My first visit to Afraa restaurant and lounge was around August 2015. It was an invite for the Taste of Tuscany food festival. I had a previous visit too but only at the lounge. At that time, mixologist Shael Bhradwaj had come down to offer some great cocktails at the lounge for a festival named as Wednesday fairy tales. I still remember, at that time Tanmoy was the manager at Afraa, who later on moved to The Grid to head the operations there.
I have gone to Afraa in between but on personal visits and this year around April, I came to know that it had been shut down for renovation w.e.f. 31st March 2018. I was keenly waiting for its re opening.
Chef Abhijit Saha does not need any introduction and when he is at the helm of affairs, an opportunity to chat with him could not be turned down.
So what has changed at the re launched Afraa lounge and restaurant
Afraa means white and a slightly philosophical take on the same makes it ‘black is the new white’. I will not get into the metaphorical interpretation, rather the visible changes are galore, which I will like to highlight. The pristine white has vanished with the architectural changes. Some of the open air spaces at the Afraa lounge, the pub, has changed into large seating places with sunshine air conditioning box. The PDRs have been removed to make more meaningful cosy corners around the place, which can host small to large groups. The lounge has a contemporary young look while the restaurant is with rich woodwork, wooden chairs, wall murals, ornate mellow chandeliers and hues of green which pairs up well with the eclectic food being served here. The legendary marble top bar counter is the only thing which has been retained.
What about the food at Afraa lounge and restaurant
Chef Abhijit Saha has created the menu for Afraa and as a fan and pursuer of sustainable dining, food served here also focuses on health and well being of the guests. Local ingredients as well as artisanal produce from the Mediterranean region forms the highlight. Parmesan cheese and Parma ham are imported but again, there is a serving of Burrata, which is procured from Bangalore. As an ongoing process, he plans to introduce more organic produce including organic chicken and mutton. Mediterranean cuisine has a vast catchment area. Where there is Mediterranean Europe with South of France, Spain, Italy and Greece, there is Mediterranean west Asia with Turkey and Lebanon. There is also countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt from Mediterranean Africa. Hence, the food here has influences from all of these regions. There are choices of hot and cold, almost half a dozen mezzes, salads, grills from Turkey and Lebanon infused with spices like sumac, all spice, zattar, dukkah, special garlic sauce called toum (garlic aioli without eggs) and harissa. This is an elaborate menu and as Chef said, definitely Kolkata is going to get spoilt with choices. To help the reader, here are some of the highlights-
- Check out the gluten free pastas like the one made with Quinoa, one with three vegetables and rice and then multigrain pasta without using wheat. These are your new age organic, gluten free, vegetarian pasta. These are a secco (dry) variety and unlike a normal dry pasta. these cook within 4 minutes.
- Chef Abhijit Saha believes that Kolkata Bhekti is the best fish possible and that’s the only fish which gets used in Afraa. Norwegian Salmon is used for some of the salads.
- Check out the signature cocktails at Afraa Lounge. Not to forget Watermelon and basil martini with rocksalt foam, New age pinacolada, Salted caramel whisky sour.
- While you will get your thin crust pizza, it is the Neapolitan style Pizza which is the star attraction. It’s somewhat like a sourdough which is fermented over 18 hours. The gluten breaks down so much in that time that even people with gluten allergy, sometimes do not have a problem at trying it out (however it is definitely the wish of the guest). With some interesting toppings, this style of pizza is quite a delight to have.
- We all know that a risotto is made with Arborio rice. Chef Abhijit Saha introduces risotto made of Millet and black rice as well. The millet used is Foxtail.
- Mezzes get redefined. Most people think mezzes mean your regular hummus and baba ganoush with some pita breads. However, mezzes actually mean small plates and there are numerous hot and cold options for mezzes.
- Chef Abhijit Saha is known for his molecular gastronomy and how can Afraa not have one. As a part of the starters, one has two Espumas . The cauliflower espuma is truly stunning with a light cauliflower foam which has an orange pudding at the bottom. Black olive soil and garlic crumbs top the foam. As you dig in, what it does is create a whole medley of flavours in your mouth from the spunk of the garlic to the creaminess of the cauliflower and finally the citrus cutting through the cream to give a refreshing effect.
- Chef Abhijit Saha Signature pomegranate chicken – A clear show stopper, this dish comes with three pieces of chicken roulade stuffed with minced chicken and walnut crumbs drizzled generously with a sauce made with pomegranate reduction and a hint of dark chocolate. The center of the dish is crowned with soft leeks and baby potatoes. The pomegranate and the dark chocolate form a beautiful duet of flavours.
