A telling reflection of Head Chef and Partner Niyati Rao’s culinary passion, everything at Ekaa, Mumbai is refreshing. Through her ingredients, she tells a fantastic story befitting the globalised Indian palate.
The million dollar question at Ekaa is – What came first, the ingredient or the concept?
For Head Chef and Partner Niyati Rao, the process works in sync. She’s not looking to be modern or cuisine-agnostic with her menu, but simply focuses on showcasing produce in the best way possible. And the rest simply happens to fall in place.
What constitutes modern and progressive cuisine has undergone several makeovers in the last few decades, right from concept to plating. As it stands today, the focus is on reinventing classics with a nuanced take. This has particularly gripped those working with Indian cuisine, as it continues to take on fine-dine hues at a global level in lieu of its former cheap-and-good image. As more of the population travels and brings back foreign influences, diners are now open to newer ideas and the promise of their palate being challenged.
You don’t have to tell Chef Niyati Rao that twice. With Ekaa, she presents diners with a rather mysterious menu. Indeed, such is the focus on championing ingredients that the menu reveals little else other than the hero of your dish.
What makes the experience unique for gourmands across the board then is the treatment. Chef Niyati does a lot by doing very little to the ingredients, mitigating the risk of intimidating and alienating the diner. It’s truly something to behold the intricately detailed process behind each dish and its various accompaniments. Once in your mouth, however, it all makes perfect sense, even evoking a sense of nostalgia in some cases.
Ditching cuisines is less about standing out, and more about the opportunity to explore. Chef Niyati is razor focused on developing her own blueprint, as opposed to giving her take on the classics. Don’t fix what ain’t broken, she says, and we wholeheartedly agree.
And with Ekaa, she’s clearly out to shake things up on the Indian fine-dining culinary scene. Nestled in a 131-year-old heritage property with neutral colours and a minimalist vibe, it’s a welcome departure from the bouganvilla plague that most eateries seem to be afflicted with. It also offers diners a chance to focus more on what’s on the table, wholly indulging in every carefully curated plate.
In her quest to explore and push boundaries, what comes as a delight is the chef’s cognizance of borrowing from cultures. Even as Indian food continues to evolve in modern spaces, the essence of the meal lies in bold flavours and less tampering. Like most established chefs in the field, she also believes in cooking from her heart and drawing from diverse experiences. As much as she borrows from communities, she’s careful to organically integrate the same with technique.
Coming from a fishing community in Madh Island, Chef Niyati grew up in a house of foodies. It is this home cooking that she has glammed up with gourmet techniques, not just the ingredients. Citing royal thalis and a mother’s home cooking alike, there’s a special emphasis on balanced and fun meals with equal parts salt, fat, acid, and heat (also a nod to her favourite read!).
The easygoing kitchen dynamic at Ekaa further facilitates this style of cooking to yield delightful results. A rather fitting example perhaps would be The Bombay Duck. An entire concept emerges from a single ingredient here, blending together beautifully in a harmonious symphony of flavours and textures.
The fish, a much loved treat for most living in coastal areas, is torched lightly. It is then glazed with a gor keri soy sauce style glaze. Once grilled, it’s served atop Indrayani rice with fish floss and cucumber, making for a strikingly appetising contrast of colours.
Here too, she emphasises the need to “treat the ingredients with respect, and not turn it into something that diners can’t even recognize.” Her initial reluctance to share the dish with diners at Ekaa has unsurprisingly translated into nothing but praise. It’s hard to deny the innovative experiential quality of a dish that still stays true to the Indianness of its roots.
While initial development of the tasting, ala carte, and tapas menu took the team almost 18 months, she’s sure things will be faster this time around. The seasonal menu at Ekaa also means Chef Niyati has ample room to play.
“I don’t want to be using mangoes in December. I don’t think it will be fair to December, the people, or the mangoes,” she says with a chuckle.
In sync with her adventurous approach, she’s also one of the few chefs unafraid to experiment with vegetarian cooking. In working with ingredients like tapioca, eggplant, arbi, and more, she boasts of a coveted and rare skill set that amplifies the humble vegetable as a centrepiece.
The food at Ekaa is meant to be uniquely experienced, and a subjective opinion lies at the heart of it. So when asked for her recommendation, she stresses on guests going with their gut over her expertise.
Even as we speak, the team is already researching and developing items for their new menu due to be released in late May or June. At the time of our visit, I was fortunate enough to indulge in Sweet Mornings. The dish exists to satisfy sugary cravings and cure hungover days. It’s also one of those elusive desserts that artfully toy the line of sweet and savoury. With a moist ‘potato’ cake at the heart of it, it’s complemented by overnight soaked roasted butter and cereal crumb with a cereal milk gelato.
It’s easily one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. And if modern Indian cuisine is helmed by the likes of Chef Niyati Rao and the associated earnest cooking, the future is bright.