Varq review: Indian restaurant serves gold-standard menu and Dubai's best crab cake

Reinvention is the spice of life, as the chefs at Taj Exotica Resort & Spa The Palm prove

Lobster on top of layers of filo pastry, one of the golden dishes at Varq
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There’s no denying it, high-end Indian restaurants are having their moment.

From Dubai’s Michelin-starred Tresind Studio – second on the Mena’s 50 Best Restaurants list – to Bangkok’s trailblazing Gaggan, which peaked at No 4 on the World’s 50 Best list, global taste buds are being woken up with vigour.

Although the lists are still dominated by the likes of French, Japanese and Nordic names, innovative chefs have been creeping up the pecking order by tweaking, changing and, much to the ire of traditionalists, fusing classic Indian recipes with cuisines from beyond the country’s borders, all to the sounds of smacking lips and the patter of footsteps heading to the table.

Not too long ago, if an Indian restaurateur wanted to shake things up in the kitchen and put a sign outside saying: “New chef, new recipes”, queues would form in the opposite direction. For many diehards, traditions are not to be tinkered with.

Those who have reinvented their grandmothers' recipes for modern palates have generally found success away from the motherland – however, high-end set menus are not uncommon in big cities now thanks to the likes of the late Jiggs Kalra, whose Masala Library 16-course marathon in Mumbai blew me away in 2018.

For more than 25 years, Sonu Koithara has been one of those pushing gastronomic boundaries around the world, and he is now doing so at Dubai’s Varq alongside the Michelin-lauded Sriram Aylur.

With an open mind and a empty belly, I went along to Taj Exotica Resort & Spa The Palm to find out how.

Where to sit, what to expect

Polished ceramic flooring, velvet-backed furniture, statement ceiling ornaments and a semi-open kitchen await. I visit almost a year to the day since the hotel’s May opening, so I make the most of the last of the cooler evenings and sit outside on the pretty terrace.

The atmosphere is relaxed and straddles the right side of smart-casual – yes, there’s Indian deep house music playing and the dress code is relatively come as you are, but no, you shouldn’t turn up in your hoodie and flip-flops. It hasn’t quite gone full Millennial.

The menu

There is only a six-course chef's table menu running when I visit, offering two choices: vegetarian or non-vegetarian (although an a la carte menu is usually available outside special events). It reads well in a nothing-to-scare-the-old-guard way – there’s familiarity in lamb chops, chicken biryani and tandoori prawns, but excitement with duck pancakes, almond biscotti and sorbet.

The night begins where all good Indian dinners should: poppadoms and chutneys, only elevated. The coconut dip and watermelon cylinder topped with delicate edible flowers offer playful spins, while the crab cakes put the sea in seasoning – they’re punchy, and the best I've had in the city. And, although this is fine dining, it’s all made to dig in with hands, so I willingly oblige.

The first starter offers three meats: marinated chicken, lobster and lamb chops, all kissed by the tandoor's flame, served around a spiral of sauce and finished with gold and silver leaves, because why not? They're swiftly followed by pulled duck served with a rice pancake. It’s a dish that screams Cantonese cooking, so I applaud chefs for being bold enough to put it smack bang in the middle of an Indian set menu.

A savoury sorbet fusing tamarind and ginger precedes the main event: a thali-style platter of sea bass in mango curry, chicken biryani, paratha, moong dal and spiced Jerusalem artichokes.

Dessert is finished tableside with a bit of theatre, as a chef dips a real rose into a tub of liquid nitrogen, before crunching the freeze-dried petals over a plate of dainty samplers (with more gold leaf).

The panna cotta – another rarity on an Indian menu – is excellent, although the savoury lentil cappuccino misses the mark, sadly, having the look, texture and taste of dishwater. However, if its inclusion is to provoke debate among diners, it gets a big tick from me as another sign of chefs’ attempts to break out of the mould.

Stand-out dish

Murgh siya mirch – chicken thigh – is marinated in yoghurt, cardamom, fenugreek and black pepper before being gently grilled. The cardamom is a revelation in a savoury dish and it's made for the charcoal-tipped meat edges chefs yearn for. It's also my secret ingredient at next week's barbecue sorted.

A chat with the chef

Koithara is the executive chef at the hotel, meaning he’s in charge of 360 dishes at its seven kitchens and dining venues. He’s cooked for everyone from Pele to Naomi Campbell, Bollywood royalty to real monarchs and now runs Varq with Aylur, who earned his first Michelin star at London’s Quilon in 2008 and has held one ever since.

The globe-trotting pair have been at the forefront of spicing up the reputation of fine-dining Indian restaurants, with Koithara delighted at the number of young people wanting to be chefs. “My sincere advice to them would be: ‘Be you. Don’t lose your essence, your roots, your individuality.'”

He also says his experiences travelling the world helped to create the fusion-style food inventions he’s famed for, adding: “I have been able to expand my knowledge of different cooking techniques, ingredients and flavours. These experiences have helped me develop holistically as a chef, broadening my understanding of the culinary arts and deepening my appreciation for the role that food plays in different cultures.”

Price point and contact information

The six-course chef's menu costs Dh395 ($107), excluding drinks. For a la carte, starters range from Dh60 to Dh185; mains from Dh120 to Dh280; and desserts from Dh60 to Dh125.

Varq is open from noon-3pm and 6pm-midnight. For reservations, call 04 275 4444.

This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant

Updated: February 20, 2024, 4:40 AM