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A special kind of Supper Club – Little Kolkata:
Some nights out are good and some are really, really good. You know those evenings when the food is excellent, the company fun, you drink great cocktails, laugh a lot and go to bed happy? Usually, these nights are spent with old friends in your local gaff. I had no such expectations making my way to the Little Kolkata supper club in a Holborn basement, seated at a table with people I had never met. Boy, was I wrong.
Let’s start with the host, Prabir Kumar Chattopadhyay. A more charming man you couldn’t wish to find. He welcomed my companion and I warmly and throughout the evening patiently explained how he cooked the various dishes. I am new to Bengali food so I needed a guiding hand. He has a day job utterly unrelated to cuisine and supper clubbing is his passion! Someone raise the funds for this man to open a restaurant. In my neighbourhood.
Each Little Kolkata supper club has a different theme and name. Fiona has reviewed a previous supper club. This one was called Monk and Fish. Prabir explained that he is descended from a family of priests, hence the title Monk, which also is the name of the brand of Indian rum he uses in his rather wonderful cocktails. Fish is a central dish to Bengali cuisine and featured in two of the courses we were about to savour.
The supper club was timed to celebrate the New Year and the 100 or so guests were in a mood to party. Even though we were in the elegant basement of Davy’s Wine Bar in Holborn, it felt as if we were gathered at a friend’s (large) home for a party. The atmosphere was raucous – in a good way. Tables for ten were packed with families celebrating, colleagues out for the evening, and friends of Prabir. We were lucky to be seated with some of his friends – although I think that the whole room might have been filled with friends. That’s how personal it all felt. By the end of the evening we had made new friends, swopped Facebook details and declared the hope that we would keep in touch. How often does that happen in a restaurant? That’s the joy of a supper club. It is about the food, but it is as much about the social aspect. In a city the size of London, it is a great way to make new connections.
To get the evening started with spirit we had a choice of prosecco, cocktails or mocktails. We tried them all as did everyone around us – no wonder there was such a brilliant atmosphere. Seriously though, these drinks were top notch. I tried the Aam Panna (translates as mango mix). I was expecting a yellow or orange coloured drink but this non-alcoholic beverage is made with green mangoes and had a lovely astringent taste. I like a slight sweet and sour combo and this was served with mint and ice. Seriously refreshing. As was the alcoholic cocktail, Spiced Old Monk Cocktail which I thought had a touch of coconut coming through. Delicious. The prosecco, served with fresh raspberries, flowed all night.
Along with drinks we had an intriguing nibble. Saboo Papad is a variant of the poppadom. However, although also deep fried, they are thicker than poppadoms and are made with tapioca seeds. The pretty, bright white seeds looked like they had been ironed together, like that craft set kids play with. They were served with a spicy green chilli, mint and coriander sauce. Utterly moreish.
The starter, Ghugni Chaat, was a spiced green lentil dish served in a traditional street food (chaat) container made from dried leaves. Our dinner companions, who hail from Calcutta, informed us that this was exactly how it would be served back home. The lentils were decorated with shavings of coconut, pomegranate seeds, coriander and other items that I could not identify. It looked as pretty as a complex flower and was equally good to eat.
A second starter was equally pleasing. A cod fishcake (pea cutlet for vegetarians) was a familiar offering and yet rather different to fishcakes as I know them. Menu notes informed us that when the British mashed potatoes, scotched eggs and braised cutlets came into contact with Indian spices during colonisation, they morphed into the Bengal cutlet. This dish is a tribute to the city’s canteen culture where cutlets are still sold.
Our cutlets were served attractively on wooden platters along with deep fried, sliced lotus stem. The fishcakes were melt-in the-mouth and I asked Prabir how he achieved this silky texture. He told me that the chef tweaked the recipe, replacing traditional yoghurt with mascarpone. There you have it, readers. Secrets from the stove. Try it next time. Or, as I will, get to the next supper club and hope fishcakes are on the menu.
By now we were beginning to get the measure of the standard of the chef and eagerly awaited the main courses. First up was Doi Kashundi Bhetki Fish – or fish in a mustard and yoghurt sauce. Our friends from Calcutta told us that in Bengal a fish dish is eaten daily by rich and poor alike. The menu notes confirmed that this method of preparation is an iconic comfort food for every Bengali home. Having tasted it, I know why.
The fish was firm, thick and meaty. I did not recognise it and was informed it was barramundi – a seabass popular in South East Asia and Australia. The delicate sauce was mildly spiced with mustard and coriander and did not overpower the fish which was perfectly cooked. Alongside was a bowl of deep fried okra. Anyone with a prejudice about the mucilaginous nature of okra needs to try these deep fried offerings. They were a revelation to me, so moreish I finished a bowl full. Large bowls of basmati rice accompanied the fish. This was the most divinely rich rice I have eaten, ghee being key to the taste. I was about to throw all caution to the winds and dish up a second helping of fish and rice – having already polished off the okra – when my fellow diner warned us all to pace ourselves as a lot more food was a-coming. I would have happily washed all the dishes in exchange for a doggy bag.
At this point vegetarians were eating Aloo Dumm, slow cooked potatoes; we were all carnivores so I can’t comment on the vegetarian option, but I am sure it was delicious.
I was intrigued by the next main course dish. Kosha Mangsho was translated as slow cooked mutton, except that it was not. It was slow cooked goat. Now I happen to love goat and order it wherever it features on a menu from the Caribbean to Corsica. My new friend informed me that ‘in India, traditionally when we say lamb or mutton we mean goat.’ Well, this goat dish, often prepared during festivities and for Sunday family meals, was redolent with cardamom and green chilli. I had several helpings. The accompanying tomato and date chutney was addictive and I hope that Prabir bottles it and puts it on sale. Alongside were platters of Luchi or puffed bread, akin to puri I thought. The combination of all three in one mouthful made for a crunchy, sweet and spicy, meaty mouthful. Gorgeous. Vegetarians enjoyed Enchor Kosha or slow cooked jackfruit. This was home-cooking deluxe.
Almost too full for dessert we made some extra room for not one but two desserts. First, we tried Rosogolla – baked chhanna balls. Portuguese cheesemakers in Bengal used to produce curds by breaking milk with acidic materials, This dish is Bengals take on chhanna. Our tablemates described it as a homemade cottage cheese. The cheese was rolled into balls, steamed and soaked in syrup, giving them there beautiful yellow colour. They were served warm.
The last dish, Mishti Doi was described as baked yoghurt which, we were informed, is very traditional in Bengal and not found anywhere else in the country. It was served in an authentic, tiny ceramic pot. It tasted like a vanilla yoghurt, creamy and cool. I was told it is made by combining yoghurt (mixed with cardamom, saffron and sugar) with condensed milk. Left in a warm place, the mixture sets.
Oh my. What a meal. What a vibe. What hospitality. What fun. At the end of the evening, we all received goody bags with tiny jars of star anise and a cookie. Just in case we were peckish on the way home. We embraced our new friends and reluctantly said goodbye. It’s the best night out I have had in a while – and yes I do get out a bit – and I will certainly be back to Little Kolkata for more.
At £40 per head for a 6-course tasting menu with very generous portions and free-flowing alcohol or £37 for vegetarians, this is very good value indeed.
You can register to be sent updates about future events at www.littlekolkata.co.uk.