In one of my earlier reviews, I had mentioned a mini quest of sorts for authentic and satisfying Arabic food in Mumbai, because for an archipelago on the Arabian Sea, our choices thus far have been extremely limited.
And one of my impassioned Zomato searches led me to Aqaba, 7 or 8 pages in. And it’s the one time I am thankful for my untimely and stubborn insistence in screening through every little place the app has to offer.
When you grow up in the Middle East, you tend to overlook the omnipresence of Arabic food in your life. Khubz is sold daily in the bread section, most supermarkets stock fresh toum (garlic cream) in their refrigerated area and labneh (flavoured hung yogurt) is found aplenty in the dairy aisle. Shawarmas are your street food and going to an Arabic place is like going to a normal Indian place.
Then I came here. And the realisation really hit home that these aren’t actual grocery items for everyone else. It’s “exotic”, which in literal translation means “hard to find and therefore ridiculously expensive”.
So mom and I pushed back our Emirati cravings for most part, and tried to make the most of the varied food you do get in Bombay. But every now and then, there’s a long sigh followed by an, “I miss Arabic food” to which we didn’t really have a solution.
Aqaba so far has generated fairly above average reviews but no legendary status among the reviewers. However, their menu warranted a visit, and so we set off after work, nursing the tiniest of hopes in our hearts that we may just have one option to fall back on.
You walk in to a huge space, not crowded by too many tables or throngs of people. The whole space is decorated in myriad shades of teal, turquoise and blue with comfy beige couches and an assortment of patterned and colourful throw pillows.
The wine cellar was very interestingly displayed by means of the wooden racks shown above. The racks also serve to separate the bar behind from the general dining area ahead.
Our server, Sujit was kind enough to brighten the lights above our table through the meal when I mentioned wanting to take pictures. We were given our menus, and this is what we ordered:
Vegetarian Mezze Platter:
Their Mezze menu includes a bunch of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes. In a platter, you’re given the option to choose any 5 dishes which will be served with pita bread. Our choices were:
Hummus- A middle eastern regular, it’s essentially a chickpea spread, garnished with paprika and a drizzle of olive oil. Brownie points to Aqaba for adding tahina to their hummus when most places here don’t. The nuttiness of the sesame from the tahina completes a hummus for me and it was spot on here.
Muhammara- A robust dip with red bell peppers and walnuts, the roasted peppers add an element of smokiness and the walnuts provide the crunch in every other bite
Dolma- A staple, dolma tradionally consists of vine leaves stuffed with a herbed rice mixture and lamb. Our vegetarian version was equally delicious but it was sadly over before I could figure out the beans or nuts used with the rice in the stuffing.
Labneh- A firm favourite with mom, labneh is hung curd mixed with dried mint. Other aromatics like garlic or Zaatar may be used and you will always find the thick labneh dip and the slightly diluted labneh drink if you visit a Persian restaurant.
Tabbouleh- A fresh aromatic salad, tabbouleh has a few ingredients that give it its punch. Parsley, tomatoes, couscous (Kudos again for remembering, Aqaba), and some lemon juice is all you need for this refreshing salad.
I wish I was joking but this is literally the first time a restaurant here has offered khubz and not just pita. Though slightly thinner, the khubz brought a smile to my face at the very first bite and the added surprise was the generous topping of Zaatar (a nutty spice rub) on the flatbread. Hot and absolutely delicious, we mopped up our dips with no complaint.
A Persian delicacy, this kebab is known for its characteristic saffron based marinade and shockingly Aqaba delivered. The marinade was delicately balanced and the chicken was tender and not overcooked. The toum(garlic cream) accompanying the dish was absolute perfection- thick and creamy with just enough garlic to give it a kick but not make it overpowering.
The Arab take on a lamb kebab, the skewers were cooked right but there was some room for improvement. The meat was too ground for our liking and a little too spiced for it to be authentic. But we were so satisfied by the rest that it was overlooked for most part. The kebabs were served with tzatziki (a yogurt based Greek sauce flavoured with finely diced cucumbers and dill) providing the much needed freshness with the meat.
It was also very heartening to see care given to the smallest of details by the restaurant. When our food was served, mom was telling me how much she misses the traditional chilly and beetroot pickles only to find that the mini salad served with the dolma and kebabs actually had the vinegary pickled beetroots in them.
Despite there not being a huge market for tradionally Middle Eastern fare here because people find it too “bland” and “not spicy”, Aqaba has managed to stick to the basics without trying too hard to Indianise things to fit the general taste. And I definitely see us visiting them again, should the Emirati cravings ever strike.