Rice to the occasion! Chef Wayne Clark masters artisanal, heritage grains at Six 'O' One, The Park
Fancy some Manipuri deep purple rice? Or a rice variety that’s confused for jasmine buds? The ‘Rice of Change’ festival will serve you an exotic feast unlike any other.
The cooking of rice is among the most preliminary exercises that any chef or home cook will be familiar with. Cooking time, proportion of water, intensity of flame for cooking, method of preparation — these are aspects that would have any young chef break into a sweat, over the need to cook a perfect pot of steaming rice that’s perfectly fluffy, and not steeped in broth, yet flavourful with just the right bite of starch.
As Junior Sous Chef at The Park Hotels, Wayne Clark certainly knows his way with rice — and The Park’s kitchens do work with a variety of rice from long-grained strains to special seasonal produce. But for their new festival, themed ‘Rice of Change’, Chef Wayne had an unusual task at hand — to prepare an entire menu exclusively with artisanal and heritage rice; varieties that are hardly heard-of and definitely new to the chef himself.
The task emerged from a partnership between The Park and the initiative named Spirit Of The Earth, led by AIM for Seva, who cultivate over 180 varieties of rice at a 50-acre farm in Manjakuddi of Tamil Nadu. Chef Wayne, on the other hand, had just about two months to experiment with the rice varieties, before creating his menu.
The results, we’re excited to reveal, are worthy of inscribed plaques on the hotel’s wall, and a handful of personal citations for Chef Wayne, who put together the ‘Rice of Change’ menu along with Executive Chef Ashutosh Nerlekar.
The most wonderful thing yet about the festival? The menu is delightful enough to be framed on a wall, just as each dish on it is worthy of being showcased on a pedestal with a glass display case, in some sort of futuristic food museum. Of course, in this case, we got to taste Chef Wayne’s masterful creations (we did imagine him with a blowtorch, in a very Blumenthal-esque portrait).
Slow and steady wins the rice
Straight off the bat, we were feeding off the chef’s hands with an appetiser of the Karun Kuruvai variety of rice — a red strain that also bears medicinal properties. The spinach and artichoke ‘caldo verde’ soup with chicken chorizo or soya bean curd is light, and unusually refreshing on the palate. For the diner’s benefit, each dish is served with a beaker of the rice in question, so you can get a look and feel of the grains.
At the bottom of the soup, the chef’s hand-crafted dumplings play up the coarse, mealy texture of the Karun Kuruvai.
We were also served appetisers made from Kalajeera (Orissa), an ancient, long-grain white rice referred to as the ‘Prince of Rice’ or even ‘baby Basmati’, and from the local Thooyamalli (Tamil Nadu) variety.
The first dish was a Creole Jambalaya Wrap with sausage and chicken pilaf, red radish and tomato sauce that we feared would set our mouths on fire, but turned out fairly tame in the spice department, just as the wrap perfectly encloses the mild aroma of the Kalajeera.
Next up was a Meen Polichattu of a banana-wrapped ‘Pinjalo’ snapper, served in an oil-and-canvas arrangement of turmeric and curry leaf rice, with a peppered tamarind curry. A noteworthy element on this dish was of fried okra sprinkled on the side, looking like desiccated wok detritus that absolutely lights up in the mouth with its crunch and hot nip.
For mains, the Acharmati absolutely threw us off in a glorious broccoli and asparagus kedgeree (like a khichdi) with shallot sambar poured over from a decanter, garnished with curry leaf and a slice of mustard toast to mop off excess stock.
The sambar’s flavour seems like a distillation of every other version you’ve ever dunked an idli-vada into while the rice ends up almost creamy, with a warm melt-in-the-mouth quality that’s perfect to mull over on a rainy afternoon.
The pick of our meal was made from Chak Hao Poreiton, a Manipuri black strain of rice that translates to ‘delicious rice’ and turns deep purple when cooked.
The dish — asparagus and pistachio chicken served with edamame risotto and a striking gastrique orange rice sauce — easily ranks among the best dishes we’ve tasted in the city this year, in terms of presentation, consistency of the black risotto, and pure flair with the pista stuffing and delicately rolled meat.
For a note, the festival itself is doubtlessly the most specialised affair we’ve come across in a long while, and is sure to remain in our minds for a long time to follow.
To complete our exotic meal, a portion of NZ braised lamb chops made from the tribal Ghandakasala (Kerala) rice variety, scored really high on taste.
The key, as Chef Wayne pointed out, isn’t so much about gorging on cartloads of rice as much as it is about sensitising patrons about the unusual rice varieties, and their health benefits.
All said, the feather in the chef's cap has to be the desserts, such as a thandai and peach phirnee with a scrummy gulkand crumble (with Kalajeera), served in a dainty cocktail glass.
There’s also a cardamom and saffron rice cheesecake made with the Thooyamalli strand. The cake has a crumbly pistachio crust, and comes with a smattering of almond rabdi along with some twinkling apricot gel that makes the dish seem straight out of a fairytale.
The flavours are phenomenal, just as the chef’s efforts must be deemed as truly inspired — after all, it takes a cheesecake like his to make you realise why the traditional, fragrant Thooyamalli variety is often mistaken for being jasmine buds.
Now, that’s a meal unlike anything you’ve ever had.
The Rice of Change festival is on at Six ‘O’ One, The Park from August 9-18. Meal for two `2,000 plus taxes.