The new basement restaurant Fresca by Sandy’s tingles your taste buds with a slew of global flavours

Basements have personalities. Individual, obstinate, defiant. Small bands begin here, fuelled by ambition, cheap coffee and cold pizza. Artists, designers and DJs are encouraged by their cheap rents. Also underground bars, cheeky cafes and rebellious night clubs.

However, nothing stays bohemian for long. Today, a slew of trendy chefs operate from basements. The challenges are unchanged, however. No windows offering natural light. An unshakably brooding character. Logistical difficulties at every step, starting with providing an outlet for kitchen smoke.

Newly opened ‘Fresca by Sandy's' ingeniously embraces these impediments, allowing them to mould the restaurant's character. The basement restaurant, run by engineer-turned- owner-chef Sandesh Reddy is cool, dim and smoky. Its spirit of laissez faire is evident when the door swings open, revealing a room done in deep reds and chocolate browns, rife with the sound of jazz, shouts of laughter and smoky scent of baking pizza. We sit beside its bustling open kitchen, facing a blackboard on which the day's ‘specials' are scrawled with coloured chalk.

This is Sandesh's seventh opening, and it has a smooth self-confidence that comes from lessons learned the hard way. He's best known for Sandy's, an ambitious café-restaurant particularly popular with the city's ‘smart-set' who pop by for bespoke salads and macchiatos. Fresca replaces Maya, his attempt at creating a fine dining space showcasing the food of Nellore, his hometown. The stodginess of this basement location worked against it. Incredibly, the very same space is an asset now. It makes the restaurant feel like a secret getaway. An escape down the rabbit hole.

‘Gourmet pizza' sounds so pretentious you'll want to kick its face in, so we'll avoid the term. Let's just say there are no paper napkins or plastic spoons. The food, like the venue, confidently finds its own niche: Italian flavours with strong traditional roots, but enough flexibility to embrace local ingredients and tastes.

We begin with chilled Ajo Blanco soup, grainy with almonds and scattered with juicy braised grapes. It's tasty but no match for the rest of the starters, a march of small, fastidiously arranged plates. Speck melon salad, with sweet melon scoops the colour of sunset. They're set against the saltiness of speck, and a cluster of peppery green leaves. Carpaccio, delicately balancing the flavours of thinly sliced meat and its bed of mustard mayonnaise. It's topped by shards of Parmesan reggiano and the same peppery leaves. “Paruppu keerai,” Sandesh chuckles.

He goes on to tell us about their ‘Veg Gathering' pizza, with makhani, pickled vegetables, baby corn and mozzarella. It's the closest thing to navaratan kurma with cheese garlic naan!” Irreverence is always interesting. Fresca thrives on surprise. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't. Our three cheese ravioli with wine butter has luscious handmade pasta, but its sauce, punctuated by sharp pickled cucumbers, veers on overwhelming.

However, this willingness to experiment isn't a bad thing. Especially when the kitchen gets it right. Our pizza is a jigsaw of flavours, colours and textures. The hand-stretched dough is light and delectably uneven, with browned crisp edges and a molten centre soppy with rich béchamel sauce. It's topped with crunchy stewed figs and slices of thick cut Belgian bacon.

Dessert includes Nutella tiramisu, drenched in Tia Maria and dark rum with a strong espresso backbone. Wobbly pannacotta, speckled with vanilla. And Bocca Negra, a molten, dark, pure chocolate hit.

Fresca pays attention to detail, essential with so many elements on each plate. Recipes may be simple, but they're also unforgiving. With very small room for error, which could make this tough food to execute on busy days. Sandesh is a fan of the sassy new-age chefs like New York's David Chang, and his influences come from around the world. The food reflects this. It's ambitious, indulgent and specific. He basically cooks what he likes to eat. If that works for you, you'll luxuriate in Fresca.

Fresca by Sandy's is on Khader Nawaz Khan Road. Call 42068484 or 8939933039 for details. A meal for two costs about Rs. 2,000.

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