Food is not only about satisfying one’s hunger. It should be a delight for the senses and go on to uplift the soul,” says Chef Shailendra Kekade, who has spearheaded several successful restaurants in Pune. He was instrumental in turning Stone Water Grill, a European fine-dining restaurant with a buzzing bar, into one of Pune’s best restaurants. Later, he created the menu for Santé, a restaurant synonymous with flavourful vegetarian wellness food conceptualized by Sonal Barmecha; Santé has subsequently opened in other cities as well.
When Darios, a popular vegetarian Italian restaurant located in Koregaon Park, Pune, moved location, Sonal decided to move Santé to a part of the outdoor section of the spacious premises where Darios used to be. And, with Chef Kekade, she opened a new restaurant in the vacated indoor space and part of the contiguous outdoor area. Given the long association with Darios, Sonal decided to create an Italian restaurant with a menu of signature vegetarian preparations inspired by the ingredients and techniques of traditional Italian cuisine.
“Sonal wanted to bring something new to the table and do justice to the location. In the last few years, Italian food had become predictable. We decided to go beyond the regular dishes like spinach and ricotta ravioli and created a menu that gives a different perspective to vegetarian Italian cuisine. It’s a menu that evokes Italian flavours and redefines them by using different ingredients or presenting them differently,” says Chef Kekade.
He elaborates further, “We want the food to surprise diners and to intrigue Italian diners even as it takes them back to Italy — to its sunny coasts, its forests where truffles and mushrooms grow, its islands blessed with fresh produce and its towns famous for their culinary specialities.
“We also wanted to focus on the presentation of the food to make for great Instagram pictures! The restaurant is named La Magia as the space — especially the outdoor section — takes on a magical ambience in the evenings and the food creates its own magic.”
Chef Kekade thus drew from the essence of traditional Italian food that he had enjoyed during his travels in Italy to come up with a variety of creative preparations by giving them a different take or twist, and using indigenous ingredients wherever possible.
The menu features Tapas Magico (starters), Piccolo (small plates), Zuppa di Sapore (soups), Verdure Fresche (salads) and Pizzeria La Magia — a choice of pizzas, comprising Napolitana stretched thin with a crusty edge, Romana is fine crusted and smoked, and the light Leggera Pizza Romana is a ring-shaped pizza with a salad in the centre. Served with a soup it is a flavourful light meal in itself. Also on the menu are Pasta, Riso and Entrée (mains); Fianco A Fianco (accompaniments), and Bella Sensazione (desserts). The wine menu features a choice of Indian and imported wines, with a few served by the glass, as well as non-alcoholic beverages, sangrias and cocktails.
Chef Kakade’s creativity plays out through the different courses of a meal. La Magia Jar (a pâté of mushrooms, spices, herbs and cognac), served with toasts and vegetable chunks, is a tasty vegetarian version of N’duja ( ‘Nduja), a spicy salami paste from Calabria, Southern Italy, that serves as a dipping sauce. Brodo Di Pomodoro Crudo is a pale green soup made from raw tomatoes, with a flavour reminiscent of minestrone (a red soup prepared from ripe tomatoes), and Crema Di Parmigiano is a delectable soup that offers a mellow flavour of parmigiano (a cheese with typically a slightly sharp taste, strong flavour and gritty texture). The salad Insalata Mysteriosa, as its name suggests, owes its cryptic charm to a dressing of parmesan ice-cream made in-house.
The risottos also intrigue, as indigenous rice varieties that have a good flavour and texture have been use instead of Italian Arborio — Shillong Black Sticky Rice for Risotto Nero and a combination of Sona Masoori Rice and Goan Red Rice for the other risottos. In place of regular raviolis are dishes like Black Olive and Mascarpone Ravioli, a delicious creation of black casings achieved by using activated charcoal (to recreate the effect of the squid ink used in Italy for black pasta) filled with four mushroom varieties served with arugula pesto, that creates an attractive colour contrast as well.
A variety of pasta is prepared without the use of egg yolks as a binding agent; this means that the pasta must be used within 24 hours and has to be made fresh every day. White wine is used to deglaze some dishes, to balance or bring out flavours such as Truffled Wild Mushroom Risotto where the wine has evaporated leaving its flavours infused in the food.
A choice of signature desserts includes Sorbet Dolcetto, a refreshing mulled wine sorbet and Tiramisu A La Magia. A delicious creation of millionaire shortbread (to avoid eggs) and Toffee Caramel served with a shot poured over it nicely finishes up a meal at La Magia. The novel and flavourful food invariably leads to an exchange of thoughts about it, reaffirming Chef Kekade’s belief that good food always ensures great conversation!