A Synaesthetic Approach to Cooking

Qualia, Rahul and Malini Akerkar’s newest restaurant, is situated within the upscale podium of the Lodha World One Towers in the culinary hub of Mumbai – Lower Parel. This 100-seater eatery dishes out modern, cuisine-agnostic creations, made with unexpected combinations of locally sourced ingredients, balanced flavour profiles, and a lot of heart.

Grilled Eggplant Pizza, burrata, mint pesto, pickled raisins

“There is no substitute.” This line, straight out of the 1983 Tom Cruise-starrer ‘Risky Business’, fits perfectly in today’s post-covid recovery phase for restaurants in India. We have put behind us prolonged days of staying home, memorizing menus and eating out of paper-pack boxes because nothing can compare to a cozy evening, settled in a chic alfresco setting, dining with friends and family.

The F&B industry in Mumbai and the entire country, have taken a battering for months now due to the seismic shockwaves caused by the coronavirus reverberating through the globe. It has not only left the culinary explorer in two minds, physically but mentally too, questioning the very need to step out and put oneself at risk. However, droves of people, growing by the day now, tired of being cooped up, are willing to don facemasks, carry hand sanitizers and head to their favourite eateries, outdoors.

Qualia's impressive interiors

Bookings have surged, restaurants are getting full with ‘social distancing’ and other measures in place, smiles are back, and normal service has almost resumed. It felt good to be dining at this relaxed, high-street, upscale alfresco setting at Qualia in Lower Parel, Mumbai.

The Bar at Qualia

Inside, a grand space, designed by architect Kapil Gupta, greets you. High-ceilings, a 100-feet high glass frontage, a bar lined with pickled jars, all come together to create a sensorial experience. This brings the name ‘Qualia’ to life, which is about qualities that are perceived by a person. While the restaurant may feel grand, it exudes a relaxed, casual, and comfortable homely ambience.

Foglie D’Ulivo, confit garlic, pickled raisins Fig Galette, Walnut Frangipane, Pepper GoatCheese Ice Cream

Being a Bengali, my palate loves the experimental flavour blends of sweet and savoury. The brains behind Qualia, Chef Rahul Akerkar mentions that he loves the vivid pop of freshly infused ingredients, and hence the fermentation and pickled inspiration in almost every dish. Each dish has a distinctive flavour profile that tickles my curiosity. I love the Goan Chorizo Corn Dog with Apple Ketchup, the Foglie D’Ulivo made al dente with pickled raisins, and Kale Pesto. Ending with an indulgence for my sweet tooth, I unflinchingly go for the pecan pie with dark chocolate ganache.

Chef Rahul Akerkar

I speak to Chef Rahul, to dive into the length and breadth of Qualia, and what it represents.

What was your inspiration behind the opening of Qualia in Mumbai?

In April 2019 I left Indigo to unwind and introspect on what kind of food I like, and what to do next. I knew I loved the flavour profile of khatta meetha – margarita profile, the basis of chaat, and I started to experiment with that. With great produce on hand, I started with pickling and fermentation. Soon I was curating a menu that was more comfort food-driven, hearty, experimental, and one that could appeal to a larger base.

Qualia - with its open kitchen concept

Why did you go for the concept of an open kitchen in such a large, 4,000 sq ft space?

It’s the ‘energy’ that an open space creates in a restaurant. I wanted to get back to wood-fried cooking; we use a wood-burning oven not only for pizzas but also for our grills – meats and seafood. It gives a very distinctive flavour whilst retaining the freshness of the ingredients and the succulence of the meats.

Lentil Eggplant Burger, bell pepper relish, goat cheese aioli

Why and how did you name your restaurant ‘Qualia’?

I read a book by numerologist Ramachandran where he talks about this synaesthesia – one sensory experience that leads to the next, to be interpreted by another.

It’s the stimulation of one sense, causing an involuntary reaction in one or more of the other senses that may be totally disconnected to each other. For example, if you see the colour blue, it may induce an involuntary taste and texture experience on your palate. Qualia is nothing but the quality of these experiences – the quality of a sensorial experience that gets triggered by various unconnected and differential elements.

Brown Butter Pecan Tart, Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Clearly the dining experience is theatrical. Was that your vision for the restaurant?

After two years, my idea was to create a stage. A proscenium; spaces separated by a tall column; linear space; a 100 ft long frontage. To be able to see all the guts of the restaurant, so the entire cooking area is on display. Grills, wood-burning ovens, bakery sections, everything needed to be open, transparent. This brings showmanship to life and that is what we create, every day.

The dishes are complemented with pickled and spicy purees. What was your thought behind this approach ?

We have been pickling and fermenting for a long time, and it all winds up in the food. Every season we take what’s best of the season. Our produce and sourcing is our hero.

Pastrami Spiced Duck Breast, carrot goat cheese pure?e, radicchio, beets

The menu is very selective and gives off an omakase vibe. Is that what you had aimed for at the time of launching?

The focus was very simple. To keep a tight menu, ingredient driven. We didn’t try to spell things out. It was just a good combination of veg and non-veg. Our focus was on seasonal, inhouse produce – such as pastas made inhouse – rather than doing a long, rambling menu. Cost effectiveness and cross utilization of ingredients was our key goal so that there’s bare minimum wastage. At the same time, we needed to make dishes interesting and approachable at the same time.

Moroccan Carrot Soup

How often do you innovate with the menu?

I would say two-three times a year. During lockdowns – the weekend menu was very well received, since it’s relatable but also impeccably prepared. We train our people to give special attention to detail with cooking techniques, to produce the highest quality and well-priced meal.

The Fallen Captain

The beverages are also very refreshing, with ingredients like elderflower, hibiscus, kafir lime, and fennel. What’s the idea behind Qualia’s house cocktails?

Qualia’s beverages are done with a similar concept in mind. A sweet and sour approach, as the sourness of the alcohol is easier to play with the flavours when mixed. My philosophy on cocktails is to get as esoteric as possible but in the end the customer has to be able to order another one. That is the sign of a good cocktail that has the capacity to extend over long evenings with friends and loved ones.

Djinn Gin

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Priya Kumari Rana

Lifestyle Insider is a kind of junction point, connecting people with diverse interests that touch on the more luxurious aspects of lifestyle – fashion, design, travel, food and spirits, art, watches and jewellery, cars, yachts, and aviation, and technology. People today don’t fit into boxes and categories. In our individual ways, we are interested in diverse themes, products, and the challenges that face our world today. You will judge how well this effort of mine caters to your passions and proclivities.

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A bit about me:
A luxury and fashion journalist with 25 years of experience in publishing and magazine journalism, I have edited some of India’s top fashion and luxury magazines. I got my BA in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and went on to receive my Master’s in English and French from the University of Strasbourg, France. I have also studied German and Film. I live in Gurugram, India, and look forward to once again exploring our world with a new-found freedom.

Priya Kumari Rana

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