Frioul Bistro De Luxe – it’s all about the concept

Frioul Bistro de Luxe - Madinat JumeirahFrioul Bistro De Luxe is the new southern Mediterranean French restaurant at Souk Madinat Jumeirah replacing Jambase. It’s also a classic case study in how a confused – and confusing – restaurant ‘concept’ can undermine an otherwise promising venue serving some attractive food.

The central challenge with Frioul (‘Bistro De Luxe’ is a subtitle) is that the hypothetical ‘sharing concept’ is a poor match for an otherwise fairly traditional menu. I found myself imagining a conversation between the restaurant’s operational team and a marketing manager…

  • “We want to open a southern French restaurant (with some Italian influences) offering quality food and a decent wine selection for fair prices.”
  • “Yes, but what’s your concept?”
  • “Err…. Quality southern French food at fair prices.”
  • “Sorry, but these days any restaurant opening in Dubai needs a concept… What about a sharing concept? Sharing concepts are cool.”
  • “So how’s that going to work with a traditional French menu of starters, mains, and desserts?”
  • “That’s your problem, not mine; just so long as we can tell the PR people that you have a concept.”

The result is a disconnect between menu and concept. Customers walk in, sit down, and are told that the restaurant has a “sharing concept”, and that food “arrives when it’s ready” (which, to be blunt, like with Fümé and many Dubai restaurants sounds like shorthand for “we can’t be bothered plating up the food traditionally”). They’re then presented with a menu that’s divided between two starter sections (le grignotage [technically snacks, but translated here as tapas] and pour commencer), one section that contains both starters and mains (pizzetta and pasta), three sections of mains (land and air, from the garden and la mer), one of sides (les à cotés), and one of desserts.  Baffled at how this might all fit in with the ‘sharing concept’, we asked the waiter whether the dishes in the three sections of mains were ‘sharing size’ or ‘ordinary mains’. They were the latter.

The upshot of this was we totally ignored the ‘sharing concept’ when ordering, ordered one dish from le grignotage, one starter-sized dish from pizzetta and pasta, one main each from land and air and la mer, and a dessert each. And these were plated up more or less as I’d expect, the two starters arriving near-simultaneously, the two mains arriving with each other, and likewise the desserts. So how, precisely, does the ‘sharing concept’ operate here given we ended up eating a fairly traditional French restaurant meal? I know I’m belabouring the point, but the supposed concept just didn’t match the actual menu and how the food was served. Perhaps some of this works better for diners sitting at the (lavish) bar late on a weekend, but it’s all a bit of a muddle when it comes to sit-down table service.

The self-inflicted confusion here is a shame given that the food is actually quite good. There’s some real promise in Frioul’s kitchen. A ‘grignotage’ of frogs legs with a parsley and garlic purée featured four small breaded lollipoped mouthfuls of frog on a herby puree. Though slightly underseasoned (it was lifted by just a little salt), there was a good mix of textures here. Spinach and taleggio garlic bread made really good use of my favourite Italian cheese – though I’m so in love with taleggio that I might not be entirely unbiased.

Frogs legsTaleggio breadMulletClafoutis

A main of red mullet, sardine sauce and saffron mayonnaise (also with strands of fennel) skillfully balanced a strong, salty sardine sauce with a soft saffron mayonnaise – two potentially overpowering flavours that worked well together here. There was some minor inconsistency with the mullet, one piece of which was slightly dry (the rest were cooked to perfection), but overall this was a good dish. The duck magret with baked peaches was also a strong dish, with the peaches and sauce adding some welcome counterbalance to the fattiness of the skin. I really liked the texture and feel of that fat, though Mrs White Hat said she would have preferred a little crispiness to her duck skin. A side of pommes frites with aioli was the only real disappointment. The aioli was fine, but the chips were limp and a little turgid; I’ll stick to Belgian frites.

No one can accuse Frioul of stinting on the armagnac in the richly sweet (and boozy) dessert of prunes with armagnac, though the accompanying ice cream was slightly crystallised rather than smooth. The clafoutis of the day (raspberry) was excellent – a real highlight – though perhaps could have benefited from a side of either cream or ice cream. Vegetarians will be grateful for a good selection of attractive options across the menu.

A real strength of Frioul lies in the wine list. Every wine on the fairly priced and well-selected list is available as a glass, a 375ml carafe, or a full-sized bottle. This is a something that I’d like to see at more restaurants globally, never mind in Dubai. Frioul also offers free mineral water, regularly topped up by the staff, making it the only licenced restaurant I’ve been to in Dubai offering free water. It’s another nice touch that works to the restaurant’s credit.

