Niyati Rao, Head Chef and Partner at Ekaa, the newest kid on the fine-dine block, plucks a leaf from her childhood. All the nostalgia from home-cooked meals, travels, and special occasions have come
together to create dishes that live up to the simplicity and of those times.
The unusual pairing of ingredients, dressed up to travel incognito to your palate, simply confound. Think chicken parfait smothered in soy cilantro beads, a la caviar. Honey chilli complexioned farm sausages.
Generous blobs of egg yolk butter squatting on rice, plum seed vinegar, kadamb chutney, bhoot jolokia oil, and more. Her inborn flair for painting is mirrored in the perfect strokes of each plating, as the dishes are served up with a hush of veneration. “I have small hands,” she says modestly, “that help me articulate artfully on the plate.”
Hands that have trained under the best hands in the line of work. Rao values R&D, a fundamental she learnt in the kitchens at Zodiac Grill, and Wasabi by Morimoto in Mumbai, A Reverie in Goa and Noma in Copenhagen. In a combined, sincere ethos, she has emerged with a layered, evolving repertoire of techniques.
“I love kombucha and am learning the mechanics of getting it right, from an expert. I have spent a good part of my early years in Surat as my nani lived here. She used to slice and soak tiny mangoes in salt and water and the mix emerged as a tangy panichu a few days later. Looking at the expert, I realise that Ba was doing it forever and now I am learning the same, going back to the basics,” she says, adding, “Our mothers and grandmothers used to prepare everything at home.
The thing is, no one has kept a record of these processes. The culinary hands were unbeatable, so many years ago when there was no refrigeration, or liquid nitrogen available. I was thumbing through the diaries of Awadh’s Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. It is flabbergasting, how the khansamas made a bird fly out of a puri!”
The simplicity floors. There are no gigantic chandeliers or snob vibes at Ekaa. The earthy essence diffuses into every tiny detail, from the minimalistic décor to the array of plant pods (she picks them up from the ground after the first shower), dry herbs and curated ceramic jars, twigs lacing the shelves on the walls outside the open kitchen where you can simply walk in to chat with the chefs at work. “This is my concept of fine dine,” she explains. “Taking ingredients and using my art to create something for you.”
The menu is replete with prized, local darlings. The Christmas menu brought in 22 sea urchins netted off the coast of Madurai in South India. She calls it serendipity. “I found the locals making lanterns using shells, they had no idea what they had caught. After a careful transport to the Ekaa kitchen, I brought it in a very tiny measure in the tasting menu, unsure if more would be fair on sustainability.”
The light, creamy, egg yolky flavour of the urchins brought in a taste of the ocean in the mouth, with the hero ingredient tossed up with handmade noodles, served up with chives and umeboshi, salted sourish Japanese plums brined for a year. The urchins replaced the Japanese ohitashi salad on the menu.
“We have been salting the plums, using them for our koji duck glaze,” she reveals. “My parents were avid travellers and encouraged me and my brother to experiment fearlessly,” she shares. “I remember standing in line with my dad for four hours outside a popular Japanese restaurant to taste the tuna belly after we bought my first knife in Tsukiji market. My favourite childhood memory is chasing crabs all over the kitchen. My dad taught me how to handle them,” she shares.
The Ekaa menu brings in many of these pinch-me moments. Get the hangover fix in the potato silk bread slathered with cereal ice cream in the sweet morning. Sheesham serving boards carry the cheesy mushroom bellied chicken wings, and the gleaming crispy arbi arrives with its entourage of fair-skinned, rice tortillas, pickled raw papaya, freshly plucked microgreens and green tomato rojo. The pork belly comes complete with delicately spiced gavarfali, fermented cabbage slivers and a slim brioche trio.
The seven ecosystems inspire bar elixirs. Petrichor easily replays the moist breath of the first shower-drenched soil in a swirl of coconut vermouth, gooseberry and coconut stone. Unique herbs and extraordinary distils at Ekaa compose the layers and emotions that suffuse every cocktail.
Her biggest learning? “That came when I lost my dad. When such a huge, inseparable part of your life disengages from your core, you have to learn to move ahead to fulfil your purpose in life and here I am with Ekaa, for you.”