In Conversation With Restaurateur Rahul Khanna Of Mamagoto In Kolkata
Mamagoto is situated on Park Street.
While Kolkata has no shortage of (or shortage of love for) Chinese restaurants, Mamagoto brings reinterpreted pan Asian food across Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Malay and Indonesian cuisine to their newest restaurant on Park Street.
The ambience of Mamagoto’s newest outlet is befitting for the new Kolkata: elements of the industrial chic melded with modern, urban vibrancy and the signature quirky art that is unanimously Mamagoto. The space, the vibe and the food are genuine, fun and unpretentious.
Classics and comfort Asian food come together with new creations on the vast menu. It includes everything from their signature bowls such as the Chiang Mai Train Station Noodles, newly launched Asian TaKohs bringing the trendy Californian food truck favourite to India, dumplings in fusion flavours like truffle and cheese, to several barbecue-style dishes cooked on the traditional Japanese robata grill.
“Since the time we've opened, we've encouraged people to try things that aren’t available elsewhere. If you look at our menu, we have this little icon for new dishes as well as one of an old lady near those classic ones like Hakka noodles and chili chicken. We purposely try to encourage you to have not just the vanilla ice-cream off the menu”, says Rahul Khanna, director of Azure Hospitality. “It’s a busy brand and we're always coming up with new menus every couple of months.”
Speaking to Khanna uncovered the significant thought, collaboration and innovation that go on behind closed doors at Azure Hospitality. “We're never going to be sitting still, thinking now everything is perfect - we're dealing with perishables, we're dealing with variables, with all kinds of suppliers. It's not a very organised sector but we have to try and be as organised as we can.”
After reading this interview, you might appreciate and understand why your dish is sometimes not as spicy as you think it should be!
Calcuttans love Asian food. Most of the restaurants serving Chinese, Thai and the likes are packed whether they’re located on Park Street or at a five-star hotel, even on a typically slow night like a Tuesday. What do you think will set Mamagoto apart?
From what I've seen there's a lot of Chinese and what we call old-school Chinese: hakka noodles, hot and sour soup and the likes. We are not just a Chinese restaurant; we're Asian hawker-inspired so we do a lot of interpretations of what you find in Singapore, Malay and Indonesian cuisine.
There's also a lot of Thai on the menu. Yes, we do have some of that classic Chinese food on our menu as well; we've hedged our menu to a degree in that sense in case people wanted comfort food.
I think food-wise, I wouldn’t call it an edge as we differentiate the fact that there isn’t necessarily more of the same outside. If we were to go to these hotels that you mentioned or down on Park Street, the menus are fairly similar.
The younger generation, people who are well travelled: they’re quite happy to see new things come in so they can get rid of these shackles of old tastes.
Truffle and cheese dumplings & Bophut village hot chicken wings.
Are there things that you're doing differently in Calcutta - out of choice or whether circumstances require that you do - versus at your restaurants in Delhi or Bombay?
Some things are dictated to us. For example, when we opened in Hyderabad, we couldn't find a good supplier for asparagus. What we typically do is that when we open, we're not jumping to conclusions and taking a small bit of feedback and changing everything immediately.
We come as Mamagoto, we wait a couple of months and if there's a generic trend of requests or taste buds, we will adapt to meet those. Coming back to Hyderabad, they love spice. We tweaked a few dishes but about 85% of the menu remains the same.
Here, we know that people like fish, so in time to come we'll add more fish to the menu. Right now we're waiting and watching. What's encouraging is that 40-50% of our Calcutta customers so far have already eaten at some Mamagoto. They know what to expect and they know what they like.
We're still building our vendor network so there will be some tweaking. The first few weeks we couldn't get good quality bacon for our prawns wrapped in bacon dish, so either we'll fly it in or have to change the recipe.
On that note, sourcing certain ingredients can be difficult in different regions of India. It’s not necessarily standard…
Seeing if it’s a hero on our menu, we'll do everything to keep it - we'll figure it out and source it from Bangalore, Delhi etc. If it’s a chronic issue we'll rework it. We don't have the luxury of space to grow our own herbs.
Even if we do find a vendor, we’re conscious if the product is the quality that we want. For something as simple as bird's eye chilies - the very spicy Thai red chili - at certain times, in certain cities they're not as spicy as they should be.
The recipe doesn't taste right even though the chef has prepared it the way it should be. To be honest, this is a moving target.
How do you keep your menu offerings affordable?
We have a lot of basil, bok choy, peppers and bamboo shoots etc on our menu that we’re well supplied with. There are very few dishes that are super exotic and we try to keep those in select markets.
For example, certain items are more likely that it'll sell in one part of town than another. We have a quinoa salad that no one eats in Andheri, but it sells like hot cakes in Kala Ghoda. You hedge your bets and allocate produce where it will work best. We have the luxury of having these locations too.
As a brand, we want to be consistent but not necessarily generic. We want the interiors, the menu to be a little different and each outpost to have its own character.
I notice that the vibe of this outpost (on Park Street in Kolkata) is quite different from the Mamagoto I’ve been to in Kala Ghoda in Bombay…
It’s funny you say that. When we first opened Mamagoto, we said let's make it this crazy manga [a style of Japanese comic books and graphic novels] kind of space. As we kept evolving, we got tired of repeating some of our décor. We went back to our designer and said, “Why don’t we start conceptualising our spaces to neighbourhoods.”
Kala Ghoda has a heritage feel with the old British buildings and art galleries. We’ve designed the restaurant in our version of a 1920s art deco Shanghai style. Our Andheri location is very Bollywood, TV star-inspired, so it’s like a props warehouse complete with chandeliers and velvet curtains.
But, the common denominator is always the visual art. Here (in Calcutta) we didn’t find a context. Yes, there is a lot of heritage in Calcutta, but the problem in some ways is there is almost too much heritage in the restaurant space.
Instead the vibe is fun, urban, high street. We’re on Park Street and you can see the cars zipping up and down. We're doing a Mamagoto in a mall in Chennai where we are making it very bling, almost a kitsch South Indian vibe with lots of gold wallpaper. Let’s see how people respond to that.
What's next for Azure Hospitality in terms of expansion plans, and for Mamagoto’s loyal customers to look forward to on the menu?
With Goldman Sachs coming in [the private equity arm has a stake in Azure Hospitality], we are getting more aggressive. We're taking Mamagoto abroad but we're upping our game. If this $12 a head that'll be $40-50. The vibe will be trendier, cool, hipster – less of a café vibe. We are aiming to open in March and are in the process of finalising our lease.
The mandate with Goldman and us is to open 4-5 restaurants every year. That comes to one every 45 days or so which keeps us busy.
We have also just acquired an iconic brand called Dhaba by Claridges Hotel. The menu is highway Dhaba-inspired; there are 2 in Delhi and 1 in Gurgaon. We're taking that as our second leg to stand on in terms of scalability.
We’re opening that in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad in the next few months and hopefully in Calcutta soon as well. Those two are our main focuses. We are also conceptualising a tapas bar that I'm most excited about because it is new, organic, we're thinking it up. That opens in Bangalore in December.
From the menu perspective at Mamagoto, by January we plan to introduce some more Asian-inspired tacos. We’re also introducing our take on an Italian dish called arancini balls [made with risotto that’s breaded and fried] in which we’ll use fried rice, served with sriracha mayo. We’re presenting it in a funky way that creates curiosity yet the flavours will be familiar.
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.