Zeta – is it solely location, location, location?
The hospitality industry’s long-standing mantra ‘location, location, location’ (which incidentally some argue is now passé) is one portion of the dining experience that Dubai’s first (I think) outdoor-only licensed restaurant gets right. Newly opened Zeta is perched on prime real estate – The Address Downtown Dubai’s expanded pool terrace, overlooking Burj Khalifa and the dancing, musical fountains.
An al fresco nocturnal setting coupled with a pretty booked out restaurant makes for a romantic yet buzzy ambiance. But how do the other aspects of our experience fare?
We are seated on tables a little lower than normal, with ridiculously comfy armchairs in direct view of the fountains (pictured here). Initially I have seating envy for the regular tables right by the railing, but be warned whenever the fountains kick off, there’s a rush for photographs ruining any chance of a tête-à-tête soirée. So I am glad we stay put.
The website claims Zeta, a home-grown concept (not to be confused with its namesake celeb-haunt bar in London) offers Asian fusion, but one look at the menu and the dishes are definitely more modern Japanese with the odd peppering of French and Peruvian fare. As my date points out, the white font on black background is a challenge to read in dimmed lighting, and he has good vision. Zeta is open for lunch too by the way. Sushi, sashimi, salads, soups, tartares and chilled seafood make up the majority of the starters, whilst the main course selection focuses on hot seafood and meaty grills.
One of two appetisers arrives first, but oddly our waitress does not mention that dishes will be served as and when they’re ready – something a recent, controversial review by The Man in the White Hat discusses. Was there a delay or is that Zeta’s serving style? I don’t know.
Anyhow if you eat with me, you always share, so we ravenously tuck into one of Zeta’s signature sushi maki rolls, the ‘Fountain’ – shrimp tempura, cucumber and cream cheese, wrapped in Wagyu beef and drizzled with teriyaki sauce. A wonderful mix of textures, and ever so moreish – but the beef is overcooked and not as lightly seared as it should be. Our second starter arrives whilst we’re half way through numero uno. The Japanese fried chicken karaage dish is Japan’s healthy answer to KFC, with morsels of chicken lightly fried in oil. Addictively good. A side of shredded cabbage is overpowered by too generous a dousing of spiced yuzu.
Our mains are indeed served at the same time. A Japanese restaurant’s black cod dish is always a good litmus test, and the version here is, like Nobu’s original, marinated in miso, but it’s over-seasoned and not flaky. A tangy yuzu emulsion works well to offset the fish’ saltiness. The grilled lamb chops (Korean-inspired says the menu) are succulent and served medium to rare, with a spiced BBQ sauce. A side dish of baked sweet potato is a little undercooked and rather unusually comes sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon which does not appeal to either of us, but that’s a personal preference. The baby bok choy is steamed perfectly al dente with a seriously good kick of paprika.
I always struggle with desserts on any Far-Eastern or Asian menu. There’s hardly ever anything to tempt me, but I accept that’s just me perhaps. Or do you too? So my date opts for a layer of coffee jelly with mango sago and roasted pineapple. I must admit I do relish the creamy roe-like texture of the sago pudding, whilst he happily scoops up the rest.
Whilst service is swift, our waitress is a tad too attentive. There’s also a little bit of a language barrier which leads us to repeating ourselves, but despite that, she certainly knows her dishes and ingredients. For what is essentially a semi-casual dining experience, at AED342 per person without alcohol, Zeta does not come cheap – but you’re paying for the location.
That brings me back to the crux of my review. Overall the food at Zeta is average with some dishes faring better than others, and the service needs fine tuning, but the wow factor comes with the setting and ambiance. And it’s these last two components that would draw me back in. I’ve discussed this balance in the past, but location and atmosphere are, in my opinion, just as important as food and service in a top-end (i.e. licensed with alcohol) restaurant experience. To put it in perspective, on the flip side, when you’re paying top whack, it’s not enough for just the food to impress. After all, you’re unlikely to return if the restaurant has serious service issues, lacks atmosphere and sits in an undesirable locale. So Zeta, what you lose out in food and the odd service glitch, you make up for with location and atmosphere – here’s to a 3 out of 5 FooDiva knife rating.
When dining in a top-end restaurant, how much value do you attribute to location and atmosphere, versus food and service? Have you come across any other outdoor-only licensed restaurants in Dubai? Incidentally there are plans I hear, to enclose Zeta during the steamy summer months.