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Meet the restaurateur with a finger on Kolkata’s food pulse

A talk with Harsh Sonthalia, the man behind Please Don’t Talk, Jalsa and the new Soba Sassy

Karo Christine Kumar | Published 11.01.23, 08:36 PM
Harsh Sonthalia has spent a decade in Kolkata's F&B space and gifted the city with places like (left) Jalsa and (right) gastropub Please Don't Talk

Harsh Sonthalia has spent a decade in Kolkata's F&B space and gifted the city with places like (left) Jalsa and (right) gastropub Please Don't Talk

Food connoisseurs know him as the man who’s gifted the city multiple dine dens over the last decade from Gabbar’s to Jalsa to Soba Sassy.

Party-goers know him as the man to dial for entry to Please Don't Talk (PDT) on a packed Saturday night.

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Friends know him as a former investment banker in Australia.

And some of us know him as the boy who once wrote for The Telegraph in Schools (TTIS).

Excerpts from a chat with restaurateur Harsh Sonthalia on his culinary journey and the evolving tastes of the Kolkata consumer.

Palate on point

Sonthalia's first venture was Mexican restaurant Amigos, that served dishes like fajitas, nachos, followed by (right) Villa 19 that served modern Japanese and Mediterranean food

Sonthalia's first venture was Mexican restaurant Amigos, that served dishes like fajitas, nachos, followed by (right) Villa 19 that served modern Japanese and Mediterranean food

Harsh’s first venture with friends Aman Chitlangia and Apurva Salarpuria was a Mexican restaurant called Amigos, which he opened in 2012, that served dishes like fajitas, nachos, Habanero Prawns and introduced churros to the Kolkata menu. A bar was later added which stirred up tequila-based drinks and its variations such as anejo, blanco, and reposado. A year later, he opened Villa 19 in Ballygunge, a ‘tasting room’ that served modern Japanese and Mediterranean food. “People who were travelling had had a taste of new cuisines and we saw the opportunity to fill that gap in Kolkata,” says the entrepreneur. It wasn’t easy as the understanding of the flavours was relatively new at that point and Harsh would go around the tables explaining dishes to the guests. “Educating people about food has always been a part of the process,” he says.

The Dhobi Ghat ('chana bhatura') at Mumbai Local and (right) the mud pie at Gabbar's

The Dhobi Ghat ('chana bhatura') at Mumbai Local and (right) the mud pie at Gabbar's

In 2015, Amigos gave way to Gabbar’s, a modern Indian haunt that had fun with molecular gastronomy - one of the biggest trends at the time. It was a resounding success. “Dishes like Molecular Papdi Chaat played on nostalgia, textures and forms; there was familiar food in an unfamiliar form,” says Harsh. But if there was one thing that Harsh had learnt by now, it was that change is the only constant, and people love change. So Villa 19 gave way to Mumbai Local in 2016, which brought to the menu street food from khau gallis of Maximum City. Gabbar’s closed during the pandemic but because the brand was so successful, it continues to run as a cloud kitchen.

Please Don't Talk, the “back-to-school” themed gastropub on Ho Chi Minh Sarani

Please Don't Talk, the “back-to-school” themed gastropub on Ho Chi Minh Sarani

It was with Please Don’t Talk (PDT) in late-2018 that Harsh and his partners entered the nightlife space. The queue to enter the “back-to-school” themed gastropub (another tug at nostalgia) was proof of the need for an after-hours space for the city’s 25+ demographic to unwind. What was missing was a dance floor but even that was a deliberate move. “We saw the opportunity instead to create a bespoke venue for live music,” he says.

Progressive steps

The interiors of Jalsa have an Indian sensitivity - arched jharokhas reminiscent of Indian palaces and portraits of the Indian ‘Jalsa woman’ dressed in traditional jewellery.

The interiors of Jalsa have an Indian sensitivity - arched jharokhas reminiscent of Indian palaces and portraits of the Indian ‘Jalsa woman’ dressed in traditional jewellery.

