High ceilings, a long bar and chainmaille curtains form an integral part of Qualia’s decor. But the most defining aspect of chef Rahul Akerkar’s latest offering are the many jars of pickled vegetables, fruits and spices that line the wooden shelves above the bar. There is almost everything, and more, that one can think of in those jars — mangoes, berries, onions, ladyfingers, turmeric roots, mustard seeds, and walnuts. The Lower Parel restaurant, which opened its doors end April, is all about sweet-and-sour, or, as Akerkar likes to say in Marathi, “ambat-goad”. The menu thus features dishes such as White and Green Asparagus that is served with fennel, pickled onions and preserved lemon; Duck Neck Sausage with caramelised onion polenta and pickled plums; and Tarte Tatin that comes with pickled celery, walnuts and crème fraiche ice cream.
Akerkar redefined the culinary scape of the city when he opened Indigo in Colaba in 1999. It set the benchmark for stand-alone, fine-dining restaurants, a rarity at that time. Indigo Deli introduced the concept of delis, which has since evolved into a bustling cafe culture today. However, after building these restaurants into brands, in 2015, Akerkar parted ways with his investors at deGustibus and took a sabbatical, while patrons wondered about his comeback. In this interview, the chef talks about leaving deGustibus, his new offering and what drives the food at Qualia. Excerpts:
You were synonymous with Indigo and deGustibus. How tough was it to let go?
It took me a couple of years to reconcile with the idea. My exit was pretty acrimonious; the investors I had partnered with, almost took things away from me. When we were opening Indigo in Delhi, I learnt rather awkwardly that the menu created there had been altered without my knowledge. I went to Delhi to work with the team on some dishes and was told that those dishes were not even on the menu. That was a wake-up call. It’s ironical that neither has Indigo in Delhi nor have the other restaurants they started without my consent, have since survived. But my only regret today is that I didn’t take that step two years earlier. It was tough at the time but once you go through the process and and move ahead in time, you wonder what was so daunting about it. I remember when we were planning the first Indigo Deli, in Colaba, it felt like a big hurdle. But once we launched, it was easy.
Was it daunting that neither Indigo nor Indigo Deli had any precedents?
I didn’t think about it at the time; I only wanted to do a particular kind of cuisine and restaurant. Back in late 1990s, we only had China Garden, which was the leader in the Oriental food space and Khyber led in Indian cuisine. That was it. There were a handful others like Kamling and Gaylord too. Hotels were complacent where the same menu was served year after year. For instance, Shamiana did the simple tomato soup with three croutons floating atop. There would be a Spaghetti Bolognaise and the ubiquitous club sandwich. I never wanted to shake it up but just do a food-focused restaurant. I remember the battles we got into with Shamiana even when I opened Under the Over at Kemp’s Corner, my industry debut. Hemant Oberoi at the Taj woke up and changed the menu after many years. As soon as their team settled into it, we changed ours again. It rattled them, so they had to start working instead of going with the flow. With Indigo, we again changed things. I remember at the soft opening, Camellia Panjabi said, “Gutsy move Rahul, but will it work?” We had just spent Rs 5.5 crore setting up Indigo and the remark gave me a pause. But Indigo worked, from the first day, and I still don’t know what did it.
From 1999 to 2019, how, in your opinion, has the city’s F&B space changed?
Soon after Indigo, a series of finer cuisine restaurants mushroomed in the city but that was followed by tremendous mediocrity. Then the scene developed to cater to a mass base with cheap and cheerful places. The menus everywhere would be similar, safe, and feature the same Edamame dumplings, tuna carpaccio, and truffle fries. No one was really cooking, except a handful of chefs. But that was also a time when people were travelling and experimenting with cuisines, the exposure was growing. The scene is more evolved today and restaurants are more food- and cuisine-focused.
What places did you appreciate along the way?
We are all creatures of habit. We go to the same places to satisfy particular cravings on particular days.
How much has that shaped your current space?
When I thought of opening my own restaurant, it made me wonder what I really enjoy about food — something I had never thought of before. I realised I love the Margarita chaat profile — khatta-meetha, ambat-gaod, as my ajji (grandmother) would say. I decided to develop that concept because acidity adds a certain element of freshness to the food. So I started pickling about a year ago, even before I had started to plan a menu, and it’s all up on the walls now.
Why did you choose Lower Parel, which is already an overcrowded space?
I was originally planning a simpler place. But when Malini (wife) and I saw this space, we felt it has a certain gravitas. We visualised the whole place immediately. The menu here is maybe a tad more refined than what I would have done but what we serve is home-y, it’s good looking comfort food. We intend to begin lunch soon too, albeit with a different profile — serve breakfast all-day and quick light meals