Inside Ekaa's Nordic-inspired space in south Mumbai's Fort area, the first thought that comes to my mind is, if this is the closest I'll ever get to Noma (the famed restaurant run by chef René Redzepi in Copenhagen that has been on my list for a while). The ingredient-first restaurant and young chef, Niyati Rao's brainchild—who also happens to have worked as a stagiaire at the world-renowned diner for four months—is uncannily similar, in so far as the decor/vibe is concerned, at least. The wooden shelves with fermentation jars and wild, foraged knick knacks, the interplay of jute, wood and ceramics, and oh! the chairs, are all seemingly out of a post-Noma world.
But this is not a critique. After all, even The Beatles' popular track, Come Together drew heavily from Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch Me and if you listen to both the tunes back-to-back, the inspiration is quite obvious. In fact, many of Redzepi creations too, were inspired by Ferran Adrià's atelier-like, scientific approach to food, before he developed his own oeuvre. Incidentally, Redzepi worked at Adrià's revolutionary El Bulli restaurant before starting out on his own.
Coming back to Ekaa, which is housed inside the 131-year-old Kitab Mahal building, and has offerings celebrating produce from across the world. The menu itself is a bit cryptic at the outset, with dishes named solely after the hero-ingredient. Like Potato, which is layers of sliced, baked, compressed and fried potatoes, draped in a chilli herb-like condiment and lime gel. Other dishes are identified, simply as Lettuce, Tapioca, Arbi or Churros and my guess is that the idea is to keep you guessing. I see a devoted effort to be true to the ingredients, rather than remain committed to a particular cuisine and a certain boldness that's characteristic only of youth. How else do you make churros savoury and pair it with a smoked, oil-based puree of the Maharashtrian thecha? Or make furikake, a Japanese seasoning typically comprising toasted sesame seeds, nori, salt and sugar, but use the Indian charoli/chironji instead?
For me, however, there are two standout factors at this restaurant. The first one, lay in their willingness to incorporate produce from the northeast. The menu features multiple dishes with black rice, one with the Tibetan tingmo and another with Mizoram balm, which is a herb with grassy notes. And secondly, their cocktails, which are smashingly good. I fancied the gin-based Abscission quite a bit, which evoked the same sensation as a misty field on a dewy morning and consists of neem, kaffir, pandan, betel and bok choy. The Petrichor, too, comes with a wet spray designed to smell exactly like what the name suggests: the first rain. It's nuts (and I mean that in a good way)!
All in all, Ekaa's core is distinctively reliant on chef Rao's vision, which is at the moment, a whole lot of inspiration from global culinary giants and in part, derived from her own cultural and emotional experiences, together receiving a welcome fillip from her preparedness to take risks and experiment. But the way I see it, she is all of 28 and I think, the best is yet to come.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.