Restaurant Review: Arola

June 22Time Out Mumbai

Our leisurely three-hour dinner at Arola ended with a strange complaint: a man one table over told the manager that the food had not been adjusted enough to suit the Indian palate. Right he was. Foremost among the many pleasures of dining at Michelin-starred Chef Sergi Arola’s first outpost in Asia, housed in slick digs at the JW Marriott in Juhu, is a distinct sense of authenticity, not to say traditionalism. This isn’t the kind of food you get at laid-back tapas bars but the kind that has made the chef’s native Barcelona one of Europe’s most important gastronomic hubs.

The menu of small plates (with ample selection for vegetarians and carnivores alike, though vegetarians may have to order more) balances the Iberian taste for robust flavours and simple ingredients with the more precious imperatives of modern gourmet cuisine – and does so with rare aplomb. The meal begins with the restaurant’s sole nod to Indian food: a plate of naan served with smashed tomato, olive oil, garlic cloves and salt – a witty, do-it-yourself naan con tomate. A dish of fried artichokes with a light mayonnaise for dipping was a favourite among the vegetables, a lighter version of the crispy fried artichokes served as bar food all over Barcelona.

Red snapper with a finely diced tabouleh was silky and mild with a hint of smoke from the skin and a vegetal crunch from the tabouleh. Marvelously fishy sardines came wrapped around minced olives, smashed tomato and tiny circlets of toast. Humble ingredients, elegant presentation, traditional flavours – this was a highlight.

A plate of patatas bravas follows a similar pattern. Eight cork-shaped rounds of potato, each topped with a puff of lightly whipped and spiced mayonnaise, come lined up like soldiers. It’s oddly genteel for a dish whose name means “fierce potatoes”, but tasty nonetheless. The terrine of suckling pig suffers slightly from a similarly polite approach. The meat itself is tender and rich and presented prettily enough, but it lacks the greasy, fatty crunch of roasted skin that makes the traditional preparation transcendent. Even in the poshest restaurant, gentility should have its bounds.

Finish with the huevos y canela (eggs and cinnamon), a small bite of crema catalan and lemon ice cream at the bottom of a cocktail glass, topped by an impressive bruléed froth of cinnamon-flavoured, whipped egg white. It’s as decadent in texture as it is light on the palate.

A two-page list of gins, not to mention a brilliant array of cocktails (R700 for signature drinks, R600 for classic cocktails), gives gin devotees reason to rejoice. Try a Spanish Martini – dry and spiked with a bitter hint of citrus from flambéed orange rind – or a Last Word, a classic cocktail of gin, green chartreuse, maraschino and lime, given a cool herbal twist of rosemary. Wine aficionados have a considerable selection of Spanish reds and whites to choose from.

Given their beachside space and considerable resources, it would have been easy for the team behind Arola to create just another Juhu scene. Instead, they’ve created a showroom, overseen by a knowledgeable and effective staff, for a national cuisine clearly on the rise in Mumbai. Our critical friend aside, we spent our meal happily surrounded by diners who seemed more than ready for it.

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