Having just arrived in town from India, Chef Hasan Rizvi is ready to drive things forward at Charcoal
I visited Charcoal Tandoor Grill & Mixology on a Wednesday evening, just as the doors were opening. Here to interview the new Head Chef, Hasan Rizvi, who recently arrived in the city from India for his first international posting, the restaurant was already beginning to fill.
With a reputation as one of Bangkok’s best Indian restaurants, Charcoal has gained plaudits since it opened in 2013, so the appointment of a new Head Chef could be cause for concern. If things are going so well, then why change?
Following the success of Soho Hospitality Group’s rooftop bar, Above Eleven, the group reassembled to launch Charcoal, with the intention of introducing modern tandoor-cooking to Bangkok. What materialized was a restaurant and mixology bar where cocktails play just as an important role as food. SHG’s Managing Director Rohit Sachdev scoured the alleys and antique shops of Old Delhi to find unique and unusual vessels to present Charcoal’s cocktails, which, as I’m informed by the restaurant manager, “Are carefully selected to complement the kebabs.”
I spot Chef Hasan in the kitchen, cooking in tandoor ovens and over flame; giving the food its signature smoky flavour, a style of cooking from India’s Northwestern regions. With an open kitchen, you can peek through the glass and see the cylindrical clay ovens and skewered blackened meats. Take a deep breath, and you smell the marinates and subtle use of spices.
Warm poppadoms and multicoloured dips arrive at my table, which is soon laden with condiments. And then Angaar Pasliyan, hot from the tandoor. On-the-bone NZ mutton chops are marinated overnight with red chilli, cumin, malt vinegar, ginger and garlic. The mutton is lustrous with just the right amount of tandoor crispy casing as not to taste burnt or overpower the spicing.
“It’s about balance,” Chef Hasan tells me. “When you’re working with marinades and spices, and different cuts of meat, you look for a balance of flavour.”
Born in Agra, India, the city of the Taj Mahal, Chef Hasan studied in Hotel Management before moving full-time to the kitchen, aged 18. Learning the basics—“months and months of peeling onions”—he struggled with discipline and taking orders. Soon, though, he was perfecting the techniques and began buying cookbooks, opening his eyes to international cuisines. He decided to pursue desserts and took roles in various hotel kitchens around India. “I found inspiration all around, and I decided to dedicate my life to cooking.”
In the international hotel chains and high-end resorts, he worked across global cuisines, cooking Italian, Chinese and Japanese alongside Indian. “I found myself working with tuna, scallops, prosciutto and truffles,” he recalls, all the while pursuing his love of pastry. He chose to work over the long, busy Christmas periods, making festive sweets and cookies for guests. Then, in 2014 he accepted a job at The Oberoi Amarvilas, working with ancient Royal recipes; reworked in a contemporary style.
“The experiences with Royal recipes was exciting,” he explains. “It set me up nicely for what we do here [Charcoal] where the focus is on food from the Royal House of Mughals; all of the history and mystery of Indian cuisine from long ago.”
Back to dinner, a chicken biryani is cooked with a circular crust of dough that’s been cribbed around the pot lid to keep in the steam. The dough is peeled away and the top removed to reveal a stew of mixed ingredients. Aromas fly out, the saffron-baked rice carrying a wallop of smell and flavour. The chicken, as with all of the meat at Charcoal, has been marinated intensely and tastes succulent.
“This is very good,” Chef Hasan tell me, smiling. “I think you’ll enjoy this.”
It was recommended that I try the 1947: Independence Cocktail (it’s either their signature tipple, or they’re targeting me because I’m British). I’ve always found this date irksome. India gained independence from the East India Company and the British Indian Empire in 1947, but not full independence. That was 1961 when they retrieved Goa by force from the Portuguese, after 450 years of colonial rule. Anyway, let’s not squabble over numbers. It was a delightful and refreshing cocktail.
The food kept coming; centuries-old recipes reimagined for the modern diner, something that seems to be Chef Hasan’s great skill: mutton chops, chicken biryani, potatoes filled with garam masala, Galauti (little minced-spiced mutton patties), and lashing of warm, drippy butter with bread. Yes, that’s the correct way around, more butter than bread; a Tandoori naan of butter-enriched naughtiness glistened with artery-busting ghee.
With Chef Hasan now installed at the helm, and his experience across notable international cuisines and regional and royal Indian recipes, Charcoal will likely go from strength-to-strength, building on an already stellar reputation in a city with a ravenous and increasing appreciation for Indian food. Everything I ate here was brilliant; delicious, well-balanced and served in generous portions. Chef Hasan is in good hands and visa-versa.
Interview by David J. Constable