The lights are dim and the napery a white glimmer in the intimate dusk. Frank Sinatra croons from the speakers and the walls are wood panelled. White-gloved waiters materialise out of the panelling and place copper covered dishes on the table, deftly twiddling the knobs so that a logo flashes at you for a moment. The covers are whisked off and steam wreaths the atmosphere, revealing tomato roses and capsicum foliage. This feat of theatre asks for applause – or at any rate, for a deep breathed, “Ahh!” A spoon plunges, a fork cuts. There is an expectant hush. Then a voice gloomily pronounces, “Not a patch on Skyroom.”
For far too many people, Skyroom is a spatter of peeling posters against a grey blue wall with a blue awning wilting sadly over the window sealed shut with more posters. Another victim of the trade wars, with a insidious whisper of tainted ice cream thrown in to give the whole affair a stickily unpleasant edge. It opened once, briefly and closed down again, this time to be overwhelmed by the rash of black and white demands. And then the only people who remembered it were the older generation and the children of the sixties who had grown into influential age, harbouring a secret taste of ice cream and meringue or crusty lobster patties treasured on a tongue tip. For the younger, ‘happening’ generation, it had never happened at all.
The pale blue sky arched overhead glimmering with golden stars. Underfoot was a soft maroon and grey mass of carpet. You walked in and scanned the walls looking for a clue to the name before it occurred to you to sit back in your chair and look up. Then you sat and stared at the ceiling for a while wondering why the stars weren’t little lights in themselves and whether the place would be better for the ‘tooney bulb’ glitter of starlight. The lighting was soft, understated, but bright enough to read a menu by. There was none of the nonsense of little pink shaded lamps at the tables or any kitsch attempts at cozy intimacy. In fact, there wasn’t any nonsense. The chairs were low slung armchairs designed to support a serious diner. You could lean back against them in joyous anticipation of the next course.
Usually the only sound was the clink of glasses and the clatter of cutlery. Otherwise the carpeting and the cushions cocooned the place from the honking of Park Street. You stepped into an audible hush which was rarely disturbed even in the later, noisier days when the clientele was more boisterous and hung together in hilarious parties along the stretch of the far wall. Part of the reason was the non-availability of alcohol. It was a place for serious eating, not serious drinking. There were other, more congenial dives for the drinkers further down the road. If you walked in to Skyroom, you were there to eat and for no other reason.
It was a different kind of treat. On an afternoon, just out of school, if mothers were kind, one crossed the road and scuffled into a banquette. There was a choice of chocolate or pineapple cakes, prawn and chicken patties, crusty cheese ones that melted into gloriously salty softness with threads trailing from your mouth to the crust at every bite, and no, it wasn’t Mozzarella. There were the fluffy triangles of chicken sandwiches which were far better than any mother could turn out–in fact, the ones at tiffin frequently came back uneaten or were surreptitiously thrown out of car windows. “How is it you can eat these sandwiches?” was the universal complaint and we had enough tact not to answer. No child knew the prices—those were things for mothers to bother about.
Once in a while, as an extra special surprise, someone would throw a birthday party there. The girl in the next class was related, so it was probably her. It was the height of indulgence to have a birthday at Skyroom. It implied incredible benevolence on the part of your parents, and put it almost on the same level as having a projectionist and a Hindi film–almost because the Hindi film had a novelty factor to it that went beyond the realms of food. Also, you couldn’t play games in Skyroom beyond Passing the Parcel, even if you were the owner’s daughter.
The entertainment at Skyroom was more tactile. A combination of springy banquettes, sticky orangeade and melting chocolate. No parent wanted the experience to compare with a Hindi film, a party thrown in fancy dress or an ever obliging phuchkawala who made money the more the babas ate. There was an implied understanding that the children were being invited to an afternoon of serious food. And the children repaid the consideration by refraining from yelling for jelly or crisps, or even for the universal samosa. Children’s parties today are more ‘canned’ – sandwiches, samosas, chips and birthday cake with an expensive take home present to make up for the lack of culinary adventure.
