From Retro to Tang to Watatsumi
Back 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.
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.
Service 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; email@example.com 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 ;).
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.