Chef Manu Chandra: This Is A Bit Of A Homecoming For The Menu
Chef Manu Chandra
It’s their first foray in the East and it was a long time coming. Two years ago, Chef Manu Chandra and his team came to Kolkata to look for space to open the next Monkey Bar. It didn’t quite work out then. They were caught up with Fatty Bao and opening Toast & Tonic (in Bangalore). Last year, “talks started rolling with Avantika (Saraogi, their local partner), we started looking for properties again… they showed me a picture of the shell of this space, which was fine. But then they turned the camera the other way, to the view and I said let’s take it. Sign it.”
The team has transformed the space on Camac Street into a stunning venue that’s uniquely Kolkata, but still obviously in the true Monkey Bar aesthetic. This is the fourth Monkey Bar, now a “bonafide brand” for a gastro-pub serving.
International food and drinks created with “fresh, high quality ingredients”. In Chef Chandra’s words - “it’s affordable for the quality it is.” Customers would agree.
The space at Camac Street, Kolkata.
What's on the menu
Even if Monkey Bar is your go-to spot in your city, there are many new dishes on offer in addition to the signature Monkey menu in Kolkata. One such new item is the Med Platter – a classic Mediterranean mezze platter with falafels, hummus, Baba Ghanoush, Tzatziki, pita bread, Spanakopita, roasted red pepper, olives but with a twist. Instead of using spinach in the Spanakopita, Chef Chandra has used the local pui saag or Malabar spinach. The result is a delectable melt-in-your-mouth filling of pui saag and cheese wrapped in flaky phyllo pastry. Another tribute to the local flavours is their new drink Toast to Calcutta - a gin cocktail with house-made gondhoraj lemon cordial topped with a slice of lightly charred lemon.
High ceilings, a touch of green with plants, a cozy bar, an outdoor section, spectacular views of the Victoria Memorial, innovative contemporary Indian food and drinks and a space to lounge – Kolkata hasn’t seen anything like Monkey Bar before. Chef Manu Chandra’s creativity and focus on using local ingredients and refreshing food and flavours is apparent.
We chatted with him too. Excerpts.
Kolkata is very different from the other cities and regions you’ve worked in. The availability (and lack of, too) of ingredients, the local produce, taste and culture, the regional aspect - was it a challenge or an inspiration?
Oh no, no, no - it's not a challenge - it's a huge inspiration. In fact, if you look at our menus, historically we have always been very inspired by Bengali flavours. Kashundi mustard, nolen gur (date palm jaggery), gondhoraj (lemons), gobindobhog (a local cultivar of rice) - they all feature on our menus across the country. This is a bit of a homecoming for the menu. We do exciting things with the produce and flavours and that’s what makes it more endearing. I’ve heard that Bengalis love eating iterations of their local ingredients. That’s lovely because there should be a sense of pride as opposed to trying to be overtly tacky and pretentious, only eating imported food. My thought process is completely opposite to that. I’ve always talked about local, and walked the talk. It’s on my menus everywhere. I’m excited because the quality of produce in Calcutta is leagues ahead of other places - I don’t think the industrialised food aspect has hit West Bengal as hard; there is that nuanced perishable market. The rice is always good, the mustard is always good. I buy containers of it.
You’re a fan of both slow cooking and fast cooking. Can you share a recipe or a technique that you think works particularly well?
A signature dish on the Monkey menu has been Tiger Beef - beautiful cuts that we marinate for a day with chili oil, scallions and sesame oil. Just before pick up, we super-heat a wok, add a dash of onions, pepper, scallion, ginger and garlic. It’s cooked medium rare - 1, 2, 3, 4…. done and out. It is one of our best-selling dishes. It does justice to the product and it’s succulent and juicy. You don’t even need a knife to cut into it. The flavours are simple and punchy in a good way.
Toast to Calcutta (l) is a gin cocktail with house-made gondhoraj lemon & Tikki of Joy (r)
On that note, simplicity is important I feel for I see many restaurants these days overdoing the flavours, there’s too much happening, the presentation…
I don't know why it is coming to that, because I think a lot of people find that if food is not spicy it’s not tasty (thankfully it’s not like that in Bengal at least). I think that’s a travesty. If everything is over-spiced and you can’t taste anything in the base ingredients, especially delicate things - why eat it at all?
Mexican food is tremendously tasty, it’s not always chili, chili, chili and spice. Look at Ceviche; it’s acidic, with just a hint of chili and some freshness. One could eat bowlfuls of it. A Hawaiian poke bowl is mind-altering. Chili cannot be added to everything, and I feel that’s what’s happening largely over here.
What is the one thing Indian restaurants (and restaurant-goers) need to learn from their American counterparts?
Open minds, definitely. You can't have pre-conceived notions of "I like eating only this and every place I walk in to needs to serve me that." That's not how it works. You have enough technology in your hands today to be able to see what’s on offer and then decide if you want to step into a place or not. And if it’s not rocking your boat then don’t do it… instead of going and destroying the experience for other people, troubling the service, throwing the kitchen out of gear because they’re not equipped to handle what you want. That’s regressive, and a terrible sense of entitlement that should be nipped in the bud. I don’t see that over there – here, I see it a lot.
Do you see yourself branching out into a different market in the coming years, with a single-cuisine restaurant or a different segment like fast casual or über fine dining?
I don’t know how much new development I have the bandwidth for - probably not for the next 2 years. With the existing brands and their growth trajectory, there's already a lot happening. The level of detail at Toast and Tonic is mindblowing - everything is artisan, hand-made, and in house. It’s not easy to replicate that. It’s been seven months since we opened – we’ll wait for it to complete one year to see. We are opening more Fatty Baos and Monkey Bars. There was always an expansion plan with these brands and we’re not digressing from that. They were created to scale up.
What do you think is the next big food trend or ingredient that we’ll see a lot in the coming years in India?
I think the country is waking up to the fact that there are so many regions to discover - Bihari food, the local cuisine of Odisha are undiscovered. Within Karnataka itself, and Goa, there are so many different cuisines. Regional food will raise its head after being subjugated to its respective territories.
The author recently moved back to India after studying at the University of Michigan and working at Goldman Sachs in New York. She shares recipes and travel tips on her blog The India Edition.