Three unique menus showcase Chef Niyati Rao’s experimental cuisine-agnostic take on seasonal and regional ingredients. Don’t miss the inventive cocktails.
“I kept my 80-year-old grandmother in mind when I was curating the menu; if she reads it and understands it and doesn’t feel intimidated but comfortable eating this food, then I know I have done my job right,” says Niyati Rao, Head Chef & Partner at Ekaa. And that, in a nutshell, sums up Mumbai’s latest ingredient-first restaurant — familiar ingredients, presented in unexpected ways but with flavours that resonate with the Indian palate and evoke nostalgia.
Born and brought up in Mumbai to a Gujarati mother and South Indian father, Rao counts herself lucky to have parents who took her travelling and encouraged her to try all kinds of food, “no matter how wacky.” After graduating from IHM Mumbai (Dadar Catering College) and stints at Wasabi at The Taj Mahal Palace and A Reverie in Goa, Rao got a chance to work at noma, Copenhagen for five months, but the pandemic forced her to return to Mumbai. She then teamed up with her old colleague (and co-founder) Sagar Neve, a restaurateur with a decade of experience. After a year and eight months of scouting for a place, setting it up, and intensive kitchen and bar research, Ekaa opened doors in early December in Fort — at Kitab Mahal, the 130-year-old heritage building that also houses Ministry of New.
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“Ekaa means ‘the one’ or unique. We wanted to take the uniqueness of each ingredient and bring it to a single-minded focused place. This is an ingredient-centric place and we don’t have a cuisine; we are inspired by memories, different cultures, people, and everything that we perceive around us,” explains Rao. She credits her training at noma as one of the inspirations for the restaurant. “My most important learning was ‘respect your own’. Try and create magic from what you have first and then maybe try to assimilate from everything else in the world,” says Rao.
Ekaa offers three menus — a snappy tapas menu of small plates, an extensive à la carte, and a 10-course chef’s tasting menu. Every dish spotlights one ingredient, whether it’s the churro served with potato silk and smoked thecha (the spicy Maharashtrian condiment that reminds me of summer trips to my grandparents’ place); or the house-made sourdough topped with cauliflower ‘hummus’, The Spotted Cow Fromagerie’s Tomme de Bombai cheese, and nasturtium leaves for pepperiness; or the rather excellent house sausage tossed with honey and chilli glaze, which Rao says is inspired by her mother. The à la carte menu brings more surprises like a large wheat cracker smeared with onion jam and topped with caramelised eggplant, avocado, barley, and spice mix, with silken tofu pudding on the side; and a banana parfait served with a gin-soaked cookie and blood orange sorbet. The dishes are well-priced and portions generous.
With high ceilings and a skylight over the main dining area, the restaurant is luminous. A cosy bar with comfy bar stools, an intimate private dining room, and an open kitchen round off the space. The muted colour palette and minimalistic décor keeps the focus on food. But as with the food, there’s a lot of thought behind the ambience. “For me, sustainability doesn’t mean only making best out of waste but also about empowering local artisans, so all the furniture and crockery is handmade,” says Rao. Earthy elements like wood, stone, and slate abound, and there’s a certain rawness to everything, further emphasised by jars of foraged ingredients on display; these are not for show but are actually used in the food and drinks that come to your table.
Speaking of drinks, Ekaa’s cocktail menu is eclectic and experimental, inspired by the seven ecosystems in India — tropical deciduous forests, tropical wet evergreen forests, desert, grasslands, tundra (high-altitude regions), ocean, and freshwater. Head mixologist Jishnu AJ (ex-Koko) convinces me to try The Brine, a vodka-based cocktail inspired by the ocean. It comes with nori infusion, raisin vermouth, pickled cherry brine, and a crispy nori sheet balanced delicately on the rim; as I sip it, there’s an explosion of flavours — sweet, salty, and tangy. Gin-based Elysian channels the grasslands with an earthy wheatgrass and lemongrass syrup plus a liqueur made from the Ayurvedic herb gentian; the cocktail is sweet and sour with grassy notes and a bitter finish.
My favourite is Petrichor, made with infused tequila, coconut vermouth, and gooseberry. What evokes the petrichor is the calcium stone. “We made a petrichor spray using edible calcium stone, which you can find at pani puri and chanawala shops. It was traditionally consumed by pregnant women to strengthen their bones,” explains Jishnu, as he sprays my drink with it. Is anything better than the aroma of wet soil after the first rain?
It’s early days but Ekaa seems to have bridged the gap between fine dining and having an accessible, fun experience. You don’t have to go for the tasting menu (which is only available for dinner); just park yourself at the bar, get a drink or two and a few tapas, and then proceed to the dining area for a couple of mains and perhaps a dessert. Oh, and eat with your hands. “We really promote people eating with their hands whether it’s the tasting or à la carte menu, because Indians are inherently hand-eaters. And Ekaa is an Indian fine-dine restaurant,” emphasises Rao.
Ekaa, Kitab Mahal, 1st Floor, D Sukhadwala Rd, Azad Maidan, Fort. Call 99876 57989 for reservations