Nick reprises a Friday tradition.
A ritual used to take place every Friday lunchtime around 2.30 pm during the 1980s when I was a restaurateur in Soho.
Sensing the end of the service, I would buzz down to L’Escargot’s chef Martin Lam from my office four floors above his domain, the basement kitchen, and ask him whether he was ready for some lunch. Instead of taking our usual table by the corner in the window of our ground floor, where I could keep an eye on all the customers as they left and jump up to say goodbye and thank you, on Fridays we would whisper to the manager on duty that we would be back in an hour, and tell the receptionist where we were going – this was in the era before mobile phones – and would walk out of the front door and turn right.
We would walk no more than 300 yards across Old Compton Street and Romilly Street before very happily falling into YMing, a local Chinese restaurant. There we were invariably greeted warmly by Christine, one of the original founders, and would tuck in to dishes of cauliflower YMing style, Singapore fried noodles, gansu duck cooked with wild garlic and anise as well as a welcome glass of beer. And for the next hour our discussion ranged from our children, to the events we had coming up, to the exploits of Winston and Selwyn, two young chefs who had just the right hand-eye combination but have since, not surprisingly, left the profession.
I was reminded of these lunches as I waited for Martin at a table in Fatt Pundit in the heart of Soho’s Berwick Street. This is a restaurant that could only be in a cramped city centre, either London or perhaps Paris. The tables are quite close together, there are eight chairs at the bar, the walls are cement render, colour is provided by the range of spirits and mixers behind the bar and by the bright orange dress of a nearby fellow diner. The kitchen is in the basement, linked to the ground floor by a dumb waiter – another connection to my own restaurant past.
What also will bring a smile to anybody’s lips is the restaurant’s name – from the Chinese surname Fatt juxtaposed with the Indian word Pundit, or scholar – and its style of food. Originating in Kolkata, this style of food began when the Hakka people sailed down the coast of China, cooking and assembling ingredients into dishes as they went. Indo-Chinese is now an integral part of Indian cooking. There are parallels with Nyonya cooking, a fusion created by the Chinese travellers who followed a similar path but this time took the routes that led to Malaysia and Indonesia, although true Nyona cooking is now sadly extremely rare in London – the best examples are to be found in Singapore.
We began, as the menu instructed, with some dumplings or ‘momos’ as they are known in their district of origin, Tangra. It was in this eastern suburb of Kolkata where the Hakka first settled and worked in the tanneries. Their gastronomic heritage are these momos – dumplings steamed in a vast, round, battered metal pot, behind the bar to ensure that they are served as hot as possible. Ours, stuffed with minced kid goat meat and spicy dips of garam masala, cardamom, ginger and garlic, were delicious.
We followed this with two main courses and two side orders and immediately confronted a design issue.
The first main course was described as Kolkata chilli duck, diced, as the menu suggested, into thin strips and served with caramelised onion and slit green chili, and a portion of what was described as ‘bing bread’. I chose the former because duck is a dish which I have long believed Martin cooks as well as any chef, the latter because of my predilection for Indian breads. Both were excellent.
The duck had been cooked and then sliced into very thin pieces before being incorporated with the onions and the chili to produce what is best described as gorgeous sticky morass of protein that we both enjoyed picking at until it was all gone. The bing bread, crisp on the outside and not unlike a roti, was served in a round skillet and proved the perfect accompaniment to the duck as well as providing our first encounter with this style of quite intricate baking, one I look forward to pursuing further.
It was the arrival of our other main course and side dish – a Malabar monkfish curry together with a bowl of burnt ginger rice – that highlighted a constant problem today for restaurants serving ‘sharing plates’ as Fatt Pundit does. The tables are simply not large enough for the four dishes we had ordered plus our cutlery plus our two glasses of Azevedo Vinho Verde plus our two water glasses and our bottle of water. Is this an age issue? It is not something that can change – tight spacing is intrinsic to making this particular restaurant profitable – but it is increasingly becoming a hazard of eating out. And that’s without any consideration of social distancing…
Although, having written this, I have to add that the recommendation for Fatt Pundit came from my 25-year-old nephew for whom the proximity of the tables presumably presents a series of opportunities rather than anything negative. There is the chance to see what the next-door table has ordered, to chat and to make friends – all opportunities that queuing outside a restaurant that does not accept reservations also provides.
Our stylishly coiffed young waiter from Goa coped remarkably well with all this. Thanks to his smile and the extremely good food – the curry pictured at the top of this article was a lovely mix of plump white fish, yellow from the saffron, topped with green curry leaves – we thoroughly enjoyed our first visit to Fatt Pundit, even if the ginger rice was not quite as special as our waiter had intimated and we no longer had staff to gossip about.
Our lunch cost £60 for two including wine.
Fatt Pundit 77 Berwick Street, London W1F 8TH; tel: +44 (0)20 7287 7900
Fatt Pundit will soon be opening a second site at 6 Maiden Lane, London WC2E 7NA.