MANAMA: The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive at Chef & The Whale is that it’s bijou, for want of a better word. Just a few tables downstairs and a few more upstairs. But, boy, have they packed a lot in. On one wall there are pictures of the farmers and suppliers toiling to produce the high-quality ingredients used. On another is a block of shelves selling local ethical produce, from soap-free cleaning products to recyclable bowls and utensils made from coconut husks and — not to be missed — bags of Bahrain-roasted coffee.
Head up the stairs and there are great photographs representing every country from which there is a dish on the menu. In the upstairs section proper, you’ll find a kids’ corner, complete with fun educational books and toys, as well as a small garden section growing herbs — chilis and the like – some of which are handed over for donations at the regular charity coffee mornings (they’ve just raised almost $4,000 for victims of the Australian bush fires, though beneficiaries are usually closer to home).
On to the food, and there is much to say. The menu has been divided into four sections: Garden — mostly plant-based and all but one dish vegan, with several gluten-free options; Sea — as you would expect, fish and shellfish; Land — meats, chicken and duck; and Heaven — desserts, of course.
I started with the black bass ceviche, which is one of the signature dishes. I have to admit that, for my taste, the lime was a little overpowering and the chili not quite punchy enough. However, the fish was plentiful and perfect and the pairing with mashed avocado takes what would normally be a starter or snack to a dish fit for a light lunch.
Next up came the Super Food Bowl and it truly was super. When eating out, I usually shy away from anything that’s promoted as healthy. Let’s face it, even I can put together a reasonably decent salad at home. But, don’t be fooled, this really is something else. There are 15 to 19 ingredients and if you can guess them all, you get a prize — I managed about 12 and even added a couple that weren’t there.
So, here are my correct guesses: roasted pumpkin, carrot and cumin hummus (heavenly), chick peas, soya beans, sun-dried tomatoes, cauliflower, mange tout, puffed black rice, blueberries, green leaves, roasted almonds, various seeds and awesome falafel — crunchy on the outside yielding to a soft, fluffy inner — all topped with crispy kale. The flavor and texture combinations in each mouthful were really outstanding — challenging to the taste buds and superbly filling. For this alone, I would go back.
My next dish was Crispy Kunafa Shrimp Bao — a huge juicy shrimp coated in crunchy kataifi dough and topped with miso mayo, white and black tobiko (flying fish roe) and pickled watermelon rind — yes, they’re even recycling kitchen scraps. The use of a black bao bun rendered this dish visually exciting and the crunch of the savory kunafa coupled with the tangy bite of the tobiko made for a deeply satisfying combination.
The last of my savories — and possibly the best, though I would be hard-pressed to choose — was the Baja Fish Taco. The tacos are freshly pressed daily in-house, you can really taste and feel the difference. And the Baja sauce is definitely not your average — the mayo has been replaced with tofu so the tacos also appear among the vegan dishes. For the purist, this might be a bit of a surprise; I loved the piquancy and texture and it’s good to know there’s another option for those following a plant-based diet.
The fish is black bass, lightly battered and cooked to perfection, and the dish comes with small bowls of chopped tomatoes, guacamole and sweet-chili sauce so you can make up your taco to your own preference — I piled them all on and would recommend you do the same.
For dessert I had San Sebastian Cheesecake. Yet another new experience. The crustless, fluffy bottom with the famous baked top was truly divine, another textural triumph which is highly recommended.
And, on a final note, I couldn’t leave without asking about the name. So, the Chef is Chef Stephen McGowan, the man in charge, and the Whale is because this mammal explores all four corners of the earth, as does the menu.