- Gondhoraj rendition – This is one of the best creations of Chef Saha and a take on Philadelphia cheese cake. The gondhoraj itself is the cheese cake with a lemon curd centre and the yellow of the gondhoraj comes from a lemon glaze. Scattered around are the various elements of a biscuit crumbles, a think crispy chocolate wafer, walnuts and apricots stuffed with mascarpone. It’s beautiful to look at and when you taste this dish in its entirety, it will lift you up spiritually.
As we discussed, the curious nature in me asked him a few questions which I often ponder about and seek out answers.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation –
What does authentic mean to you ?
‘To me the term authentic does not hold too much sense, the same dish can be prepared in different ways in different households. There can be authenticity of ingredients and cooking methods but one can always have a personal touch.’ His personal creation – Avocado Humus, where hummus is served with a avocado salsa sauce, Burrata cheese is Italian but he has added spiced beetroot labneh, which is from middle east and combined them together in one dish.
What do you think is the future of Bengali cuisine?
‘Bengali cuisine is one of the finest cuisines in India. It’s based on seasonal produce and it’s simplicity is its forte. We eat it in same thala but we eat it by course. It’s a niche and he is biased towards his cuisine as towards the variety of ingredients that we use.’ He remembers his childhood, when he used to be back home from his boarding school and visit the local vegetable market with his father. As per him, it’s the experience of touch and feel and smell of the vegetables that helps you buy the best one. He shyly yet confidently says ‘ I don’t have stories of my grandmother cooking as I grew up in a boarding school, where I had to wear a jacket and a tie on a Sunday also’.
Future of regional cuisine
As per Chef Abhijit Saha, regional cuisines are too stereotyped with South Indian meaning the tiffin places mostly and North Indian meaning either the north west frontier restaurants or Punjabi food. It has a golden opportunity to grow and also slowly the stereotypes will be broken.
Which is your favourite ingredient ?
As he sipped into his Darjeeling tea, he answered ‘Cooking cannot be done with a single ingredient and that keeps on changing from time to time’ When I pushed him further, to bite the bullet, he said slyly – organic ingredients. These days he is fascinated with millet and his current obsession is to explore further 20 types of millets.
When are you opening your Bengali restaurant?
He will be keen to open one very soon, just waiting for the right time. He had fair bit of regional cuisine presence in Saha – his restaurant in Singapore.The commercial viability of Bengali restaurants is still a question. He didn’t forget to remind that there are practical challenges also as Bengali cuisine is dependent on sourcing of seasonal ingredients. Sourcing of seasonal ingredients is important and a strong supply chain can only secure smooth functioning of a Bengali restaurant outside Bengal.
There are two ways of looking at Indian cuisine
The first one is what traditionally has been done in India as well as abroad, where you cannot shift from the stereotype. Then there is the professional way of doing it, which is the ideal way. Most of the time, it’s the shortcut of means taken by restaurateurs, which make them compromise on the taste. To an extent, some even offer a daal masala in the name of daal makhni in some foreign countries.
Innovation, creativity and guideline for chefs
Creativity and innovation for the sake of creativity won’t survive unless you are sincere to your food and your work. One cannot become innovative without learning the basics. Genuine interest to serve good food needs to be a part of the core DNA of a chef.
Future of chef run restaurants in India
That’s the future as Chef Abhijit Saha says. Although we agreed that its a slow starter in India but it’s catching up.
As of now Afraa lounge and restaurant has got everything needed to make it a blockbuster and talk of town. Other than Jhaal Farezi,which opened up with great promise but later was severely affected by the ongoing flyover work and the parking issues, I don’t remember any of the Neotia Hospitality ventures having gone wrong. It’s not only Chef Abhijit Saha, there is Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti and his wonderful team which includes Chiranjib, Swarup and others. Tastefully made interiors, which is a true representation of the class and grandeur that the group is known for, an aim to make Afraa restaurant a long term player (not to forget, the previous avatar ran successfully for 10 years) all synchronize, to the ultimate goal…. I think we can only wish the best and see how the coming days unfold.
Address of Afraa lounge and restaurant – 6th & 7th Floor, City Centre Mall, G-Block, Sector-1, Salt Lake City, Kolkata, West Bengal 700064
Phone – 088201 52345