It was a majestic mahua tree, with generously large green branches to provide respite from the sweltering heat. Phytotherapist Michael Isted stood awestruck in front of it. Within minutes, he gave it a hug.
“I’m still learning from the tree’s profound wisdom,” he says. The UK-based beverage consultant and aromatherapist—he wears multiple hats—draws inspiration from plants to create drinks, perfumes and herbal medicines. Isted along with mixologist Maxime Schulte run a decade-old drinks and events consultancy company, The Herball. Their client list includes names like St. Regis, Ritz Carlton and Macallan. The duo are in Mumbai for a three-day residency at the ingredient-focussed restaurant, Noon in the corporate hub of Bandra-Kurla Complex.
Last weekend, Vanika Choudhary, chef and founder of Noon, and The Herball team visited a farm in Maharashtra’s Raigad district to forage mahua—leaves, fruit and flowers—wild mangoes and yams. Along with these, they brought back bel patta (Aegle marmelos correa), karonda (natal plum) and loathe (wild yam). The visit was facilitated by the social enterprise Monks Bouffe that sells locally-grown produce from farms across the country, including Maharashtra, Meghalaya and Kerala.
The foraging trip had a singular objective: source seasonal ingredients and use them to prepare food and drinks for a bar takeover at Noon this weekend. After three days of experimenting, the result is a menu bursting with flavour, innovation and elegance with drinks, like Mahua Champagne, Wild Mango Gimlet and Ripe Karonda Soda. The food segment features mahua mawa cake; a sorbet with aam panna, kosnyot (caraway seeds from Ladakh) and Sichuan pepper; and sprouted ragi bhakri served with jackfruit coated with chana dal miso and Malvani masala. It’s the kind of dining experience that can be best described as contemporary, fuelled by an urge to create menus with indigenous ingredients; and sublime—possible only with years of immense hard work in the kitchen or behind the bar.
It took about two months for the teams at Noon and The Herball to prepare for the bar takeover. There were long discussions on how to best represent not just the ingredients, but also terroir. Along with the foraged produce, Shulte and Isted did trials with about 100 different ferments at Noon to create eight to nine drinks, with and without alcohol. Isted points out, “For us, it's most important to represent nature in its truest form and articulate that to the guest through drinks.” He gives the example of the mahua tree he hugged. The fruits, flowers, sap and leaves from it went into most of the drinks in the menu through distillation, fermentation and infusion.
Consider the refreshing welcome drink, Mahua Champagne that has fermented and distilled mahua flowers for flavour, karonda for acidity, sea lettuce for umami, topped up with the intoxicating aroma of night blooming jasmine. Then there’s the zero-alcohol carbonated Nimbu Pani with gondhoraj lemon served with a spritz of khus hydrosol and served in a glass rimmed with spiced salt containing perilla and chilli. Another drink, that best represents terroir and nature, is the Wild Mango Gimlet. It is concocted with charred wild mango, charred coconut and coconut feni, served with a dehydrated mango leaf as garnish and is finished off with a spray of nutmeg hydrosol. From scent to aesthetic appeal and taste, each drink completes a gastronomic journey. Explaining why they pay careful attention to garnishes, Schulte said, “It serves three purposes: tells a story, adds to how a drink will look and highlights the flavours.” For a media tasting event on Wednesday, diners were encouraged to take small bites of the dehydrated mango leaf while sipping on the Wild Mango Gimlet. The leaf had a potent mango flavour and I ended up dipping it in the gimlet and chewing it. Some might consider it embarrassing, but there are no defined rules on how one must enjoy a cocktail or relish their food.
The bar takeover runs from 27 to 29 April. For reservations, visit noonmumbai.in, or call on 75066 77720.