Brick Lane food revival

It‘s been a decade since we suggested our readers steer a wide berth around the identikit curry houses of Brick Lane. But the area now also boasts a growing number of proper Bangladeshi cafés, some masquerading as fried chicken joints. Guy Dimond goes off-menu to investigate

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    Sandash (sweets) at Rajmahal

    Two worlds collide in Brick Lane. The north end, from Fournier Street and the Old Truman Brewery northwards, is home to trendy nightclubs, bars, galleries, design studios, artists, boutique shops, bohos and flâneurs of every kind. The south end starts with the Great London Mosque (a former Huguenot chapel then synagogue) and extends down through Whitechapel. It is the centre of London’s biggest Bangladeshi community, numbering around 60,000. The transition from self-consciously cool London to Banglatown appears seamless at first. The cheap curry houses run the full length of the street, and it takes a trained eye to tell the difference between the good, the bad and indifferent.

    More accurately, it takes a Bengali eye. In the window of Café Naz Express, there are two menus: a large one written in English with a list of formulaic Brick Lane curries, including chicken tikka masala; the other, more discreet, a green and red menu in angular Bengali script. This menu tells you about the Bangladeshi specials – the names of the types of fish, chutneys, and the many other halal dishes.

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    Many Brick Lane menus list the Bangladeshi specials only in Bengali script

    Further down the street at Banglar Mukh, another green and red menu ( the colours of the Bangladeshi flag) also lists the Bangladeshi specials, with an entirely different English menu displayed on a separate sandwich board beside it. Even the fact that these two restaurants have written menus is unusual; there are more than a dozen cafés in the area serving authentic Bangladeshi dishes but with no written menu in any script – some of them occupying the most unlikely looking places. At Café Grill, the illuminated fast-food menu of fried chicken, chips and burgers is enough to send most food lovers running for the nearest organic salad bar, but lower your eyes to the dishes in the glass display cabinets and you’ll find some altogether more appetising snacks such as shingara – Bangladeshi samosa. Rounder and fatter than its Indian cousin, this roadside tea-stall snack also makes a good starter with its crisp pastry encasing the spiced potato filling. Main courses at Café Grill are more elaborate: the ocean fish rupchanda (pomfret) cooked in turmeric, red-chilli paste, onions and garlic; steaks of the cod-like boal might be served with beans; the so-called ‘black channa’ (dark chickpeas) are cooked with dried chillies. If you don’t mind lingering in the tired 1980s-style interior with its black marble-effect tables and ATN Bangla UK blaring from the TV set, the mishti doi – a sweetened set yoghurt dessert, served in an earthenware pot – is ambrosial.

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    Whitechapel Road Market

    At least Café Grill has the food on display, where you can see it and point. At Ruchi on Whitechapel Road you have to slip past the off-putting fast-food reception area round to the side counter to find steel catering trays of luchi (deep-fried pooris), lamb biryani containing chunks of bone, or a mouthwatering fish curry, all for under £9 per head. Point to what you want and head for the upstairs dining room. It’s a small place and, like many of the local caffs, bustles with a mix of Asian youngsters and families.

    Marketing their delicious cooking to non-Bangladeshis is clearly not a strong priority for many of these little cafés, so who does frequent them? According to Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a community worker who has lived in the area for 26 years, ‘There has been a revival of home-style and proper Bengali and Bangladeshi cooking in small cafés over the past two or three years. The trend was started by [Bangladeshi café] Gram Bangla, which spotted a need among young Bangladeshi professionals in the UK for a short stay to study. ‘Many of these students live on their own, and they long for proper home-style cooking. Also, families from outside the area – from south London, for example, who are visiting the mosque, or friends, or shopping – all take the opportunity to eat here, too.’

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    Kolapata serves real Bangladeshi dishes

    Kolapata, which opened on Whitechapel Road in 2004, seems very sophisticated in comparison. The food is also Bengali, but these are the sort of dishes you find in smart, air-conditioned restaurants in Dhaka. Ignore the wipe-clean tables and peruse the menu – at last written in English. Not that being able to read the English script helps much if you’re unfamiliar with fish called ruhi, koi, or the (very bony) hilsa; the vegetable side dishes called bhorta; or the rice and milk dessert vapa pitha. Ask the staff to help you order. Perhaps try a chop (cutlet) of potato filled with shreds of spiced beef; or an aromatic lamb biryani; haleem, which is like a soothing purée of lamb and lentil; and definitely have one of the vegetable bhortas. A suitable accompaniment is a glass of borhani, a yoghurt-based drink normally only found at Bengali weddings.

