From the socio-political daubings of artists such as Banksy to the ubiquitous ‘Gav & Kelly woz ere’-type slogans, you’ll see a variety of graffiti around London and, depending on your tastes, some you’ll like and some you won’t. However, the last place that I was expecting to find Shakespearean scrawls above the bathroom sink was Calcutta Street, the newly opened Bengali restaurant on Tottenham Street. Yet as the meal progresses, I learn that there’s nothing predictable about this quirky venue; even the quotes are esoteric, avoiding the well-trodden foodie aphorism from Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on,” and instead opting for Hamlet’s “Words without thoughts never to heaven go”. We put our thinking caps on and tuck into what proves to be a delicious lunch.
The restaurant is small and bijou, sparsely but elegantly decorated with a few paintings above the stairs which lead to the kitchen, a spill over dining area and the aforementioned eruditely scribbled-on bathroom. A collection of fans serve as a ceiling-piece and a large pot plant adds a bit of floral feng shui to the cosy venue. Ray Charles provides the soundtrack, his doleful blues echoing throughout the room as we peruse the menu.
Service at lunchtime is a one-man show, with the charming French chotto dada (Front of House) recommending his favourite cocktails. We go for a ‘Shortbot’, which is a ‘long, refreshing and reviving afternoon drink’, choosing the Aam Pora, a curious blend of green mangoes, black salt and fresh mint, lengthened with soda water. Each Shortbot comes with the option of a complimenting spirit, so we spike this one with Old Monk rum and it becomes a gorgeous cocktail that has the echo of maple caramel without actually being sweet; perfectly balanced and a lovely way to start the meal. I choose the Bengali Rose (billed as ‘One for the ladies of the house’, natch) and am impressed with the subtle concoction of vodka, rose liqueur, ginger and bitters, the splash of Prosecco adding a sparkling dilution to the moreish (if not particularly manly) libation.
One note on the glassware – it’s prettier than most cocktail bars in London and is representative of the care put into every detail. When our waiter brings over a little taster of his go-to hangover cure of mango juice and ginger beer (he must have spotted my girlfriend stumble when walking through the door), it’s in a cute and weighty glass. Even the menus are held in a sky blue wooden booklets that look like miniature saloon doors.
We start with the Phuchka, which are golf ball-sized crisped semolina snacks, essentially edible bowls filled with spiced potato, chickpea and herbs that we spoon tamarind and mint sauce into before gobbling them down in one. Kooky and different, they’re definitely worth a try.
The main course arrives in droves, our small wooden table soon festooned with maroon bowls containing recipes plundered from the proprietor’s memory bank of the Bengali street food that she enjoyed as a child. The panchmishali torkari is a vegetable medley of cauliflower, beans, carrots and peppers, all generously seasoned with famous Indian ‘five spice’ of panchforan, making this healthy dish a real plate-licker. The misthi polaw is actually one of the standouts, the sweet rice sprinkled with cashews and the hint of candied fruit. I tear into the prawn malai, which sees two tiger prawns basted in a thick and creamy coconut sauce, into which I dip torn-off segments of the luchi, a deep fried flatbread that resembles two soft and shiny pappadums stuck together and inflated like a balloon. Naughty? Yes. Nice? Very.
One dish that I doubt many people will have tried, in this form at least, is the laal saag; the red spinach has been wilted to within an inch of its life and paired with red kidney beans and an almost-sour flavouring. It’s a little odd but definitely one for those who want to step out of the comfort zone of chicken tikka masala. We wash the meal down with the fruity tang of a Fourpure Pilsner, brewed locally in Bermondsey, and pray we have room for dessert.
Our prayers are answered. We split a pithe Bengali, which is a rice flour pancake wrapped around a flattened mound of jaggery-sweetened dessicated coconut; it’s (amazingly) not too sweet as to be overpowering, so we almost don’t appreciate just how indulgent it is. Sinking a lebu-chaa darjeeling tea, seasoned with lemon juice, black salt and an inspired addition of ginger sugar, we decide to walk off the very pleasant meal that we’ve just enjoyed and head towards the centre of town for a couple of laps around Soho. Another Shakespeare quote that’s written on the bathroom wall is, “Be not afraid of greatness,” and it’s clearly one that the team at Calcutta Street take to heart. To the Gavs and Kellys of the world: take note.
29 Calcutta Street Fitzrovia, Tottenham Street, London, W1T 4RU, England
Tel: +44 (0)207 636 2744
The restaurant is a five-minute walk from Goodge Street Tube on the Northern Line. It’s open Monday to Saturday from midday to 3:30pm for lunch and from 5:30pm to 11:00pm for dinner. Open Sundays and Bank Holidays from midday to 5:00pm.
Type of Restaurant: Bengali Street Food
Price Band: Medium
Our Take: Just off Goodge Street, this street vendor-inspired restaurant has the potential to go from hidden gem to key player over the next year or two.
Reviewer’s rating: 8/10
David Harfield is a freelance food and travel writer and the director of the social media solutions company PepperStorm Media
Photographs courtesy of Calcutta Street