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15.01.2018

Restaurants, especially swanky ones like Keiba, are about more than just the food. They’re about atmosphere, that most intangible of things, achieved with a careful mix of music, lighting, décor and service. A good restaurant sets the stage for the food; a great one makes you feel like a star, a sexier, more charming and accomplished version of yourself.

Keiba attempts this with a mix of industrial and Asian accents. The new restaurant in Mahalakshmi replaces old favourite Olive, known for its boozy brunches and late-night parties. Unlike its Mediterranean-style predecessor, Keiba takes its cues from the Orient. Its al fresco section has a massive mural of Japanese cherry blossoms, rattan armchairs traditional to Indonesia, and a water installation that is meant to inspire a vague sense of zen. Indoors, diners are seated at tables by coarse cement pillars and booths with views of horses.

Like the space, most of the food too is polished. Our basket of truffle-edamame dumplings was a pretty sight indeed: four parcels like miniature purses, crusted with shards of carrot so fine, they looked like crystals of rock salt in the warm yellow light. Sitting alongside neatly bundled unagi nigiri, they made a fine case for the Asian proverb about eating with your eyes first.

But here’s the other thing about Asian food, especially Japanese and Chinese cuisine: both revere simplicity. No frills. No smoke and mirrors. Just high-quality produce, cooked minimally (if at all), so you can taste every element on the plate—exquisite when executed well; glaringly obvious when it isn’t.

Perhaps this is why the folks behind Keiba had two chefs from the Chinese city of Nantong train their team, along with Seefah Ketchaiyo and Karan Bane (the husband-and-wife team behind The Blue in Bandra). The foursome also helped craft Keiba’s menus, which span sushi, sashimi, gyoza, and a long list of appetisers and main courses from Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. It’s an ambitious undertaking, one that the kitchen is yet to get a handle on.

The dumplings, for instance, looked and smelled wonderful, but the casing was thick and gummy, the truffle-edamame filling chunky and chalky. Our tuna sashimi on the other hand, was cut far too thick and had a faint, fishy aroma, while the rice in our unagi nigiri was mushier than it should have been. It’s hard to mask the flaws with plates that are so elementary.

The bar fared slightly better. Like Keiba’s décor, the cocktails play with Asian accents, using syrups flavoured with pandan, lemongrass and matcha. Whack Attack, which pairs sake with gin and lemon bitters, felt like a classy upgrade on nimbu paani, with notes of kafir and lemongrass—a light, easy drink that doubles up as a palate cleanser. Lovers of spice might enjoy Fix the Pump, which melds cachasa and sriracha with success. We also tried the strange-sounding Morino Batah upon the suggestion of a chatty and cheerful bartender, but the mix of avocado, soy milk, and shochu was just as we imagined: bizarre.

By the time our mains arrived, Keiba was alive and kicking, a montage of manicured hands, kempt beards, and the kind of electronic music that encourages more drink than food. Nevertheless, we gave the bowls our undivided attention.

Like the appetisers, our mains were mostly misses. We’d pinned our hopes on Jungle Duck Curry but it was unavailable—rather strange on day two of service—so we settled for Chiang Mai chicken curry, native to the forested parts of upper Thailand. Similar to red Thai curry, this dish also uses coconut milk and aromatics like lemongrass and galangal in the spice paste, but there’s also tamarind, which adds mild notes of sour. Ours was needlessly heavy on coconut cream with a jagged flavour profile; far from rounded flavours of a good Chiang Mai curry. We also got lemongrass noodles, expecting a delicate stir fry, but the noodles were doused in tamarind and chilli flakes. The only reprieve was lotus root and water chestnuts in mushroom oyster sauce: the veggies were pleasantly crunchy, but the sauce itself, was strictly average.

Keiba undoubtedly has potential as a nightlife venue, especially the al fresco section, with its munificent old trees overhead and the gentle scent of horses in the air. But the kitchen needs to up their game considerably if it is to survive as a restaurant, especially considering the prices listed on their many menus.

Getting There Keiba, Gate Number 5, Amateurs Riders Club, Mahalakshmi Race Course, Mumbai. Meal for two, with cocktails approx. Rs 4,000-Rs 6,000.

This review was contributed by Neha Sumitran.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.

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