by Annette Tan
Turning local bounty into award-worthy dishes is par for the course at restaurants in gastronomic cities like Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Bangkok. But elevating local ingredients in the Maldives to deliver an experience worth a 96th spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list? That’s been the preserve of just one: Aragu.
Moneyed gastronomes have long known about Aragu, squirrelled away on the opalescent Velaa Private Island. Some arrive via a 45-minute seaplane ride from Male’s Velana International Airport; others drop anchor as they sail by on their superyachts.
Once here, Aragu feels like a Maldivian fever dream: scores of luminous flying fish hang from the ceiling while the twinkling melody of JVKE’s Golden Hour makes for a dreamy soundtrack. The restaurant references the underwater world beneath it with manicured coral cacti lining its wooden walkways, swaying in the breeze like anemones undersea.
In the kitchen, culinary director Gaushan De Silva draws from the surrounding waters for protein: bluefin tuna, lobsters, crabs, and fish in a rainbow of colours and sizes. He also looks to a farm on a neighbouring island for ingredients like kanamadhu (sea almonds), coconuts, and pumpkin. With these, De Silva creates tasting menus that centre on the island’s elemental staples, re-envisioned as haute cuisine.
While Aragu isn’t new — it opened in 2013 — it appears to be stepping into the moment, giving diners in this paradisical corner of the world a fine dining experience that speaks of provenance and a sense of place. The menu plugs into traditional Maldivian cooking, using elements like rihaakuru, a thickish fish-based sauce which is added to a roasted garlic-infused cream that moats a delicate mound of sushi rice cocooned in silky slivers of yellowfin tuna sashimi. Crowned with a confit egg yolk and a flower-shaped tuille, this is Aragu’s proud signature, an edible imprint of the best that this island has to offer.
In an opening dish, petite Sri Lankan hoppers are served with a fried quail egg, coconut sour cream, and beluga caviar laced with gold leaf. A server ceremoniously pours “island consommé” from a conch shell into a teacup, bidding us to enjoy sips of it in between bites.
We are told that the consommé is made from ambulthiyal, or Maldivian fish stock brightened with goroka — also known as Malabar tamarind — from which it derives a gentle tartness.
The slow-cooked lobster tail in braised tapioca pearls, kandu kukulhu (Maldivian tuna curry) sauce and kanamadhu chutney (sea almond, garlic, and curry leaves) is almost too pretty to eat. Ditto the delicate crab tarts dressed in a roasted coconut sabayon and placed on a plate festooned with tiny seashells that float over clear turquoise gel. Both taste as good as they Look — the touches of Maldivian flavours anointing them with unique depth.
Local chicken thighs are marinated in hawadu curry paste and cooked over hot coals. This turns out to be the most middling of Aragu’s dishes, lacking the nuanced flavour and succulence that chicken needs to find its place on a US$260 (S$347) six-course tasting menu. Still, the rest of the food is strong enough that the meal carries past the single dish that doesn’t score.
The food at Aragu is certainly accomplished, showcasing De Silva’s talent and his short experience at European stalwarts like Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee in Paris, Noma in Copenhagen, and Auberge De Noves in Provence — all of which were part of his six-month training before Czech billionaire Jiri Smejc opened Velaa Private Island.
If the Michelin Guide were in the Maldives, Aragu would deserve more than a single star, especially for its exceptional service. The team never misses a beat, wrapping every guest in the kind of warm, attentive, and competent hospitality that one needs from a restaurant whose setting is as idyllic as this.
Getting the best Aragu experience
- The restaurant takes its formal dress code seriously, so be sure to pack shoes and the appropriate clothes for your meal here.
- If time permits, return for the a la carte menu that also showcases Maldivian produce but in different, simpler dishes.
- The best table is on the right-hand corner of the jetty, facing the restaurant. It offers a view of Aragu’s main dining room and a lovely, constant sea breeze.
Getting to Aragu
Aragu is located in Velaa Private Island, a 45-minute seaplane ride from Velana International Airport. Seaplanes leave at 45-minute intervals. The Velaa team can arrange the flight when you make your booking. Guests from neighbouring islands can also visit Aragu by speedboat.