Into The Culinary Realm: Recollections Of Restaurateur Arati Naik
Isabella's Tapas Bar in Panjim is famous for its Spanish and Portuguese cuisine, particularly its homemade Vermouth. The bar celebrated its first anniversary in October and offers an immersive experience that delves into the history of Vermouth, including the botanicals used and the production process. Visitors can even participate in a hands-on session behind the bar. This concept is unparalleled in India so far.
Arati Naik, the founder of the bar, is a Goan herself and is proficient in cooking Goan food. She envisioned her first food venture to be unique, and Isabella's Tapas Bar lived up to it with a glorious run of over a year, making waves with its engaging approach and unique concepts. In an exclusive interview with Outlook Traveller Naik talks about her inspirations, interests, and origins.
Please tell us about your journey from an IT professional to a restaurateur.
Food, especially my love for it, has been always been constant. From a very young age, I always wanted to pursue something related to food. However, because our family business is in the IT industry, I became an IT professional. Despite this, my passion for food never faded away. Eventually, I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue my dream of becoming a restaurateur. It was a challenging journey, but I am glad I followed my heart and switched.
After spending 12 years in the industry, during which I was in charge of operations for the company, I realised that it was time to pursue my dream of opening a restaurant. To prepare for this new venture, I enrolled in a culinary course at Leiths School of Food & Wine in London, which helped me gain the necessary skills and knowledge for the food and beverage business.
As Isabella's marks its first anniversary, how do you plan to stand out in Goa's competitive F&B scene?
Goa's food and beverage industry has recently become highly competitive, with many excellent restaurants opening. Traditionally, Goans have preferred local homestyle food. As a Goan, I never imagined that Goa would one day have such a diverse range of cuisines.
My vision for Isabella was to create the first Spanish-style Tapas restaurant and Vermuteria in India, with Goa as my base. We have remained true to our original concept and have no plans to change our core focus, which is common among many single-cuisine restaurants.
Did your international travels influence your restaurant's menu?
My travels to Spain and Portugal have played a significant role in creating Isabella's menu. Almost all the recipes have been collected from locals I've met on my journeys, tiny restaurants that have perfected their food, and even family members who have settled there. Each recipe is a treasure; we have done our best to keep it as authentic as possible with local ingredients. The restaurant is a homage to the bodegas and tavernas I've encountered on my trips.
What drove your decision to specialise in Spanish tapas specifically?
I admire the way Spaniards enjoy their meals. They treat every meal as a celebration, and the concept of tapas is to share smaller plates while enjoying a drink. Even I prefer smaller plates as I do not like wasting food. They allow me to try more items and seem ideal for single diners and small groups.
Could you share more about the significance behind the name "Isabella's" and its connection to your name?
Isabella, a name in Spanish, and Arati, my name, share similar meanings. We pondered the idea of using this connection as the name for the restaurant. Given that this establishment holds great significance for me as my first venture, I desired a name that would reflect a personal touch.
Your "Patatas Bravas" have gained a cult following—what makes them so unique and special?
I received this recipe from a lovely elderly couple during my stay at their B&B in a small town called Ea in the Basque country. Their food was delicious, and I couldn't resist asking for the recipe. The potatoes are cooked three times to achieve the perfect crispiness, and the bravas sauce (prepared with smoked paprika and tomato) is a traditional Basque recipe, although there are many variations throughout Spain. They also taught me how to make Pan Con Tomate, a simple yet incredibly flavorful dish of tomatoes on toast.
Tell us about your restaurant's interiors and bar and their differences.
A typical Spanish bodega inspires the interior of the restaurant as one finds it on the streets of San Sebastian. I was very much in awe of some of the places I visited there; that was the basis of our design for the restaurant. Our bar was made keeping in mind a comfortable, cosy spot one would find in such a place, where you can linger over drinks and tapas for as long as you want. We have a lot of Spanish bull paraphernalia in our restaurant, which is a sight seen very often in a typical taberna in Spain. Overall, the whole place gives a very European feel when you walk in, making you forget that you are in Goa.
What motivated the introduction of Vermouth Making Classes, and what can attendees expect from this unique experience?
Vermouths are like wine to cheese for a Tapas bar. This drink is versatile and stunning to have on its own, especially when it's homemade with various botanicals and herbs. We created our own version of the three classic vermouths, which we use in our signature cocktails, lending them a unique flavour.
To educate our customers about vermouths, we started offering tastings and small information booklets about them at the bar. We noticed a growing interest in vermouths among people, which inspired us to create a masterclass that explains the origin and usage of vermouths. During the class, we provide a live demonstration of how to make vermouth at home, and each participant receives a demo kit containing all the necessary ingredients to make it themselves. Additionally, the class includes a tasting and pairing of vermouths with our specially crafted cheese and tapas platter and a brief demo of some vermouth cocktails that can be made at home. This unique experience is currently not offered by anyone else in India.
Do you face any challenges or competition as a new restaurant, particularly during peak seasons?
It's a well-known fact that many new restaurants are opening in Goa almost every week. However, the local Goan crowd prefers Goan cuisine the most, and it's a challenge for us to convince them to try Spanish food. Nevertheless, those who do come to our restaurant love the food we serve, and we feel blessed for that. Many locals frequently visit our place, and some of our dishes are of Portuguese origin, which resonates well with them.
Tourists usually opt for local food since they are in Goa. However, we have noticed an upward trend in the number of curious tourists trying Isabella's food.
What is the first thing you notice when visiting a food outlet in another country or state?
When I visit any food outlet, I first notice the staff and the service. I gauge a place by how comfortable it makes me feel when I walk in, regardless of whether it's a hole-in-the-wall place with just one table or a Michelin-starred fine dining spot. After that, I pay attention to the food and drinks.
Is there any specific travel destination that influenced the way you perceive F&B business?
San Sebastian! Every bar, taverna, restaurant, or café is unique and inspiring. I have had the best octopus risotto at a crowded bar, served on a small plate while standing with my drink, and the best fine dining experience at many of its fancy spots. The attention given to food is mind-blowing! I always try to incorporate those qualities at Isabella's.