The kaleidoscopic visual effect produced by the constellation of exotic lamp shades decorating the ceiling of Swagat Wine & Dine Restaurant beckons diners to another planet of Indian gastronomy atop Suva’s Flagstaff Plaza.
Unluckily for those who were queuing at the door on the evening of India’s Independence Day, Stanley Simpson and I had already reserved our table overlooking the playground of Marist Brothers High School and were promptly seated right next to the clear glass-panelled wall of the kitchen.
It was the perfect vantage point for watching Swagat’s chefs at work with the clay oven (tandoor) to fulfil patrons’ orders for the assortment of leavened bread (naan) and baked delicacies listed in the restaurant’s menu.
We didn’t need to wait long for our waiter to materialise with her Fijian smile, menus and a pitcher of chilled water. The a la carte menu appeared both impressive and extensive in variety and commensurately priced for a fine dining establishment currently ranked 6 in TripAdvisor’s list of ‘Top 10’ curry houses in Fiji. The accompanying beverages menu featured the standard fare of cocktails, mocktails, beer, wines, spirits and exotic Indian concoctions.
While Stanley contemplated our order, I became absorbed by Swagat’s dimmed floodlit ambience, rich wooden furniture, red and white checkered table cloths as well as the fragrant aroma of exotic spices exuding from the kitchen.
Spoilt for choice, Stanley decided to consult restaurant manager, Sanjesh Chand for recommendations on Swagat’s signature dishes and to quiz him about its origin, ownership and operations.
We learnt from Sanjesh that the eatery, which opened late last year, rides on the success of Yellow Chilli – its sister establishment located in downtown Suva. Both belong to Khem Singh, a migrant chef from Punjab whose culinary wand has been food magic in Fiji for quite a while.
Swagat’s popular dishes are various meats and seafood soaked in a yoghurt-based spicy cream marinade, then cooked to perfection in the tandoor to produce a unique roasted taste without removing their succulence.
That tantalising taste, according to Sanjesh, is what Swagat chefs are challenged to maintain consistently to keep diners coming back to savour their “authentically Indian cuisine.”
“The authentic flavour of Swagat distinguishes our menu. In our food, you’ll taste all the different flavours of India; and whatever dish you are served will taste exactly how it is supposed to,” he explains.
Virtually all of the spices used at Swagat are imported from India and combined with ingredients by chefs with expertise in the traditional techniques they’ve mastered for the proper preparation and presentation of every dish.
We accepted Sanjesh’s choice of meals for our taste test to appreciate whether and how authentic spices can make the difference to Indian cuisine.
Arriving as our starters were the tandoori chicken and the chicken tikka:served separately on sizzling hot plates garnished with salad and accompanied by mint chutney.
We must’ve been famished. Bite sized tender morsels of the boneless tikka,dipped in mint chutney, simply vanished before our eyes. The taste was different from the red-coloured tandoori (on the bone) which we also dipped in mint chutney to devour just as quickly.
Our main course comprised butter chicken, garlic naan, aloo paratha (potato filled bread) and chicken biryani.
The rich, velvety-smooth gravy combining cream, tomato and spices was still simmering when served. Bathing therein were tender morsels of boneless tandoori chicken. We dug into Swagat’s butter chicken with triangular pieces of garlic naan and aloo paratha served in a bread basket.
Our first bites released an explosion of flavours to create a festival in our mouths – momentarily transporting our taste buds to another planet.
We attacked the chicken biryani next. Made with imported Indian basmati rice, Swagat’s rendition of this Hyderabadi specialty packages all the vibrant colours and aromatic flavours of spice, rice and poultry in perfect, layered harmony.
Sanjesh prescribed lassi as a fitting Punjabi finale to our fiesta. Swagat’s signature version of this traditional buttermilk infusion can be made either salty or sweet. We preferred ours blended with tropical fruits to refresh our palates after the culinary expedition.
Our verdict: Swagat lived up to its name in making diners feel “welcomed” to sample their authentically Indian cuisine. We’d definitely be returning there for more.