Fine Living

I’ll have the fish

The subaquatic scenery is a showstopper – as is the 1,450-strong wine list. Kathryn McWhirter tucks in at the Maldives’ first undersea restaurant.

May 19 2010
Kathryn McWhirter

The brightness is startling: dappled, quivering sunlight on wooden floor and tables. Sunbeams pierce down through sea water and a frenzy of fish. The Ithaa Undersea Restaurant, at Conrad Rangali Island resort in the Maldives (ithaa is the local word for “pearl”), is built on a sea ledge a jetty’s length from the white sandy beach. With space for a mere 14 diners, it is advisable to book a while in advance.

A newly-wed Japanese couple are already seated, footwear shed as requested, she barefoot, he besocked and earnestly leafing through the wine list. Sunlight is dancing on Krug. A tray of sunglasses arrives for foolish virgins (if such exist on this island haunt of honeymooners and holidaying couples) who thought it might be murky down here. In fact, the surface is not far overhead – two metres or so at high tide.

Exciting wines are perhaps not to be expected beneath the Indian Ocean, but this list would be remarkable anywhere. Indeed, a prior consultation with Michael Arcena, the island’s head sommelier, might help – 1,450 different wines have made their way to the resort’s list, many via Australia, base of consultant Master of Wine Ron Georgiou, some via wine guru Sanjay Menon in Mumbai, some direct from Europe.

Despite a certain accent on the top appellations of France, wines are grouped by grape variety, so that “Pinot Noir” is the place to find Bollinger’s unsparkling red champagne La Côte aux Enfants 2002 ($220), or eight wines from Romanée-Conti, amid a long list of celebrity red burgundies, alongside a score of star New Zealand pinot noirs, and then more from top producers in the US, South Africa, Germany, Italy...

Should you wish to drink Château Le Pin, Pomerol 1999 ($4,000), it’s under “Merlot and Blends”. In “Cabernet Sauvignon and Blends” you could take a punt on the staying power of a magnum of Mouton Rothschild 1947 ($19,000), select from Super Tuscans including eight vintages of Sassicaia – or plunge down to Cabernet Franc and the lovely 2003 Chinon Charles Joguet Cuvée de La Cure for just $69.

Plates arrive to the left, while to the right a yellow flurry of snappers flits by, and a little black Nemo retreats into the coral. The Maldives, incidently, is one of a handful of places where you can see whale sharks, the world’s biggest fish, docile and endangered, and Conrad Hotels & Resorts provides support for local research and preservation work.

I start with a mixed baby-leaf salad with large freshwater prawns, topped with finely chopped green and ripe mangoes. It is delicious, nicely dressed with a sharp-sweet vinaigrette, while the chilli on the prawns (from Sri Lanka) shows off their freshness. A hurriedly ordered Grüner Veltliner Urgestein Terrassen 2007 from the revered FX Pichler, Wachau ($130) accompanies this as well as the pumpkin soup with curry leaves that follows. It has a beautiful, silky texture, and a subtle flavour – the soup, that is.

Ithaa serves contemporary Maldivian cuisine: an interesting challenge as the ingredient pool here is limited by lack of space, soil and fresh water. The local diet naturally centres on fish, along with coconut, sweet potatoes and a few other roots and fruits. Conrad has its own market garden on a nearby island, source of the salad and fruit for my starter, but most of the produce, and the wine, crosses the world to get here fast, chilled and pampered.

Cameras flash, the shy Japanese bridegroom gets out his video camera, and a little Dutch boy spins on his seat and points in delight. Through the clear acrylic wall, a big, fat fish is inspecting us, rolling on his side to eyeball our plates. Our waiter has met him before – a titan trigger fish, jealous of his territory, and a biter of snorkellers. Clearly we are unwelcome guests at his reef. His swivelling eyes inspect our wine list and he gulps.

With the main course in view, we linger on the Syrah-Shiraz pages, past heavies from the northern Rhône, Guigal, Chave, Jaboulet, Clape... to four vintages of Henschke Hill of Grace from the early 1990s, grandfathers from the Barossa Hills, for something just over $1,000. Finally, though, an outcast blend of southern Rhône grapes plus cabernet from wild mountains south of Barcelona yields a rich, complex match for beef fillet on the plancha, aubergine pickle, tapioca mash, pandan leaf and truffle jus: René Barbier’s Clos Mogador Priorat 2001 ($160). The beef is deliciously tender and pink, with a lovely meat reduction, the truffle flavour subtle, a touch of bitterness from the pandan leaf; the tapioca mash is seasoned with onion and garlic, pandan and curry leaves, mustard seeds, turmeric and chilli.

Star of the puddings is the shot glass of passion fruit and yuzu juice, a palate-cleansing, lightly jellied concoction in which gentle sweetness is offset by the sharpness of the passion fruit and the citrus tang of the yuzu. With it, we try a glorious Scharzhofberger Eiswein 1996 ($880 for 375cl) from Egon Müller, possibly the finest grower in the Saar.

We’ll come back for dinner, but not today. Dinner’s tasting menu requires a lunch-free agenda. The evening brings different fish, little blue lights to mark the edge of the jetty in the balmy night air, a more formal, more romantic mood (no children), still no shoes and – ideally – no socks.

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