When I was informed about the #CulinaryTurnsBlack pop-up at Zeera-Conrad, Pune, I realized that Pune was finally travelling into the unknown realms of culinary experimentation, the likes of which this city has never seen or experienced before. This was a first in our city and there was no way I was going to miss this pop-up.
I was excited but I was a tad apprehensive too. I thought everything would contain activated charcoal and wondered if that would be fun to look at and good to eat. I have absolutely no problem admitting I was under a false impression; Chef Mandar Madhav and Chef Ashley Nunes proved me wrong. Except for a couple of things on the menu, nothing contained activated charcoal. The chefs have put immense thought in giving each dish the perfect black colour which is the main focus of this pop-up. The plating is superb and the dishes, though black, look as fabulous as they taste. They have ensured, though black, the food not only looks fabulous because it is plated beautifully but tastes superb too.
I chose the Black Spice for my drink. This was a combination of palm heart, tandoori spices and lemonade. My friend chose the Peppermint Iced Tea with activated charcoal. While the iced tea was on the sweeter side my drink had a sweet and sour hint to it because of the added spices. Both, though, were very refreshing.
We began the meal with an amuse bouche: Amrud and Reshampatti Ravioli. Reshampati chilies were roasted to a black char, ground to a powder and added to guava (amrud) juice. This combination was then shaped into a liquid sphere, a black orb, using a culinary process known as spherification. The orb was as delicate as a bubble and burst in your mouth releasing the guava juice with that fabulous hit of reshampatti chilies. Guava and red chilies are usually paired together in our country, but experiencing them this way made it a totally unusual and amazing experience!
Our first course was Wild Mushroom and Truffle Kulcha. The kulcha was stuffed with seven different varieties of mushrooms which had been cooked to a well flavoured creamy consistency. Blackened gyoza skin was used for the outer covering of the kulcha and the black colour was achieved by using powdered black trumpet mushrooms. The kulcha was garnished with a couple of black garlic cloves. These tiny garlic cloves had been soaked in balsamic vinegar for 15 days. I hesitantly put one in my mouth and realized it was garlicky and yet because it had been cured in the balsamic, the flavour was not at all overpowering, in fact, it was yummy. I quickly cut another piece of the kulcha, put the second garlic on it and happily munched away.
The second course was the Batata Wada Bao. Instead of the regular pau they had opted for a soft, slightly sweet bao and had used purple potatoes in the wada. These potatoes had been cooked to a delicious spicy flavour. Onion petals were slow roasted for over 24 hours to help them attain a black colour without them turning bitter. These were then powdered and added to the besan (chick pea powder) for the batter to give the wadas that gorgeous black colour. It was served with vibrantly orange garlic chutney and the fried and salted green chili. Both the chutney and the chili lent a burst of colour to the white and black palette and a burst of flavour to our palate. The humble wada pau blossomed into an exotic wada bao and we happily embraced this transformation.
Lamb Kheema Mutter Pops was our third course. Perfectly spiced and and marinated galouti mince balls were rolled in roasted and powdered black naga rice and then baked. This ensured a beautiful crisp texture on the outside while the meat within remained juicy. In fact, the exterior was so gorgeously crisped that we believed it was fried until the chef told us otherwise. These dark as night delights were served with roasted, black corn kernels and Japanese mayo. The different textures of the kheema mutter pop with the creamy mayo and that bite of kernel all came together beautifully. Told you, they aren’t using activated charcoal for everything. ;) Btw, the vegetarians can opt for Aloo-Baingan Pops.
Molecular gastronomy played a big role in our fourth course. We were served dhokla in the form of slurry foam. Pureed and sieved dhokla was filled into siphon guns charged with nitrogen. These siphon guns were shaken vigourously after which they were held upside down to dispense the foam.
The yellow dhokla foam made up the bottom layer while the blackish-green chutney flavoured dhokla made up the layer above. Who would have ever thought that dhokla served in foam form would taste just like regular dhoka and yet would be more spectacular because of the velvety texture? The splash of tadka (tempering) of mustard seeds and crisp curry leaves and the gentle sprinkle of freshly grated coconut lent a lovely flavour and feel to the palate.
Our fifth course was the Java Plum (jamun) Sorbet. The coarsely pulped jamun was both sweet and tangy, though more tangy than sweet and it was a refreshing palate cleanser.
For our sixth and penultimate course they brought us Madras Prawn, Pulao, Moilee. The Pulao was black sticky naga rice cooked with squid ink.
Its consistency was more that of a risotto than a pulao but I’m not complaining because it was delicious. Atop the rice were perched two large, plump, juicy crustaceans (prawns). These luscious babies had been coated in a mixture of semolina (rawa) and roasted-powdered black naga rice. They had then been deep fried to perfect succulent texture.
A tiny jug of coconut-y Moilee curry/gravy was then drizzled over the rice and prawns. The flavour was smoothly subtle and yet so yum! I had a wee bit of Moilee gravy let in the jug which I poured onto my spoon and sipped on. I simply did not have the heart to waste it. Sigh! Vegetarians please note: They have a vegetarian version for the main course which, I was told by a foodie friend, is just as marvellous as the non-veg one.
The seventh and final course was the grand finale to the magnificent six courses that preceded it. It was Black Mousse (70% cocoa) Cassis Cremeux, Black Mission Figs Jam, Black Truffle Macaroon.
I took a tiny bit of the delicious fig but that was all I could manage. I then offered it to my friend who happily took it off my plate. As most of you know by now, I am not overly fond of fruits.
The dark mousse was superb as was the raspberry flavoured cassis cremeux snuggled within it. The sweet flavour of the mousse and the tangy flavour of the cremeux were perfectly balanced. It was served with a thin sheet of tempered chocolate and a beautiful lattice.
The lattice was not sweet and I bit into it intermittently to give my palate a refreshing change from the sweet dessert variants on my platter. The tiny domes of chocolate and truffle oil ganache were delish! As for that Black Truffle Macaroon, nowhere in Pune have I had a macaroon made to such perfection! This dessert was a sheer delight in terms of visuals, textures and flavours!!
The pop-up for a seven course meal is priced at a very reasonable 1300 + taxes and is on until Monday, July 31, 2017. For the kind of food they have put up, trust me, it is indeed a very reasonable price. Most people have been a tad apprehensive of giving this pop up a try. If you read my reviews and have trusted my judgment in regard to my previous reviews, please trust my judgment on this one too. It is not a pop-up to be missed! In terms of culinary excellence these chefs have outdone themselves. Give it a try, you are sure to come away amazed and enchanted. This pop up was like a symphony. At times the notes were gentle and sometimes they played loud. In between the music softened to a peaceful hum and finally the tempo soared to a fantastic crescendo leaving us fulfilled in the most beautiful way. All our senses of sight, smell, sound (the crunch of the curry leaves, remember?) and taste tingled. These chefs had it in them to take the bold step of hosting this rare and exciting pop-up in our city; now, it is up to us to give this pop-up a try and trust them for they are indeed knowledgeable about what they have put up.
Chef Mandar Madhav and Chef Ashley Nunes, I send forth to you and your team a standing ovation for having had the guts, the vision and the excellence to execute this pop-up so brilliantly!
Black is not just beautiful, it’s delicious!!
Address: Zeera, Conrad, Pune, Mangaldas Road, Pune
For reservation call: 020 67456745
Some more photographs: