From Retro to Tang to Watatsumi

Watatsumi - Japanese restaurant at Le Meridien Mina SeyahiBack in 1999 when I first move to Dubai, a restaurant opens by the name of Retro with damn good classic French cuisine in a modern setting. A few years later in 2006, the same space is reincarnated as Tang with French chef Stephane Buchholzer at the helm bringing his New York experience of molecular gastronomy. Sadly whilst the concept is refreshing for Dubai, the location at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi does not match the cutting-edge cuisine and closes in 2009. Fast forward to 2013 and a London-based Japanese franchise Watatsumi whose name translates to a water dragon opens its doors in the same spot. Will this concept succeed in a location where others have failed? Third time lucky perhaps?

The centrepiece of this semi-circular dining room is a striking all-white chandelier of teeny cut-out fishes, and to my joy, plush banquette seating all round. Sadly though this beautiful, intimate interior is only occupied by two tables – our foursome – plus a couple on a Friday evening over Ramadan.

Unsurprisingly for a Japanese restaurant here in Dubai the menu is a biggie – starting with appetisers, soups, salads, tartares, gyoza dumplings and of course sushi and sashimi, moving on to kushiyaki skewers, tempura and mains. Whilst we decide, the warm and crunchy edamame with a good dose of rock salt keeps us occupied. I forewarn you, eight dishes are forthcoming and that’s not including desserts.

The deep-fried coating of our soft-shell crab is a little sweet – so crisp and light it drops off our chopsticks – a good antidote to the tartness of the ponzu citrus dip. Our juicy plump prawns are sautéed and lathered in a creamy wasabi sauce – so calorifically moreish. The julienne strips of chuka seaweed are too slimy and salty for my liking. A crispy duck salad is a surprising yet star choice – mixed with diced watermelon, lychees, mint, coriander, mandarin and a pepper hoisin sauce – the combination of all these ingredients makes for a slight rose water taste. Huge portion too. Our hot gyoza dumplings stuffed with chicken are soft and crisp at the same time, whilst the soya sauce is spicy and sour. My sushi maki of choice, spicy tuna rolled with lollo rosso lettuce, a chilli-kimchi sauce and tempura flakes has a good kick.

Wasabi prawnsCrispy duck saladChicken gyoza and spicy tuna makiBlack codChilean sea bassDark chocolate spring rolls

The signature Japanese main dish of black cod in a yuzu miso is as good as anywhere else, Nobu original included – so flaky our chopsticks slice through it with ease. The difference here is it comes sprinkled with cashew nuts. Meanwhile, the Chilean sea bass which isn’t really sea bass but Patagonian toothfish has a similar texture, but dressed with a nanbanzu sauce of negi, a kind of spring onion, chilli, and a sugar and mirin-infused vinegar.

Surprisingly for a Japanese restaurant the dessert menu is highly appealing. Crisp spring rolls ooze with piping hot dark chocolate which we dunk into a chilli chocolate dip, whilst polishing off a tartare of lychee topped with yuzu sorbet. Unquestionably one of the best desserts I have eaten in a long time – simple with quality ingredients shining through. A chocolate crisp cake sandwiched with ginger yoghurt mousse resembles the texture of an Oreo biscuit with a more fragrant filling.

WatatsumiService whilst a little rocky to start with improves pretty quickly and the sweet-natured waitress clearly knows her miso from her mirin. Without booze, the bill for our three-course meal sits on the pricey side at AED 334 each. It’s just sad that by the end of our evening only a handful of diners arrive  – it may have been Ramadan but on the other side of town, Souk Al Bahar is rocking. Perhaps a sign that the location in what is essentially a family-friendly beach resort is not right for this Japanese fine dining establishment? With so much competition in Dubai on the Japanese front in some splendid, buzzing locations, the exquisite food alone, and exquisite it is, is sadly not a strong enough driver to make me return. Here’s to a three out of five FooDiva knife rating.

What do you reckon? Would you choose a restaurant based on food alone? How important is location and atmosphere to your dining experience?

