I spent the last weekend of my year-long sabbatical at Sula’s vineyards in Nashik; exactly 13 years after my first weekend there, as their first head of sales. It wasn’t until I left them to pursue a career in hotels did I realise that for my entire time at Sula I was always the only woman in the room. The office team, the restaurants we visited, the distributors we negotiated with, and the wine shops we cajoled – all male, everywhere.
Over a decade later, I was thrilled to see a few more women at the helm of Sula’s operations – a winemaker, chief vegetable grower, the brand ambassador, a head chef and most recently, Florence Tarbouriech. Florence is one-third of the trio behind Goa’s La Plage, head designer and inspirer of all things genius at their new restaurant Soleil by La Plage at Sula’s vineyards.
Florence’s partnership with Serge Lozano and Morgan Rainforth goes back nearly two decades. Friends, lovers, parents and gastronomes, the trio clearly love their work, but they love life more. It is probably this that they have most in common with Sula’s Rajeev Samant. “We don’t want to create a fashion story,” said Serge. “If we had opened in Bombay, Delhi or Bangalore it would have been a fashion story.” In an industry where restaurateurs pursue private equity backed mindless expansion and chefs spend more time on television than in their kitchens it is heartening to meet a team that puts passion first.
I visited Soleil a few days before their soft launch and was allowed a peek into the making of the restaurant. Florence spent weeks walking around Chor Bazaar and scrap yards, in search of inspiration as well as scrap she could upcycle in the restaurant – so wine pallets and barrels turned into tables, and wine bottles dress the chandeliers. The restaurant has bold pops of colour, lush greenery, original artwork, and comfortable lounge areas. “I waited for the designs to choose me,” she said. This approach to design has been an eye opener for Sula as well. Rajeev shared, “My team are just loving this! After walking around the winery with Florence and Serge they have seen the potential of recycling. Also, instead of waiting around for the restaurant to open, Florence got the waiters to help with the interiors – they painted and scraped along with the workers and now the team have a sense of ownership for the place they will be working in.”
Something else the four have in common is their desire for simple, sustainable living. Sula employs solar power and rainwater harvesting, vermiculture composting, and now with Soleil has ensured one of India’s first true farm to table experiences.
Chef Morgan, aka Guruji, is overjoyed, “I’ve been cooking awful chicken for 17 years and now I finally have the perfect free range gavthi chicken at my doorstep.” In addition to their own free range chicken farm, Sula also rears goats for milk and cheese, makes grapeseed oil and honey, grows its own fruit and vegetable, and fires the Soleil barbeques with wood from its grape cuttings. It’s hard to get more organic than this!
The trio are country kids at heart and it isn’t surprising to see some very hearty dishes at Soleil. Morgan’s menu features French classics as well as, for the first time, his take on Indian food. “I am trying to pare back, get to the heart of the spice in each dish. During my research I was also surprised to see some similarities between Indian food and some dishes from France. For example, you have ‘Gatte ki sabzi’; and I grew up with the French version of this – fried chickpea flour cakes! There is also the Indian version of French creamed spinach, or as we like to call it, palak paneer.
Soleil’s menu will change with the seasons and this monsoon they are serving dishes that include Mango and beetroot carpaccio, coriander and homemade feta cheese (Rs. 280); Crispy organic asparagus and grilled homemade paneer with creamy spinach sauce (Rs. 300); Barbecued Gangapur lake scampi, coral butter, saffron risotto with broccoli (Rs. 690); Free range chicken cooked in Sula Dindori Shiraz, potato puree with olive oil and caramelized baby onions (Rs. 540); and Soleil’s seasonal vegetarian thali (Rs. 310).
Two decades in India have sensitised the La Plage gang to working here – so they may not have beef on their menu, Morgan no longer asks why he cannot buy fish during shravan, and Florence isn’t surprised when the painting of the Pandav Caves is moved out of the loo ten seconds after she placed it there.
Even though Soleil gets the all-important big three right – great chef, great location, great concept – spend a day with Florence, Morgan, Serge and Rajeev and it’s clear that what they are committed to most is preserving their environment. As destination restaurants around the world are slowly making their way up most ‘Best Of’ lists, India can finally be proud to have one of her own.
This article was first written for BURRP! where I am a resident Food Expert.