Spice Mela - Rosewood Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Spice Mela is a luxurious fine dining Indian restaurant located in the sumptuous and ultra chic Rosewood Hotel in Abu Dhabi. I visited while they had their Kings & Queens II promotional menu, a menu that celebrated the dining of royalty in years gone by, this time focusing on southern India, especially Hyderabad cuisine.

The floor to ceiling windows allow for expansive views of the surrounding water. To give the guest maximum benefit, most of the tables are at the windows with only a sprinkling in the middle and one large  room for bigger groups. The restaurant, while very spacious, seats around 54 diners, but I am told that during the cooler months they have terrace seating too. The openness allows for more privacy as tables are nicely spaced out.

The entrance to Spice Mela
I was given  a menu and the courses were explained. However, if you missed anything, Chef Siddharth was on the floor to go through the evening ahead. Chef Siddharth, a very articulate and well travelled man,  has a youth and vibrancy that belies his age. there is something very real and grounded in this accomplished chef. This reviewer who is still making his way through appreciating the definite nuances of Indian food as a regionally rich and diverse cuisine, was able to have a very easy conversation with the Chef. Apart from having to deal with the fact that he is a Chelsea Football supporter (smile), it was a pleasure getting an insight into his approach to the menu. In a recent blog on the humanness of waiting staff I reminded diners that they should try and look deeper than the professional facade that waiting staff have. Well, the same is surely true of the unspoken heroes and heroines; the people  we never see but without whom Food and Beverage would be a smaller industry selling sandwiches and bottled water. Chef Siddharth, showed himself to be as committed to his kitchen as he is to his family. When you know something more about a chef, there is greater context to enjoy his creations. I hope this makes sense.

An Indian snack on arrival - fruit and vegetable crisps.
Very elegant place setting. 
I went with the wine pairing, a personal motivation being to explore the wonders of wine with Indian cuisine, something relatively new to me.

The evening kicks off with lukmi, a classic Hyderabadi starter, which is a layered pastry stuffed with vegetables - the equivalent in a dinner course of the amuse bouche. It is lightly crispy and flavourful. By the time I am half way through my suggested wine pairing of Perrier-Jouet, the lamb on a  stone is brought.The accompanying avocado chutney and coriander mix is well chosen to complement the lamb. 
The exquisitely presented Atlantic Scallops
My second course is a delightful surprise and brought such unforgettable colour to the table - the Atlantic scallops in fresh ginger and yellow coconut sauce presented in a scallop shell. So sensuous. As wonderful as the scallops were with an immaculate texture, dipping the naan in the coconut sauce was knee-buckling.

The black cod - I fell in love with the cod this night.
Gorgeous flakiness of the cod.
Next, the dum ki macchi is an absolute highlight. Chef Siddharth's tendency to be creative and respectfully toy  with traditions, comes to the fore when he eschews the ever popular sea bass and replaces it with the under-appreciated and under- used black cod. Esteemed 19th century  French chef Auguste Escoffier once said of the cod: "When it  is really fresh and of good quality, the delicacy and delicious flavour of its flesh admit to its ranking among the finest of fish". Fine it certainly is. It holds its texture really well and the spicy flavour added to it enhances it. Succulent, and so flaky - beautiful! And with crunchy fennel on the side? I cannot not have ask for more.

Lamb and chicken on bamboo leaf.
The next two dishes are perfectly proportioned and served on the same plate. The dumka murgh - braised chicken with almonds and cashews and fresh herbs . Braising meat or chicken comes with a risk - it can produce something very dry, but that does not happen here. Very tender chicken with the obvious nutty flavour. Delicious. Sharing the plate, is the kali mirch ki chappey - char grilled lamb chops. The coriander and chili create a rich taste and with the apricot chutney, things reach a sensory climax. Have I mentioned that on the side is a bit of rocket in lemon dressing? Wonderful. Also, Chef Siddarth's portions mean you can taste so much on one plate without feeing intimidated and overwhelmed. Less is more.

How do you end an evening that is a still a dish away from the dessert? How do you enhance an evening that has already wowed?  Simple, go to biryani, an Indian staple. The kacche (raw) gosht (meat) ki biryani, one of the best Hyderabadi dishes and biryanis, promises much...and delivers. Basically, the rice is raw when it is cooked with the raw lamb, so the two grow into each other, mixing with the spices, together,  becoming one dish. There are three accompanying classics: the raiti, so rich with pomegranate giving it a zesty quality, the butter chicken of course hitting all the right notes and the fabulicious Calcutta prawn curry. What stands out for me is that the prawn retains its natural taste. Nothing overpowering.  Adrian, my waiter for the night, recommends I have the pride of India, Kingfisher beer, to accompany the curries. Very good call. Works so well.

The saita, butter chicken and Calcutta prawn curry
Even the simple things are well done - naan
During all of this, I look around the restaurant and I see Chef moving around, chatting to his guests. He is really able to create an evening of intimate dining while at the same time educating his diners. Nice touch indeed.

Kingfisher beer
Dessert is a special affair. The highlight for me is wattalappa, a dessert made mainly of coconut milk or condensed milk, jaggery and egg. It is a firm favourite in the south of India and Sri lanka. Chef adds his own twist to it with a caramelized top. The trick is to take your spoon and scoop all the way down so you can enjoy the different layers and textures. Accompanied by a gorgeous dessert wine, the Muscat De-Beaumes-de-Venise, it is indeed, to use a cliche, a lovely end to the evening. 

Finally, as for service, my waiter Adrian ensured that the evening went flawlessly. His service is attentive, measured and when I engaged him in small talk, there was an effortlessness and naturalness about him - nothing rehearsed and soulless about him. Real, professional and warm.

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 an evening that left me feeling so much wiser, but yearning for more. I was left in awe.  In a little corner of Abu Dhabi, Chef Siddaharth, a Delhi-born and recent Londoner, has managed to make his guests feel privileged. It was an evening in which he equalized everything. It did not matter where we were from. It did not matter what our social status was. It was insignificant what brought us to Abu Dhabi. None of these things mattered. What matters most is that, for one night, we were all kings and queens.

The low down

Spice Mela

Rosewood Hotel, Abu Dhabi
02 813 5573

Starters 55-75 Dhs

Mains 75-200 Dhs
Dessert 40-50 Dhs