He’s honed his skills at Dubai’s Tresind restaurant — which recently placed in the Mena’s 50 Best Restaurants list — and now chef Rahul Rana is leading the charge with his own take on Indian fine dining with a purely vegetarian concept.
Avatara sits in Voco Dubai, the space formerly occupied by the theatrical Tresind Studio, which in turn has moved to Nakheel Mall. And though meat is off the menu at the new restaurant, the bells and whistles remain a firm fixture.
The restaurant is going for a “reincarnation of soulful Indian food”, presented through a 15-course degustation menu with herbs and veggies plucked from local farms.
For Rana, the flavours of his childhood are even better this time around. “These are the dishes I was brought up eating and the first things I learnt to cook,” he says. “I’m from a leafy green village in the foothills of the Himalayas, and we’ve always cooked with lots of plants in my family.
“Back then, most Indian food was vegetarian. At Avatara, we've taken those authentic flavours and dishes, and elevated them into something spectacular.”
Much of the menu originates from Rana’s early years, although the rustic presentation of his childhood snacks is a thing of the past. Instead, the badon (root) chips feature crisp slithers of purple potato, sweet potato, lotus root, parsnip and beetroot, with each taking a painstaking two hours to perfect.
The badek dish, meanwhile, pairs deep-fried lentil fritters (an homage to Rana’s mum’s cooking) with fermented carrot and mustard water. “One of my earliest memories is reaching up to the kitchen counter and snatching up fritters before running away to devour them,” the chef says.
“Every single course in the menu has meaning, and most come from Indian celebrations. It’s basically 15 courses of party food.”
The restaurant seats only 24 guests a night, and each course arrives with an explanation of the dish’s origin and ingredients, often accompanied by a personal anecdote from the chef.
One of the most shocking revelations is the elimination of onion and garlic from all of the dishes. “They tend to overpower everything else,” Rana explains. “We want the flavours of the vegetables to really come through, so you can appreciate what you're eating.”
All the food is inspired by humble, seasonal ingredients that are natural and bursting with nutrients. Most of the produce arrives fresh from My Farm Dubai in Khawaneej, and Rana is determined to use as much local produce as possible.
“Not only is it fresher, but it’s also more sustainable; we're proud to support local farmers,” Rana says. “We plan to change the menu every three months depending on what is seasonally available in the Emirates.”
Rana began cooking with plants early in his career and grew his own produce in the gardens of Ananda restaurant in the Himalayas, where he worked as a chef in 2007. After working at various restaurants in Delhi, he moved to Dubai in 2016 to join the Tresind team as an executive pastry chef.
His background in vegetable-focused dining combined with the precision of patisserie has proved fruitful for the chef, allowing for an intricate menu that blooms on the plate and the palate.
And the changing habits of Dubai diners mean his skills are in high demand. “I worked at Tresind and Carnival by Tresind for six years, and in that time there’s been a huge increase in demand for vegetarian and plant-based dishes,” he says. “People are more conscious about where their food is coming from, but they still want the theatrics.
“It’s exciting to push the boundaries of vegetarian cooking and see what we can come up with. Vegetarian food is anything but boring and I hope we can change the mindset of what is possible.”
Rana’s family last visited from India four years ago, but now his mum is planning to visit, and Rana is thrilled at the prospect of serving her own recipes back to her almost two decades on as head chef of his own restaurant.
The chef says he isn’t too worried about sharing his new take on the family classics. “They know I can cook,” he says with a laugh. “As for whose [version] is better, I suppose you’ll never know.”