Every once in a while a restaurant comes along that not only seduces the palette but also the senses. Rue du Liban, the brand new Middle Eastern inspired dining spot, aims to do just that. It is situated in Mumbai’s fast-transforming Kala Ghoda neighbourhood, which for decades was a Mecca for art and music lovers — flocking to Jehangir Art Gallery and it’s since-closed Café Samovar, or across to Chetana for a thaali , a stone’s throw from the iconic, but now shuttered, Rhythm House store. The area is experiencing something of a renaissance, with art galleries, hip design shops and casual eateries springing up over the past few years in its tiny by-lanes.
But the arrival of Rue du Liban marks a shift, a sudden elevation to sophistication. The restaurant oozes glamour with its swish, Art Deco-inspired interiors, closely set tables and plush burgundy banquettes. To step into this 3,200 square foot hotspot is to be transported to a place where well-heeled men and women socialise cosily over drinks and dinner. Evoking a sense of intimacy are decorative elements like custom lamps, brass work, hand-painted olive leaves on green walls, and glass leaves designed by Clove hanging from the ceiling. Most importantly, the design of the seating allows diners to see and be seen, and makes one want to linger long after a meal is done. Low lighting ensures that everyone looks beautiful.
An intimate palette
“I like old world charm and dressing up for dinner,” says Jay Mehta, one of the trio that comprises Indianapoli Hospitality, the company behind the venture. Mehta, a well-travelled businessman with interests in cement, sugar and cricket (he co-owns the IPL team KKR), is married to the actor Juhi Chawla, and is known to be passionate about design. He, along with the other partners — Arja Shridhar, who handles operations (“she does 95% of everything,” Jay quips) and London-based Sam Malde, an investor — spent two years working on this passion project. Indianapoli has experience in dining, having set up Metro Pizza in Mumbai, which subsequently became Gustoso, an Italian restaurant, six years go.
For this latest venture, they looked slightly closer to home; Beirut was the muse. “We are challenging ourselves,” says Shridhar. “It is more personal. We always wanted to do something with the food of the Levantine region, it has so many vegetarian and healthy options. It’s food meant for sharing, a community-building kind of food, which works well for Indians.”
Mehta, who studied engineering at Columbia University in New York, would likely have been an architect or designer in another life. He is certainly an aesthete. Growing up in Africa and studying overseas for many years before returning to India honed a design sensibility that gravitates towards natural materials, marrying comfort with beauty. To that end, he worked closely with Dale Atkinson, a London-based architect from Rosendale Design to create the interiors, and also brought on board Mumbai-based Amit Dhanawat of The Design Company.
In addition to visiting Beirut multiple times himself, Mehta made the architects take exploratory and research trips to Beirut to get a feel for the ambience they wished to create. Specially-commissioned crockery was commissioned by Curators of Clay, who created a burgundy palette for the restaurant, and Udaipur-based Baariqui, which etched a special design on their wares.
Vote for fine dining
Beiruti origin chef Ali Ghadban did multiple trials over weeks to find the perfect local chickpeas to make the hommos . Eventually they settled on a larger size of the bean to get the appropriate flavour. He also slaved over potatoes — apparently Indian potatoes are sweeter than their Middle Eastern counterparts — to ensure that the Batata Harra (fried potato cubes sautéed with red chillies, garlic and coriander) was just right.
Mehta and his partners are upbeat about the future of fine dining in India. “The key is the experience,” he says. “There is a huge opportunity. Authenticity is critical. I am tired of all these Michelin 3 stars. They are all about innovation and experimentation. We want to stay away from the quick service model.” Mehta says that they also plan to revamp Gustoso and make it more upmarket Italian than its current pizzeria avatar. He cites the opening of spaces like Miss T in Colaba, and the buzz that the former chef of The Table is looking to open a new restaurant, as evidence that high-end spaces have potential. “The market is getting segmented quite a bit and there’s a huge opportunity at the top end.”