What It’s Like to Eat at Aragu, an Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant in Maldives
Travelling to a largely recreational beachside tourist destination often conjures up different feelings. Sorry to disappoint the scuba diving fanatics or thalassophiles in my life, but I’m going to lay it on the line: I hate the beach.
My relationship with the beach is quite analogous to how an adolescent couple might behave. Probationary, hot, grotesque French kissing one instant, and frigid cold the next. When I was nine, I got stung by a box jellyfish and once more ten years later while cliff jumping. I ended up being hospitalised for anaphylaxis. It was dreadful. We all romanticise reading literature on the beach. Have you tried? It’s an exercise in rotating your body as if you’re a kebab on a spit. Calloused elbows, sweat dripping on pages and a sunburned back versus aching arms and a pale face—you choose the lesser of two evils. The beach is also a place where your sun-averse partner, who insists on snorkelling, will be redder than a lobster. So explain to me again, how is this fun?
Recently, however, I was invited to a private island in the Maldives to participate in a week-long stay on this sandy and sun-kissed Eden. The impulsive escape from the first frost was reason enough, but it was a collaboration dinner between Sri Lankan-born chef Gaushan De Silva and Catalan chef, Paco Pérez, who boasts 5 Michelin stars, at the island’s fine dining establishment, Aragu, that made me jump on the first plane out.
From the light-soaked villas, sumptuously furnished with mahogany panels and azure tapestry to the pristine loose sand beaches that unfold past the clusters of palm trees; the sensations of the beach, that I shun have been curated with the best intent. What you see on advertisements, is not an indeterminate luxury resort chimera. At Velaa Private Island, it is the work of 600 pairs of hands and your very own personal butler both in scale and splendidness.
From luxurious sheets to temperature-controlled indoor rooms, buying into the island’s lures occurs organically. Divide your time between the 9-hole golf course, the gorgeous spa revved up with a Turkish bath and a snow room (a slightly incongruous sight in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but I doubt you would mind). The sea sports centre, clearly the star of the private atoll is built around a vast selection of adrenaline-pumping activities such as parasailing, hoverboarding and sea bobbing (a high-tech underwater scooter that will make you feel like James Bond on an underwater mission).
There are four restaurants here, each intended for a different time of day and occasion. Gaushan manages all the food and cooking on this luxury island for the guests and 500 staff, citing “the logistics of retaining the ingredients at their best quality as one of the biggest challenges.” In fact, the biggest obstacle in the Maldivian hospitality industry is logistical support. The distance from the port to the final destination is not only an issue, but the time spent for goods to be released may compromise food safety. However, judging from the jars of plump blackberries and French yoghurt pots at the breakfast line, the man has played his cards right. Athiri is your all-day diner that has so much more than pleasing club sandwiches, like Maldivian fish curry to remind you where you are.
Tavaru is a creative take on teppanyaki. The open-air restaurant sits above the tree line, and get this, in a tower that has an entire wine vault on its own. Thread downstairs to a high-ceilinged private dining room that is lined with the island’s 800-strong label collection of precious wines and marvel at its assemblage. If it is a cocktail by the fringe of the cyan blue waters that you’re after, Avi, the all-day pool bar grants that wish from mid-afternoon till the dead of the night. Some nights, the space transforms into one large karaoke, with the resident band providing lead vocals to popular tunes such as “Rolling in the Deep” and “Rehab.”
Last but not least, is the overwater marvel Aragu where illustrious tasting menus are steered by fresh ingredients sourced from around the world. Living up to expectations is one thing, upping it is another. but Gaushan takes it in his stride, materialising his vision and experience into modish plates. The four-hands performance begins with crisp cold Delamotte (the island’s house champagne) champagne tipped into delicate flutes on the decks facing out into the open sea.
The serene crash of surf and smell of salted air enhance this privileged vantage point. Enter the cavernous dining room where the soaring ceilings are brightly ornamented by hanging tendrils of flying fish figurines. The boardwalks leading to the alfresco tables on the outer realms are helpfully demarcated by landing lights so you wouldn’t need to fret about falling into the coral laced waters below. However, the risk of your stilettos getting caught in between the planks is high, especially if you’re planning on imbibing.
Gaushan kicks off the show with a sublime starter of tartare of lagoon prawns soused in a young coconut bisque. It achieves both flavours and textures fortified with sufficient citrus and theatrics from the embellishments of polished beach pebbles and seashells. Also outstanding is a ring of yellowfin tuna punctuated with an organic egg yolk and a thin flower stencil. The dish is bolstered with umami richness from fermented garlic essence and has a velvety faction that got my taste buds going.
A hot buttered trio of tortellini is deeply scented with spices that wallow in a fire orange tomato emulsion complemented with a cloud of aged parmesan foam. It jolts my flavour memory bank. In my former life as writing about food in Singapore, I was privy to a rather ample supply of wagyu beef. But it is only here in the stray of the Indian Ocean did I truly understand the meaning of the word ‘exotic.’ A5 grade wagyu beef cheek glittering with golden brown strands of kataifi sits atop a potato puree. It is bounded to an adjacent hunk of charcoal hash dusted tenderloin by a pool of glossy demi-glace.
Aragu, which means “essence” in the local lingo carries the island’s ease of melding nature and luxury and serves it up in droves. With stints at Noma, Kampa Park ad Yam’Tcha, Gaushan takes his wealth of experience and converts it to bold and brave exploits on the plate that are as free-spirited as he is. In the near future, he intends to put forward more exciting ingredients to match the milieu.