Fusions by Tala review: Mena masterchef realises a vision uniquely her own

Tala Bashmi is modernising Arabian cuisine in Bahrain

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Against all the odds for a restaurant that was relaunched before the onset of the global pandemic in early 2020, Fusions by Tala in Bahrain has been recognised on the inaugural Mena’s 50 Best Restaurants list, additionally earning chef patronne Tala Bashmi the title of Middle East & North Africa’s Best Female Chef 2022.

Located on the sixth floor of the five-star Gulf Hotel Bahrain Convention & Spa, adjacent to a sprawling roof terrace lounge, Fusions by Tala synthesises fine dining and nostalgic Arabian home cooking, with Bashmi’s distinct fingerprints all over it.

What to expect and where to sit

The thoughtful hospitality begins before we reach the restaurant. I receive a call in the afternoon confirming my booking, as well as enquiring about any dietary restrictions and whether our party of two is celebrating a special occasion.

When we arrive at the marble-filled hotel, a lift whisks us upstairs where we are greeted with a huge smile from a friendly hostess who escorts us to the restaurant.

A crenellated wall of large picture windows maximises the number of tables with front-row views across busy roads and high-rise buildings with flashing multicoloured lights. By contrast, the atmosphere inside is cosy and calm, thanks to relaxing but upbeat music and subtle golden lighting. Smaller lights on each table allow for easy reading of the menus.

The interior has an industrial-chic feel, with exposed ducting and shades of textured grey punctuated by natural wood tables. There is also a sense of homeyness achieved through the restaurant’s Goldilocks proportions, comfy mismatched chairs, plants and soft sheer curtains.

Service is proactive and attentive without being overbearing. Nobody will approach the table to interrogate you while your mouth is full. My dining partner and I are very well looked after throughout the evening by Nigel and Jaypee, who are friendly and deeply knowledgeable about the menu.

The centrepiece of the room is the brightly lit, glass-walled kitchen where Bashmi and her team work diligently. For those who want to keep a close eye on the action, there is the option of bar seating.

The menu

The complimentary extras bookending the meal perfectly encapsulate what Fusions by Tala is all about: reimagining and elevating humble and familiar Middle Eastern traditions.

To start, freshly baked fennel seed bread with whipped date molasses butter and incredibly flavourful machboos crackers are presented in traditional Bahraini handwoven palm leaf vessels. To conclude, an ornate khatam treasure chest opens to reveal a bed of sesame seeds topped with dates stuffed with pistachio ice cream and salted caramel chocolates, an ode to the custom of finishing a meal with dates and Arabic coffee.

My dining partner and I opt for the Surprise Tasting Menu. In Arabic, “ala kaifik” means “up to you”, and the tasting menu is continually evolving at the chef's discretion.

The feast begins with a mini ghoozi taco, and our bouches are immediately amused. It’s hard to fathom how so much flavour can be packed into one tiny bite. The light and crispy onions are the stars here, but the aspect I most enjoy is being encouraged to eat with our hands, which feels authentically Bahraini yet a bit rebellious in the context of fine dining.

Next are two prawn dishes. The first is an aromatic ceviche dressed tableside in a foamy sauce. This hides the surprise element of finger lime, which bursts and zings like adult, organic popping candy. If this dish represents the high notes, the second is the bass line.

Bashmi has used her grandmother’s chebba recipe, stuffing each with a prawn concoction and bathed in a sweet and umami tomato and onion sauce that causes us to reach for our bread rolls to mop up.

The stand-out dish of soft-shell crab with mehyawa arrives next, followed by a spoon of grapefruit and jasmine granita. That refreshes the palate more than it cleanses, like a floral breeze.

We move on to tikka tataki, marinated in black lime and served with neat dollops of Bahraini chimichurri and black garlic. The rare prime US tenderloin could be sliced by a mere glance.

Another palate cleanser follows, this time a pair of sorbets. We are challenged to identify the flavours behind the vivid reds and greens, but fail. It is hibiscus tea with mint, which is a known elixir in its hot beverage form.

The main dish is Bashmi’s famous Wagyu beef cheek, braised for eight hours and topped with a shard of mind-boggling, glass-like okra, that cracks with a simple tap of your cutlery, which is served with a bowl of tomato broth rice on the side. Again, everything is perfectly seasoned and there is a wonderful interplay of textures in the mouth.

