The Looming Tower
When I left San Francisco in 2012, the city was about to explode. It was already, transparently, a fantastic place to eat, but over the following couple of years the trickle-down economics of Silicon Valley ludicrously overpaying adolescent tech bros would begin to pool in neighbourhoods like The Mission, and the rising tide lifted plenty of existing boats whilst promising plain sailing to any vessels looking to make their maiden voyage (this metaphor has been sponsored by yachts). Benu got its third star; it became more expensive to eat at Saison than to fly there from London, bringing the city to the attention of national as well as local press; neighbourhoods exploded with more casual (but still very expensive) places. Like the Gold Rush of old, it seemed like a boom that would never bust; so much so that the city I returned to in 2015 resembled a goose in the final stages of gavage, full to bursting of restaurants catering to price-blind twentysomethings setting dollar bills on fire as they celebrated automating a huge chunk of the economy and putting poor people out of jobs.
Like the mousse in a glass of overworked Napa Valley fizz, it took a while to pop, but pop it most assuredly did. One publication called the ensuing bloodbath – with no hint of hyperbole – The Mid-Market Massacre. It was an outcome as inevitable as the latest Uber sexual harassment debacle, and with the same douchey disruptors of bricks and mortar industries to blame. The city’s restaurateurs grew addicted to the glut of tech cash overflowing their tills; a dizzying procession of kinda-similar places opened, trying to surf the NorCal ramen / farm to small plates / haute Korean wave off into the sunset. Unfortunately – as an astonishingly detailed series of reports from Thrillist’s Kevin Alexander makes clear – those chill hoodie-wearing brosephs weren’t quite so down to clown when rates and labour costs began to spiral and they were expected to eat the increased cost along with their Petaluma farm duck ham and Frog Hollow pluots. Where once a place might have survived as the only decent restaurant for a few blocks, now the alternatives were endless, and everywhere, and the very people who had made the boom possible voted with their feet. The touch-paper, unlike the general vibes in the industry, was #lit.
The one that really sticks in my throat is Rose Pistola, which closed a couple of weeks ago after 21 years in the biz. When I lived in North Beach, I walked past it on the way to and from my office every day. It was a vaguely modern, utterly unfussy Italian place, and always looked full-ish, full enough. It wasn’t smothered with ecstatic press like Cotogna a few minutes away; it wasn’t doing outrageous things with poke and pork belly fried rice like Chubby Noodle round the corner; no one was Yelping about its lowkey Ligurian-by-way-of-Laguna-Beach food like they were about the incredible cocktails and dope bar snacks at Comstock, which I also passed daily. Even when my parents came to town I dragged them up hill (lots to chose from) and down Divisadero, taking them to places that left them baffled, disquieted, when the answer – some linguine alle vongole and a nice bottle of Russian River Chardonnay – was staring me in the face, on my doorstep. I never went in.
And now, if you believe Cassandra O’Loughlin (and she’s not often wrong) that same deeply unchill wind is crossing the Atlantic, bearing down on London. She fears for the taco slingers, the sourdough pizzaoili, the cabbage-worshippers – implies that they will be left exposed once the neophiliacs move on. I hope that doesn’t happen – not only for their sake but also for mine; it is thrilling to be able to dip into genuinely excellent versions of different world cuisines paired thoughtfully with good beer and interesting wine in rooms done up to allow me to cling to the illusion of my youth. But with respect to my sort-of colleague (Intrigued? Buy the current issue of Noble Rot, on a whim!), I’m not sure that’s going to happen. We’re a little more patient here in London; a little more principled; a little less susceptible to flashy shiny new things than the manchildren of San Francisco. The sustained success of a Som Saa or a Padella or even (inexplicably to me) a Dishoom goes to show that people do not move on en masse whenever something new opens – we have an eye for quality, and are willing to wait (and queue!) to get it once we see it, and to wait (and queue some more!) to get it again if it’s worth that investment.
The difficulty is getting seen in the first place. I was sitting next to a fellow food tragic the other night and she asked if we could compare Lists. The level of overlap between our respective picks for 2017 depressed me profoundly. But what else should we expect, when we follow the same Twitter accounts and get our new openings news filtered through the same Hot Dinners enthusiasm bubble and read the same handful of writers writing about the same handful of places and see the same photos of cacio e pepe or bao or whatever Dahmerish monstrosity of fat and flayed skin they’re dolloping onto a taco at Temper?
It’s the places that open with little fanfare in hidden corners that we need to worry about; the ones that get a few enthusiastic reviews in the first few weeks but then imperceptibly drop off everyone’s radar; the ones you walk past and think I must remember to go there and never quite get round to it and then one day you walk past again and it’s shuttered up and you can’t, ever.
So go to Calcutta Street. It doesn’t tick all of those boxes – anywhere reviewed in the Times and Evening Standard must be assumed to have a bit of profile. But it’s not the sort of place to be on anyone’s List; it’s slightly out of the way (round the back of Goodge Street tube); its culinary focus on authentic Bengali flavours is not as achingly hip as ultra-regional Thai; it doesn’t have the social media presence of a concept backed by miniature empire, like those clever chaps behind Bao and Hoppers.
But it’s really, really good. The menu is broken into Street Food and larger stuff “From my Family Kitchen on Gariahat Road” – having been even further North than Calcutta (are we not calling it Kolkata now?) on my only trip to India I can’t speak with authority on anything’s authenticity but I’d unhesitatingly recommend the Kosha Mangsho, which is lamb, and the Kankrar Jahl, which sells itself as “the best crab kari ever” and makes a game stab at the crown before falling in sight of the pinnacle, the Black Pepper Crab at Jumbo Seafood in Singapore. There’s a great daal, three different styles of bread (all excellent), and an intensely coconutty prawn curry scattered with bracing chopped green chilli (spicing is consistently in my sweet spot, which – big dick alert! – may mean it’s a little much for some). Service is endearing, the room is cute with a baby-blue shutter motif echoing the front door, and the bill is this gif. It’s a slam-dunk.
I’m not even sure it needs a boost – it was full enough, or felt it, for a Wednesday in February. But with a proverbial Winter coming and an East Wind blowing, I’d rather you didn’t take any chances. Go anyway, and go back once you’re done. You’ll have a great time – we did – and you might just help keep somewhere interesting, independent, exciting in business in a climate that’s only going to get harder. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.