Staff are friendly, but perhaps too solicitous and efficient. That’s admittedly an odd complaint for Dubai, where we’re all more used to passive-aggressive indifference, but we found ourselves timing the floor staff to see whether they could bring themselves to leave us alone for more than three consecutive minutes. And usually, they couldn’t; sometimes interruptions came every 30 seconds. The service was so regularly and recurringly intrusive that I felt like I was in a Cold War thriller where the entire restaurant staff had been replaced by Warsaw Pact agents ordered to try and overhear where I’d hidden the microfilm containing the secret nuclear launch codes.

Restaurant décor is on the conservative side of white, which does give the venue a bit of a wedding reception feel, but is otherwise serviceable. Frioul is slightly hard to find. It’s at ground level next to the Souk amphitheatre; so walk down to the bottom of the ampitheatre, and turn right towards the canal. The location may help explain why the restaurant was gently buzzing on a weekend rather than busy (unlike Rivington Grill and Belgian Beer Café upstairs, which were both packed), but a busier vibe may come with time. Though the band was good, a single short live jazz set felt a bit perfunctory. Given Frioul is open until 3am on weekends, the band was likely pacing itself for a long evening; but the forest of columns meant that many diners couldn’t see the musicians anyway.

There’s a good restaurant here that’s currently struggling to get out, overwhelmed by an ill-fitting concept that simply doesn’t suit the menu. The staff could also usefully take a deep breath and relax. The quality of the food deserves better. Ditch the sharing concept, and take pride in being a reasonably traditional – in my phrasing – ‘southern French restaurant (with some Italian influences) offering quality food for fair prices’ (a perfectly fine ‘concept’ for many of us) and Frioul could become a very welcome addition to Dubai’s French restaurant scene. A total bill for two (excluding wine) was AED 455, which makes it a potentially attractive option at this end of the dining market. But right now it’s having a minor identity crisis that’s holding it back from reaching its potential; so it’s an average three out of five FooDiva knives from me.

What do you think of the now prolific sharing concept? Do you pay any attention to a ‘concept’ when choosing a restaurant? Do you think that restaurants in Dubai or anywhere for that matter, have to have a ‘concept’ that is explained to diners, or should it merely sell itself? Here’s Jay Rayner’s thoughts in a London restaurant review – scroll to para four and five.

The Man in the White Hat.

So who’s FooDiva’s anon guest reviewer, The Man in the White Hat? He has an abiding interest in both history and food; his holidays tend to combine an intriguing local cuisine with a UNESCO World Heritage site, and he’s eaten his way across some 50 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australasia.  He currently lives in Dubai, where he edits a couple of academic publications.

FooDiva Rating: Knife Rating: 3
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18 Responses to “Frioul Bistro De Luxe – it’s all about the concept”

  1. JayEim October 8, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Thank you for the review.

    The “Sharing Concept” seems pretty straightforward.

    You are “Sharing” each other company while dining 😉

    French food Sharing is a non starter (pun intended)

    On another note, I am looking forward to read your piece on the new “Souper Douper” Lebanese/Levant/Syrian/Turkish/Australian nouvelle cuisine, La Clé or Clef……Alternatively, pics of the Models will do nicely thank you.

    Now that would be a delight reading it from you.

    • The Man in the White Hat October 8, 2014 at 12:38 pm

      That’s a nice take on the idea of a sharing concept – and I certainly enjoyed the time shared with my dining companion; but, as you note, in application to the actual food, there’s potentially more of an issue in a French restaurant.

      As to Clé Dubai, that’s up to FooDiva – but it doesn’t open to the public until the 13th, and I doubt I’m going to be allowed in alongside Paris Hilton and Khloe Kardashian for the formal launch this weekend 😉

  2. SJ October 8, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    I went to Frioul three weeks ago for lunch and I was a little disappointed by the food. As you said, it’s not effectively a sharing concept but I can forgive them that if the food is great. Except that it wasn’t. The smoked salmon pizzeta we shared as a starter was tasty and then it went downhill from there. The coq au vin was OK… just OK. The lamb stew with the flageolet beans was very salty and lacked texture. And the raspberry clafoutis was very eggy. It was made on the spot for us but didn’t taste good at all. It left that eggy after-taste in my mouth even after washing it down with wine and water. I’ve had much better French food and desserts before. Perhaps I should go back and give them a second chance since it’s a fairly new venue…

    • The Man in the White Hat October 8, 2014 at 3:38 pm

      Interesting… You clearly had a more negative experience with the food than I did; for me, the food just about rescued the confusion over the sharing concept – and that wasn’t the case for you at all. The only dish that we both seem to have had was the clafoutis, and mine wasn’t nearly as overwhelmingly eggy as you’re reporting here. That said, I agree that I’ve had better French food; but for the price point, the food seemed fair, and my issues there were minor (turgid pommes frites excepted)

      If you went three weeks ago, you were presumably there right after they opened (around the 13th of September), so it might well be worth giving them a second chance if you’re looking for a French option in that price range – though I think they’re perhaps going to have broader issues so long as that disconnect between concept and menu continues.

