There are many fine restaurants to dine at in Bombay right now. Rahul Akerkar’s magnetic establishment, Qualia, opens several notches above them, with the legendary restaurateur effortlessly raising the bar for an epicurean extravaganza which is as thrilling as it is revelatory. It’s rather fitting then that the word Qualia itself refers to individual instances of conscious experience.
Akerkar is best known for of course, for Indigo. Set in one of Colaba’s heritage bungalows, the moodily-lit spot was one of the first and few stand-alone fine dining establishments in Bombay.
That his new restaurant is situated across town – within one of the city’s shiniest new modern builds, Lodha World Towers – itself hints that Qualia is to be an entirely new and modern undertaking, a hunch that is confirmed upon walking into a debonair den embellished with dark wood, blood red banquettes and “curtains” fashioned out of hanging chains to segregate the dining space and lend a sense of intimacy.
Our interest is piqued – even before we pick up the menu – by the endless rows of (600!) pickle jars lining the bar counter and shelves above the open kitchen. The ingredient-led offerings at Qualia are anchored by Akerkar’s fascination with fermentation, rendering a sweet and sour profile to a pertinacious parade of plates, emblazoned with an almost artistic touch!
Divided neatly into vegetables, seafood, poultry, meat and pizza – alongside an appetising selection of sides – Qualia’s menu is in reality one that defies description, inspired as it is by a host of Mediterranean flavours, not to mention subtle regional influences from Kerala to Gujarat.
Charred broccoli is a thing of beauty, draping a bed of pumpkin hummus with pickled apricots and peppered cashews adding textural contrasts. Fermented heirloom tomatoes are tongue-ticklingly tart, a delicate dollop of burrata and avocado coulis adorning the arresting assembly. Grilled artichoke heart is rather special too, enlivened by a cacophony of creamy cauliflower almond puree, almond brown butter and pickled grapes. The only critique offered by our table of five is that the grilled octopus is a touch too burnt, the charcoal undertones overpowering the tender meatiness of the dish.
We boost the carb count with garganelli pasta imaginatively infused with cacao. It’s both earthy and comforting, laced with a potent kick of pickled black garlic and loaded with wood-roasted mushroom so moreish, they beg to be ordered as a side in themselves. Meanwhile lemon risotto divides the table, its sharp-as-a-tack zinginess not to everyone’s taste.
Star billing goes to the Neapolitan-style pizza. It arrives with a blistered rim bracing an impossibly-light and airy crust. As for the toppings, they are anything but ordinary, featuring the likes of Brussels sprouts, balsamic roasted aubergine or braised radicchio!
In fact, breads and baking lend a bucolic charm to Qualia. Over the course of our well drawn-out evening, we liberally help ourselves to the rustic sourdough and French-style knotted bread making their way around the tables, accompanied by light-as-air blobs of whipped butter.
Under the zealous direction of Rachelle Andrade (you might have previously snaffled her custard-filled cruffins at Mag Street Kitchen), desserts deserve mention too, presenting grown-up iterations of childhood favourites. An amalgamation of an impossibly-light banana sorbet, pecan, burnt banana and dulce de leche, the banoffee mess ought not to be missed. The charred chocolate cake goes down a treat too, its sophisticated texture further enhanced by a stellar symphony of sesame ganache, sesame brittle and vanilla cream!
The only thing absent from our evening is a glass (or bottle!) of red, as at the time of opening, the restaurant is still awaiting its liquor license, a shame as we would have loved to pour over the promisingly-extensive (nearly 100 bottle-strong) wine list!
All told, our impeccable experience at this bastion of culinary charm, has been a meal apart. No doubt, the city’s gourmands will be thanking Akerkar for finally making his long awaited comeback.
Against a landscape too often characterised by mediocrity and complacency, Akerkar remains committed to not just satiating, but also elevating our palates and exposure to nuanced cooking. To dine at Qualia is to share Akerkar – and indeed his family’s – passion for pushing the gastronomic envelope that much further.
Qualia, World Crest, Ground Floor, Lodha, 402, Tulsi Pipe Rd, Lower Parel
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Disclaimer: I visited Qualia independently and was not invited to review the restaurant.