Beneath the streets of Fitzrovia, step into a retro Indian smugglers’ den. Full of spectacular trinkets, foreign liquor, gaudy art, and velvet upholstery, Bandra Bhai is a tribute to underground operations of years gone by and is now your delightfully tacky, dimly lit, groovy basement spot serving the best cocktails in London.
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 liquor. Designed in the guise of a front for these dodgy dealings, Bandra Bhai will be a playful tribute to the smugglers’ operations of days gone by.
New Delhi-based I ME AM Design have led the interior design for Bandra Bhai, which is set through a hidden doorway in the basement of the Mortimer Street site. The bar is filled with velvets, gaudy art and kitsch upholstery, coming together to create a distinctive new 40-cover bar for great cocktails in an atmospheric setting.
Bandra Bhai has a fairly comprehensive cocktail selection. My only criticism would be that they were very much on the sweet side – we did ask for the second round to be less so, but I’m not sure the mixologist got the memo. Nevertheless, we worked through quite a few in the hopes of finding one that wasn’t, with varying results.
The stand–out for me would be the Gabar Singh Side Hustle – a pineapple and Cognac affair – with hints of almond and celery. I’d also had high hopes for the Smokey Joe – 12-year-old whiskey, with apricot liqueur, martini Rosso, lemon and lapsang souchong – which is always fun to say. My guest was a fan, but I’d have preferred less fruit with my smoke. Smokey Joe was definitely the showstopper in terms of appearance however; our lovely waitress lit it in front of us, creating a wonderful peat of the highlands, heathy scent, which lasted for a good five minutes.
Jungle Love was a concoction of spiced rum, fresh mint, rose liquor, orange, lime and cassia bark – I’d have preferred more mint and less sweet citrus – but I suppose if you order a drink with orange and lemon this is exactly what one ought to expect!
The Bangbang Bandstand was my accomplice’s favourite, tequila, ginger syrup, lemon, pink grapefruit and ginger ale – but, again, rather too sickly for me. He also enjoyed the Disco Inferno! – cardamom-infused vodka, mango, chilli and lime.
It’s worth noting that Bandra Bhai has a pretty great wine and spirits list, well worth working through if cocktails aren’t your thing.
The bar snacks were great – substantial enough that we needn’t have bothered with supper when we got home. We sampled the Spiced Papari – moreish chickpea crisps with a hint of chilli and ajwain, then the Roasted Masala Cashews, spicy warm cashews served with avocado, tomato and lime. These had an almost Peruvian or Mexican flavour, elevating them far above the standard glass of mixed nuts served in most cocktail bars. We also tried the Old Delhi Chicken Tikka with mint chutney – this was my favourite by a country mile. The chicken was tender and moist, and, with the addition of a squeeze of lemon, made for a wonderfully complex, warming conflation of flavours.
Finally, we sampled the Grilled Lamb Cutlets, served with black pepper, cumin, crispy curry leaves and mint raita. Guest of honour loved these, whilst I found them slightly well done for my tastes, possibly underwhelmed after such incredible chicken.
In a Nutshell
All in all, a great place for atmosphere, location, décor, food and wine. Also great for cocktails, if you have a sweet tooth.
If you wanted a more substantial meal, and varied food menu, the main restaurant Pali Hill, upstairs, would be the perfect place to start!
79-81 Mortimer St , Fitzrovia , London W1W 7SJ