Our butler pulls up at our villa in a buggy to take my travel partner and I to dinner. Verdant tropical greenery and soft white sand line the path to the restaurant. Occasionally, a fruit bat swooshes by, keen to dig into a meal of its own high in the canopy above. On the ground, leaves rustle as a changeable lizard scurries into the dense foliage, as if it were, too, trying to make its dining reservation.
We drive past the island’s Wellbeing Village on our left, which opens up to a short game golf course designed by José Maria Olazábal, a Spanish professional golfer with two major wins at The Masters, and on our right, four-room private residence villas equipped with sprawling waterfront gazebos and vaulted ceilings. It is clear that Velaa Private Island is accustomed to hosting a particular clientele.
Minutes later, we make a right and the flanking foliage eases up to reveal an overwater villa set against vibrant turquoise waters – a Maldivian signature – and streaks of purple and pink courtesy of the setting sun.
“This is Aragu”, our butler announces, as we glide up the bridge that connects the main island to the restaurant in our buggy. “It means ‘essence’ in our local Dhivehi language. And here, we hope, you will have the best meal on our island.” We soon realized that our butler, the charming, affable Muiz, was not kidding.
The Velaa Private Island resort is home to four dining concepts – the recently launched Faiy restaurant is set in the Wellbeing Village overlooking the golfing green, dishing up clean, unprocessed food with novel flavor combinations, followed by Tavaru, a teppanyaki restaurant housed in a three-storeyed structure on the main island, then we have Athiri, the waterfront all-day dining workhorse, and of course, Aragu, the only restaurant housed in a villa off the main island – and each of the restaurants possess a flavor quite unique to itself.
Aragu is Velaa’s fine dining destination and stepping into the restaurant reveals scores of flying fish sparkling across the dark ceiling, setting the scene for the evening. A deck skirts the restaurant and guests are welcome to dine by the water if weather permits. Dolphins, we’re told, frequently pop by for a quick hello. However, due to uncooperative weather on the day of our visit, we dined indoors, which gave us access to the open kitchen where Velaa’s Culinary Director, Chef Gaushan De Silva, and his team of five worked tirelessly the entire evening.
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Yellowfin tune, confit egg yolk
Caviar, fermented sweet potato
Open only for dinner daily, Aragu’s multi-course menu (USD$260) shines the spotlight on Maldivian produce and cuisine, reimagining beloved local dishes and ingredients in surprising ways. The restaurant’s signature, dubbed Yellowfin Tuna, marries fresh sashimi of the native fish with sushi rice topped with a deliciously rich confit egg yolk and a moat of savory roasted garlic sauce that has been reinforced with rihaakuru, a tuna-based sauce full of umami – a Maldivian household staple.
The fish, De Silva shared with me in an interview the next day, is a product quite unique to the island nation. “We are often invited to cook around the world, including big cities like London and New York, but I can never find fresh tuna good enough for our signature dish,” he proclaimed. It is not a topic of freshness or quality, he explains, but of flavor. The clean-tasting subtle bite of Maldivian yellowfin tuna simply cannot be found elsewhere. So adamant about the flavors being absolutely perfect, De Silva packs hundreds of kilograms of the local fish with him whenever he has to cook the dish overseas.
Because Maldives is a nation of over 1,000 islands, it is not surprising that the restaurant’s seafood-forward plates are the stars of the show. Other noteworthy dishes include the menu’s opening salvo, Island Consommé, which features a clear broth made from a base of ambul thiyal, a popular Sri Lankan sour fish curry – an ode to De Silva’s Sri Lankan heritage – accompanied by a bite-sized hopper filled with a piquant coconut sour cream topped with a quail egg and pearls of Beluga caviar.
Chef Gaushan De Silva
Finally, the Maldivian Lobster deserves a mention. A thick medallion of slow-cooked lobster tail sits atop a riff on the popular local tuna curry, kandu kukulhu, which translates to “chicken of the sea”. Chewy tapioca pearls and braised kanamadhu (sea almonds) surround the lobster island, lending a delicate sweetness to the dish. No lobster claws to be found here though, De Silva tells me, as the Maldivian spiny lobster doesn’t have any. Has he been questioned about the lack of claws, I ask. “Of course,” he says dryly. “Our guests are a well-traveled, worldly group. They have eaten at the very best restaurants. But importing the best produce from all over the world is not what we are trying to do at Aragu.”
Instead, De Silva shares that his philosophy for Aragu is simple: He allows the best local produce to guide his creative process, always putting the Maldivian ingredients and its cuisine first. He then applies his European culinary training and Sri Lankan heritage to develop dishes that are refined for months before it finds its place on the tasting menu.
It is this exacting standard and clear philosophy that makes Aragu stand out. “The highest compliment a guest can give me,” De Silva muses, “Is to tell me that the food is consistently good, perfectly cooked, and that I have managed to surprise them through unconventional flavor combinations.”
Complementing Aragu’s exceptional food and drink – 800-bin wine list curated by their Chief Sommelier – is top-notch service that is at once warm, welcoming, and knowledgeable. Passionate and attentive yet not intrusive, the restaurant’s hospitality mirrors Velaa’s ubiquitous brand of service, which sets the ultra-luxury resort apart from its counterparts in the surrounding islands. Velaa Private Island proves that paradise exists in Maldives.
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