As you approach Fireback—the latest addition to the bevy of restaurants in north Goa—it looks like a pristine glass house set amidst a sea of greenery. The minimalist interiors of restaurateur Rohit Khattar’s newest restaurant offer a stark contrast to the verdant green all around. Wood runs as a leitmotif, connecting the inside with the outside. Fireback, which opened to public last weekend, overlooks the Chapora river in Siolim and the majestic St Anthony’s Church.
The 80-seater has a chic laidback vibe, very unlike the conventional Thai restaurants across the country, where the decor borders on kitsch.
This is not the first time Khattar, founder and chairman, EHV International, which owns restaurants such as Indian Accent, Comorin, Hosa and Koloman, has dabbled in Asian cuisines. Though he is best known now for restaurants that offer a modern rendition of Indian cuisines, way back in 1999—he started Oriental Octopus in Delhi as one of the first pan-Asian restaurants—setting the tone for many such restaurants to follow across the country.
“I am not too sure whether I am a trendsetter, but at that time nobody in India had experimented with multiple cuisines from the East. Since then, the Indian consumer has evolved considerably, courtesy travel, the internet, and social media,” says Khattar, 60. “Food has become a national pastime in more ways than one. Even kids are glued to MasterChef and looking for innovation in each dining experience.”
All of these factors, perhaps, made this an opportune moment for Khattar to bring his long-standing desire to open an authentic, yet approachable, Thai restaurant to fruition.
I wonder if the success of Hosa—a restaurant with its unique take on southern Indian cuisines, located within an old Portuguese villa in Siolim—brought him back to the sunshine state again. He believes that Goa, which is currently reigning as the most chilled-out dining destination in the country, compliments the philosophy of Fireback. “Whilst the indoor area is very small, the outdoors on the riverbank and the vibe with the beautiful church majestically guarding us, is so quintessentially ‘Goa’. So we went ahead with it,” he says.
Khattar’s wife Rashmi, who is the design director, worked closely with London-based interior designer Russell Sage Studio. The actual square footage for the indoor area was extremely challenging and the kitchen took the lion’s share out of that, leaving space for limited seating indoors. “We were very keen to have a rough kitchen counter with high stools facing the theatre, that is, the kitchen. The big Josper grill takes centre stage here and accentuates the fire-grilling which is integral to many of the dishes,” she says.
The culinary philosophy at Fireback is led by David Thompson, who is known for restaurants such as Nahm in Bangkok, Thailand, which was included in World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for seven consecutive years from 2012-18. He moved on to create his own company, under which he has Michelin-starred restaurants, Aksorn in Bangkok, Aaharn in Hong Kong, and the Long Chim series of eateries located across Asia, Australia and the Middle East. The chef, who divides his time between Australia and Thailand, has come on board as the culinary director of Fireback, training the team of seven chefs in the intricacies of Thai cooking.
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According to Thompson, while the cuisines of India and Thailand have similar complexities, the constituents can be quite different. “Thai cuisine is renowned for its spiciness, but the food is not just about that. A good Thai meal is an exercise in balance. So, Fireback will have some dishes that will love and satisfy the most timid of diners,” he says.
The idea of the food and beverage menu is to keep the original complexities of Thai food intact, while playing with local ingredients. Brand chef Swatantra Gautam and his team spent considerable time in Goa, prior to the conceptualisation of the menu, to understand local ingredients and flavour profiles as well.
Some of the dishes that are being talked about in the short time that the restaurant has been open are the classic Thai omelettes made with mushroom or prawns or the jumbo lump crab—not found in your average Thai restaurant in India—a wide array of skewers, the red snapper with young turmeric and lemongrass, and the pineapple som tam with tamarind, palm sugar and peanuts.
The som tam salad is an innovative departure from the traditional raw papaya version. “Here, we have used pineapple instead and dressed it with the typical sweet and sour dressing and mint. Another innovation that is geared towards Indian vegetarian requirements is a strong Thai base without the use of fish sauce, or any other non-vegetarian ingredients that would typically be used. Examples on our menu include the smoky grilled eggplant, Miang kham with pomelo, and the som tam,” says Gautam.
Even for the well-travelled Indian diner, there hasn’t been enough exposure to Thai food beyond curries and street food. Take, for instance, the cuisine from northern Thailand, which has more grills, doesn’t rely on coconut milk as much, and has seasonal ingredients from the cooler highlands. It is refreshing to see that the menu at Fireback steers clear of the staples of red and green curries. “We have been quite agnostic as far as the regions of Thailand are concerned, and have ventured beyond the typical offerings by adding a sour orange curry with river prawns, that doesn’t have coconut milk and is from the north,” explains Gautam. Venturing beyond pad Thai, they offer charred rice noodles which bring a different style.
It is interesting to see the mixology programme make use of the same ingredients as the main kitchen in drinks such as the Tom Kha Colada, Mango Rice, Pandan, and more. “Our drinks are inspired by Thai flavors like galangal, Thai basil, tamarind, and lemongrass, which are easy to find in India. Our cocktails have names like Rose, Basil, Lemongrass, Galangal, and they're made to go well with our food,” says Varun Sharma, head of bars, EHV International. So, while at Fireback, don’t hesitate to raise a toast with the spiced bourbon sour, a perfect fit with the fried pork belly, or the Pandan, a twist on the negroni, which goes beautifully with the massaman curry. “Accessibility is also achieved through our pricing that we hope will be friendly and allow the cuisine to be enjoyed by a wider audience,” adds Gautam.