Bengal Clipper, 11-12 Cardamon Building, Shad Thames, Butlers Wharf, London SE1 2NW. www.bengalclipper.co.uk
Tucked away in the trendy riverside passages of Shad Thames lies ‘Bengal Clipper’ restaurant, which in their 15 years of trading, has been awarded more accolades than you could shake a stick at. The narrow entrance doors suggest that I should really be a couple of dress sizes smaller, in order to make a comfortably smooth entry inside. The restaurant itself is really quite spacious with a subtle décor reminiscent of the early 90’s. A series of 9 vibrant paintings, commissioned specially for the restaurant, adorn the walls of the dining area. Although the décor is a tad dated, there is nothing particularly offensive or ‘Tacky-Curry House-ish” here.
The menu is vast, but is disappointingly not as ‘Bengali’ as I had hoped, however there is plenty to suit all tastes. From the softer coconut-laden Keralan specialties of Southern India to the more robust dishes of the North. Lots of Brit-favourites too, with Vindaloo, Rogan Josh and Biryani all featured, but I was determined to find something new, something unfamiliar, something Bengali.
I admittedly played it safe to begin with opting for a ‘Clipper Treat’ which is a selection of Tandoor cooked meats, including duck, chicken, diced lamb, fish and lamb mince kebabs, which although pleasant enough, were not overly impressive. Some meats were more tender than others, but I think it was my companion’s starter choice that was more of a let down. Curiously named ‘Mushroom Lollipops’ – the name alone being enough to put me off really – and at first sight were as far removed from their comically-named descriptive as they could possibly hope to be. Three bulbous, deep-fried, paneer-stuffed button mushrooms, with very little flavour, did nothing to excite my palate I’m afraid. I was left confused as to the ‘Lollipop’ reference as I was expecting to see a lolly stick with a mushroom on the end of it. Personally I hate it when food is given funny little names, if something is truly good, then there is no need to give it a cutesy label.
The main courses arrived on a kitsch little hostess trolley. Each one served in odd little clay dishes, that weren’t particularly attractive and didn’t best accommodate their contents. Ever-persistent, I managed to find some dishes that (having done a bit of research with a Bengali colleague of mine) were authentic. ‘Sathkari Gosht’ is lamb chunks marinated in Calamansi lime juice and cooked in a medium-hot spiced sauce. Calamansi limes are larger than normal limes and commonly used in Asian and Southeast Asian cookery, not usually for their juice, which is incredibly sour, but for their peel which is sweet and very fragrant. We also plumped for the ‘Chefs Special’ Chicken Curry, Dal Tarka (black spiced lentil stew), Baigan Rasmachi (spicy marinated baby aubergines) accompanied by rice and an onion and garlic stuffed ‘Kulcha’ bread.
My feast lay before me and I was suitably hungry enough to tear through it. I created a little mixed platter for myself of a taster of everything. I am not, nor have I ever been, the type of girl who can try one dish at a time and then go on to a second one. I have to have everything and I have to have it all at once. So I began by trying the ‘Chefs Special’ chicken curry, which looks suspiciously neon in colour and although not lacking in flavour by any means, is like a spicier version of chicken tikka masala, yet with that familiar, almost ketchuppy, after-taste. The chicken breast was cut into thin strips, making it more chewy than tender. Not bad overall, but not something I would necessarily feel compelled to order in the future. My Sathkari Gosht looks enticing and my first mouthful is of tender lamb with a fiercely bitter lime after-taste, than was a tad too intense and just overpowered the other components of the dish. However the aubergine dish was very nice, not overly spiced and a great accompaniment to the meal. The Dal Tarka, whilst rich, creamy and brimming with well spiced black lentils, had an unappetising ‘film’ on the surface which reminded me of school-dinner style rice pudding.
After our main courses, we were completely stuffed and hadn’t managed to leave any room for a dessert. Although the staff were attentive and friendly enough and drinks were served at the speed of light, food service was quite slow. Reflecting on my meal at Bengal Clipper, I wouldn’t say it was a bad meal and should I ever be in the locality craving spicy food, I would definitely stop by again, although perhaps choose a little more carefully this time. To be fair, we did visit during the quieter lunch period, which may explain why the food was a tad under parr. I can imagine this place being absolutely brimming with diners in the evenings, as to survive in London for 15 years is quite a feat for any restaurant. Their website is studded with positive reviews, awards and recommendations from some of the countries top critics and culinary heavy-weights, but perhaps the reviews (just like the menu) require a much needed update.
With once-great restaurants, sometimes all that’s needed is a little ‘facelift’ to freshen things up a bit. Perhaps they would benefit from a little update in décor and definitely some new serving dishes. Bengal Clipper still has a lot going for it, but with a little focus on reviewing dishes on the menu and some attention to detail and consistency, things could greatly be improved.