Kings & Queens III at Spice Mela - Rosewood Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Spice Mela is one of my favourite restaurants in the city. From previous posts you would have gathered that. Last year I tried their Kings & Queens II promotion and  I wrote, "At the end of the night, I felt I my education  regarding Indian cuisine had gone on to a new level. I was able to imagine the imperial kitchens of the Mughal empire as a hive of activity, with dishes passing to and fro, spices and their aroma filling the air and very, very satisfied rulers indulging in these dishes".  It was a dinner that did so much for my developing palate and also my growing appreciation for high end Indian dining. So, when I saw that the restaurant's Kings & Queens III was running for the month of May, I was filled with both excitement and trepidation. The old adage that it is never as good as the first time stood as a barrier between me and happy thoughts. But then the possibility of it surpassing last year's experience gained momentum. With these thoughts racing through my mind,  I walk into Spice Mela. The hostess, in a diffident yet self assured manner welcomes me and I am seated.

Chef Siddharth comes around and gives a brief introduction and tells me what I can expect. The menu looks intriguing and I opt for the wine pairing. With Isael Goncalves, Rosewood's resident sommelier overseeing all outlets, how can I not? 

The evening starts off with the usual deep fried Root crisps accompanied by mango chutney, rose petal and spice powder and lime and chili chutney. I like papadums to begin with, but this for me is a welcome departure. Zonin Prosecco brings a bubbly start to the evening - light and fresh. Soon after, my first dish is served, Amaras ki Kadhi, a chilled mango and lentil soup. This is traditionally served warm, but the contemporary twist makes so much sense. It surprises me. The sweetness you would associate with mango soup is gone and replaced instead by acidity thanks to the yogurt. The latter also lends a richer creaminess to the soup. 

I am animated about the next dish. Khargosh ka Mukul, or pulled rabbit, has the makings of something wonderful if the lyrical description I receive from the chef is anything to go by. Before it is placed in front of me, the gorgeous spices drift through the air and I close my eyes, taking them all in. Beautifully presented on a slate stone plate, it is  a visual feast. The shredded rabbit is astonishingly tender and while no meat can ever dissolve in the mouth, the expression is appropriate nonetheless. Smoked red pepper relish brings not only a lovely red colour to the dish, but also adds zip to it! The dish  is flavourful and while it is not hot for me, the cucumber and yogurt cool things down anyway. Lightly toasted bread means you can really get stuck in  with your fingers. In the end, you have to forget the way you may have had rabbit before. This is tender, oh so tender. 

On a high from that rabbit, I am served my next dish. Because of the tasting portion nature of the menu, there needs to be some creativity employed in how dishes are served - guests do not want a sad piece of lamb on a  small plate. The next two dishes on the menu, Mans ka Soola or Smoked lamb with candied garlic and the Bhuna Kukad, or Baby chicken stir fried with chilli, are exponents of that creative plating alluded to above. The two are presented on shiso leaf on a single heavy rectangular stone. Again, the aroma is almost intoxicating as it is served. The lamb is spicy without being burning spicy if you will. The use of shiso is so clever. Rather than lose the flavour of the chicken which follows, I have a bit of shiso which cleanses the palate and refreshes at the same time.  Aesthetic but so practical too. I dip my chicken into the tomato pureé on the side. Delicious. 

My wine pairing for this dish, a De Casta Rosado 2013, a mildly fruity Catalonian Rosé is perfect and balances that spiciness really well. 

The final dish to end the first part of Kings & Queens III is the Achari Macchi, char grilled Chilean seabass. At this point I look back to last year when Chef served the black cod. I wrote: "It holds its texture really well and the spicy flavour added to it enhances it. Succulent, and so flaky - beautiful!"  No pressure, but I am expecting something tremendous. It is brought to my table. Not to be confused with traditional seabass, Chilean seabass also known as Patagonian toothfish,  is oilier than seabass (confusing, I know) which makes it perfect for the grill  because you expect it to keep its shape very well. It is a winner as it breaks effortlessly, and while not as layered as black cod, taste wise, it is right up there. Occasionally I catch a cumin seed which mesmerises the palate,  making this a superb way to end the first part of Kings & Queens III.

The wine paired with the Chilean seabass is a 2013 Gérard Bertrand Special reserve Sauvignon BlancIt is rich and luscious, laced with tropical fruits, rivalling some of my favourite New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs in the same price range. 

Before the final stage of the menu is introduced, I have time to reflect on the evening up to this point. One of the strengths at Spice Mela is the service and that is in evidence again. Two of the waiters are new to me, with them having been at the restaurant for only 4 months. The natural way in which they are able to talk about the dishes, the depth which they can do so and the timely manner of their service highlights that strength I mentioned a moment ago. 

