Given that so many of the UAE’s Indian expatriates jokingly refer to Dubai as an extension of their home country, it’s no surprise that there’s always an appetite for another subcontinental restaurant. Better yet if it’s bringing something new to the table. Or if the restaurant in question shuns traditional fare for novel contemporary approaches that excite and animate.
So the opening of Masti Cocktails & Cuisine late last month was a bit of a Christmas gift for Dubai diners. The first licensed outlet at La Mer Dubai showcases the signature modern Indian style of chef Hari Nayak in a vibrant beachfront space. With a cool, trendy interiors featuring touches of burnished metal, stained glass panels, brightly coloured leather banquettes and subcontinental design accents, the venue sprawls over two levels — the lower unlicensed with alcoholic beverages being served on the first floor.
The word masti means mischief or fun in Hindi, and although it’s often used in widely different contexts, the aim here is to serve up progressive food that unashamedly borrows from other cuisines while staying true to its DNA — Indian food for the international palate, if you will.
“We’re trying to make Indian food cool and sexy,” Nayak, the Udupi, Karnataka-born chef who made a name for himself in New York by reimagining his home nation’s flavours, told Gulf News tabloid! ahead of the restaurant’s soft opening last month. “We haven’t followed any rules and, in fact, we’ve tried to break rules on every front — whether it’s the drinks or the ambience, we’ve spend two years working to get to a market positioning that’s very different from what’s already here.”
Pallav Patel, who helms MP Creative, the company behind quirky concepts such as Bombay Bungalow (which Nayak also consults with) and Mymosa, says UAE diners are ready for something different. “Dubai has had a long history with everything Indian, especially with its food,” he told tabloid! via email. “As this city is a pioneering place and a melting pot of cultures, we believe it is now ready for the next phase — which is Indian-inspired cuisine.”
In practice, that sort of approach often results in bewildering dishes that don’t always work. Happily, as a tasting preview shows — we’ve yet to return for a full review — Nayak achieves what he sets out to do. That means there’s no biryani nor indeed a straightforward butter chicken, but you will find a butter chicken pizza on the menu. And yes there’s burrata, gloriously paired in classic style with heirloom tomatoes, but a fiery tomato chilli jam and a fragile coriander crisp transform the dish entirely.
Elsewhere, a chicken bhartha seems to be what you might find if you were brunching in a streetside Mediterranean restaurant in Kolkata. Reminiscent of eggs in purgatory, this thick, moreish dip of pulled chicken and red peppers topped with a baked egg and finished in a charcoal oven is perfect with a bit of toast. It’s sweet, tangy, hearty and rustic all at once.
Global flavours show up, too: a fava bean chaat pairs a yoghurt cracker with tempered labneh, a silky tofu comes glazed with mustard and zaatar, and Wagyu striploin pairs with red curry and chimichurri.
Nayak’s pride in his heritage is visible in the many South Indian-inspired dishes on the menu at Masti: quinoa, for example, is tossed with Keralite avvial, Mediterranean Sea bass or branzino is steamed in a banana leaf with pollichathu-inspired spices (and jalapenos!), and seafood is spiced with Goan recheado and turned into a sausage.
“I grew up in Udupi, where my grandfather owned an Udupi restaurant [a South Indian cafeteria-style eatery synonymous with vegetarian fare such as dosas and idlis], but I’m a Western-trained chef and have spent the last 20 years in New York,” the soft-spoken 43-year-old chef says.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has worked with Daniel Boulud, he says he initially wanted to run away from Indian cooking. “But now Indian food is still the core for me, its flavours still comfort and soothe me.”
Everything is presented in sharing portions, either as hot or cold plates, which both nods to the Indian practice of family-style dinners while affording maximum enjoyment for these intriguing new combinations. And since he isn’t making traditional Indian dishes, diners won’t be asked whether they like their food spicy or not, there are no chillies indicating a dish’s heat levels in the margins of the menu.
“These are recipes created here after getting feedback from a lot of focus groups,” Nayak says. “So when the food hits your palate, you’ll experience a balance of textures and flavour — there’ll be sweet and salty and spicy, but everything will be balanced. And it won’t be heavy.”
At a time when it seems there are more new restaurants open than one could possibly get to (while several old favourites seem to have shuttered their doors), Patel believes the concept will stand apart from the competition.
“The current market isn’t at its best at the moment,” he admits. “But I believe this is temporary. In some ways, we need this situation for the market to mature. It will force everyone in the F&B market to really up their game, be unique in their offering, aim to reach international standards and fight for their spot in the ever-growing city.”
He’s certainly putting his money where his mouth is. “Our overall investment would be just shy of Dh20 million,” he says, adding that a conservative break-even forecast is about four years. “However that would decrease significantly if our concept is successful, which we have all faith it being.”
Think of Masti’s menu as global desi, and you’d be on the right track. Overall, the flavours are clean, carefully combined and imaginative, and everything is thankfully shorn of gimmickry (no mini pressure cookers!) If you look hard, you’ll see the occasional spot of foam and the odd molecular touch, but these appear to be integral to the dish instead of meaningless afterthoughts.
“Is Zuma really Japanese? Is Coya really Peruvian?” asks Nayak. “Yes they are, but what makes them successful brands is their international appeal. Ultimately, if the ambience is great and the food tastes good I think it’s going to work.”
He expects to be here a lot over the launch phase to refine the offering before trimming his visits down to a quarterly residency.
With 200 covers and over 25 staff, the two-level restaurant is currently only open for dinner. Nayak expects to run lunch and brunch services over the next few months.
Over the medium term he hopes the concept goes international. “There is not one Indian brand that is international, but something like this could work in London or New York.”
Banana Leaf Branzino recipe
For the fish
1tsp lemon juice
2 banana leaves
80g branzino or Mediterranean Sea bass, fillet
For the salad
10g green apple, thinly sliced
15g white onion, thinly sliced
10g fennel root, thinly sliced
Blend the garlic, onion and jalapeno to a rough paste. Season with salt and add lemon juice to balance the acidity.
Layer the fillet on both sides with the garlic onion paste and wrap in a fresh banana leaf.
Bake the banana leaf branzino in a josper charcoal oven for 3-4 minutes until cooked. Alternatively, cook in an oven preheated to 180 degrees Celsius for seven or eight minutes.
For the salad, make a simple vinaigrette of salt, lemon juice and oil. Add the salad ingredients to a bowl and dress with the vinaigrette. Serve immediately with the Branzino.