A fascinating character by the name of Sake Dean Mahomed pioneered the idea with his Hindoostane Coffee House, which opened at 34 George Street, near Portman Square, in 1810. Offering colonial decor, bamboo chairs and sofas, hookahs with “real Chilm tobacco” and “genuine Hindoostane dishes”, it was not, sadly, a success, and Mahomed sold the business after just a year.
A couple of centuries later, the idea caught on again. Masala Zone, Imli Street and Dishoom have cornered the market in good‑value, café-style Indian restaurants, while Gymkhana, Gunpowder and Hoppers have raised the bar still further.
And now there is Fitzrovia’s Calcutta Street, a mile east of Mahomed’s old premises. It is a tiny place with big Bengali flavours, inspired by owner Shrimoyee Chakraborty’s memories of the food she ate at home and at street stalls as a child.
From the street, there are egg and paneer rolls – flaky parathas stuffed with strands of egg, paneer, dal or spiced chicken – and phuchka, crisp little puris filled with spiced potato, mint and tamarind water. But the real stars are the main dishes, especially a crab curry that arrives as a whole brown crab swimming in a supremely fragrant gravy: messy to eat, but worth every splash. And sea bass steamed in a banana leaf, slathered with mustard (that most Bengali of flavours) and coconut. Calcutta Street has distilled the essence of Golpark and Chowringhee Lane and brought it to London.
New wave Thai places are flourishing too. I have written already about the joys of The Begging Bowl, in Peckham, Soho’s Janetira and Som Saa, in the East End; now there is Kiln, on Brewer Street, a splendidly informal “food counter” with perhaps London’s most ferocious open kitchen, powered by serious quantities of wood and charcoal.
The pyrotechnics are not just for show. Assertively spiced dishes emerge with a fierce lick of smoke: skewers of hogget (aged lamb) dusted with cumin; slow-grilled chicken marinated in soy; a clay pot of crab and Tamworth pork belly in a nest of glass noodles. Brown jasmine rice accompanies everything, and there is a quirky, well-priced wine list too.
That authentic eastern cooking now thrives in London is a result of a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs – some eastern, some western – who are not content to serve a dumbed-down, bastardised version of the cuisines they love; and a well-travelled, open-minded clientele with an appetite for the real thing. Poor old Sake Dean Mahomed, I think, was simply way ahead of his time.