India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Wine & Dine
December 09, 2016

Go Behind The Scenes at Masque

Text by Simone Louis. Photographs by Prateek Patel

At Aditi Dugar’s Mumbai restaurant, you may not recognise some of the ingredients, but will amply taste the creative spirit

A lot has already been said and written about Masque, the fine-dining establishment touted — among other superlatives — as Mumbai’s most ambitious…which is really saying something. Still, what most people don’t know is that the now-excessively-photographed space was originally just meant to be Aditi Dugar’s central kitchen and pop-up studio. I’m convinced it worked out in everyone’s best interests though, as the owner’s childlike smile never fades once, from the moment we meet up until a fun photo session that ends hours later. This is a place that exhilarates her, it’s clear to see. “The journey has only just begun,” she remarks, and I don’t doubt it one bit.

Dining at the restaurant is undoubtedly an experience, which is probably why the 10-course meal is named just that. One also has the opportunity to choose between three and six courses but, if you’re a foodie, at Masque there’s only one way to go. From the mind-blowing sweet potato chips that I could write an entire essay about to the sea buckthorn berry and black pepper popsicle and the Himalayan rye sourdough that head chef Prateek Sadhu describes as his ‘baby’, each course is intelligently curated and unerringly executed. Every polished dish comes from the kitchen accompanied by a chef, who explains the concept and guides you through the ingredients and their origins. I am even presented with a branch of the sea buckthorn to sample! All my worries of being too full are forgotten as I relish the sweet ending and raise my glass to the bartender with a satisfied smile.

Everything is somehow familiar here yet completely novel in every way. The space, designed by virtuoso Ashiesh Shah, is perfectly classy without being the least bit pretentious — a balance that most fine-dining joints struggle to achieve. Shah’s technical knowledge and acute sense of detail shine here. His practice is rooted in the Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi, which has influenced his vision and choice of materials. “To find peace in imperfection rings home a philosophy we hold close to our heart: that of finding beauty in all things modest and humble,” Dugar tells me of the connect between the design and brand values. The warehouse, in the city’s once-buzzing cotton district, is a mix of materials and forms. Architectural details inspired by structures of pioneering modernists like Le Corbusier, (take the undulating walls or the arch that conceals the stairs) meet a sensibility that is subtly deluxe (case in point, the 18-foot-long velvet curtains).

A site-specific installation by artist Rathin Burman acts almost as a pivot point for the restaurant, making an otherwise expansive space feel intimate. There are no white tablecloths, the plates aren’t perfectly glossy, the food presentation isn’t typical, and the glasses aren’t symmetrical. The bar concocts radical flavour pairings and even offers guests a chance to make their own original gin from a bespoke selection of botanicals. And the menu, besides being an ideal representation of farm-to-fork and experimental dining, is constantly being reinvented to celebrate seasonal produce, which means that when I eat here again — which was decided by the third course — there’ll be a host of brand-new creations to savour.

“I have always been surrounded by delicious food and tantalising aromas from my mom’s and grandma’s kitchens. I pursued a career in finance for four years, but when I left that world and started toying with ideas, I began to explore my passion,” Dugar relays as I explore the interiors. I’m awed by her very hands-on, unbridled energy given that she very recently gave birth, but she was pregnant and powered up during the opening phases of the restaurant so I shouldn’t be too surprised. “I have never been one to sit still for too long and my family knows that only too well,” she laughs. “They, along with my friends, have been very encouraging and have helped to make this dream come true. When the passion is real and the vision clear, there’s no room for second-guessing!” I learn that when she quit her job, the self-proclaimed overachiever didn’t know how to be idle, and consequently started a small-scale catering business with her mother. “Months of writing emails to Michel Roux Jr led to being accepted into the bakery section of Le Gavroche in London. Working in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant and being surrounded by the most talented chefs confirmed my doubts; I knew what my goal was.”

The more she travelled, the better she got at her craft and it was during a trip to San Sebastian in Spain, where she ate at restaurants in the rich Basque region, that she was drawn to the exploration of produce; of how local ingredients are at the core of cooking. So when she met Sadhu, the twosome realised that they shared the same vision — that of using fresh, locally grown exotic ingredients. Born in Kashmir, Masque’s head chef grew up around farms, amassing memories of picking vegetables and eating them in their raw form. “It’s surprising to a lot of our guests today that India is home to some amazing produce and that we source the best of these from all over the country,” he shares. Dugar elucidates, “There is this misguided notion that India cannot grow exotic vegetables and fruits. We understood that to get optimal flavour naturally, we need to let them grow the way nature has planned. Eating seasonal food is the best way to eat because the flavours and nutrition in the produce are at their peak.”

The winning pair has let this mutual passion fuel them on to explore every nook and cranny of the country imaginable, travelling wherever they possibly can to source underappreciated and sometimes even unknown ingredients. For Sadhu — who has an impressive repertoire of work that includes stints at Noma in Copenhagen, The Pierre in New York, Le Cirque Signature in Bengaluru, Taj and Leela properties, and a Culinary Institute of America degree — this is one of the best parts. Ladakh, in particular, is a place he holds dear, having stayed in Turtuk with no electricity and no network, eating local food and living in tents. This is where he discovered wild flowers and the enticing sea buckthorn berry that I delighted in sampling during my meal at the restaurant. “Turtuk is very close to the Pakistan border and by far our most fertile belt. It took me 24 hours to reach it from Leh and three days to forage! Since there is no electricity, and the temperature goes down to minus 20 degree Celsius in winters, I learnt how the locals preserve their food naturally to be consumed during winters. It was a truly overwhelming journey.”

Overwhelming it certainly is, walking through the bustling yet surprisingly synchronised kitchen and watching the restaurant being prepped as I hear, see and feel all that goes into one night at Masque. I count myself lucky, but are the rest of the diners grasping the magnitude of ardour involved, I wonder. “There have been people who have come in being rather sceptical of the concept,” Dugar tells me. “I can’t really blame them because the farm-to-fork movement is still in its nascent stages with Indian restaurants. But they’ve each shared how surprised they’ve been by this clean approach to farming, cooking and eating.” It’s a refreshing direction that the restaurant is moving in, and it’s especially cool to see that the owner’s newfound awareness of the connection between our soil and the food on our plates is taking her guests on similar journeys of appreciation. For now, she watches as her squad — steered by Sadhu, who constantly and earnestly reiterates to me the ways in which his team inspires him — adds the final touches before service, sighing, “We have big dreams for Masque.”

Reminiscing on produce-scouting experiences from across the country….

Aditi Dugar: “My favourite trip would have to be to Himachal Pradesh — I have wonderful memories of seeking out the most unusual ingredients and herbs and travelling up to the mountains. We found fiddlehead ferns, rhododendron, Kumaon lemons, plum wine, and rosehips. Seeing how these ingredients are treated in the local cooking was very exciting.”

Chef Prateek Sadhu: “At a district named Rampur, I stumbled upon the best lemons I’ve ever seen and tasted in India and also saw how red quinoa was being grown at high altitudes. It took me three hours to trek to the farms on top of the hills and I was surprised to see that they were all run by women farmers; all the men in the village work outside of the state. I spoke at length with the women, explaining how important growing quinoa and buckwheat are since they are next-gen grains. They all thanked me for visiting, speaking to them and supporting what they were doing. I was touched and very proud of our Indian farmers.”

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