Chef Rahul Rana Brings Avatara’s Michelin-Starred Menu To India
Image Credit: Chef Rahul Rana | Avatara Dubai

Think about a vegetarian menu at a restaurant anywhere in India and dishes prepared with paneer and mushrooms in a number of colourful gravies will automatically pop up in your mind. The assumption that vegetarian menus in India, unless you are indulging in a festive special like Sadhya, will have paneer and mushroom dishes is a given—even when you are trying Gujarati or Rajasthani Thalis. Despite India’s diverse agricultural and culinary heritage, commercially available vegetarian meals seem to be trapped in the paneer-mushroom nexus—which is precisely why Chef Rahul Rana’s menu at Avatara is revolutionary. 

In fact, after savouring a resplendent 16-course array of vegetarian dishes without a trace of onions, garlic, mushrooms and paneer, one has to conclude that what this Michelin-starred chef does is not only revolutionary but divine. For those unaware, Chef Rahul Rana helms Avatara in Dubai, which became the only vegetarian Indian restaurant to be a part of the Michelin Guide Dubai 2023 list. In India for a Conosh X Avatara pop-up event, the chef’s select creations have now been introduced to foodies in Delhi and Pune. 

“I would like to thank Conosh for organizing these amazing pop-ups,” Chef Rahul Rana said in an exclusive chat with Slurrp. “Starting in Delhi at Varq, Taj Mahal Hotel, and now in Pune at Zeera, Conrad Pune, it's been a wonderful journey engaging with food enthusiasts who share a passion for innovative vegetarian cuisine. The response from Delhi was overwhelmingly positive, and we're excited to bring that energy to Pune.” Here’s more on our conversation with the maestro of Indian vegetarian food. 

Elevating Indian Vegetarian Food With Attention To Detail  

When asked what the inspiration behind the food at Avatara was, especially in Dubai, Chef Rahul Rana says the entire effort was to take Indian vegetarian food beyond its perceived limitations. “While Indian cuisine has a rich history of vegetarian offerings, we wanted to demonstrate that vegetarian cuisine can be extraordinary and diverse,” he says. “Avatara stands out by using lesser-known vegetables, avoiding onion and garlic, and presenting dishes that are a feast for the senses, creating a completely unique dining experience.” 

So, what is it that makes Avatara so special? “Avatara's commitment to presenting vegetarian food in an elevated, fine-dining context makes it special,” he explains. “The menu is inspired by humble seasonal ingredients that are pure, clean, natural, and energy-containing, showcasing a modern avatar of the techniques, philosophy, and story of soulful Indian food.” If you don’t want to take him at his word, then you certainly would believe this to be true when you come across dishes on the Conosh X Avatara pop-up menu. 

The very fact that he starts the menu with Naivedhya, a sublime dish which offers a burst of Panchamrita, immediately sets the tone. This is not a menu where your digestive system will be taxed, your tastebuds overwhelmed with spices or leave you in a food coma at the end. Each course that follows simply leaves you wanting more of those balanced flavours, where you can taste everything from the pumpkin in the Kusmandakah, the baby corn in Shikhalu and raw bananas in the Kadalika Varuwal. And even with Karuvelvilas, a dish centred around bitter gourd, you are left with just a mild aftertaste of the Karela. 

Clearly, this attention to detail and the narrative behind each dish that explains the ingredients used and their region of origin is what makes Chef Rahul Rana’s vegetarian fare unique even for Indian vegetarians. To get Jakhiya Aloo and Bal Mithai from Uttarakhand and Black Rice from Manipur and Fafda-Jalebi from Gujarat in the same menu is as rare as the fact that each dish looks like a well-crafted piece of art. “Taking Indian vegetarian cuisine to a gourmet level requires a meticulous approach to ingredient selection, technique, and presentation,” he says. “Our goal is to transcend those challenges by continuously experimenting, innovating, and demonstrating the depth and versatility of vegetarian ingredients.” 

From Rishikesh To Dubai: Taking Nature’s Bounty Along 

A key thing to note about Chef Rahul Rana’s demeanor and approach is how seamlessly and calmly his entire team functions, a calmness that shows respect to the ingredients just as much as it convinces the eater that there is nothing but positivity attached to the entire menu. Does this approach have anything to do with the land where this 37-year-old chef comes from? “Absolutely, my upbringing in the northern part of India, near the Himalayas, particularly in Rishikesh, has undoubtedly influenced elements of the menu at Avatara,” he says.  

“When I reflect on my own nostalgic moments, one that stands out vividly is from my childhood when I used to explore the mountains with my dear friends,” he explains further. “The exhilaration of foraging for vegetables in the midst of nature's bounty, and then returning home to make fresh meal with them, is an experience that has left an indelible mark on my culinary journey. It's a reminder of the profound connection between food, nature, and cherished moments shared with friends. Such memories continue to inspire me as I create dishes at Avatara, infusing each plate with the spirit of those unforgettable mountain expeditions.” 

The influence of Uttarakhand can specifically be seen in two dishes, Dalika and Bal Mithai—and the latter is paired with the even rarer Buransh flower juice. But beyond that, there are elements from Bengal in the form of Panch Phoran, South India in the form of curry leaves and ghee roast spices, and from West India through the Missi Ghevar in Shikhalu and a whole course dedicated to Gujarati Farsaan

“Every creation is a labor of love from me and my dedicated team at Avatara,” the chef says. “These dishes embody the essence of diverse Indian regional cuisines, and it's challenging to pick favorites. But if you ask me to choose one then it would be the first course, Naivedhya, because it is inspired by the favorite dish of Lord Krishna (from Hindu mythology).”  

Taking Avatara Places, Michelin To Mumbai? 

At the end of Chef Rahul Rana’s 16-course Conosh X Avatara menu, you simply feel elated and light instead of fatigued. The proof is in the pudding, they say, but in this case, Avatara’s inclusion in the Michelin Guide Dubai 2023 is reaffirmed through each course and the menu as a whole. So, what did the accolade feel like when he did receive it? “Our journey began in 2022 when Michelin selected us within the first three months of our operations, and now, receiving our first star in 2023 takes our sense of accomplishment to new heights,” he says.  

The credit, Chef Rahul Rana says, lies with the dedication of the entire team. “This achievement signifies the dedication, creativity, and relentless pursuit of excellence that our team at Avatara embodies,” he adds. “It's a testament to our commitment to transforming vegetarian cuisine into a fine dining experience that surprises, delights, and challenges perceptions. The Michelin star acknowledges our innovative approach, showcasing that vegetarian dishes can be as intricate, flavorful, and memorable as any other culinary offering.” 

This was the Avatara team’s first pop-up in India and the process was eased by the presence and popularity of Conosh. “There were elements of excitement, doubt, fear, but the last two were mitigated by Conosh's warmth and marketing finesse to ensure both events were sold out,” the chef explains. And what about the future? The good news every Indian foodie and vegetarian can rejoice in is that Avatara will soon be coming to Mumbai with its incredible fare with a new restaurant branch all-set to open by the end of this year.