x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Avasa offers exotic Indian flavours

It's not exactly fine dining, but Avasa offers a smattering of all there is to love about northern and southern Indian cuisine.

Avasa at The Collection, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. Anisha Varma
Avasa at The Collection, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. Anisha Varma

I’m always excited when I discover a new Indian restaurant, so I was eager to try Avasa Indian Kitchen, a self-proclaimed fine-dining restaurant on Saadiyat Island.

Lured through Avasa’s colourful entryway by soothing Indian instrumental music, my husband and I found the space warm and inviting, though the walls were a slightly drab beige. The restaurant is surprisingly small, with just 11 tables. We sat in a semi-private room behind a blue, velvet-covered ersatz wall. Even though we were seated at a table for eight, the room had an intimate feel that the rest of the restaurant was lacking. I usually don’t mind minor flaws, but the chipped paint on wall edges and the bright lights were too much for an evening meal. I also had to walk 87 seconds (I timed it) through another restaurant’s outdoor seating area, to get to the ladies’ room. So far, this didn’t feel like fine dining.

Turning my attention to the menu, I found a smattering of all there is to love about both northern and southern Indian cuisine. Our waitress Angie, from the Himalayan state of Sikkim, was attentive and eager to share her extensive knowledge of the dishes. For appetisers, my husband and I chose Punjabi chicken tikka and kacchi geri ka jheenga (tandoor grilled prawns).

The prawns came with a raw mango marinade and date chutney and once I tasted them, I forgot all about the restaurant’s minor shortcomings – they were bursting with flavour. The mango and chutney were perfect accompaniments, though I would have liked more of the chutney. The chicken tikka – coated with a marinade of cloves, red chilli, mint, yogurt, pineapple and mango – packed just the right amount of heat.

For mains, we opted for the coconut fish curry and the murgh lababdar (after reading its hard-to-resist description on the menu: “You haven’t finished ordering till you’ve ordered this dish”).

Though the large appetisers we scarfed down were enough for an entire meal, we devoured the fish – it was too good to leave on the plate. The murgh lababdar (best described as butter chicken’s fancier cousin) had a rich, deep flavour. Spicy, but not hot, this dish was also a hit.

For dessert, I wanted the masala chai chocolate bomb, but it wasn’t available. Apparently, only the head chef can make it and he wasn’t working that day. While disappointed, I respect that they only serve this if it’s made correctly. We settled on saffron rasmalai (sweet milk dumplings in saffron milk) and Indian ice cream, or kulfi. I’m not a fan of ice cream and was interested to see whether my taste buds would accept a different take on it. The kulfi – denser, creamier and less sweet than western ice cream – came in three flavours: plain milk, pistachio and mango. I didn’t love it, but I did like it better than traditional ice cream and the thick, gritty texture was appealing.

The rasmalai came as three round sponges in saffron milk. They’re made of paneer (Indian cottage cheese), which I normally like. But the texture was off-putting (literally, like sponges) and neither one of us liked this dessert.

My lasting concern about Avasa is that it may be trying too hard to fit into the fine-dining scene. Avasa shouldn’t – and doesn’t need to – compete with the myriad fine-dining restaurants in Abu Dhabi. Though its cuisine is on a par, the venue just doesn’t lend itself to that. It should simply hang its hat on its food – an area where this small kitchen excels.

Avasa Indian Kitchen is located in The Collection on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. A meal for two costs Dh494, exclusive of beverages. For reservations, call 02 674 2221. All reviews are conducted incognito and paid for by The National

sjohnson@thenational.ae