Note: This is not an anonymous review and the dinner was hosted by the folks at Arola.
A short while back it was all about French restaurants at Mumbai.
It was Chez this and Chez that and then before one could figure out what Chez meant, or who Chez was, you stopped hearing about them. Once again it was back to the Italian world of spaghettis, risottos and pizzas (no they are not a Shetty invention) ruling the Mumbai continental food scene.
And now it’s suddenly Spanish.
A whole bunch of Spanish restaurants have opened at Mumbai recently. Arola, Loco Poco, Amadeus…some others too.
It’s almost as if the restaurant scene at Mumbai is following the fortune of the winners at the Football World Cup.
I happened to be at one of them a few nights back. Arola at J W Marriott. Guests of Chef Sergi Arola.
Turned out to be quite a pleasant evening chatting with the internationally acclaimed restaurateur who was quite the good host with a twinkle in his eyes and easygoing manner. At the table were a few other bloggers from Mumbai. The food was pretty good, the company pleasant, the conversation interesting. Just what one needed at the end of a frenetic day.
Chef Sergi Arola, who had a tunic with his name written in Hindi on it, has an Indian astrologer and in deference to him is vegetarian and a teetotaller on Tuesdays.
The Mumbai branch of Arola is the first branch in India.
Question is, has he Indianised the food?
“Arola is my attempt to bring my food, Spanish food, and present it to India but I have not localised it” said Chef Arola.
Interestingly Chef Arola is a big believer in using local produce.
“In a country like India it is stupid to get produce from outside”.
So apart from, for obvious reasons, Ibero hams and olives and olive oils perhaps…a lot of the produce used at Arola, the vegetables, the seafood, spices and condiments are sourced here. The house music put together by a DJ based at Goa and even the ceramic used apparently is made locally.
At times ‘local’ flummoxes Arola though. Like the sea which attracted him to Mumbai. Few days into his first visit Chef Arola realised that Juhu beach is a tad different from his native Ibiza. To start with there is no disc in the water here. And that’s just the beginning of the differences.
The chat on local produce with Chef Arola reminded me of my dinner with Chef Bill Marcetti of Spaghetti Kitchen at their outlet at Khar recently. The Italian chef who came to India from Australia more than a decade back is considered to have revolutionised the continental restaurant cuisine in India at one point . Marcetti too told me that he tried to use local produce and supported those who were trying to create new methods of farming or growing livestock here. A passion of his apparently. Something he told me had tried when he first went to Australia too.
With the global focus on reducing the carbon footprint it is great see initiatives led by folks such as Marcetti and Arola on this. What would be interesting to see is whether the paying public would get as excited about dishes made from Indian tomatoes, prawns or buffalo as against imported ones. I can’t wait for the day when you get an array of locally produced cheeses and cold cuts which match up to international standards and would be a lot cheaper.
Anyway, coming back to Arola one realised that Paella and Sangria is to Spanish cuisine what butter chicken and lassi are to Indian.
Trough the dinner Chef Arola tried to give us a glimpse of the palette of Spanish food.
So there was a gazpacho (Spanish cold soup) which set the base taste canvas for the evening…fresh tomato, garlic, salt… welcome sips of life at the end of a hard day.
Then a little trick which Chef Arola did to give a Spanish touch to Indian naans.
“Break a clove of garlic. Rub it on to the naan. Then add some tomato paste to it. And sprinkle some salt. Fold and eat. We do that with bread” said Chef Arola as he kept munching on them through the evening. A vegetarian one for him.
Similar to the roti, mirchi, piyaz that our farmers would eat as Rini Simon Khanna pointed out on Facebook. Well, Chef Arola did say that he felt a lot more at home at India than in say a China in terms of tastes and flavours.
And hey, we all love our siesta.
I was talking of sangrias earlier and we did have the red wine sangria. But also gin and tonic in a Nigella-like glass. Apparently gin and tonic is pretty popular in Spain. As are wines in the evening and beer through the day Chef Arola told us.
A salad followed. Thin slices of porcini and the other two base elements of the dishes that evening - olive oil and pine nuts.
