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24.04.2019

Rahul Akerkar’s new restaurant feels like a piece of home despite the fact that it is located in one of Lower Parel’s more lunar landscapes, and its decor features a curtain of chainmail. It’s not easy to say why. Qualia isn’t cosy or rustic or raised on the altar of “comfort” in any recognisable form. Maybe that’s why it’s good: it’s neither hopelessly trendy nor shamelessly manipulative.

Roll your eyes, if you like, at the fact that it will inevitably be thronged by some kind of Bombay diner you don’t care for (bored rich kids, Page 3 types from back when Bombay Times was still good, judge-y expat crowd, hipsters who think they’re doing you a favour by crossing the Sea Link). But they, and we, and most probably you, will all find something to crave on the menu at Qualia, and will go back for it repeatedly.

Parked at a large but momentarily forlorn bar - alcohol licence awaited - we lift our eyes to high shelves which the bar staff are slowly stocking with promises. There are jars of sliced blood orange and dried lime, fermented cherries and kumquats, and tincture bottles full of homemade bitters. Some of these are already making their way into a tiny tease of a mocktail list, from which you can order drinks with names like “Djinless Gin” and enjoy warm colours and sweet astringency.

The food is good, not just in an “I’ll brave the Kamala Mills traffic jam for this” way. Even a sampling from the bread basket, devised by the talented Rachelle Andrade, should quiet something in your busy mind as you realise that the baguette is chewier, the sourdough nuttier, and the ciabatta lighter than you expect it to be. That’s not to say everything is pitch-perfect. When we order charred broccoli with pumpkin hummus, pickled apricots, feta and peppered cashew, we expect a vastly more exciting dish than an arrangement of all these beautiful items drenched in a sweet, ketchup-like sauce.

But how much can we complain? A steak and eggs pizza will make you want to reach out across time and kiss the Roman soldier who first slapped his leftovers on a piece of flatbread. Akerkar taught many of us to like pizza as it’s made outside the industrial ovens of Domino’s and Pizza Hut, and Qualia’s pie is a reminder of why. A rich, chewy base, sweetly fresh cheese, and melt-in-the-mouth steak and roast tomatoes would be good enough: the gloopy golden half-fry that requires mopping with leftover crusts is really the icing.

The menu is full of delicious-looking proteins - a leg of lamb here, buffalo cheek there - but carbs have served us very well on this first outing, so instead of raiding the pasture, we request squid ink gemelli, chewy, briny pasta that turns over new textures with every bite. Served with lightly charred calamari, anchovies and capers, it’s like a breath of salt sea air.

Inevitably, dishes here will make Indigo regulars think of what that restaurant would have been like had it opened 20 years later. But you can’t turn back time. Nor does Qualia try. A big part of the satisfaction of its food comes from strong, simple combinations of sweet and salt flavours, which you’d have noticed even if Akerkar hadn’t put it in the line notes of his menu. Sample the goat cheese mousse with celery sorbet and you’ll know what he means.

Also? Order beignets, whether you love them more than life or you’ve never eaten one before. Philip Larkin once wrote that Sidney Bechet’s voice fell on him “as they say love should / Like an enormous yes.” These other New Orleans babies are, at the very least, an emphatic “mm-hmm.” Thanks for sticking this moon landing, Qualia.

Getting there: Qualia, Lodha World Crest, ground floor, R2 402, next to Kamala Mills. A meal for three without alcohol costs around Rs 5400.

Accessibility: Ground floor access to all areas. Bathroom stalls aren’t wheelchair-friendly.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its meals.

This review was contributed by Supriya Nair.

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