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Spotlight on MASTI – the Elephant in the Room

How do you feel when you hear the word mischief? For me, it denotes a youthful energy, a glimmer in the eyes that hints at a touch of naughtiness – harmless of course – that shines within. Put simply, mischief is a playful state of mind.

In fact, this is the very definition of the word MASTI. After spending some slightly mischievous  time behind the bar, I can assure you that nothing is closer to the truth.

Located off the shores of La Mer, a chic, urban beach destination in Dubai, MASTI sits in a class by itself. Built across two floors with a wrap around terrace on each level, the space is sprawling, colorful, and merges a hint of old world India with contemporary cool. The cuisine is global and inspired by flavors of India, with a multi-faceted dimension that remains unseen in most  traditional restaurants. It’s almost impossible to deny MASTI’s Indian influence, as eclectic flavors pepper the menu. With food as playful as it’s namesake, (think edamame chaat and burrata with chili jam), I would soon find out, its cocktails are too.

I venture up the staircase to the second floor.

I’m met with the lounge, a vast bar area that’s complete with a Gin Room – a hideaway where guests are privy to an extensive collection of gin from around the world.

Vintage crystal bottles sparkle from a distance, while floor to ceiling windows extend the space onto the terrace.

The bar, curved and carved of wood, is cozy enough to have a conversation amongst friends, yet as open and as welcoming as MASTI’s bar and service team.

Striking interiors aside, what intrigues me the most about MASTI is quite literally, the elephant in the room. Epic in stature and made of artisanal stained glass, the elephant sits behind the bar, overlooking the rest of us. With vibrant hues of orange, red, yellow, and green, there was something I found comforting by her presence. Perhaps it was because it was my first time working behind the bar that took me to the fringes of my comfort zone. As my nerves got the best of me, I clearly needed lady luck, in the form of an elephant, on my side.

Upon meeting Tauland and Jeet, MASTI’s wildly creative resident barmen, I asked if they should be referred to as bartenders or mixologists. As I discovered, the latter was a term that was hotly debated between the two, and so I steered clear of conflict and stuck with bartender. Both would show me the cocktail ropes as they set off to teach me a lot more than the difference between a jigger and a shaker. I was more than ready to start my apprenticeship.

So-olong Ceylon

Our first cocktail, So-olong Ceylon is an elegant and sophisticated take on the Long Island Iced Tea. The name of the drink refers to the relationship to once Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India. “They broke apart and said their goodbyes with some controversy along the way. We are kind of waving ‘so long to Ceylon’ – it is an ode to change.” There’s a clever play on words as oolong tea is used in the drink and referred to in the title (so-oolong). I’m impressed, and appreciate the thought process behind the naming of this drink.

As Tauland takes me through the steps behind the recipe, a flask similar to a vinegar and oil dispenser is placed in front of me. We pour lemon tonic to one side.  Our cocktail of whiskey, spiced gin, mescal, oolong tea syrup and pomegranate is poured into the other.. Tauland fills me in on the secret bartender tip of always starting with the cheapest liquids and liquors when you’re making cocktails. Intrigued by this method, he says that the reason for this is “if you change your mind, you can throw it away.” Practical advice from a pro.

 

I soon learn that pomegranate is not only an ode to the flavors of India, but it is also swapped for the orange liqueur in the original Long Island Ice Tea, and gives a bitter citrus note to the drink. Since the bitterness is exacerbated with the oolong tea syrup, we add grapefruit rind for a touch of sweetness. After filling our glass with fat cubes of ice, we ring out our rind. It releases tiny drops of grapefruit oil, leaving behind a strong citrus aroma. What a smell – fragrant and intense!

We add half a Szechuan button – a little yellow bud that looks like a tiny flower. When I ask what exactly is it, he is hesitant in his reply. “Can I try it?” I ask. I’m met with a big “NO” as he tells me to save my reaction for later. Why? I have no clue, but apparently I’m meant to have some kind of wild sensory reaction. I’ll just have to wait and see…

Turmeric Tommies

Next on our cocktail menu is the Turmeric Tommies, a nod to the margarita from Tommy’s, an acclaimed Mexican restaurant in San Francisco. MASTI’s twist includes tequila, mescal, lime juice, and a beautiful vibrant yellow syrup made out of five spices. Black cardamom, licorice, coriander seeds, star anise and turmeric – are all spices typically found in kitchens across India and make their way into the syrup. It’s easy to see why Jeet refers to bartenders as “liquid chefs” as he explains how many of MASTI’s cocktails draw inspiration from the culinary world. He illustrates his point by taking me on a tour of a small kitchen hidden behind the bar – fully stocked with everything from spices, to syrups, to dehydrated fruit.

We start by painting half the rim of our glass with agave syrup before dipping it into black volcanic salt. It’s the perfect balance between salty and sweet.

We measure our lime juice and pour it into the shaker, followed by our five-spice syrup. I take a whiff – I could almost swear I’m on the streets of Mumbai!

We add our tequila: first mescal, followed by Don Patron. If mescal is the father of tequila, then Don Patron is the king! The difference between the two is that the mescal will impart smokiness, whereas the Don adds a pure and clean flavor. We fill our shaker with ice, right up to the brim; without enough, our cocktail will dilute (those who hold the ice when ordering a cocktail, take note).

