Don Alfonso 1890 – an (almost) bona fide Italian experience
Allow me to take you back to the fall of 2007. I was a university student studying abroad in Rome and without going into all of the (culinary) details, I put on the ‘freshman 15′ (the dreaded 15 pounds one gains in their first year in college). Pretty much the equivalent of the so-called ‘Dubai stone.’ I don’t regret a single meal (or pound, for that matter). Given my very apparent love for true, rustic Italian food, the prospect of dining at one of Dubai’s newest Italian restaurants, Don Alfonso 1890, excited me – particularly when I discovered the original Amalfi coast eatery’s illustrious culinary history (over four decades of it) including two Michelin stars. And with other successful locations in Rome, Marrakech, and Macau, coupled with the fact that the chef de cuisine here Christian de Nadai trained under fourth generation Don Alfonso himself, our own Dubai spot (located on the second floor of the Shangri-La Hotel) would have quite a bit to live up to. I enlisted a friend, a discerning Italian, so that we could (hopefully) relive our Italian food glory days at Don Alfonso.
We were greeted by the friendly host and seated in the centre of the cosy restaurant with only about a dozen tables or so. Immediately struck by the intimacy of the smaller space, and how much that did indeed remind me of a traditional Italian trattoria; however, the decor was modern and busy, with a smattering of mirrors and a myriad of contrasting patterns. The multitude of motifs adorning the chairs, coupled with mirrored walls, all in a smaller venue, evoked a bit of a dizzying effect on us.
The service however impressed, as our waiter was attentive, genial, and well versed in the menu: where certain ingredients were sourced (for instance the exact olive grove from which the ethereal olive oil originated), which Italian white vino we should imbibe in given our food selections (no sommelier services were offered though), and most importantly, urged us to order the mozzarella soufflé (his favourite item on the entire menu).
As any good Italian meal should be, we indulged in several courses, and what hearty Italian meal would be complete without a serving (or two) of fresh mozzarella? Oh and fresh it was: we ordered the mozzarella soufflé with snow and cherry tomatoes sauce, crispy basil, and oregano at AED85 as well as the lobster and mozzarella skewer with lemon flavoured lettuce coulis and fresh shaved black truffle (AED160). Sounds decadent, no? It was every bit as tantalising and rich as one would hope. The pillow-soft soufflé came out in a piping hot ramekin, accompanied by the zestiest of tomato sauces; the velvety soufflé gave way to a clean, nutty mozzarella aftertaste one would hope for and expect. This is a dish to rival any Italian antipasti. And despite the heaviness one would expect from this dense cheese, the soufflé remained light, airy, and fully satisfying as a starter (though I could have eaten about three more as my primi, secondi, and dolce courses!) Our other appetiser choice was another winner: the lobster medallions were succulent and juicy, not to mention exceedingly well seasoned, while the mozzarella was equally tender. The lemon flavoured lettuce coulis offered just the right amount of fresh bite to temper this wholly fresh starter.
For the primi piatti, we opted for the saffron risotto with crab meat salad and sea urchin emulsion (AED145) – very Italy meets the Middle East in its flavour. Risotto is not an easy dish to prepare, but the consistency was ideal – not too soupy and the rice cooked to al dente perfection – the vivid yellow of the saffron was another highlight of this dish. The seafood salad in the middle was dense with sea fare, and just as hearty. For the secondi piatti, we opted for the lemon and thyme roasted, corn-fed baby chicken atop a potato cake and green asparagus (AED130). The meat fell off the bone with little prodding, and while the dish itself was well prepared, it was a little lacklustre by comparison to our preceding options – a bit of a mistake in ordering on our part, as the Amalfi coast of Italy is renowned for its seafood, and the menu for the mains was full of seafood selections that may have excited our taste buds a bit more.
Our final course, the dolce, was the signature dessert: a concerto of lemon fritters and yoghurt cream (AED80). Lemon is heavily used in Italian cooking and whenever I see ‘signature’ on the menu, it’s a done deal. When the dessert was presented, the crystalised lemon sugar topping piqued our interest, but unfortunately, the dessert fell flat in terms of flavour as well as texture: the sorbet was prosaic, and the lemon fritters were sparse compared to the ordinary sorbet. I would try the tiramisu roll next time. Our final taste of Don Alfonso 1890 was the passion fruit-infused limoncello, served after all other dishes had been cleared – the Italian liqueur was the icing on the cake of a truly memorable Italian meal.
So how does Don Alfonso compare to the typical Italian fare my companion and I were accustomed during our respective stays in Italy? The food was molto bene, and one could tell that the ingredients were fresh and of the highest quality (the seasonal green asparagus in the chicken dish, for instance, is unrivaled to any vegetable I have come across). Whilst the produce is traditionally Italian, the execution in most parts was more creative than rustic, authentic cuisine – and one of the reasons why his Amalfi restaurant boasts two Michelin stars.
The out of place contemporary interior design and lack of overall ambience lets Don Alfonso 1890 down though. At AED300 per person (excluding alcohol), Don Alfonso 1890 is certainly no bargain meal, but we were definitely taken back to Italy with the exquisite twist on Italian cuisine, tantalising flavours, and the highest standard of service. If you’re in the mood for superb Italian fare, look no further – just don’t go expecting an authentic Neapolitan, Mediterranean, or even Italian, atmosphere.
The food at Don Alfonso 1890 absolutely matched the high standard of culinary prowess from my previous dining experience at Social (although the lobster appetiser at Don Alfonso edged out that of Social). However, the overall atmosphere of Don Alfonso didn’t quite match the Italian food we enjoyed or the sleek simplicity of Social, hence a small knock to the overall rating. Here’s to a three out of five FooDiva knife rating.
Have you dined here? Or perhaps one of the other Don Alfonso 1890 locations around the globe? How did it compare?
So who’s our guest restaurant reviewer, Abby? “I’m a twenty something (a lady never reveals her true age) self-proclaimed foodie, exploring my new home – and restaurants – here in Dubai. I’m a former healthcare consultant turned expat wife and writer of my own blog.“
P.S – Don’t forget to enter our West 14th competition here and win a host of lunches.