Bandra Bhai: An Indian speakeasy in the heart of London

Anna Solomon

22 October 2021

A new bar on Fitzrovia’s Mortimer Street is the latest addition to the capital’s cocktail scene

The cocktails are the stars of the show, but the small plates that accompany them are just as intricate, and complete the transportation to India’s retro underbelly

22 October 2021 | Anna Solomon

I

n pre-1990s India, a closed economy meant that a black market of whisky, watches and televisions thrived. Smugglers would create elaborate fronts for their illicit dealings, posing as photo studios or – apparently – sexologists. It is from this bizarre niche in history that Bandra Bhai draws its inspiration.

The bar isn’t advertised at street level, to the extent that we walk past it a couple of times until the owner – who is helpfully sitting outside – asks if we’re looking for Bandra Bhai. When we reply in the affirmative, we are ushered into Pali Hill, the sister Indian restaurant, past the evening diners, and down the stairs towards the toilets. Indeed, you would be forgiven for stumbling into the subterranean bar thinking it was the toilets. Signalled only by a sign reading 'Sexologist Dawakhana Clinic', a concrete door is the unceremonious entrance to Bandra Bhai.

Behind said door, the dimly-lit den is a gaudy spectacle of glittering trinkets, velvet upholstery and animal print – a Bombay fishing village in the middle of a 1970s nightclub, if you can imagine such a thing. Bandra Bhai’s interior is ‘tacky’ by its own admission, and sure, there is a giant taxidermied peacock in the corner. The menu, on the other hand, is anything but.

Cocktails are playful, as per the decor, but sophisticated. We try the Rajdoot Martini (samphire-infused Reyka vodka, Tanqueray gin, and Cocchi Americano) and the P.S.S. (peach, sherry, and stone flower-infused Old Tom gin) first. Both are understated: the former is a pearlescent yellow with a single sprig of samphire, the latter an intoxicating orange with a peel garnish. The flavours are subtle, but at the same time distinctive. None of the ingredients are lost – quinine and peach dance unmistakably on the tongue.

We go on to order the Disco Inferno (cardamom-infused vodka, mango, chilli and lime) and the Bangbang Bandstand (tequila, ginger syrup, lemon, pink grapefruit and ginger ale), which are quite a different experience. Leaning into the gaudiness of the theme, the former is a tropical tangerine colour topped with a lime wedge and a whole chilli. The latter is a cloudy coral pink garnished with dried grapefruit and a purple flower.

The cocktails are the stars of the show, but the small plates that accompany them are just as intricate, and complete the transportation to India’s retro underbelly.

I would recommend the hara kebab: feather-light balls of potato and spinach made crispy by a slight char on the outside. Each is garnished with coriander and accompanied by a smoky sauce. The Mangalore buns and crab sukkah are even better: the air-puffed buns serve as receptacles for the crab, fennel seed, chilli and ginger mix, all finished with an acidic pop of lemon.

We also order the roasted masala nuts – a decision influenced by my desire to find out what a £10 bowl of cashews tastes like, more than anything else. The answer is ‘very nice’, but I’m not sure the addition of avocado, tomato and lime justifies a tenner. 

Bar the nuts, perhaps, Bandra Bhai is magical. Such is its commitment to the theme that it runs the risk of coming across as trite, but, as it stands, the theatre fully succeeds in transporting you to a different time and place.

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Bandra Bhai, 79-81 Mortimer St, London W1W 7SJ, bandrabhai.co.uk