When two close friends from Kolkata (or Calcutta as we call it in the West) decide to work together, that alone is a tough enough test of friendship. Cue Little Kolkata, their pop-up Bengali supper club, which they opened in 2015 just for family and friends. Before long, 10 grew to 150 and the rest, as they say, is history. Looking around, I would say their circle of friends has grown rather handsomely in the last four years.
Prabir Chattopadhyay and Biswajit Deb Das sensing they were on to something, took a giant leap of faith in 2018 and opened a full-time Bengali restaurant in London’s trendy Covent Garden. It is a true celebration of Bengal’s myriad of food influences emanating from Kolkata’s position as India’s oldest port city. The Chinese, British, French and Portuguese have all played their part in developing flavours as have Prabir’s mother and grandmother, who prepared food for thousands of worshippers at Kolkata’s legendary Kalighat Hindu temple.
The provenance then is undeniable, but could they convert all this extraordinary heritage into a successful restaurant?
Little Kolkata’s canteen tapas approach is a genius concept. Contemporary, comfortably holds hands with antiquity, delivering style and quality at an affordable price point. Terracotta tableware, cutlery and napkins in a tin, vintage flooring and splashes of red are all nostalgic reminders of the region’s heritage. But it’s the food that will ultimately turn heads and I quickly spot a disclaimer on the menu; “food comes out of the kitchen as it’s ready.” This is either a nod to everything made fresh to order or a sign that impatient chefs run the roost. Fortunately, it’s the former as Prabir tells me “we make everything here apart from the wine. Many of these dishes have been handed down through our generations.”
Fair enough. Good things are worth waiting for.
The menu is split into four short sections; mukhorochok (street hawker inspired), sakasabaji (vegetarian) maach (seafood) and mangsho (meat) and delivered as small plates with 3 – 5 per person recommended. We focus first on mukhorochok and sakasabaji as they seemed to have a bit of everything. Doi papri chaat (£6) is first out of the blocks; two gorgeous wafer pyramids in a green chilli sauce with spicy potato and bursting with flavours of coriander and tamarind. No sooner have we finished our pyramids, cashew phulkopi (£8.50) materialises; a belter of a dish this. Crunch purple cauliflower florets with a really tasty cashew puree and ginger chili sauce. Very unusual and unlike any Indian dish I’ve tasted, and believe me, I’ve tasted a fair few.
Now the flow has started and two more dishes are delivered without further ado. Singara chaat (£7) spicy pea and potato samosas with lentils and yoghurt doused in a tangy tamarind sauce. We have to make room for this one as it’s a long dish. Then, fuchka (£5) six delicate spheres of semolina filled with potato surrounding a pot of tamarind water.
The food flow pauses and we take a breather. Prabir again “back home we eat four times a day – breakfast, lunch, late afternoon tiffin and supper. Just sit back and enjoy the ride”.
And we do, as another parade of food emerges from the kitchen. Two quite lovely beetroot croquettes (£7.50) on a bed of pickled red onion are followed by a mustard begun bashanti (£9) a whole slice of sautéed aubergine in a mustard coconut sauce. The third dish is an unusual bedfellow more suited perhaps to a Chinese restaurant but, nevertheless, delicious – mamo & soup (£8) three steamed vegetable dumplings together with a tasty chicken broth (veg option available too). In a final flourish, aloor dum & daal puri (£9) is probably my favourite; a bowl of baby new potatoes simmering in an epic herb and tomato sauce.
This has been a memorable culinary journey around Bengal that has opened up a whole new larder of flavours for me. But there’s more. We can’t help but try two meat dishes too. Even though Prabir proudly suggests the slow-cooked goat curry (£12.50) “a temple favourite. My grandmother used to make a huge bowl of it for worshippers to eat for free.” We politely decline in favour of sizzling posto lamb chops (£10) two juicy grilled chops with poppy seeds, Kashmiri chilli and apple masala chutney. And then, just to check out the chicken, another Indochina surprise; chilli chicken (£8) stir-fried chicken with spring onion, tomato and pepper sauce. One for lovers of eye-watering spicy food.
Little Kolkata is a great story. Two friends who realised a dream. Now, with a Covent Garden restaurant to manage, they’ve passed the ultimate test. They’re still close friends and their food is exceptional.
Food images (c) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about Little Kolkata Bengali Canteen
Little Kolkata Bengali Canteen, 51-53, Shelton Street, London,
T: +44 (0) 207 2407 084 E: firstname.lastname@example.org