Loads of pine nuts whose crunch set of the soft texture of the porcini. The pine nuts an Arab influence according to Arola. There were more textures playing in the salad apart from those of the pine nuts and porcini. There was crispiness of white fried noodles which set off the soft porcini and the meaty robustness of the Ibero ham.
The vegetarian version came without the ham and with more of the noodles.
The salads were a mixture of textures and colours and represented some very clean and simple flavours.
They set the tone of the evening. An evening that was all about the taste of the ingredients combining beautifully with each other. Harmoniously.
So there was the tomato, garlic, olive and tuna salad where one just sunk in to the olive oil massaged juiciness of local tomatoes. Refreshing again. Touches of green added by chopped chives lighting up the dish visually.
This dish was all about the tomatoes. Indian tomatoes showcased in their full glory by a Spanish Chef.
Aubergine strips. Smoked. Served in olive and loads of pine nuts. The smoky taste intense and supported by the crunch of nuts that combined with the near meaty firmness of the aubergine. Another masterpiece in simple cooking redolent of the Bengali baigan pora except there the smoked aubergine is mashed and seasoned with mustard and not olive oil.
The tastes and presentation so far, clean, simple, very Mediterranean. Shades of our trip to Istanbul floating through the dishes.
Then there were asparagus fried in a simple batter and then the famous Spanish Tapas dish. Potato bravas. Cubes of fried potatoes, in this case, crowned with a sensuous cream on top.
Chef Arola told us that in a gastronomique convention at Sydney a Chinese chef had jibed him saying that Spanish cooking was dependent on produce and didn’t have the culinary complexity of the Chinese.
Well thank god for that for the result of this ‘dependence’ on produce was the dish that followed.
Prawns cooked in loads of olive oil just with some chopped garlic and chopped red chillies. The focus of the dish was entirely on the prawns. The texture of the prawns, juicy, bouncy, cherubic…prawns that had not lost their soul. I have rarely come across prawns treated so reverentially in a dish. A dish meant purely for devotees of prawns.
Over the years I have found myself gravitating towards dishes marked by simplicity. A cooking philosophy that uses condiments to the minimum required so that you could taste what had gone into the dish. The soul of the dish.
The prawns at Arola were one of the best examples of this culinary philosophy.
If the prawn dish was all about the prawns then the chicken wings were all about the chicken. Cooked in its own stock and loads of garlic, the dish was just exploding with some very intense and yet subtle flavours. The sort of riddle that dishes at Arola kept throwing at you again and again. A challenge to reconcile how such sophistication could be born out of such simplicity and earnestness.
And there was more to follow in this remarkable cooking tradition. The lobster rice.
Not a paella as Chef Arola confirmed two or three times to me.
Risotto rice cooked in lobster and lobster stock, olive oil and garnished with a bit of cream.
The lobsters, local again, fresh and bursting with maritime goodness. The crustacean flavours had prominently spread through the rice stamping its signature. An inspired dish. A dish that held you in awe.
Ironic that they had used the same local lobsters and prawns at Arola, which Malvani and Mangalorean restaurants here trample by overcooking and tar with heavy masalas, and had presented them with such finesse and simplicity.
Spanish TLC meets Indian seafood you could say.
Pity the vegetarian cheese rice was too milky and inert. The only false note of the evening for me,
But then the dessert made up for it. Creme Catalana. Something which brought alive every dessert dream that has been kindled in our hearts thanks to Masterchef Australia.
Let me describe the dish to you.
It was served in a glass. Layer number one was foam with a faint cinnamon flavour. Your spoon went in a bit deeper and there was ice cream with a citrusy flavour hitting you. A bit deeper and the third layer. Mousse with a slight alcoholic spirited haze. All three together and you had cleared an elimination test and got the immunity pin too to use Masterchef lingo.
The dinner was an interesting introduction to Spanish food and its simplicity, clean balances and pure tastes.
This was food at its most naked glory. Shorn of all accoutrements and trappings. This was nude food.
Just the sort of food that works for me.
Though I do get the fact that there would be folks who would find this not ornate enough specially when paying a hefty price for it. Unfortunately I don’t have an idea of what the meal would cost as we were guests there.
And very happy ones.
I later told my mom that I went to a Spanish restaurant for dinner and she went ‘oh paella’.
I could quite see Chef Arola stroking his beard with a look of baffled bemusement on his face.