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My connection with anything remotely Spanish goes back to a small hole-in-the-wall place off the Mall Road of picturesque Manali, surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. An eager-to-please waiter, a self-styled ambassador of Spanish food, almost forced us to order the exotic-sounding Tortilla, which, much to our disappointment, was just a stuffed omelette!! Huh!

A couple of decades later, the table has literally turned… one of the unimpressed occupants of that table has become a die-hard fan of Spanish food! Gipsy Kings’ groovy ‘Volare’, a wide-eyed admiration of Ilich Sanchez Ramirez a.k.a Carlos in Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy, a quick dabbling in a Spanish language course, a momentous introduction to the Spanish Chorizo and a prized possession of a dusty six-string are a few things Spanish acquired and experienced along the way…

Little wonder then that Arola, the tapas restaurant at J W Marriott, Mumbai, got my Spanish-enthused genes jumping for joy! Here was a restaurant that had a two Michelin-star chef, Sergi Arola, at its helm, someone who had acquired an enviable reputation of being in the forefront of Spanish haute cuisine in many world cities. And for a foodie, here was a joyful opportunity to indulge in some good Spanish food in all its taste and glory… Slurp! Smack! Ole’!

So one nippy night, I landed at the swanky new restaurant with a hungry Teddy in tow. Sashaying past the glittering gin bar, we sunk into a bright sofa and decided to go the whole hog on the metal-framed menu card.

There is something very ‘brave’ about Patatas Bravas, I think. A dish that is simply ‘potato wedges with a spicy salsa’ is surely a hard-sell in any restaurant, with potential pitfalls like under-spiced tomato sauce and over-cooked potatoes. But nothing could have prepared us for the delicate brown cylinders of potatoes, scooped and filled with a sweet-sour tomato sauce and topped with a delicious dollop of aioli. Chef Arola’s version of the Spanish favourite was as pretty as it was gobble-worthy, and Teddy took to it like a happy duckling does to water…

We reluctantly moved on to a couple more tapas – the light and chunky Prawns in garlic-chilli-parsley, and the melty Chicken on crunchy Salsify sticks, a fitting outcome of a 12-hour confit!

I had already spotted the Suckling pig on the menu earlier, and when the chunky pillars of the Terrine, placed on a gleaming coppery plate, arrived on the table, it looked like a grand scene from the movie ‘Gladiator’… imposing, exciting and electric!

On the opposite side, Teddy was taking the lid off the steaming and fragrant Lobster Rice with commendable restraint, and then digging into it with unabashed gusto!

A couple of leisurely signature gin cocktails later,  just when I was wondering if they would let me sleep over on the plush couch for the night, the cute Chef Manuel and his dimpled smile makes an appearance, and all my lethargy goes out through the window out to the Arabian Sea. 

I followed him into the kitchen and after a whistle tour of the clean-as-whistle kitchen stations, spent a dreamy time stirring up a vibrant and delicious Paella, absorbing the chef’s little tricks and tips to Arola’s rare nod to a traditional Spanish recipe. 

After a sweet encounter, it was time for a sweet ending, and Chef Manuel, rushing off to catch some sleep to be suitably bright and alert for next afternoon’s engagement with the King of Spain himself, recommended a dessert platter called Sweet Moment (kinda ironic for that moment!!) on a flourishing wave out the door. The yoghurt with vanilla cream was a tad tarty for me, the dark chocolate soufflé a bit too rich. But then came the winner by head, shoulders and tummy… the Crema Catalana, a perfectly crusted Crème Brulee with a tangy heart of orange sorbet that just lingers tantalizingly on your tongue and compels you to sigh in satisfaction. I did! Several times 🙂

So now I had a new Spanish experience to add to my ‘armada’ – a decidedly modern experience of Spanish cuisine that playfully teases your taste buds, and then delivers a passionate Bolero of tastes and flavours in your mouth in true, bold Spanish style.

Plate-licker’s wisdom: You had me at ‘Hola’, Arola! I ‘corazon’ you… 😉