I lock the shaker into pole position, thumb on top, two fingers on the bottom. As I start shaking, my rhythm is slow, steady, and mechanical at first. My momentum picks up, and I unleash my inner Tom Cruise from “Cocktail” the movie – look it up millennials!

With the heel of my hand I give the shaker a hard blow until I hear it “pop.” There are as lots of “ooh’s and ah’s” coming from onlookers and our camera crew as we strain our liquid gold into our salt-rimmed glass – the color is just insane! A little cardamom leaf at the bottom of our glass and some dried lime to garnish. It’s a sexy drink indeed!

Oh My Coconut

Since the coconut is widely used throughout India, it makes total sense that one of MASTI’s signature drinks pays homage to this versatile fruit. Oh My Coconut lives up to its name as it proves to be a refreshing and elegant twist on a traditional daiquiri.

Just like in the Turmeric Tommies, our glass acts as a blank canvas as we paint coconut cream from stem to the rim, and then “glue” on desiccated coconut. Although nearly every component of the drink contains coconut, it’s the exterior rim that introduces the first of many coconutty layers you’ll come across once your lips brush against the glass.

We add lime to the shaker, followed by coconut water. A little coconut cream adds thickness and a creamy note. Our coconut rum and Bacardi come in next, and for good reason. There’s just something about the synergy that exists between rum and coconut. It’s hard to deny the sparks that fly between them – especially in a cocktail.

We add our ice, it’s time to shake, strain, and pour. The presentation is an amazing brilliant white that’s as pure as the driven snow! Bright edible flowers add a contrast in color, “It should look like a beautiful Island” instructs Tauland. I’ve got a serious case of coconut love, so much that I’m inspired to create a cake that’s based on this drink. Stay tuned for Oh My Coconut Key Lime Pie, if we’re lucky, MASTI will put it on its dessert menu.

T-GRONI

Italy meets India in the most visually intriguing drink of our session. The T-groni, one of MASTI’s five Gin Room Negronis, is a tea-infused take on the Florentine classic. The ingredients in a typical Negroni – campari, sweet vermouth, and gin – are separately macerated with specific teas depending on flavor profiles. Oolong with Campari, Assam tea with sweet vermouth, and Lapsang with gin. All three tea/liqueur combinations are macerated separately for at least an hour, before they’re merged together in a barrel until ready to serve.

We decant our T-groni liquid into a crystal canister, stirring it swiftly with ice to start the chilling process.

As we place a big block of ice into our glass (an essential component of a classic Negroni), Jeet tells me that the bigger the cube, the slower the surface area will melt. Not only does this mean that the drink stays cold until the end, it also keeps it from becoming watery and weak. The signature ice stamp comes next, complete with a bronze MASTI logo. I firmly press it into the cube.

When it’s time to pour, I’m told to start by holding the canister close to the glass, then to gradually lift it up high so that the liquid pours in a long, smooth stream. I’m pretty impressed at how quickly I get the hang of this. My cockiness is put to the test as my drink ricochets off the ice and splatters onto my dress! It was a humbling moment to say the least.

We garnish the drink with a smoked tea flower and the oil from an orange zest. It looks beautiful and ready to taste.

Think we’re finished? Think again! The real fun began when we put our T-groni into its serving chamber. As Jeet pulled out the smoking gun (literally), a dense haze filled the air. Applewood smoke permeated through our chamber, swirling around our cocktail and infusing an amazing aroma throughout.

The taste was earthy, bitter, and sweet at the same time. What a dramatic finish to an iconic drink!

Electric India

Since the connection between gin consumption and Indian culture is a strong one, it makes sense that we conclude our cocktail-making session with Electric India, a groovy spin on a classic G&T.

We start by filling a wide rimmed glass with ice and add little kiss of orange and honey elderflower droplets. Elderflower tonic comes next, followed by our gin, infused with Szechwan buttons. We use Bloom gin that has feminine and floral notes of elderflower and strawberries. It is beautiful, fresh, and clean.

A fine slice of dried grapefruit finishes off the cocktail, as do delicate grapefruit pearls. It’s visually stunning, and you can smell the floral notes of the cocktail as soon as your nose meets the glass.

After I take my first sip of the cocktail, I’m finally allowed to try the Szechuan button.

I put half of it in my mouth – such a tiny bit – I’m surprised that I’ll even taste anything. Was I ever wrong!!!! As bitter shock waves trickle down my throat – sharp, acidic, and overwhelming – I honestly think I might be hallucinating. Water is released in my mouth, there are so many unfamiliar flavors popping around. Sensory overload is an understatement. Jeet gives me a fat swig of tonic water, insisting that it goes perfectly with the electric button. I must admit that he’s right.

The best-selling cocktail on the menu, Electric India is a fitting tribute to Masti’s motherland and is as vibrant as India herself.

As we conclude our session with a boom and a bang, I could see the elephant peering at me from a distance. She’s a little drunk, and like me, slightly buzzing from the Szechuan buttons. It looks like lady luck was on my side after all.

A Lidija’s Kitchen Production, All Rights Reserved 2018

Shot on location at MASTI

Photography by Tara Atkinson Photography

Hair and Makeup by Instaglam.co

Jewelry by Vik Jethwani

Social Media by Donna Hearts Beauty

PR Support by White Label

Shoes provided by Christian Louboutin and Sergio Rossi

Special thanks to Adam Carr – MASTI’s General Manager, as well as  Tauland Hyka, and Jeet Verma. for their patience and for willingness to share their bartending secrets.

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