Recca in atmospheric Kala Ghoda serves largely plant-based, Mediterranean food using local produce imaginatively. Chef Saby’s first Mumbai outing could not have been better
“The Kala Ghoda Arts District evokes a lot of nostalgia for me,” says Chef Saby, “When I was with Olive, we often had meetings with A.D. Singh in this area, in places like the Kala Ghoda Cafe.” This could be what got him hooked to the project, especially once he’d seen the space in January.
Sporting a casual-chic vibe, Recca occupies the first floor of the historic Rhythm House building in Kala Ghoda, with its bay windows and enviable location. “The building is also part of culinary lore, since the country’s first Copper Chimney restaurant is located here,” says Chef Saby. Recca would have opened faster—“in 120 days flat”—but Covid slowed them down.
Yes, the menu is Mediterranean—although Chef Saby has cast the net wider, and there are dishes from Eastern Europe, as well as Armenia and Turkey—and that always spells comfort, hinting at something familiar. However, this menu also breaks new ground, something Chef Saby has consistently done with his restaurants.
“This is classic Mediterranean food. There is no fusion or confusion,” says Chef Saby. “However, in line with the Chef’s Manifesto, which I am a part of, we have used locally available ingredients to the maximum extent. For instance, all our perishables are sourced from within a 300-km radius.” The Chef’s Manifesto is a network of chefs from around the world contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The choices Chef Saby makes in his kitchens are informed by what he advocates. His advocacy is also inspired by the Blue Zones, regions of the world known for the longevity of their residents, and what is eaten there. “It’s something that is easy to talk about but incredibly difficult to pull off,” he admits. Then there’s Future 50 Foods, a list of plant-based foods which will, if included in our diets, make us healthier and agriculture more sustainable. According to Chef Saby, many of the foods on the list are easily available in India and he’s relying on nature’s bounty to stock his larder.
Eschewing trendy ingredients and turning to the local vegetable vendor has yielded a wealth of greens (stuff like bottle gourd leaves) and tubers (like purple yam, elephant yam and tapioca). For the dry ingredients, it’s all multi-grain flours (except for the lavash, which requires maida) and indigenous Indian grains and pulses. Lots of artisanal Indian cheeses will make a rotating appearance on the menu.
More than two-thirds of the menu is plant-based, and a lot of that is vegan as well, although not consciously. “Meat is always an option,” says Chef Saby, “but we want to gently nudge diners towards more sustainable eating.” Everything is served in traditional materials like cast iron, wood, terracotta and even seashells. The ravioli, for instance, is served in terracotta pots that Chef Saby sources from Kolkata.
Ask him about his favourite dishes, and he’s the impartial father. “I’m not attached to any particular dish or dishes. I’m interested in the philosophy behind them. It’s a progressive menu and the dishes will keep changing,” he says.
Patrons have a few favourites already though. One of them is the hummus platter, which is served with hempseed salt and features three hill pulses—horse gram, black soybean and red kidney beans. There’s not a chickpea in sight. Hummus originated in Armenia and they didn’t use chickpeas there either, so Chef Saby feels this kind of innovation is far from sacrilege. “The hummus platter really sets the mood for the restaurant,” concedes Chef Saby.
Meanwhile, the lamb koobideh is flying off the shelves, although soya, fish, paneer and chicken options are on offer too. The Himalayan salt grill is a hit. There’s a nabe pot seafood chowder and a multi-grain ravioli.
The desserts are more personal. Oozing with the sweet aroma of storytelling, they’re close to Chef Saby’s heart. “I began my career as a pastry chef so desserts will always be special to me,” he says, “The desserts at Recca are inspired by my own journeys and experiences. We don’t use any white sugar; it’s all jaggery and bhura shakkar. There’s chhenapoda which really is the world’s oldest cheesecake. There’s a nolengur pound cake, called East Coast Jaggery Cake here. There’s a Malabar Devil Cake. There’s a coral reef made of chocolate. The tres leches is covered in amaranth seeds to look like bal mithai. There’s ponchiki, the Armenian donut.”
Recca is much more than just another restaurant opening. It signals the coming of age of sustainable fine dining in India, and is everything that Chef Saby believes in and stands for.