Then the pandemic struck. When the outlets were shut for around five months, Harsh looked to the future. “I firmly believed there would be revenge dining.” Soon after the lockdowns were lifted, modern Indian restaurant Jalsa was launched in 2021, sharing a wall with PDT in the 100-year-old Harrington Mansions on Ho Chi Minh Sarani. “Jalsa is about innovating with Indian ingredients and applying them to unconventional dishes, or using global ingredients with local cuisine and creating a product that is exciting to an Indian palate,” says Harsh. It offers a confluence of popular flavours remodelled and presented fresh and with a focus on Indian - there’s Avo Cornetto, Jalebi Caviar, Dal Burrata, Laal Maas Tacos, Cream Cheese Truffle Kulcha, Paneer Pincheel and even a cocktail called Turmeric Gin. If one looks closely, Jalsa takes the philosophy of Gabbar’s to a fine-dine format with an ingredient-driven menu (if the avocado is from Kodaikanal, the morels are from Kashmir), and presents it gimmick-free.

His latest venture is Soba Sassy, a progressive Asian cocktail house with a “high energy vibe” that opened doors mid-December 2022, a floor above Jalsa and PDT. Harsh and his partners wanted to create a spacious multi-zoned venue that “changed character as the day changed”. “The idea was to serve Asian food in a space that has a different vibe from a restaurant. From that perspective, it is unique,” he says. For the cocktails, techniques like clarification and fat-washing of alcohol are implemented.

Both Jalsa and Soba Sassy are large spaces. If Gabbar’s had 70 covers, Jalsa can accommodate 90 diners, and Soba Sassy 120 for now. “We realised we didn’t want to work with anything less than 100 covers”.

The Kolkata consumer

One must remember, however, that Harsh is not a chef. As a restaurateur, what he and his partners bring to the table are strategy and innovation that is applied in the kitchen. When he worked as an investment banker in Australia, the exposure to world cuisine led him to return to India and open a restaurant. “Australia was my window to world cuisine. I visited wine plantations and saw how people enjoyed fine living whether it was good food, coffee or wine or cheese. I wanted to bring that experience to Kolkata,” he says.

For someone who has been in the Kolkata F&B space for a decade, Harsh feels that the consumer’s taste has evolved for the better. “Today’s consumer is well-travelled, more discerning, more experimental, and willing to spend more for exotic food and special occasions,” he says. There is also a better understanding of ingredients and the knowledge to differentiate between a well-curated meal from an average one. “There is also an awareness about different kinds of spirits and brands. People know if what’s in their glass is Monkey 47 gin or a Caol Ila single malt,” adds the restaurateur.

A few of his favourite places

Americano Bombay by Chef Alex Sanchez is one of his regular haunts in Mumbai for its “thoughtfully-prepared food and friendly vibe”. The ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ was also featured in Asia’s Best 50 restaurants 2022 list. “And in Kolkata, I’m a big fan of the Guchhi restaurant at Hyatt Regency,” says Harsh.

Coming soon

Two new places by the end of 2023 are in the pipeline. The first is a new location for Gabbar’s in a more “modern setting”. “We’ve seen a space we like and it is a brand I firmly believe in,” says Harsh. The second is a space for “experimental food”. Watch this space for more.

Brand best-sellers down the years:

Amigos (2012-closed): Nachos Fiesta and Churros

Villa 19 (2013-closed): Katsu Curry and Spanakopita Cigars

Gabbar’s (2015-present): Molecular Papdi Chaat, Gabbar Ki Ma Ki Dal, Kala Khatta Margarita

Molecular Papdi Chaat at Gabbar's

Molecular Papdi Chaat at Gabbar's

Mumbai Local (2016-closed): Dhobi Ghat (chana bhatura), and Maggi Dosa (inspired by Khao Galli)

Please Don’t Talk (2018-present): Cream Cheese Truffle Dim Sum, Pizzas by the Metre

PDT's Pizzas by the Metre

PDT's Pizzas by the Metre

Jalsa (2021-present): Avo Cornetto, Cream Cheese Truffle Kulcha

Soba Sassy (2022-present): Smoked Cheese Bao, Ramen Noodle

Jalsa's Avo Cornetto

Jalsa's Avo Cornetto

Last updated on 12.01.23, 11:29 AM
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