Indian cuisine at Ushna - Souk at Qaryat Al Berri, Abu Dhabi (next to Shangri-la)

Ushna, one of the most decorated Indian restaurants in the city in terms of awards and  accolades, is currently part of Abu Dhabi Gourmet, a celebration of restaurants and food in the city.  Chef Sandeep Ai has specially created  a menu that is designed to take patrons across the different regions of India. To the uninitiated, all Indian food is the same. However, Chef is trying to make people aware of the regionality of Indian cuisine. So, Ushna celebrates that diversity as well as the subtleties in variations which occur sometimes, as well as the more overt differences. It was in this context that I visited Ushna a few nights ago. 

The bar 

Seating options
My journey starts with one of the specially created cocktails from an extensive list - the Delhi 6; a mix of tequila, grapes, sour mix and the highlight, or the twist if you please, masala chaat powder lining the rim of the glass - the chaat powder a popular ingredient in cooking in Delhi. There is something surreal about this drink, a microcosm of how Ushna, like  a couple of high end Indian dining places, seeks to bring together East and West or more precisely, Then and Now, in its menu but without eschewing its core values. 

The view
The outside seating is enviable, and on this occasion, it is packed with all guests mesmerised by the canal and the great mosque on the other side. There is the occasional water taxi ferry making its way across the canal. There is the sound of water breaking against the rocks not far away from me - Quite very calming taking in all of this.

My culinary journey starts with the Yahkni Shorba, a broth from the Kashmir region. Originating in the northern part of India where the weather is cooler, this is a hearty soup. Mutton breaks easily off the bone, while saffron and ginger make their way onto my palate. Flavoursome. 

Thakali Saar
I follow this up with the Thakali Saar, a south Indian soup. Tomato paste jelly is garnished on the plate. My waiter then pours the tomato based soup over this, releasing the gentle chili taste. A good soup because the level of chili is spot on, perfect for foreign tongues. 

While the Thakali Saar was certainly high-end in its presentation and theatre, the next dish is an attempt to to evoke the streets of Mumbai. I am served the Brun Maska, a trio of casual eats commonly sold in Mumbai where it is wrapped in newspaper. Chef transports his guests to Mumbai by keeping the newspaper motif but cleverly placing it between folded butter paper; the latter is commonly found in very inexpensive Indian restaurants in lieu of napkins. Not only does Chef evoke Mumbai, but he connects me to my Friday morning ritual here in Abu Dhabi where I have my 6 AED breakfast. Marvellous, showing the connection between food and memories. 

Brun maska
The brun maska is essentially a large scone-shaped piece of Indian bread topped with, in this case, Chef's rendering of the different parts of lamb - the menu best sums it up: soul food for the adventurous with lamb brain fritter, liver masala and lamb mince. Highly recommended. 

At this stage of my journey I switch to a Prosecco, rather fitting if you consider the location with all its elements of romance. I am impressed by the wine list which still confounds me due to the stereotype I used to have of Indian food only being served with water and juices. I am also impressed that as policy, all by-the- glass wines are poured table side - it is a pet hate of mine when my wine is brought to the table, already poured. So, a simple but important gesture.

Next up, I try another  selection of starters including Stuffed tangdi kebab and Soft shell crab Koliwada. The kebab, a very rustic Punjabi dish is chicken stuffed with minced chicken. I find it playful, but seriously delicious. It has a very profound tandoori taste. Yum. There is also the textural element with the outer layer of the kebab contrasting with that mined chicken inside. Finally, the crab. Spiced chick pea flour batter ensures a flavourful surface. It is also deep fried to perfection, making that tender inside part even more amazing. Mumbai fry shops are recalled in this dish.

In anticipation of my main dishes, I order a glass of Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, a full bodied Californian red. My server is at the top of his game. He has not missed a beat all night. Incredibly knowledgable with a zest for tasting food, I have come across a waiter who makes me want to try the dishes he talks about. I am astonished to learn he has been with Ushna for only 3 months. 

My main dishes
My main dishes are served. A very child-friendly dish, Dal Panchal,a dish comprising 5 lentils delicately spiced;  a celebration of things subtle. An ode to Rajasthan. One of my dishes of the night is the Lucknowi chicken korma, a north Indian dish abundant in rich cream. A bit of fresh ginger surprises, but delightfully so. I also have the Gobipuvu Talimpu, or Gobi as it is commonly called - a stir fried cauliflower dish that has just the right texture. Finally, and this perhaps is the dish of the day, Mangalorean Sea bass Curry with a perfect balance of coconut sauce and chilies. A dish typically served in coastal regions of India, I love it. Cutting into the sea bass reveals a piece of fish that is perfectly cooked. Easily the nicest sea bass dish I have had at a  restaurant in the city - and that is not overstating. 

My journey ends with dessert of course, but that is almost an afterthought, because even as I write this, my thoughts centre primarily on those spices and the variations of tastes based on the different regions. Ushna, under inspired guidance from Chef Sandeep, has taken me on a journey that not only crossed regional lines, but class boundaries too, giving me a taste of dishes from palaces to street vendors. A memorable journey indeed!

The low down

The Souk at Qaryat Al Beri,
Abu Dhabi
02 5581769

Starters 49-135 Dhs
Mains 55-170 Dhs

After 20 February, you can try the standard menu which also offers other regional delights