Rahul Akerkar’s new proscenium of flavours

For four years, the big question among Mumbai diners and restaurant industry folk alike has been this: What is Rahul Akerkar going to open next?

Here is the short answer: chef Akerkar’s brand new, long awaited restaurant covers 4,000 square feet in Lower Parel. It features a menu that is full of bright, bold, ingredient-led flavours prepared using simple, precise techniques. Everything about it is utterly, unsurprisingly beautiful, from the light in the room, to the weight of the cutlery. And still, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It feels like a place for relaxed, unfussy meals that have been thoughtfully prepared — flavour before fanciness. Also, this time he is joined by his 25-year-old daughter Shaan, who is working with her father for the first time, and says she is “doing a little bit of everything”. The restaurant is called Qualia, and it opened last night. “I really got kind of stupid again,” says Akerkar about his time off — time he took to clarify his thoughts about his next project. “Which is where I wanted to be, and to not overthink what I was doing.”

Qualia then, has a freshness that is set firmly in 2019 Mumbai, geared towards a more honest uncluttered way of eating.

Culinary theatre

Diners enter a wide, high-ceilinged room through a door flanked by soaring windows, and get a grandstand view of food and drink. High up, on the wall opposite, wooden shelving glows. It's stacked with a mosaicked array of jars filled with fermented and pickled vegetables and fruits, which show up as vivid pops of flavour across the food and beverage menus. Here’s a preview of what’s brining: green tomatoes with celery, garlic, fennel, peppercorn, sugar, vinegar and water; small purple brinjals in honey, vinegar, peppercorns, flat yellow mustard, and kalonji; beets in red wine, dill, star anise, and honey; green and red Bhavnagri chillies. The flavour combinations feel somewhat familiar, but still induce curiosity and surprise. Right under the wall is Qualia's gleaming open kitchen that allows diners to watch all the action. To the right, a bar that serves up signature cocktails such as the Q Mary with fermented tomato, honeydew melon, strawberry, and Ketel One; and Over The Wall with tequila, Bhavnagri chillies, agave, and smoked pineapple. Beverage manager Ranjeet Shirke has designed drinks to be refreshing but not fussy, intended for repeats. The wall above the bar gets its own jars containing spices, slices of dehydrated fruit, and more. On the left, an omakase counter, where diners can sit and expect to be surprised as they get served the chef’s choice of plates; an array of astonishments in a menu-less meal. Further down, a more intimate section that can, on request, be distinguished for larger groups.

The restaurant, designed by Kapil Gupta and Christopher Lee of Serie Architects, is nothing like we’ve ever seen in Mumbai before. “Each bay at Qualia is a proscenium,” says Gupta. “It lifts up to reveal the theatre of cooking, where Rahul is the conductor.” He’s talking about the chainmail. There is a lot of it. It’s the first thing you notice, hanging from the ceiling, translucent swathes of gently shimmering, undulating filigree. What this does is divide the room into permeable sections, adding a lively sort of intimacy to the vast space. Any diner can wave across the room to a friend at another table, or look into the kitchen, but can also choose to feel ensconced at their red leather banquette, focussed on their date, their quiet lunch meeting, or their raucous celebration, all of which Qualia has the mood for.

Adventurous yet comforting

“We wanted to feed people the way we eat and feed friends and family at home, just slightly elevated,” says Malini Akerkar, Rahul’s wife, and partner director at Qualia. “We wanted to offer the same sense of generosity of spirit and hospitality, and always fun dining.” Qualia’s core kitchen team, chef de cuisine Tarang Joshi, sous chefs Ash Moghe and Malavika Pratap, have, with the Akerkars’ steerage, put together a menu that features “all medium-sized plates” that are worth revisits. There’s hand-rolled, Callebaut cocoa-laced garganelli (a kind of cylindrical pasta that originated in Romagna) with roasted mushrooms, edamame, pickled garlic, and black garlic. Deeply crave-worthy charred artichoke hearts come alongside cauliflower almond puree, pickled grapes, and almond brown butter. A pool of kokum saar that surrounds yellowfin tuna tartare, charred pineapple and mung sprout salad is good enough to drink by the mugful, or sneak into a cocktail. In the meat section, there are dishes that seem at first adventurous, then comforting: pork shoulder terrine, braised buffalo cheeks, oxtail, alongside a supporting cast of pear chutney and preserved lemon, or charcoal vegetables, or French onion soup.

The food at Qualia speaks of experience and skill, and depth of knowledge, of course, but it also has a sense of being rooted in the now, in freshness and in fermentation, in having fun with creativity, and enjoyment in inventiveness. There is wood-fired pizza from an oven built on site, providing pies that have shellfish with confit potato and black garlic, or steak and eggs, or Brussels sprouts with preserved lemon and gruyere. In poultry, there’s duck neck sausage with gorgonzola and caramelised onion polenta, and pickled plums; and there is also a simple roast chicken (which comes from the dining room-facing open hearth that Akerkar designed) accompanied by creamed leeks, glazed carrots and carrot leaf pesto.

People following pastry chef Rachelle Andrade on Instagram (everyone except folks on a keto diet should) already know that she’s helming both pastry, and the bakery on the premises. For the last few months, she’s been sharing images of frosted beignets, glossy sourdough, perfect cross-sections of croissants, and a work-in-progress fig, fennel and black pepper baguette. There’s a charred chocolate cake on her menu that ruins all chocolate cakes. During one early tasting at Qualia, we had a chance to try a kouign-amman made by Andrade; it confirmed why we have a Pavlovian impulse for buttery pastry every time we see her.

In the moment

Akerkar encountered the word ‘qualia’ at the end of 2015. He’d just come off a live-aboard diving trip around Alor island in Indonesia, and was spending a week in Bali. During that holiday he read neuroscientist VS Ramachandran’s book The Tell Tale Brain , in which qualia comes up several times. Qualia is, as described by Ramachandran, the ineffable, raw, and subjective quality of conscious experience. In a video on YouTube the author simplifies it: he talks about the philosopher's definition of qualia: Sensations you are conscious of, as experienced by you.

For example: the way a piece of music, a bite of food, meeting a friend, makes you feel, the way it makes your neurons fire, and your hormones react, is your qualia of the melody, the flavour, the conversation. The word stuck with Akerkar. Qualia felt just right.

Qualia , Ground Floor, World Crest, Lodha World One, Tulsi Pipe Road, Lower Parel; 6849 0000; 6.30 p.m. to 1.30 a.m.; a meal for two with a drink each costs ₹ 5,000.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2022 5:33:18 pm |