With my thoughts still absorbed in the service aspects of this evening, the final dish is served. Well, it is really 5 dishes in one. Having discovered thalis in downtown Abu Dhabi at some cheap but wonderful restaurants, I am beside myself to see it tonight. A thali is rich in comfort and generally rich in flavours, serving as a great introduction to India's rich regional cuisines. On my exquisite glass thali tonight I have: 

Laal maans - slow cooked lamb with red chillies & mustard oil
Safeed murgh - Braised chicken with white species & strained yogurt
Dal Panchmel - five lentils cooked together, tempered  with dry mango and fennel.
Govind gatte - Steamed, poached gram flour dumplings stuffed with dehydrated milk and raisins
Bhindi Jaipuri - Crispy okra and sesame seeds

The portions are perfect, allowing me to do justice to each dish without much wasting. The lamb stands out because it is just so delicate and tender without being mushy. The chicken is punctuated by that creamy sauce, and I end up having a generous amount of sauce with my chicken. While I find the dumplings a bit dense and heavy, they recall years gone by when one needed to consider storing it without it going bad and the way it is made serves that purpose. It is true to the way it was prepared then. As for the okra, I end up wanting more. It is a tasty and textured snack, and the most accessible okra dish I have had - along with bitter gourd, okra is the toughest vegetable for me to enjoy, but not today. Finally, the most comforting of all dishes is the lentils. There os something familiar in it. Instead of naan which guests will be more familiar with, Chef serves rice of course and millet flour bread. The latter is exceedingly popular in Rajasthan, so an appropriate choice. 

To accompany the thali, I am served the 2012 Joseph Drouhin Bourgogne Pinot Noir. Having enjoyed this wine at a wine dinner celebrating the wine maker,  I am happy with its role in tonight's pairing. Admittedly not as full bodied as my preferred wines, I am still learning to appreciate this grape. In the end it  works well with the dishes tonight because it does not drown the flavours.  It is light, elegant and smooth. 

To end off the evening, I have dessert. Imarti, a rose-infused lentil sweet and Caramel ghevar, a crispy Indian pancake with caramel, infused with saffron are served. The imarti gives me the same feeling I had when I saw the thali - Chef connects one to what you will see in most budget Indian restaurants around the city, but brings refinement to it. Thankfully, the imarti is not as sweet as I have had on the streets. Finally, the Caramel ghevar showcases Chef's dessert skills. It is quite a complex dessert. The pancake has a alot of texture to it - crispy and slightly chewy - and as I bite into it, I am soon delighted by the taste of caramel made from milk - yes, milk! Also, the saffron infusion is light and airy, while the berries on either side of the pancake add acidity to balance the sweetness on the plate. Finally, vark, or edible silver complete a memorable dessert. 

My dessert wine, a 2011 Chateeau Du Levant Sauternes, is a sweet wine made from Semillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle grapes. The honey that comes through matches the Caramel ghevar especially,  very well. 

So how do they compare, an inevitable question. Kings & Queens III eclipsed last year's. The dishes tasted differently. I know, that is an obvious statement to make considering the menus are  different. This was the evening though when I was able to see and feel Chef Siddharth in his dishes. I believe that his close connection to this evening's menu, with some of the dishes handed down to him from his great great grand father and other items shared with him by chefs he interacted with in Rajasthan, would have inspired him. Food is not cerebral and neither is the preparation of it. Tonight there is therefore that extra emotion Chef puts in his dishes. It speaks of the immortality of souls which live on in what  is on the plate, long after their bodies have been thwarted by inevitable Time. 

I have no idea what Chef was thinking or feeling as he prepared the menu, but I imagine him being so in touch with his heart and soul as he brought to life dishes that his great grandfather had made. For me, dishes filled with emotion is what elevates dining; not the ingredients, the china or the silver. But make no mistake - the dishes were beautifully cooked and packed with flavour. Ultimately, this was just a glorious testament to Time which has preceded us, and lives on every night for the month of May at Spice Mela, Rosewood Hotel here in Abu Dhabi.

The Essentials

Spice Mela

Rosewood Hotel, Abu Dhabi
+971 2 813 5573

Tasting Menu AED295++ per person | AED 460++ with grapes
Kings & Queens III runs throughout the month of May. 

Brandon Stoltenkamp

Disclaimer: I consult at restaurants and hotels in an attempt to look at the entire product to take service levels to where they should be. I visited  Spice Mela as  a guest of the restaurant.