Wednesday, 17 September, 2014

Published July 07, 2014
Indian cuisine gets avant-garde edge
Abhijit Saha, dubbed the 'Gordon Ramsay of India', elevates Indian staples with his Western gastronomic flourishes, writes JAIME EE
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Molecular flavour: Saha takes over from the former Russian restaurant Buyan, with top Indian chef Abhijit Saha at the helm. His heavy use of molecular gastronomy techniques is evident in dishes such as Tawa Kebab Duet, Gulab Jamun Cheesecake, Baked Samosa with Chutney Foam and Kakori Lamb Roulade (above). - PHOTOS: SAHA

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Saha Signature Indian Restaurant & Bar

9A Duxton Hill (2nd floor)

Tel: 6223-7321

Open Mon to Sat for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 11pm

IT'S the restaurateur's ultimate dilemma - what happens when the elaborate theme eatery that you spent so much money and effort on perfecting becomes due for a concept makeover?

Fortunately for the owners of Russian restaurant Buyan, they found a sartorial cousin in Indian cuisine. A framed Indian print here, a henna-design candle there and voila! - imperial Russian grandeur becomes Bollywood film set, complete with dramatic ceiling mural, red velvet wall panels and gold chandeliers.

And so the stage is set for the new age Indian fine dining you will find at Saha, under the guidance of top chef Abhijit Saha, also known as the 'Gordon Ramsay' of India. With two acclaimed restaurants in Bangalore serving modern European and Mediterranean food with a heavy use of molecular gastronomy techniques (it seems avant-garde indigenous cuisine is too alien for the local crowd) - Saha is his first all-Indian showcase. Lucky us, because it offers a whole new way of looking at Indian food beyond rogan josh and palak paneer. For the full experience - or if you're just plain indecisive, the tasting menus - available in both vegetarian ($88) and non-vegetarian ($98) - will quickly bring you up to speed on chef Saha's culinary ethos. And the knowledgeable sommelier/walking encyclopaedia Sagar is your perfect guide on this eye-opening journey.

The meal starts off on the wrong foot, with an awkward pre-amuse bouche shot glass of guava mint sherbet. It bears too much resemblance to the commercial pulpy drink with added salt and no mint, and could use a rethink or better still, a long leave of absence. But that blip is quickly forgotten when an assortment of pappadums representing the different regions of India appears at our table - an irresistibly crunchy geography lesson enhanced by peanut chutney (a slightly vinegary peanut sauce) and sweet papaya relish.

So far no avant-garde but then the show hasn't really started yet. Next up is the real amuse bouche - a bite-sized potato patty in a decent if not perfect match with a cup of sweet-savoury frothy pineapple juice, lightly perfumed with garam masala spices. It takes a bit of mental adjustment to add potato and spiced pineapple to our vocabulary of flavour profiles.

Less mental work is required to appreciate the more complicated but rather ingenious frozen dahi vada powder - where a freezing technique is applied to dahi vada (a traditional snack of vadai soaked in yogurt) that breaks it down into a cool pile of mealy crumbs that taste of the gram flour doughnut, perked up with tangy pearls of yogurt and sweet tamarind chutney.

For non-Indians, a meal at Saha intrigues on both fronts as it introduces you to unfamiliar traditional foods yet presented in a different dimension with chef Saha's artful manipulation. A Goan speciality of scallops marinated in a pickling mix of ginger, garlic and mustard feature as two bright orange discs covered in a chewy cashew nut crust that offsets the tang of the mildly spiced grilled shellfish. Orange segments and asparagus add to the very Western presentation on a slab of grey slate.

In the vegetarian menu, the scallops are replaced with an addictive mushroom chilli stir-fry of mixed fungi in a spicy green chili mixture in an intriguing pink-purple kokum fruit (a mangosteen-like fruit) broth with the surprisingly successful addition of black olives.

Next up is a quirky espuma of Kerala vegetable stew blended and piped out of a siphon into a cocktail glass filled with orange pudding. The latter adds a bit of colour and sweetness to the intense vegetable blend that's given added texture and seasoning from garlic crumbs, olive powder and a drizzle of olive oil. It's almost like eating a vegetable parfait - which is a lot better than it sounds. What doesn't work, however, is the chicken stew version which is cloying and just too far out for us.

We're happier with the next course of uncomplicated reef cod, marinated in spices and pan-fried, served in the now familiar frothy kokum fruit sauce, with welcome distractions such as apricot chutney for sweetening and strips of roasted cooked apple. The fruit lends needed acidity to the otherwise rich cod, and we like it a little better than the Duck Chettinad, where tender but dry sous vide spiced duck is sliced and served in a mild curry sauce with yogurt on a bed of semolina, cooked with diced vegetables (rava upma).

From the vegetarian menu, fluffy pancakes of fermented rice (utthapam) are decorated with onion, tomato and red pepper slices and served with swirls of beetroot chutney. For the main course, you get very good curd rice - rice blended with yogurt topped with a coconut milk curry of mixed vegetables including the exotic drumstick - a hard, tough-skinned stalk from which you scrape the tender, melon-like insides.

From the a la carte menu, the tasting of mushroom ($18) is a lovely, intricate rendition of fungi done three ways - intense-flavoured frozen powder, steaming creamy soup and stir-fried in a spicy tandoori paste made with drained yogurt which accounts for its sour overtones. Kasoor methi seared foie gras ($36) is well worth its price tag for the melting soft fenugreek-spiced liver in a pool of aam panna, or green mango juice, that cuts right through its oiliness, with slow-cooked chewy strips of mango at the bottom and fresh mango salsa and foam on top. This is one of the most original platings of foie gras that will make us put aside all health fears of this heart-clogging delicacy.

To end off, the must-try is the pure simplicity of coconut ice cream, paired with a toasty-crusted airy coconut souffle.

Our next visit will be one to test resident chef Singh's repertoire of Indian classics including his Hyderabad biryani. But in the meantime, linger a while in this futuristic Indian fantasy where - like the decor implies - cultural and geographical barriers blur in the pursuit of culinary heights.


Rating: 7.5


    10: The ultimate dining experience

9-9.5: Sublime

8-8.5: Excellent

7-7.5: Good to very good

6-6.5: Promising

5-5.5: Average