Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it stokes my hunger
A slice of the mediterranean life
Aqaba goes well beyond Beirut for its culinary inspiration and fares well on its travels
I still remember watching on with mild amusement as The Avengers, after obliterating half off New York in an attempt to save it from other-worldly forces, sit in silence as they munch on Shawarmas and lick their wounds, along with some hummus. Tony Stark admitted to not knowing what it was, but wanting to try some nonetheless. Perhaps his decision was inspired by an acquired taste for slow-roasted meats in the Middle East, who knows.
All I know that like Tony, Shawarmas were my gateway to Lebanese food. At least I have something in common with Iron Man.
Yes, it’s a positively neanderthal thing to eat. It doesn’t get any more primitive than an all-protein tower of power rotating over an electric blaze, all so that it can be slathered with an assortment of condiments as it gets locked away into a doughy prison. It’s tremendously satisfying, but it’s hardly the be-all and end-all of the cuisine. For the wife, it certainly is, with the spinning lighthouse of meat being the proverbial fire to her moth.
But why must it be so? Lebanon’s culinary history is a rich pastiche of influences stretching back thousands of years, and it is a shame that it isn’t represented widely enough outside of the spinning meat dispensaries of deliciousness and some decidedly ho-hum-hummus.
Aqaba attempts to serve up Beirut, and indeed the mediterranean, on a plate for one and all. With an eclectic mix of dishes from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon and provincial specialities of even Italy thrown in for good measure, Aqaba tries to be everything to everyone and that can be a very slippery slope since it is often the case that restaurants can spread themselves very thin when attempting to do so.
And that’s not just an approach you see reflected in the kitchen. Aqaba offers a triple threat by way of its elegant dining area, a verdant al fresco area for events and there’s even a conference room thrown into the equation. I should be surprised by that last bit, but I’m really not given that Aqaba calls a buzzing business district its home. Indeed, refined and sophisticated are two words I’d use to describe Aqaba and its its minimal decor, aqua hued accents and almost silken upholstered seating certainly served to draw me in, even if the cherry blossom tree seemed a bit out of place, like a jukebox might in a library.
I visited it with some babas and babies who could easily tell a baba ganoush from a bobby ganesan. We were invited by all-round good guy and Champion of Chembur Assad Dadan for an early tasting of the new menu that was going to be unveiled in a few days, and so most of us descended on the place like a horde of locusts. We had the appetite of one too.
While we waited for the pack of Avengers to assemble, some of us called for poisons of our choice. Keeping in mind that Jay Dhawan refers to me as Iron Man (not the istri wala), I couldn’t help but opt to face off against the Mandarin…Mojito. Citrus has always been one of my Achilles heels, and this mojito nails it down to a nicety. Fresh, lively and bursting with the bountiful beauty that only Oranges can boast, this drink was a winner through and through, with others that tried it casting jealous glances my way. I ignored the dagger like stares and carried on waging my personal battle with the Mandarin.
There are many that say ki mezze ka maze hi much aur hai, especially at Aqaba. Like an item song in a Bollywood movie, it was inevitable that it too would make an appearance at some point during the evening. I hold no special place in my heart for the dual swirls of hummus dished out to us, one of which came dotted with bits of lamb, nor for the Tzatziki that was tangy but sans the charms that would normally win me over.
While these three stooges got egg on their face and fell fall on it, the Salmon and Dill Soup rose above and, like Tendulkar in the late 90’s, saved the day single-handedly with pomp, panache and not little vigor. Stumbling upon it was glorious serendipity, loving all things fishy as I do.
As glorious as being flat-out broke at the end of the month and grumbling about money, or the lack of it, before stumbling upon a crumbled up Rs. 1000 note lost somewhere in the recesses of your favourite jeans that you were going to throw for a wash, which would certainly give washing money down the drain a literal spin.
The Salmon and Dill dip was good as to warrant seconds, thirds, even fourths. It was a Gulliver among Lilliputs, and to say it stood tall would be a massive understatement. It stood tall, and then deciding that was not enough, spread its wings and decided to soar high above the mere mortals that were its accompaniments. The salmon and dill complemented each other perfectly, and I’d carry this around all day long dipping assorted breads in it just because. Its loveliness is a thing of awe, and I don’t say that lightly.
Somewhere in the middle of this, multiple Chicken Shawarmas made a sortie around our table before settling down on it with a side of paprika fries. The shawarma didn’t move me enough to write paeans about it, but it came with a lovely side of fries drizzled in paprika that I couldn’t get enough of, even though the calorie counters were going crazy in my head. And then, when Yatin mentioned it was priced at 650++ a pop, I chortled a bit at him before realising he wasn’t horsing around.
They’re smoking some really potent stuff to price that shawarma that stratospherically. Pass me some of whatever you’re smoking man, it seems like its some excellent stuff. I wanna get high, as high as the price of that shawarma, like a bird in the sky in the month of July.
The falafel came and went, reminiscent of a hi-fi dal wada and my proclamation to that effect caught Sarvesh and Amrith’s eye and in our silent exchange was a tacit understanding that they too felt the same way about it. Don’t get me wrong; the rabbits among us would probably like it a lot. But when you adore sophisticated meats, you’re not going to plump for a falafel over it. Neither did I, and you can hardly blame me for it.
Also at the table and yearning for some love was the marrakesh spiced bread, a highly gussied up version of a garlic bread that was laden with fat and flavour with wonton disregard for calories. However, the flavour certainly made up for it. Soaked in butter, crisped and laden with sesame seeds, this crunchy appetiser was a wonderful way to pass the time, but it was much like the trailers that run before a movie. It can never be the star attraction, never was meant to be, but it serves to entertain you momentarily before the circus rolls into town. And that it did with aplomb, so no complaints here.
