I should know, for I have roamed quite a few cities. I love my native town, Kolkata, and I live happily in my adopted city, Washington. But New York is like a hallucinatory dream. It amazes you, it fascinates you, it grips you by the neck and won’t let go of you. Whether I eat in an Upper East Side restaurant or go to a Pinter play on Broadway, I come away marveling. New York can always spring a surprise.
I was in New York months ago for some work and decided to stay the weekend to relax. I decided to take a leisurely walk Saturday morning through Central Park, and then in the streets and perhaps stop somewhere at the end for a brunch. I had no itinerary in mind and wanted to take in a little of the town’s vibrant city life. I had taken a turn on a small street and was passing several small shops.
“Hello,” said somebody on my left.
I turned to respond and saw a man in his late fifties with back-brushed opulent black hair, in a beige chino and gold-buttoned dark-blue parka, standing at the entrance of a shop. As I responded politely, the man smiled and asked, “Where are you from?”
I was about to say ‘from Washington,’ but I bit my tongue realizing that that was not what he wanted to know. I said, “I am from India.”
“Where in India?” He persisted.
“I lived in Kolkata,” I phrased carefully, knowing that I was born elsewhere and had lived periodically in other places.
The man’s smile broadened and his language changed. He asked his third question in Bengali, “Do you speak Bengali?”
“Of course. I am a Bengali.”
As I responded, I looked up and saw the sign behind his head. It said Bogra Bakery.
The man came forward and held my hand. He said in Bengali, “One look at you and I knew for sure you are a Bengali.” He shook my hand warmly, “Please, you must come into my humble bakery.”
“I don’t get to meet many Bengalis, let alone speak Bengali. I am very fortunate to have you in my bakery. I will be greatly honored if you have a cup of tea.”
His warmth was unquestionable. I was touched and I said I would be happy to.
He went to a corner to pour boiling water from a machine into a pot and prepare our tea. I quickly consulted Google on my phone, for the name Bogra had tickled a memory.
“My name is Nurul,” my host said and placed a tray on our table with the teapot and two cups.
I said my name and asked, “Are you from Rajshahi?”
He was surprised and thrilled, “How did you know?”
“It is just a guess from the name of your bakery.”
He was now quite pleased, “Sir, you must try my croissants with your tea. They are fresh, just made. Please let me serve you two.”
I had a strong misgiving. Croissants made by a man from Bangladesh in a backstreet bakery did not seem promising. A delicious brunch hovered on my mind. But I did not know how to rebuff his friendly offer politely.
“Could I just have one, please?” I said at last.
Nurul got up immediately, gently warmed two croissants and served them on a plate.
I now looked at the tray as I broke the first croissant. It was a beautiful Herend Victoria tray and on it was an exquisite matching Herend Rothschild teapot, the kind you encounter only in the most fastidious households.
Nurul served the tea. It was out of the world. He said he gets it from a particular tea estate in Darjeeling – “from your country” he said – by special contract.
Then I tasted the croissant. It was simply the best croissant I had ever tasted. I asked Nurul how he had learned to make such a perfect croissant.
“I worked on a merchant ship for some years but did not like it. One day I just disembarked in Le Havre and decided to take my chance in France. I found work in a bakery and two years later moved to a Michelin-star bakery in Paris. I worked there for twelve years and learned all that I know. I love baking.”
His love showed. I forgot about my brunch. I drank all of Nurul’s tea and ate both the croissants shamelessly. Frankly, I was tempted to ask for another.
As I said, New York can always spring a surprise.