There’s recently been a flurry of openings of new-age, trendy Indian restaurants and bars, offering up eclectic menus full of regional plates, and cocktails spiked with chaat masala and cardamom. Two such spots are Pali Hill and Bandra Bhai – a restaurant and a bar from Azure Hospitality, located on Fitzrovia’s Mortimer Street. We wander down to the basement bar, Bandra Bhai, to see how the new team has shaken up the menu, before resurfacing for dinner at Pali Hill (read our full restaurant review here).
Bandra Bhai and Pali Hill are two venues within one building that have survived the trials and tribulations of lockdown. Originally meant to open in the Spring of 2020, the grand launch of the first floor restaurant and underground cocktail bar was pushed back to October, with Dav Eames (ex-George’s Bar at The Gilbert Scott) taking over Bandra Bhai in July 2021 and bringing with him a reworked menu of creative cocktails.
We enter through Pali Hill and are directed through the warmly lit restaurant, passed its handsome bar and away from the sight, smells, and sounds of a busy, open kitchen. Once we’ve reached the back of the restaurant, we descend the steps towards Bandra Bhai – hidden behind a secret doorway in the building’s basement, next to a vintage-style poster promoting the Sexologist Dawakhana Clinic. This appears a tad odd until you learn of the inspiration behind the bar.
Until the 1990s, India had a closed economy where limited local items were available to buy and imported goods were scarce. This resulted in a ring of smugglers that imported and dealt illicit goods – anything from gold watches to foreign booze.
Bandra Bhai has been designed by ME AM Design in the guise of a front for such deliciously dodgy dealings, playing tribute to Mumbai’s smuggler operations of the 1970s, and honestly, they’ve done it perfectly. Gaudy, kitsch, lavish, and eccentric, with eclectic velvets, loud wallpaper, mismatched cushions, tasseled lamp shades, and a stuffed peacock overlooking proceedings from the corner, this is the perfect venue for illicit activity and unmitigated decadence. With “Speakeasy” style designs done to death in London over the past 10 years, often meaning that we can guess almost every design choice in most newly opened subterranean bars before we’ve entered, Bandra Bhai is a spectacular breath of fresh air.
The Drinks & Bar Snack Menu
We take our seat under the judgemental eye of the pedestal-dwelling peacock and peruse the menu. Bar snacks are furnished by the kitchen upstairs and offer a tantalising glimpse into Pali Hill’s repertoire, from Spiced Papari (£6) and Hare Spinach, Potato & Pea Kebab (£10) to Mangalore Buns & Crab Sukkah (£14) and Grilled Lamb Cutlets (£20). We opt for the Buns and turn the page to see 10 exciting signature cocktails.
The new drinks list has been crafted by Dav Eames and gently reworks classics with touches of Indian flavour. Whilst explaining his choices, Dav tells us of his 10 years working with Marcus Wareing as his “beverage guy”.
“I tend to work closely with chefs – that’s what’s interesting for me […] Working with Marcus was an interesting thing as, if I put a drink on the menu, he’d try it, then he’d ask ‘Why is this there, why is that there’, which is great, because after the first time, you start asking yourself those questions whilst developing a drink. It made me realise you could strip this and that out, and think about it in a different way. I think that’s why the drinks come out the way they do. They’re fairly simple, but well-structured and very different from one another.”
We decide to start things off with the Cognac-based Gabbar Singh Side-Hustle (£16.50) and P.S.S… (£15.50), featuring Old Tom gin infused with stone flower (a species of lichen) to give it a lightly forest floor flavour. The Side-Hustle arrives in spectacular pineapple serving-ware, with a removable brass crown fitted with a straw for easier access. It’s fruity and full of juicy ripe pineapple aromas, with a defined marzipan note and sweet nuttiness from the almond syrup used. Celery water and lemon adds touches of bitterness and acidity that zing through what could otherwise be a cloying drink. Green cardamom plays on top with Frapin cognac working beautifully as the drink’s understated backbone, adding structure and holding the other elements in place perfectly.
P.S.S… quickly proves itself to be amazingly moreish thanks to the perfect balance of Fernando de Castilla Antique Amontillado sherry with peach and infused gin. The peach brings a cheeky roundness and supple mouthfeel whilst the stone flower adds a woody, lightly bitter, and smoky character that compliments the sherry’s dry woodiness. It’s a damn decadent drop and a drink we’d happily order again and again.
As we savour our cocktails, the Mangalore Buns & Crab Sukkah arrive. Dav tells us how the bun dough is a bit of a signature for the chef as he uses overripe banana to introduce a touch of sweetness. We pull the puffed buns apart to spoon in the crab sukkah. It’s a small yet powerfully flavoured dish, with the freshness of the crab apparent from the first bite. Chilli is apparent and well-measured but not quite settled into the gravy, throwing the balance of the sauce off ever so slightly. The bun itself is reminiscent of a lightly sweetened, earthy Vada, pairing wonderfully with the soft and juicy flesh of the crab.
Buns devoured and fingers licked, we move on to our final drinks before dinner – Smokey Joe (£14.50) and Disco Inferno! (£14.50), which Dav tells us is currently the favourite drink on the menu, although it will probably have to be taken off and reworked as Alfonso mango season is nearly up. The mangoes give the drink a silky smooth sweetness; this is paired with fresh chillies and cardamom-spiced vodka, resulting in a bright and fresh cocktail with undertones of nectar-rich, earthy Alfonso, and touches of vegetal chilli and spice.
We finish up with Smokey Joe (Lapsang Souchong-infused Macallan 12-year-old, Martini Rosso, Apricot Liqueur, lemon), a drink inspired by Harry Craddock’s 1930 Flying Dutchman. The whisky is flavoured with lapsang in a three-day cold infusion to impart something of the tea’s smoke without too much tannin. The cocktail arrives in a vintage glass, one of six that Dav found recently at a wedding, and is topped with a floating dried round of orange carrying some stone flower. This is lit and extinguished at the table to release aromas akin to the end of a bonfire that marry with lapsang’s earthy smoke. There’s brightness and body from the apricot liqueur, with touches of glazed, dried citrus, and an unshakeable smoked balsamic vinegar note (although that might just be an odd flavour hangover following the Disco Inferno!). As it was the first cocktail that drew our eye on the menu, we can’t help but feel a tad disappointed by the outcome; it’s still a good drink, just not good enough to warrant its hefty £14.50 price-tag.
Cocktails finished, we head upstairs to continue our evening of indulgence. We absolutely adore Bandra Bhai’s aesthetic and how the small, low-ceiling venue somehow manages to feel lush and spacious. With so much glittering around, it is impossible to get bored of the space and there’s something deeply exciting yet relaxed about it as a venue.
Dav has put a great deal of thought into each cocktail and the quality is undeniable. Even if the prices of the drinks shocked us somewhat, that’s more the result of the postcode than anything else and the cocktails as well as bar snacks are crafted to perfection.
If you’re looking for a hedonistic post-work or pre-dinner drink in Fitzrovia, Bandra Bhai is the place to be.