Watatsumi is located at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina, Al Sufouh road, Dubai. T; +971 4 3993373. E; Open Monday to Sunday 12noon – 11pm. Licensed. Price per head without booze AED 334. Wine aside, there’s a large cocktail and sake menu – the dirty martinis are pretty good ;). 

A bientôt.

FooDiva. x

P.S – of late I have been writing the odd food feature for The National. Here are links to a couple that may interest you. What are chefs Nick and Scott up to next with their move and what will happen to Table 9? Plus how does an Emirati celebrate Eid including a round-up of Emirati restaurants in the UAE, recipes and signature Eid dishes from across the Middle East.

FooDiva Rating: Knife Rating: 3
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12 Responses to “From Retro to Tang to Watatsumi”

  1. Marianna August 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

    It’s good to finally have a Japanese restaurant on that strip of town! But too bad for the price! It will have to be really special to justify that spending.
    I used to love Tang! My very first experience in molecular gastronomy, amazing.

    • FooDiva August 15, 2013 at 9:06 pm

      You’re right Marianna I always long for a Japanese in my neighbourhood where I can have a carafe of soothing sake. Mind you we have Honyaki at Madinat, but that’s just sushi. It’s a shame Tang closed, Stephane is very talented – hopefully we’ll see him pop up in another venue sometime! In the meantime, if you haven’t already do try Pierre Gagnaire’s Reflets at Intercon – pretty special and whilst he’s not as innovative as Tang was he does incorporate molecular technique in his cooking.

  2. GA August 15, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Retro used to serve the most amazing braised belly of pork dish, was a bit sad when it closed down I have to say. Japanese food as you know is one cuisine that doesn’t tickle my taste buds. However the location of restaurants is, was Titanic’s failure due to its location? yes in my opinion it was. However Table9 didn’t have the best location and look how successful Nick and Scott were. Maybe we should do a look back on restaurants that are long gone, I used to love place in the basement at Mina Seyahi, not for the food so much but for the atmosphere, name escapes me, it’s old age Foo x

    • FooDiva August 15, 2013 at 9:11 pm

      Yes I believe Titanic closed down because of the location. As for Table 9, the chefs are very talented but the restaurant still suffered because of the location and the interior – it wasn’t all plain sailing. Agh you mean, Ciro’s the glorified pizzeria. Oh no…can’t say the atmosphere appealed to me for reasons I’ll tell you in person 😉 x

      • GA August 16, 2013 at 10:26 am

        I know it what you are saying but it had a few fond memories for me 🙂

  3. Kelly August 15, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Of course the location and atmosphere are very important, even more if the prices are on the high side.
    Good review anyway.

    • FooDiva August 15, 2013 at 9:12 pm

      Thanks Kelly 🙂

  4. dave reeder August 15, 2013 at 11:11 am

    I’ll travel to out of the way spots if I know the place and the food is good. Harder to make that call on a chance at something new. All the times I’ve been to Mina Seyahi over the years, I’ve never seen any of its outlets (apart, of course, from Barasti) anything approaching busy… And I think this is the fourth attampt at fine dining in that location – it was Stephane@Retro for a short while.

    • FooDiva August 15, 2013 at 9:13 pm

      You’re right about Stephane@Retro Dave, but I see that as more of a name change rather than the launch of a new concept.

  5. OB August 15, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    It’s nice to see a Japanese restaurant taking dessert seriously. The dishes you describe sound enticing. Dessert always seems like an after-thought in oriental restaurants. In fact, this is a problem at many restaurants in this city. Today, I ordered a strawberry cheesecake and a pistachio eclair from a newly opened restaurant in Downtown and I expected the cheesecake to amaze given the restaurant’s country of origin and the eclair to sing given the restaurant’s name. But no such joy in either case. OK, so the cheesecake wasn’t bad, but if you want “not bad” there’s always tonnes of recipes online for that sort of thing – you needn’t pay a premium!

    • FooDiva August 15, 2013 at 9:17 pm

      Ooh now you have me intrigued. I can hazard a guess at the restaurant in question but it would be so much easier if you just tell me 🙂 From what I hear on the grapevine the pastry chef at Watatsumi is pretty talented, evident in our desserts.

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