Silently and stealthily, like stalkers on the Serengeti, a pair of salads crept up on us. While the Caesar Salad, with its crunch and creaminess, lulled me into having (and enjoying it), I would not touch the blood-stained beetroot and yoghurt salad with a 10 foot barge pole. My taste buds screamed out to me, I could hear them wail in unison.
“NO, NO, PLEASE NO. LAWD HAVE MERCY, WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO US? WE THOUGH YOU WERE A MERCIFUL LAWD!!!”
I could not just disregard their plaintive screams, and so I chose to eschew it while the others chose to chew it. It was a wise decision. Those whose tastes I trust told me I hadn’t missed much, if anything at all, and I continued to stay a happy camper at that table.
Just as my taste buds went back to heaving a collective sigh of relief and polishing the bronze statue they had made of me, I rained vengeance down upon my unsuspecting subjects by way of the Batata Harra. Loading up on carbs can sometimes be a joyous affair, but this was not it. With spicy potatoes laden with stringy cheese and rice, this dish was not something I’d have ordered under any circumstances in any case, but I grabbed a spoonful for science. Mistake se galti ho gayi. The mishmash of flavours meant that this dish didn’t have any discernible character of its own and it was an unholy troika of carbs that didn’t sit well with me. Your mileage may vary.
In an effort to appease us, a pair of pizzas winged its way from the oven to our table, and of them was oddly named the Paesan.
Yes, I know what Paesan means.
Yes, I know it’s an Italian dish at a middle-eastern confluence of flavors.
No, I couldn’t care less when it is this satisfying.
As satisfying as taking on a series of empty, undulating roads that snake through mountains with more twists and turns than a saas bahu serial, man and machine in quiet unison with nothing more than the soundtrack of the engine growling as you work through the gears and the whistling of the wind playing the song of its people in your ears.
This pizza reminded me of a girl I once knew in college. Despite coming to college everyday swimming in a sea of clothes that barely flattered her frame, it was clear to all and sundry that somewhere deep within those never-ending folds of clothing lay something wondrous and beautiful.
This paesano was nothing much to ogle at either. The mucky green color of the pesto might be off-putting at first, but persist and your perseverance will be rewarded. The smoked chicken was done beautifully, passing off almost as well as pork with its smoky, earthy, meaty awesomeness. And while I’m no fan of the pizza bases as crisp as khakra, I let it slide because this tasted like the chicken sausages had died and ascended to the great beyond, only for it to come back to Earth and give us a slice of heaven. It was sweet, sweet sin.
It’s not often that we don’t shower fish with our collective love, but the Moroccan Fish (bizarrely served with a side of spaghetti) was way past overcooked, which saw the moist juiciness within sucked dry and the meat too stiff as a consequence of it. Even that lovely orange jus it came soaked in couldn’t save the day, and we viewed this as a martyr since it taught us an important lesson we applied later on in that meal.
You know that girl that everyone turns to see when she enters the room because she’s THAT resplendent? The Lamb Mansaf was that for me. Boasting simple flavours, mainly herbs, yoghurt and a smattering of lamb, this dish got a love from me, partly because it was so similar to a biryani and partly because it had everything I like in a dish. It stopped some way short of being the dish of the evening for me, but I would certainly order this again should the opportunity present itself.
Joy can be found in the oddest of places, and despite turning my nose up at the Malfati to begin with, I sampled a little bit of it anyways because to not do so would simply be rude. Besides, one shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. With spinach, ricotta cheese and herbs melting into one spheroid laid atop a bed of tomato sauce, this was a surprisingly good dish that I would unhesitatingly recommend to vegetarians eye wide shut. It’s not as gorgeous a vegetarian dish as Claudia Schiffer, but it would do nicely instead of her.
Like a drill sergeant barking out orders and expecting little more than a “SIR, YES SIR” in response, Yatin was grilling the staff and doing a very good job of it, because the harried staff paused proceedings and called for the chef, who also received a staccato burst of instructions on how the single a la carte portion of John Dory was to be done. It would be a crying shame if it faced the same fate as its Moroccan brother, and I’m bloody glad it didn’t.
Houdini would have been proud. That John Dory landed up on the table to an adoring public and, where there had once been a beautifully pan seared John Dory that boasted just the right level of moistness and crustiness, there lay a culinary wasteland barely half a minute later. Everyone dove in to get a piece of the action, and while it was far from the best fish I’ve had in the city, I’d love to fork it one more time.
Crammed fuller than a Dadar local at rush hour, we opted to go for the desserts at this point, and the Baklava, Baked Cheesecake and Tiramisu disappointed me a bit. The former was flaky and crumbly like parched earth while the Tiramisu boasted bitterness that drowned out any other flavour. The saving grace was delivered by the Chocolate Fondant and Rose Petal ice cream, especially the latter with its humbly fragrant and mild manners. The Chocolate Fondant while oozing sin and decadence, didn’t wow me simply because I know how much magnificence can be packed into this, courtesy the good folks at Sassy Spoon.
As always, with a menu this large, there are bound to be some hits and some misses, but I would certainly make a beeline here at some point to savour the dishes closes to my food loving heart. More comforting than authentic, Aqaba is pricey for sure, but makes up for it with dining in an elegant, upmarket ambience and some dishes that absolutely titillate. I’m going to stick to the tried, tested and trusted the next time I take a dip in the Mediterranean, and so should you, paesano.