Restaurant Review: Masque, Mahalaxmi

masquemainMasque is an audacious enterprise on several counts. The owners have done away with a la carte dining and focused entirely on degustation menus. It’s also possibly the city’s first legit farm-to-table establishment where every traditional and exotic ingredient employed in their elaborately crafted dishes is acquired directly from producers in India. Consequently, the menus, which are dependent on the availability of produce, are completely refreshed as often as every fortnight.

Aditi Dugar, who runs the high-end catering service Sage and Saffron, co-owns Masque with her husband, businessman Aditya Dugar. Prateek Sadhu, a Kashmir-born chef who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked with such storied restaurants such as Alinea in Chicago, The French Laundry in California, Le Bernardin in New York, Noma in Copenhagen, heads the kitchen.

Situated in the Laxmi Woolen Mills compound (it’s also home to Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters), Masque is somewhat off the grid. Google Maps will lead you to the location but within the compound, a series of easy-to-miss signboards do a poor job of directing you to it. In a lone corner, a plain black marble wall, surprisingly free of signage, announces the restaurant. The starkness of Masque’s entrance belies its opulent, modern interior designed by Mumbai architect Ashiesh Shah. The split-level restaurant has a high ceiling and a brightly lit bar. The marble, velvet and wood-furnished dining area is contrastingly dark. The ceiling is shaped and illuminated in such a way that it appears as though sunlight is filtering in through the roof, an effect that makes up for the absence of windows in the room. Tall potted plants contribute to the earthy aesthetic of Shah’s contemporary design.

The service at Masque is as meticulous as their attention to food. The restaurant would perhaps fail without well-informed staff as both the bar and food menu need a fair bit of translating. The Ayurveda-inspired cocktail selection (priced at Rs700 each), which unlike the food menu doesn’t change, relates their tipples with the five elements. Our Terra, for instance, was an irresistible gin and tonic infused with ginger and turmeric, which being root vegetables correspond to earth. The two umami elements masked the sweetness of the tonic and melded perfectly with the gin. Listed under the water section, the Tequila-based Coral, flavoured with red cabbage, nori honey and salt, over-promised and under-delivered. Exotic though it sounded, the cocktail was medicinal.

In the 18 months leading to the launch of Masque, Sadhu and Dugar travelled the length and breadth of the country, from Himachal Pradesh to Pondicherry, sourcing ingredients and building a supply chain of farmers. You can brush up your culinary geography of India through courses that showcase apples and sea buckthorn from Ladakh, cheese from Andhra Pradesh, fish from the Andamans, rye and buckwheat from the Himalayas, passion fruit from Pune and chocolate from Pondicherry.

You have to choose from one of three set menus – the ten-course Masque Experience is the priciest at Rs4,500 per person (excluding alcohol and taxes); the six-course Masque Tasting menu priced at Rs3,200 per person and the three-course menu priced at Rs2,200 per person are culled from this menu. The manager convinced us to go with the most elaborate of the three (they have vegetarian and non-vegetarian options) in order to sample Sadhu’s complete repertoire of dishes, a decision we did not regret.

Provenance and plating are central to dining at Masque. Instead of poncey menu descriptions, each dish is listed as a collection of ingredients, for instance, tomato/beetroot; tilapia/marigold; and robiola/apple. The kitchen deploys a chef to present each outstanding course composed of multiple elements. They’ve expended a lot of thought (and funds) not only in sourcing but also in the sophisticated presentation of the food. Not a single plate, platter or serving bowl was repeated in the Masque ‘Experience’ that unfolds over a precisely calibrated hour and 45 minutes. Their portions are also carefully measured, so that you leave full but not overfed. Moreover, the kitchen held our curiosity and our appetite until the final course.

The manager and the chefs took turns to explain why a tasting menu as opposed to an a la carte one suited their culinary vision. But a degustation menu is an impractical luxury that is unsuitable for daily dining. Masque makes a great impression if you opt for Sadhu and Dugar’s cohesive and comprehensive ten-course menu. We’re not convinced that the three-course menu – diners get to pick three dishes of their choice from the six-course tasting menu – would convey their food philosophy just as well. That said, the duo’s lofty ambitions are laudable. The quality and range of their produce and their imaginative treatment of these local finds have raised the bar for farm-to-table dining not just in Mumbai, but the country.

Barring the bread course, no two menus at Masque are likely to be the same. Here’s a brief review of our ten-course Masque Experience last month:
Sweet potato chips Instead of a bread basket, the restaurant served addictive, flat-as-khakhra sweet potato chips flecked with herbs, gratis. They keep replenishing the chips, which tasted like BBQ-flavoured Pringles. We requested second servings of their stellar dipping sauces: a surprising smoked and tart raw mango dip and a sweet and grassy spring onion mayonnaise.

Tomato/beetroot The salad was presented as an edible wreath of juicy and tart cherry tomatoes from Dugar’s farm in Pune, boiled sweet beetroot medallions and dollops of creamy ricotta. From the rocket flowers used as garnish to the vibrant basil pesto smeared on the plate, we could taste the freshness of Dugar’s vegetable garden in this appetiser.

Robiola/apple The appetiser was a play on the unfailing combination of fruit and cheese. It comprised a batter-fried ball of sweet and crisp Turtuk (Ladakh’s northern most village) apples cooked in apple cider and cloaked in a robust aged Robiola sauce.

Himalayan rye/goat milk butter Sadhu’s excellent rye bread is rightfully a course and not an accompaniment. We could smell the rich aroma of the rustic bread, served swaddled in a cloth, before it was unwrapped. The warm bread was accompanied with clouds of mildly sweet apple-flavoured butter and a savoury leek butter.

Tilapia/marigold Marigold petals garnished a finger-sized fillet of fish basted with green leek sauce and placed over a salty yellow mustard sauce. The fish was the texture of panna cotta, but the highlight for us was the accompanying cucamelon, a tangy grape-sized fruit that we ate for the first time.

Kale/tofu/kaffir lime The 48-hour marinated tofu had the melting consistency of a meat pate. The creamy slab was embellished with kale chiffonade and peanuts and dressed with an invigorating ginger, kaffir lime and sesame sauce.

Pork neck/okonomiyaki The Japanese pancake was reimagined as an open taco. A piece of intensely smoked pork dressed with miso and tonkatsu sauce was paired with red cabbage and toasted noodles, which marred the texture of the meaty dish.

Passion fruit The sweet and tart fruit was served as a delicious palate-cleansing sorbet.

Lamb/kohlrabi A perfectly braised leg of lamb was overwhelmed by a smoked eggplant sauce and strong peppermint leaves from the Dugar farm. A partnering piece of pickled kohlrabi trumped the lamb.

Sea buckthorn/black pepper The exquisite dessert was crafted with sea buckthorn, a tart fruit native to Ladakh. Sadhu made a popsicle out of the ‘miracle berry’, which is the size of a prayer bead, and filled it with a mild pepper mousse.

Coffee/hazelnut The deconstructed and somewhat jumbled dessert had spiced chocolate cake, passion fruit sauce, robust espresso mousse and contrastingly mild and airy hazelnut ice cream.

Chocolate/potato/orange Two stubby potato chip cigars enclosed rich chocolate ice cream and orange cream. The playful dessert tasted like refrigerated Jaffa Cakes.

It is our policy to wait at least a week after an establishment has opened before we review it.

Prices exclude taxes. This review was conducted anonymously.

Masque, Laxmi Mills Compound, near Blue Tokai, Mahalaxmi. Tel: 98190 69222. Open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 7pm to 12.30am; Monday, closed. Get directions here.

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