Take your first step in this urban palace and you'll misinterpret it for an expensive European eatery. White pillars, white blossoming trees, turquoise fabrics and a turquoise patched wall; all that white makes it looks grand, capacious and also a lot like 'Santorini' sans pristine blue ocean. Those butterflies on the bar walls, hopefully should make a flight before the autumn sits in, unless they've been paid handsomely to be an eyesore.
Growing up in the Middle East means, you can differentiate well between Lebanese, Turkish and Moroccan food. As different as Keralite cuisine is to Chennai's and is to Mangalore's, yet people sum them up as South Indian food; In the same way, restaurants across this city seem to have summed the entirety of Middle East, Mediterranean, North African & Greek food as one big cuisine generally wrapped inside a giant pita bread, slathered with garlic sauce, vinaigrette pickles and julienned cabbage. Until there is an attempt to go as original or 'Authentic' as possible, restaurants will continue to blindfold its patron and serve some seemingly impossible and hideous creations like 'Tandoori Paneer Tikka Shawarma' or Moong Dal Fritters crossdressed as 'Falafel'. Fortunately, Aqaba seems to understand these countries, respect their food, draw an applausable caricature on a huge white canvas and charge a decent premium.
The set menu for the evening though elaborate, tried to be too many personalities at once; From the usual Hummus to Greek Kakavia Soup and Jordanian Mansaf to Pasan thincrust Pizza. Starting with the 'Kakavia' slash Fisherman's Soup which opened almost everyone's palate with its shabangabang mix of seafood and abundance of bold flavours. You rarely come across soups of this grade. Salads, both-Beetroot & Garlic Yogurt and Chicken Caesar were passé. Salads in the Mediterranean or Middle-east are generous, loaded with green lettuce, twigs of flat parsley and heaps of olives. Perhaps, if they had got that fact covered, the result would be deep plate with hummus or foul mudammas in the center, covered with a greens and garnished with lime wedges, pitted olives and some fragrant parsley; Meat could have been an optional element and the dish served with a tiny bowl of garlic yoghurt. That would make one rave-worthy dish cleaned down to the last speck.
Mezze section was well sorted, 'Smoked Fish & Lime Dip' almost took everyone by surprise with that acidic taste, freshness of the chopped Dill and that fish- not just any fish, but a well cooked 'Norwegian Salmon'. Tzatziki and Hummus were on par as expected, though the meat garnish in the Hummus Ghunam was chewy and unappetizing. The Chickpea fritters urf Falafel were indeed well-received by everyone, crusty crackling exterior and warm crumbling inside; one of the nicest falafel tasted so far in this city. Pizza was next to arrive, flat-crusted and more if I may say 'Italian'. The Pesto flavoured heavily herbed 'Paesana' was like a naturally alluring boudoir model who refused clinical Parmesan implants. The ones who hesitated intially didn't know how good the combination of this soft meat and hard crust was, until the word of mouth. In a similar sense the 'Gauncia' variation with Mozzarella, Jalapeno, Tomato, Mushroom and Rocket leaves was equally sensual and a beauty that only few explored and appreciated. If you're looking for a greasy, heavily stuffed, Joey's kind, then you should probably skip the Pizzas here.
The meal until now had been somewhere between symphonic and sound of jangling keys, while the ambiance grew into the likes of a party flight to Brussels and this flight was just about to receive it's in-flight main meal. Out came the Chicken Shawarma, Mansaf, Batata Hara(*rolling eyes*), Moroccan Fish and Malfati Con Spinachi e ricotta. The plate of Shawarma comes packed with good long fries, vinaigrette pickles and the very native (sabka chahita) Garlic sauce. On the whole, the shawarma tastes a little polished and less messy, which is great when dining at such an upmarket surrounding, though the marination of the meat itself felt a bit out of sync and not of the lines of a genuine one. Having tasted the Chicken Gyro here a few days ago, it's easily recommendable over its Lebanese cousin. The fact that the Shawarma was wrapped in something that closely resembled an Arabic Khaboos is outright applausable. The pita bread has taken a hike for good.
The Moroccan fish was a sizeable Indian Salmon fillet dressed in Orange & Mint sauce, something similar to the dish from Blue Frog brunch-Salmon fillet in Orange Butter sauce. The dish here was only marred by a slight bit of overcook where the meat, especially towards the outside was rendered dry and firm while the inside was more moist and flaky. The side of Spaghetti on this dish was very random and unrewarding. Perhaps, a small portion of moist pilaf or kepsa rice would better suit the plate and taste. The Batata Hara remained virginal through the next half an hour or more, untouched, mere glances is what was written in its stars as the table was in no mood for a firangi Batatachi Bhaji ani Baath. The Jordanian delicacy 'Mansaf' felt too bland though the Lamb meat was rendered to perfection, let down by the uninspired plain rice. The otherwise meaty, hearty, communal dish in its singular iteration was mere rice, meat and pickle affair. The 'Malfati Con Spinachi e ricotta' was dissected and ravaged before my fork reached the plate, hence no views on that Italian dumpling.
Somewhere during this entire span of the meal a portion of some neat crusty pita bread with Zatar & Sumac seasoning made a cameo appearance; christened as 'Marakesh on Pita' it's a near perfect lighter and smaller substitute for pizza like snack with the liquids. The last dish was requested off the Ala carte-Pan seared crusted John Dory; Moist, flaky and cleaned in under two minutes is what describes the dish. If the word of mouth and hand gestures are to be believed, the Rose petal ice-cream is a worthy order to end your meal.
A little bond was built with Aqaba over the entire meal, like that real eccentric friend of a friend that you have a tough time understanding initially, and it’s a little uncomfortable hanging out with them because they talk a funny dialect, but once you find the right frequency you'll be left with some entertaining stories. The cuisine here is a free spirit, it wanders over the entire Gulf and Mediterranean sea. So if you've done your homework on its what-to-order dishes, collected those fresh currencies from the machine and got a beautiful company to occupy the table under the white blossoming tree, then you're surely going home with some happy memories or more so going back to make some with all that aphrodisiac you packed over the meal.
Alhamdulilah, nooshe jan.
*Medium&Rare along with the Gobblegangers was invited for this meal at Aqaba. Anything in excess from the set menu and anything from the Ala carte was paid for.
Location: Level P5, Peninsula Business Park, Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel.