden benches. The ceiling has begun to look a little sooty. That said, it is reasonably clean throughout, even the kitchen is respectably tidy. The benches are not too uncomfortable either, a sentiment evidently shared by the group at the next table who had sneaked in some (very strong) beer and were surreptitously doling it out amongst themselves.

Even though we had come for the first time, the manager sized us up as favoured customers. This favour was bestowed in curious fashion. Perhaps overly cautious of hygiene levels, he came and spread newspapers on our table before setting down the plates. The full thalis (plated meals) for Bishwa and self arrived first. And a good thing too. We were starving by then; the freshly-lunched Ram was, well, not starving. The trays contained rice, some mixed veg, dry stir-fried potato and parwal, and that famed mutton. The rice was the inexpensive, thick-grained variety served in cheap eateries all over Odisha and known simply by the generic name usna chaula (pronounced 'usnā cāulô') or 'parboiled rice'. Sophisticates disparage it as coarse, hard to chew, and heavy on the stomach (hence lethargy-inducing). I tend to differ. It has a robust flavour and texture I love, which you simply don't find in the more refined varieties. If made properly it is not very chewy either. And in this place it was made most properly too, cooked just right. I used up all the rice finishing off the veggies, and had to ask for a second helping to have the mutton with.

The mixed veg was tasty enough, if not particularly interesting. I liked the potato and parwal much more. It was well cooked, not oily at all, and I have a weakness for parwal. I would have asked for seconds had it not been for the mutton waiting patiently across the rice. Ah! the mutton. Lived up to expectation in every way. The gravy was excellently made. It was browned evenly, replete with meaty juices and flavours, and without the slightest hint of scorching even though what they served us must have been the dregs from the day's cooking. The meat was well-cooked, succulent, soft, neither chewy nor mushy, and fell off the bone at the slightest touch. Humble surroundings be damned, it compared handsomely with the finest mutton I've had anywhere in Odisha.

I had just started on the mutton when the fish arrived. By the time I remembered to take pictures, and also get myself a taste, Ram had polished off two of them. They were locally procured small fish, possibly caught that morning off the nearby Kathajodi, and then fried whole. I confess I am not much of a fish eater. Still I helped myself to a couple of chunks just to get a taste. It was not bad, but not very juicy either, and a bit on the bland side. Ram enjoyed it thoroughly, though.

They charged us about Rs 120 per mutton thali. (Or at least that's what Bishwa told me later. While Ram and I were busy with fish and camera respectively, he had sneaked out and quietly settled the bill.) While not cheap, it was certainly reasonable considering the price of mutton these days. And certainly well worth the money. The fish sold for about Rs 30 each, which I thought was on the steeper side. But this is a minor nit. We had a wonderful time, no doubt about it. I certainly intend to be back soon.


Widsith said...

As much as I like your descriptive narration, not without a slight sense of nostalgia, I can't not mention that you seem to have been fortunate in your endeavor. As for us, we've found the mutton to be rather fibrous, the curry was quite diarrheaic and the manager was a seasoned con man who could tell by the looks of our faces how starved we were and accordingly drew up inflated bills which could not be disputed for the lack of a bill of fares, the fact that we'd already consumed his fare, and a gut instinct that told us to be near a usable WC as soon as possible. Ofcourse, it goes without saying that all of this was much gratefully accepted in comparison to what was served at the uni mess.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Thanks for the comment, Widsith. You seem to have been given a really bad deal there. I have also on several occasions been at the receiving end of small-time eateries trying to make a fast buck by inflating bills, palming off inferior cuts of meat, and so forth.

Having said that, I must also point out that the day we went they had nearly run out of mutton, which means they couldn't have selected choice pieces even if they had wanted to. So could it be that the stringy meat was because you happened to land up on a bad day? Of course, this has no bearing on the inflated bills and other cheap stunts.

Shnigdha Samal said...

Super like the narrative! I am so tempted...definitely putting in my to go place. Will try to make it next time I am somewhere nearby.

Abhik Majumdar said...

That's the kind of comment I look forward to :) Do try and make it some time. And while on the topic, stay tuned for more Odisha-related posts. Especially this incredible joint near Patia, Bhubaneswar, which serves mutton cooked inside bamboo logs, also emu and quail.