The most magical thing about what we do is we can change someone’s entire day and maybe even their whole week with just one meal
Chef Tala Bashmi

Believe it or not, my dining partner and I still have room for dessert. First we are invited to smash and mix a tower of deconstructed baklava with saffron ice cream, mango orange blossom and caramelised pistachio. My dining partner finds the saffron overpowering, and I wonder if the recipe is so far removed from standard baklava that it might dash expectations for some. Having said that, it is tasty, satisfying and not overly sweet.

The other dessert is an enigmatic purple ovoid, flaked with edible gold leaf, and sat atop a chewy and crunchy golden biscuit. Although it pains us to slice through such beauty, we are immediately refocused by the sight of pristine layers of lavender sponge, blueberry jelly, white chocolate mousse and lemon creme brulee. Tasted separately, the components are delicious and distinct, while together they are synergistic. This dessert leans to the esoteric side, but there are safer-looking options for those feeling less adventurous.

Overall, the menu reveals Bashmi’s prestigious training, her love for global street eats and nostalgic home cooking, and most of all, her passion for imbuing food with Middle Eastern flair.

Stand-out dish

Inspired by bamia, an okra and meat stew, the braised Wagyu feels like the purest Middle Eastern dish of the night and perhaps the most conceptual.

Another worthy contender is Bashmi's version of mehyawa. The Arabian fermented fish sauce, tangy with depth of flavour, is typically eaten in simple ways, with bread, eggs or cheese.

Bashmi has invented a recipe of softshell crab with cardamom pickled cabbage, harissa honey, micro herbs and finger lime, all brought together with a delectable mehyawa aioli. The dish exemplifies how Bashmi is inspired, but in no way constrained by, traditional Arabian fare.

We’re advised to get a bit of everything in each mouthful, yet every bite is different. This dish hits all the points of yumminess, presentation, texture and balance.

My dining partner — who confesses she’s never loved fish pastes and wouldn’t ever order softshell crab voluntarily — positively lights up and exclaims her mouth is dancing. It isn’t the only time this evening that Bashmi has converted her to things she formerly eschewed.

A chat with the chef

I feel myself begin to fangirl over Bashmi as she speaks, because in addition to looking calm and collected in the kitchen, she’s just plain cool, wearing a custom-made chef’s jacket with spike-studded shoulders and a black baseball cap.

Despite craving the opportunity to work under a mentor during her earlier years in the kitchen, Bashmi is now grateful that her style has evolved to be uniquely hers. She strives to show nifas, an Arabic concept of imbuing cooking with soul, intuition and emotional connection.

“The most magical thing about what we do is we can change someone’s entire day and maybe even their whole week with just one meal,” she says.

While influencing moods, Bashmi also promotes sustainability. “There are a lot of ingredients not included on my menus, for example foie gras and salmon, which don't come from sustainable sources and are harmful to the environment. As I learn more about the origins of ingredients and their sustainability, I adapt."

Bashmi grew up visiting markets with her father, and she maintains this direct connection to local suppliers. “My philosophy is to buy from farmers and fishermen who I know source their produce in sustainable ways, like without trawling, for instance. I often text the guys at Hidd fish market to see what they’ve caught and set aside certain things.”

Bashmi may be cool, but she says she isn’t trendy. “I’m not about trends for trends’ sake. First and foremost, it’s got to taste good. I do put in a lot of effort with presentation, but you’ve got to want to lick your plate clean. Food is about flavour, at the end of the day.”

Value for money and contact information

Fusions by Tala is a world-class eatery, but it is not overly fancy, as is reflected in its price point. Starters range from 4.5 Bahraini dinars to BHD7.5 (up to $20), sides from BHD3 to BHD4, mains from BHD6 to BHD13, and desserts from BHD5 to BHD6.5. The 350g steak of chargrilled marbled US prime rib-eye is the most expensive item on the menu, at BHD25.

The five-course tasting menu costs BHD35, while eight courses go for BHD52.

Reservations can be made by calling 00973 177 130 00, emailing fusions@gulfhotelbahrain.com or through the eat app.

This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant

Updated: June 14, 2022, 9:07 AM