    Kolapata serves a full Bangladeshi menu  – the only restaurant in London to do so.  ‘Most of our customers are Bangladeshi, because white people don’t like Bangladeshi food. They don’t like the bones in the fish, and the tastes seem odd to them,’ manager, Bipu Chowdury tells me. ‘But we also serve Indian dishes and can adjust the tastes for white people’

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    Taj Stores

    Brick Lane has long been synonymous with curry, but it has been years since I’ve gone there voluntarily to eat, or since any of its establishments have made the cut in our annual ‘Eating & Drinking Guide’ (though the faded reviews in some windows try to convince you otherwise). In the 1970s, there were several seminal restaurants – Aladin, Nazrul, Meraz, to name just three – who built Brick Lane’s reputation for excellent value and well-prepared curries. As time went on, scores of me-too restaurants (more than 50 at last count) sprang up, but many used unskilled chefs, cut ingredient costs, and bought ready-made pastes from Asian cash-and-carrys until, by the end of the millennium, most of Brick Lane’s curry houses had become a farce serving mediocre, identical Anglo-Indian dishes not found on the sub-continent. And recurring attempts to outlaw the touts (who try to lure you into some restaurants with the promise of special deals) never seem to stick. But this new wave of Bengali caffs, though well hidden and hardly advertising their presence, look promising. Brick Lane could well be back. As will I.

    1 Alauddin Sweetmeat

    This sweet shop was one of the first to sell proper Bangladeshi sweets (now displayed in the left-hand counter) alongside the usual Indian ones, nearly a decade ago. 72 Brick Lane, E1 6RL (020 7377 0896).

    2 Banglar Mukh

    The sandwich board outside lists many Bangladeshi specials – in Bengali script. Buffet, £8.95. 28 Osborn St , E1 6TD (020 7247 1100).

    3 Bengal Village

    A bit off the beaten track, Bengal Village looks like a grim fast-food place, but the £4.99 lunch buffet (Sun-Fri) is surprisingly good. 25-27 Greatorex St, E1 5NP (020 7247 7767).

    4 Café Grill

    Skip the burger bar menu above the counter and order the Bangladeshi dishes from the display cabinets. The dining area through the back is plusher than many. 35 Brick Lane, E1 6QL (020 7426 0005/7247 3838).

    5 Café Naz Express

    Rice, fish, dhal and veg for £4.99 on the Bengali menu; the English menu (which is more extensive) costs a bit more at £6.99, but it also has a greater choice. 16 Brick Lane, E1 6RF (020 7377 0643).

    6 Gram Bangla

    The first of the new wave of Bangladeshi caffs around seven years ago, and the template for many that came after. 68 Brick Lane, E1 6RL (020 7377 6116).

    7 Kolapata

    The most sophisticated of the new-wave Bangladeshi restaurants, opened in 2004. It also has a menu in English. 222 Whitechapel Rd, E1 1BJ (020 7377 1200/

    8 Madhubon

    A Bengali sweet shop and café that sells jalebis (deep-fried orange sugar spirals), rasgullas (soft, spongy balls), and the dry sweets collectively called sandesh. 42 Brick Lane, E1 6RF (020 7655 4554).

    9 Meraz Café

    One of the earliest Bangladeshi caffs of its type, established 1974, selling kebabs, torkari dhal and the like. 56 Hanbury St, E1 5JL (020 7247 6999).

    10 Rajmahal Sweets

    The latest Bengali sweet shop, just opened in May, with plenty of flavours of sandesh to choose from. 57 Brick Lane, E1 6PU (020 7375 3536).

    11 Ruchi

    A fried-chicken takeaway on the ground floor, but with some Bangladeshi dishes displayed in a side counter. Order from there, pay, then go upstairs to the small dining room to eat. 301 Whitechapel Rd, E1 1BY (020 7247 6666).

    12 Taj Stores

    The biggest and best Bengali supermarket in the area with a vast selection of frozen Bangladeshi fish, unusual leaf and stem vegetables such as lata and danga, pulses, grains, spices, utensils and everything else you need for Indian and Bangladeshi cooking. 112 Brick Lane, E1 6RL (020 7247 3844).