      • SJ October 23, 2014 at 8:48 am

        Just wanted to report that I went to Frioul again two days ago and the food improved from the last time I was there! I actually liked everything I had this time. Also, the waiters did not even mention the sharing concept to us and we each got our food separately so I think they got it and are perhaps slowly abandoning their sharing concept in light of your (and others’) review.

        • The Man in the White Hat October 23, 2014 at 9:27 am

          Interesting feedback there, SJ – thanks for sharing. I did feel that the restaurant has a lot of promise if it can sort out the conceptual disconnect. I’ve just checked the website, and that does still mention a “sharing concept” – but your experience suggests that they’re downplaying that now in practice.

  3. David Miras October 10, 2014 at 10:41 am

    I concur with everything i read on here, i went yesterday and thought it was decent for the price paid with the negatives being:

    -Les frittes, quel sacrilege!
    -The menu was confusing as it didn’t have much “light” options for a lunch, i think that a set menu for quick business lunches would do well
    -Italian food on offer??? why??? again sacrilege!
    -There was an odd impromptu office setup inside the restaurant, giving the impression that the concept now changed to Cyber-Cafe
    -Service as you said was very over-bearing and somewhat nervous as well as lacking product knowledge

    My photos here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/dablindfrog/15487269915/

    Also, hats off to the Chef, good execution of French cuisine given that the lad is a Brit

    • The Man in the White Hat October 11, 2014 at 9:03 am

      David, given the broad agreement, I’ll only comment on the Italian issue. Frioul’s website does specifically state that the restaurant’s cuisine “is of French Mediterranean origin, which has blended and evolved with subtle influences of Italy.” That’s why my own review notes “some Italian influences”.

      And I think that’s fair enough; I have a recipe book at home on the traditional cuisine of the Riviera region, mixing dishes from both sides of the French-Italian border, so there’s plenty of precedent there if we want to go looking for it. The issue is perhaps that this entirely reasonable menu concept isn’t really shared with diners, while the confusing and not particularly well-suited sharing concept is consistently highlighted in PR and to diners. I think Frioul would do better to focus on the strengths of the menu given that the food is much better than the concept.

      That said, I did raise an eyebrow at the ceviche; I wasn’t aware that Peru was in any particular proximity to France.

  4. Garry W October 11, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Restaurants should concentrate on doing one thing really well rather than ending up trying to please everyone as seems to be the case with Frioul where they have a traditional style menu being offered in the ‘à la mode’ manner of the ‘sharing concept’. You hit the nail on the head by referring to Jay Rayner’s article on the Greek Restaurant in London.

    • The Man in the White Hat October 11, 2014 at 11:00 am

      Thanks, Garry – I think the “doing one thing really well” point is a good one here. There’s nothing wrong with the food at Frioul (frites excepted), so why complicate things with an unnecessary sharing concept? I only came across the Jay Rayner article after writing up the main body of my review – it didn’t influence my approach here – but it certainly has some pertinent things to say on the issue.

      Eight words I really don’t want to hear over the next 12 months after sitting down at a restaurant table: “let me explain the menu concept to you”.

      I appreciate that restaurants do need a ‘concept’ for marketing purposes, and to drive restaurant development, but once you have to actively explain the menu concept to your customers, you might have a problem since it suggests the concept can’t stand on its own.

  5. GoldenGoose February 26, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    I’m all for honest, in-depth criticism (as opposed to TimeOut’s prattle) but after some lengthy paragraphs and 9 comments on the matter, let’s please dry our crocodile tears move on from the sharing concept issue. The food is pretty good here (loved the duck eggs with smoked haddock and gruyere) and they’re trying to do things a little differently to Dubai’s formulaic hotel bumfluff.
    3 knives is rather miserly so the GoldenGoose gives them 4 eggs.

    • The Man in the White Hat February 27, 2015 at 1:55 pm

      I think that you’ll find, GoldenGoose, that we have all moved on; after all the most recent comment in this review before your own is four months old.

      That said, a couple of points here. As my review of Frioul clearly states, “the food is actually quite good. There’s some real promise in [the] kitchen”. And my separate review of Boca (http://www.foodiva.net/2014/12/boca-when-sharing-concepts-work/?c=16) shows that I’m can enjoy a sharing concept when it’s well-executed. The problem with Frioul some four and a half months ago – and SJ’s comment from the 23rd of October suggests they were already acting to resolve the issue by the end of the same month – was the the fairly traditional menu was a poor match for the ‘sharing concept’. This led to an odd disconnect between concept and execution. If they’ve ditched the poorly executed concept while keeping the same high quality of food, then I’m perfectly happy to accept that Frioul is an excellent restaurant _now_.

      But four and a half months ago, its identity crisis was holding it back.

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