India has one of the most popular cuisines in the world, and rightfully so. The sheer diversity of the South Asian country lends itself to a rich food culture, mostly defined by the generous use of spices and aromatic herbs.
Although the Philippines, where I come from, shares the same cultural variety, Indian food has always felt a little intimidating to me. However, after visiting Pincode at Dubai Hills Mall, I have a better understanding of why the cuisine continues to have a stronghold on people's palates all over the world.
Of course, the fact that it's the magnum opus of celebrity chef Kunal Kapur immediately inflates expectations of the new venue. Thankfully, that star power is backed by a strong concept, and dishes that capture the depth of Indian cuisine.
What to expect and where to sit
The name of the restaurant is inspired by India's expansive food offerings. Every area of the country is represented by a six-digit code in the Indian postal system, and every one of these zones and districts has something of its own to offer.
The decor is also inspired by India's heritage, mimicking an ancestral house with hardwood furniture and portraits on walls. The idea is to capture the country's vibrant food culture in a cosy environment that feels like home.
Restaurants inside shopping malls have this unique challenge of transporting diners to a different setting, and Pincode's earthy interiors don't fall short in creating that illusion. I comfortably tuck myself into the middle of the venue, just a few tables from the entrance. While cosy, gold accents offer an element of grandeur, and a large bar at the back of the room whipping up mocktails for diners offers a touch of old-fashioned glamour.
I ask head chef, Vinay Trilokya, for his recommendation because for an Indian cuisine novice I need all the help I can get.
I start with chaat hummus served with baked namak (Dh30), which is immediately what I expect: an explosion of different flavours and texture. The creamy paste is given another life, with sweet, tangy and spicy notes, accompanied by the crunch of the crackers.
I also try the tandoori chicken tikka (Dh50) and the signature KFC or Kerala Fried Chicken (Dh45), both of which come cooked to perfection. While the chicken skewers are soft and tender, the KFC has a crunchy batter packed with a strong, earthy flavour.
For the main course, I try the creamy spinach with burrata and pickled onion (Dh50) and a hot, creamy bowl of butter chicken (Dh60). As a Filipino, I would naturally usually take both dishes with rice, but I opt for bread instead, ordering the butter and garlic naan (Dh12), which is the perfect side choice. Soft, chewy and charred in the right places, the bread carries its own weight — even without the mains, they would be filling enough.
For dessert, I try the crispy vermicelli with coconut payasam and banana caramel (Dh25), which even for someone with a very sweet tooth, was a little too sweet.
The creamy spinach with burrata is the surprise standout, and I enjoy one too many naans to ensure I mop it all up. While rich and creamy, it remains light and fresh, with the buttery burrata perfectly complementing the spinach.
I will also be back for the naans alone.
A chat with the chef
Pincode, which opened in January, is Kapur's comeback to the restaurant industry after closing three restaurants across the UAE and India because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The chef, who appeared in the Indian franchise of American cooking show MasterChef, hopes to get back to what he loves doing, serving good food to people at an authentic restaurant. He plans to open two more Pincode branches this year.
The restaurant's concept alludes to Kapur's childhood, being exposed to his father's and grandfather's cooking. Every dish has a story, and Kapur aims to “bring back memories”.
“The goal is for each dish to evoke nostalgia within and make you feel as though you've travelled back in time,” he tells The National.
Pincode's menu looks busy at first glance, but that's because Kapur wants to capture the depth of Indian cuisine, from the North's velvet curries to the coastal South's fresh seafood. He says he wants to introduce more regional dishes to highlight the diversity of his home country.
“We touched a lot on South India's cuisine, which is probably not as popular in the Middle East as North Indian cuisine,” says Kapur.
Kapur encourages diners to ask questions about the menu, as well leaving their comfort zone to try something new — which I can now also recommend.
“Take your chances. Order whatever your gut feels,"he says. "This is always a nice way to get acquainted with a cuisine.”