Every day, at around 4.30 pm, I develop a great craving for an omelette. This is something I have had since my college days in Delhi. Mobile omelette stalls would appear all around the University, especially in winter. Ahhhh! The sound of sizzling butter, the whisking together of yolk, green chillies, onions and coriander and the crackles and hisses as this mix fell on the molten butter in the frying pan. The sprinkling of salt…then the tossing over. The toasting of a couple of slices, the daub of butter, the pressing of the omelette in between and presto! On to your plate before the icy Delhi cold got to it. I can never forget it. I am told that the omelettes at the Renigunta station are the best, but the DU ones were among the top echelons.
And so, I still have the craving. These days, yellow of the egg is out of bounds and so is the butter. What I have is a thinner version with dry toast (ugh!). But the Madras Cricket Club dishes out a decent preparation with plenty of green chillies, which for me are a must though they agree with only one end of the alimentary canal (not mine by the way but a lift from SY Krishnaswami’s Memoirs of a Mediocre Man, where he writes in similar vein about pickles).
But when I come to Bangalore, I make a beeline to the India Coffee House, formerly on MG Road and now on Church Street. Several of my friends have sneered at my choice. But introduced first to me by Srividya Prakash (she of Worldspace fame), I have remained faithful ever since. There is something about the place that appeals to the Calcuttan in me – a fascinating decay, a brooding sense of impending collapse, a sad reminder of having seen better days and finally a stubborn refusal to recognise the modern.
It was dark and gloomy when on MG Road and it continues to remain that way on Church Street. Though better lit now, it has retained its saturnine miasma rather like Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights. Probably this is because all the old furniture, painted dark brown, made it intact from the old location. The bearers are all elderly and give you the impression of being born that way. They also wear archaic clothes – rather like the chobdars in the High Court of Madras. Each man has a strange turban that fans out at the top, a close fitting tunic with brass buttons, a red belt with a prominent buckle, trousers, and no shoes. They are surly and often talk to themselves.
The omelette, as in everything else here, is old fashioned. And there is only one variety, exactly as mother made it. It is made with butter, complete with yellow of the yolk. The onions are always a trifle undercooked. Salt (grey powder) and pepper (also a grey powder) are placed separately for you to add. The bread will have a daub of butter. Those in charge of the place have never heard of size zero and cholestrol and long may they remain that way. When served on plain white plates, the omelette is large, fluffy and a bright yellow. And it tastes great, especially on days when it is raining in Bangalore, which is fairly often these days.
The place is full of atmosphere. On the walls, advertisements from the 1940s and a large peeling mirror. “A fine man, a fine coffee, both Indian” says one ad, showing a gent who may have been the Maharana of Udaipur. Another has a young girl (now no doubt a great-grandmother) holding a cup of coffee and saying that it is the reason for her smile. The kitchen is open to view and is like something out of Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam (not the Gangster). The only concession to modernity is a computerised billing system which is for internal purposes. When you ask for a copy, you are given a hand-written one. There is no menu card and the check is brought to you on a metal plate, then removed and placed under the plate so that it does not fly away. That no doubt is one of the India Coffee House rituals.
The place is ever full. Where else can you get an omelette, two slices of bread and a coffee for Rs 60? This is the equivalent of Simpsons on the Strand where if Wodehouse is to be believed, for a sum of five pounds you could eat any amount. Yesterday when I visited, there was the usual assortment of the faithful. A group of young IT professionals clustering around a laptop discussing the latest app and wondering how to fund it, a jubilant property agent and his cohorts come to relax after having done a deal, a couple of young uns looking deep into each other’s eyes oblivious of everything else and a harassed mother with three kids happily gorging themselves.
Coffee is more or less compulsory here. I had once mildly told the waiter that I was off coffee but he looked at me with such withering contempt that I lost my nerve and ordered it. It is served hot, with plenty of sugar. The texture is thin but the coffee aroma is unmistakable. It takes me back to young days in Bangaru Ammal Street, Mylapore, where I would be asked to go and buy coffee seeds – Peaberry and A Kottai whatever that meant and in a ratio that I now forget. Somehow the India Coffee House coffee beats all the modern varieties, and the posh outlets staffed entirely with people who know nothing of what is on board.
Finally, no tissue papers here. You are asked to go and wash at a sink. That is separated from the main hall by a curtain. En route are sacks of vegetables. Just abaft the sink is a bucket and metal mug (referred to as mugga for some reason in Delhi). Beyond is a plastic door and somehow I know what lurks behind has to do with ‘ablutions’. I beat a hasty retreat. On my way back, I notice a fellow patron surreptitiously wiping his fingers on a newspaper he had brought with him. Clearly he too did not have the nerve to ask for a tissue or go wash his hands. Our eyes meet. We smile knowingly. But we know we will be back.