Bong Bong & Mumbai’s Bengali Restaurant Renaissance

There are nights like the last one when I feel that there is so much that I want to blog about but don't have the energy or time for it these days. Then the next morning someone walks up to our table at Candies & tells me how much he and his wife find what's there on the blog useful. Thanks Kaushik & Madhu. This one’s for you guys.

As I went through my recent posts, Durga Puja, Kewpies and so on, I realised that there’s been a lot of Bengali stuff up here recently. And there are more stories to be told. Of kachoris at Maharani and Ganguram. Chef Kaniska’s Mexican cooking in his beautiful house at Ramgarh where he and his lovely wife hosted us. Of 6 Ballygunge Place and it’s Bangali Bhoj, The breakfast didu cooked for us. And a Bourdain inspired ‘layover’ which started with Flurys and ended with Dolly’s with Nizams and phuchkas in Dakshinapan in between.

Those tales will have to wait though this too is a Bengali story. This is from Mumbai. In fact, even closer home. From Bandra.

I often  wryly remark that the Oshiwara Andheri W area is the new C R Park with the proliferation of Bengali restaurants there. Joining Hangla, Calcutta Club, Oh Calcutta was Bhojohori Manna and recently Arsalan and Bijoli Grill there.

Our Bandra didn’t have much in this genre. There was Pratap and his dabbas of course. Sweet Bengal for its mishtis. Then there was Hangla for mutton rolls and of course Arsalan. No full fledged ‘Bengali’ restaurant though.

I don’t know how one would classify the newly opened Bong Bong (beside Khaane Khaas, 16th Road). A new and different avatar of the now shut down roll shop of the same name.

It is a ‘Bengali restaurant’ in one sense but then I always parochially say that in Bandra we do things differently and Bong Bong reflects that.

The look and feel of the place is similar to some of the arty cafes I spotted recently in places such as Hindustan Park and Gol Park in South Calcutta. You have got a few tables outside and then a small air conditioned section inside. The colours bold. The posters and graffiti slightly different from the usual Victoria Memorial and Uttam Suchitra stuff that define the look of Bengali restaurants in Mumbai. There is a Suchitra pic but that of an ad. And the rickshaw is there but as a mural. Yes, the look and feel is very Jodhpur Park, New Alipore, Gol Park. The seating – benches, painted metal chairs…again that casual cafe feel. The lighting mellow. A problem only if you are trying to photograph the food. You might even bump into the two girls who own the place who currently go from table to table anxiously asking you if you liked the food.

Thankfully you don’t need to be under much performance pressure when you answer them or are asked to tweet about your experience at Bong Bong after a tasting. For the food is conceptualised by Chef Joy. I had eaten Joy’s creations earlier in Bohemian in Kolkata and came back with the belief that he is probably doing some of the most exciting stuff in the Indian culinary world right now. He uses core Bengali ingredients in Western culinary forms. His cooking fundas clear, the results …really good. He is one of the most talented chefs around in India in my opinion and yet relatively unsung.

So you have the ‘tuk tak’ or the ‘bits and pieces’ section at Bong Bong which is where you see Joy at his best.

I tried a cheese and spinach croquette in the tasting which frankly wouldn’t be that different from the sort of stuff served in cocktails in Mumbai today.

Then we went back to Bong Bong with Sue and Nathan and K and started with the 5 spice baby potatoes which were mind blowing. An epic start to the dinner which, to me, remain unmatched. The idea of using the intense yet delicate flavours of panch phoron or Bengali 5 spice on the pliant starchy canvas with the heat of green chillies, tempered with a curd base, was on the one hand inspired and on the other just taking forward a time tested Bengali cooking tradition. In a new city and in a new century. In fact, just the other day, I did a Karnad and challenged holy cows by adding paach phoron to my alu posto. A very distinguished spice mix which delight if used well and Joy had done just that.

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We next went with the betki steamed with mango pickle and coconut. A dish which awed you with its piquancy and pungency and held you in its spell. The use of mango pickle in tempering dishes always works. I used it with chicken once in my Murg Mango Dolly. Worked well.

The beauty of the dish in Bong Bong lay in pairing the tart of pickle with the sweet meat of betki.

A dialectical treat.

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We next tried the was prawns in coriander. What I loved were the fact that the prawns were cooked just right. Juicy, bouncy with the coriander flavours dancing in tandem with the rhythm of the crustacean. This was great stuff but in Mumbai not that new a taste given the frequent use of coriander leaves in dishes here.

Still, in absolute terms a lovely dish.

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If you want ‘different’ then go for another Joy creation.

Herbed chicken money bags.

Chicken which looked pasty and yet was quite tender. Delicately flavoured with parsley giving a bit of the ye olde British club feel of Kolkata. The twist lay in the preparation. The chicken was steamed in banana leaves in a Bengali patoori style and if you wanted another twist, the ‘patoori’ was shaped liked money bags.

A great dish but should be eaten before a more sharper dish such as the prawns in coriander for its subtlety to flower.

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The mains were more home styled Bengali after the alchemy of the starters.

The stand out dish here was the betki cooked in a mustard sauce. The mustard curry was more robust here than the light and more watery mustard curries which are more archetypal. A great pairing again with the sweet water fish. This dish wowed us.

The dishes come plated for individuals here but with a bit of Bengali passive aggression we were able to get ourselves quarter plates so that we could all taste all the food.

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The prawn malai curry tasted exactly the way my malai curries do and was consistent with what we had a couple of weeks back at the tasting in Bong Bong. What I loved on both occasions was that the prawns were extremely juicy. The prawns in malai curries served in most restaurants in Mumbai have the texture of little pebbles. Good to see someone treating prawns with the TLC the little darlings of the sea deserve. The distinguishing element of the malai curry in Bong Bong was the heat of green chillies that cut though the sweetness of coconut milk. I must try to bring this in to my malai curries.

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Then we had some kosha chicken which are served with parathas. On both occasions that I had it, the juiciness of the chicken and the sweet taste of the caramelised onions in the thick sauce just won me over. Again very home styled.

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The kacha lonka or green chilli mutton left me unimpressed in the tasting as well as last night. It was more about coriander leaves than the kick of chilli and the mutton lacked the spring and juiciness with which the prawns had won us over.

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For desserts, on both days, we had the only option, baked rasogollas, which frankly tasted the same as a regular ‘boiled’ rasogolla. Not bad but no ‘twist’ here.

As we left we were told that they will soon serve beer and wine but frankly with food as good as this, indifferent desserts or the lure of alcohol are not really required in my book.

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Bandra has waited long for a Bengali restaurant and this modern Bengali cafe is just what she deserved.

(The meal for 4 of us cost close to Rs 3000 or 60 USD)

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