Surely one of the greatest pleasures of traveling through south Asia is the opportunity to experience the vibrant street food culture. The teeming night markets of Bangkok, the smoky back street restaurants of Delhi, the impromptu street cafes that spring up after dark in Jogjakarta, all give an invaluable glimpse into a way of life, a portal into a culture through its cuisine…….Mama San aims to capture this spirit using premium ingredients to present the flavours and aromas of authentic south Asian street food, then throws in fine wines, fabulous cocktails and serves it all up in a wonderfully atmospheric setting.
An imposing entrance ushers you into a dark and alluring space inspired by the cavernous dining halls of Shanghai in the 1930’s, a golden era when the city was known as the ‘Paris of the Orient.’ The glamour and the precociousness of the period are successfully evoked with a blend of eastern exoticism and a twist of French colonialism. Dine at a vintage mahjong table for two, or sink into the wonderful customised leather banquet seating, and admire the piece de resistance, a magnificent wall mural depicting a sensual and beautiful woman – ‘Mama San’ herself. In Asian culture the term denotes a woman in charge of an establishment, essentially a ‘Madam,’ and her gaze is encompassing, even when I sit with my back to the wall I catch her reflection in the enormous pane of glass that fronts the building.
Mama San has been brought to us by chefs Will Meyrick and Palm Amatawet, the duo behind the dining phenomenon that is Sarong, although this latest collaboration represents a shift towards more casual dining, reflected in the prices and the generous portion sizes. I chat with Will over a round of creamy, ice cool Coconut Mint Mojitos. He admits to a love of travel and a fascination with Asian culture which is so deeply entwined with its cuisine. The menu is the culmination of 18 months spent traveling the region, meeting inspiring people, discovering traditional food and collecting recipes (the book is coming soon!) Walls are adorned with photo portraits and street scenes, which, along with leather bound menus filled with old fashioned type writer print, provide an Asian food travelogue. From the desert of Rajasthan, to remote villages in Vietnam, to seething cities of China, each and every recipe has a story to tell. When Will discovered the enigmatic Chairman Wang cooking extraordinary dumplings in Beijing he brought her to Bali as a guest cooking instructor, setting the tone for the soon to open Mama San cooking school which will offer an “Adventure into the art of making south Asian cuisine.”
The Prohibition Bar
Mama San definitely aims to shake things up a bit, and I am not just talking about the cocktails – although the Prohibition Bar upstairs is a great place to start (and end) your evening. Sumptuous leather wing backs, a well stocked cellar, glittering chandeliers and retro red lamps create a gentleman’s club atmosphere, but the vibe is brought up to date with some imaginative cocktails served in truly bold style. The crimson hued Blood and Sand arrives in a test tube, a highly potent mix of Scotch masked by sour cherry, and the sweetest of fresh pressed orange juice, served with a cherry filled syringe on top. The Mint Julep comes in a small copper bucket, a pleasure to behold and to drink, the full bodied bourbon softened with fruity hints of apricot and orange, sweetened with Demerara sugar, and finished with plenty of crushed mint and ice. The Caipirinha, served in a terracotta pot, is an excellent rendition of this famous Brazilian tipple, and comes with extra lime and sugar on the side. Well and truly fuelled I make my way down the open staircase, taking in the lively scene.
The culinary journey
Signature starters include Chinese dumplings, such as Steamed Snapper with chili and black bean, and the rich and spicy La lot Grilled Vietnamese Minced Pork Belly, wrapped in delicate betel leaves and deeply imbued with the flavours of coriander and lemongrass. I am immediately drawn to the Kachooris, one of my favourite Indian snacks; Nitha, a Rajhastani housewife taught Will the secret of preparing this famous Jaipur street food using a recipe passed down through generations. The golden, flaky dough is filled with yellow dahl, coriander and mustard seeds, and tastes better than anything I remember in India, the tamarind chutney is so good I could eat it by the bowlful.
No Asian meal would be complete without a wok dish, and I order a Pad Thai, made with a recipe garnered from a chef that Will worked with in Koh Samui. The attractive presentation is of the ‘mix it yourself’ variety with bean sprouts on the side, next to a neat stack of Rice noodles brimming with egg, peanuts, crispy tofu, and tasty dried shrimps. The Crispy Whole Fish with three flavour sauce is a classic dish from the streets of Bangkok, featuring an impressive fish smothered in a chunky sweet and spicy sauce, topped with fresh coriander and crispy fried shredded onions. The sauce is wonderfully invigorating, with a zingy blend of wild ginger, turmeric, pineapple, chili and tamarind.
I have always said that you can tell a good Indian restaurant by the quality of its naan bread, and the Mama San version is truly superb, so good in fact that I have to order a second. It is softly flavoured, chewy, buttery, flakey and perfect for dipping in the Dhal Markani, a rich Punjabi classic, with lentils and spices slow cooked for hours and hours and finished with fresh cream to producing a dish of incredible depth.
It is time for dessert and the Homemade Banana cake with cinnamon and cardamom, Black Sticky Rice with mango and coconut crème and Deep Fried Ice cream with nutella all compete for my attention, but in the end I venture into unknown territory and order the Poached Pumpkin, a creation of Amatawet’s, which is glazed and caramelized, with just a hint of spice, and perfectly accompanied by a mellow homemade cashew nut ice cream. I wash it down with one last cocktail, a Passion fruit and Vanilla Martini, which has the consistency of melted ice cream, and a taste that is truly ambrosial.