As adults, tantalized by the memory of crisp white shell that broke into ice cream bedded on sponge, by the memory of a volcano that came belching fire from a camphor square to the table (“But why isn’t it called Baked Volcano, Baba ?” Perhaps it was). We grouped at a restaurant on Russell Street. It had fountains splashing down the stairs and plaster of paris horses swanning up the green walls to the blue ceiling, to join the plaster of paris clouds and it had Baked Alaska on the menu. “The test of a good restaurant is the Baked Alaska,” we told each other through the iterations of cottage cheese with orange sauce and crepes in cheese sauce. “Remember Skyroom? Where do you get a Baked Alaska in Cal these day?” The mountain, when it arrived, certainly belched something from the top of its pied crater, but it was soft singed egg white the colour of a mongrel. We squelched our way sadly through the sponge and the ice cream, our memories unfulfilled.
“Well, there’s no Skyroom, but you can get smoked salmon at the five stars for Rs. 750 a plate. Or venison, if you like.” The five stars were no replacement, even though they threw open their restaurants in a flurry of fine linen and copper dish covers, hoping to make up in ceremony what they lacked in gourmet appeal.
You could have the pleasure of viewing the chef in his two foot tall origami hat stalking through his plush environs and smiling benignly at diners. Explanations are forthcoming on how the hat is made from a special material and crimped freshly into shape twice a day. Some five stars even boasted authentic imports from Indonesia, with character to boot. “So and so knows how to find the best tequila in Bali – though why you’d want to drink tequila in Bali beats me.” And the tequila story conjures up the image of a pale walker stalking through the sage brush brandishing carving knives instead of six guns. Would you really want him to dish up your Chicken a la Kiev? For that matter, could he dish up the definitive Chicken a la Kiev?
Did we even see the chef at Skyroom? Perhaps he walked under the stars once or twice, but not obtrusively so. We would have remembered the hat, if nothing else. What we remembered was the Chicken a la Kiev spurting a thin golden jet of butter at the unwary. Watching people tackle it, you could separate the experienced eaters from the greenhorns and the children. A deft jab with a fork was all that was required to free you from a buttery face wash. The Kiev, having discharged its ammunition, lay quietly in a golden pool waiting for you to dig in. Somehow, all other Kievs encountered in the passage of time paled in comparison
As adults, because the wonder of the senses becomes less important, the bite of an orange eaten in the sun or new made toast smeared with butter lose their innocence. Eating at a five star hotel has about it the pomp and circumstance of credit cards and high finance. The glitz is what matters and the prices, more than what one actually eats. Crepes come flambeed to the table, the Baked Alaska blazes on a pinnacle of melting snow and the spoon cuts through the blue brandy flames on a Christmas pudding. This is now obligatory and taken for granted.
Four tables in a room surrounded by bookshelves once constituted one of Calcutta’s cosier continental restaurants. You stumbled upon it from a busy crossing and it had a brisk reputation among people who wanted to pick up a quick risotto. Like most restaurants it fell prey to squabbles, closed and reopened again in an even smaller room at the end of an even busier crossing. No, that wasn’t Skyroom either—it wasn’t even its former self, though diners compared mushrooms and helpings of rice. Ah! the prawn cocktails in a glass as deep as a brandy snifter with the bite of tabasco and big curling prawns. “And today, what do you get?” Little baby shrimps with more sauce than shrimp, dished up like a conjuring trick. “Restaurant owners get complacent these days – they think they can charge you for the decor, or for the lack of it.” The trick is to find an ambience which sells.
Calcutta has changed since Skyroom. You can now pick up your phone and dial a pizza or a plate of pasta. If you live in the favoured areas, it arrives at your doorstep without charge for the delivery, though the price is expensive enough to cover the delivery charges. And there are bound to be more than a few who flash their cell phones and dial in their pastas and pizzas. You find cell phones openly displayed on restaurant tables, calling attention to their owners’ added status, as if being in the restaurant weren’t status enough. The heavy brass boxes, the pistachios and the heavy stemmed brass goblets that appeared at Skyroom in its later days were perhaps the only attempts it made at status consciousness. Perhaps it was also an attempt to compensate for the fact that there were less prawns in the cocktail sauce, that the prawn patties had vanished and that genuine tabasco was hard to find. But even then, no one complained about the food.
Since Skyroom shut, Calcutta has lost its innocence—or perhaps it was just another of the victims along the way. No, Calcutta did not stop eating because of that. It eats at food fairs under a canopy of normal stars, discovers Thai cuisine, Mexican and Italian. But then, all that isn’t Skyroom, is it?