Does Novikov deserve the hype or not?
When a friend suggests we dine at Novikov in the Sheraton Grand Hotel my heart sinks. Despite the hype, it’s one Dubai restaurant opening I’ve not been looking forward to. Why would you want to eat in a Russian-named restaurant that serves Far-Eastern food? The owner is Russian restaurateur Arkady Novikov and the concept has been imported from London and Moscow to Dubai by Russian-owned Bulldozer Group who also operate Toko and Sass Cafe. To be precise the PR blurb states that the menu spans Japan, China and South-East Asia. Just to confuse matters, the London and Moscow outposts also boast Italian menus. I’ve always enjoyed my time eating in Russia, both in Moscow where my parents lived, and St Petersburg on a more recent visit. So with such strong Russian ownership and management, I would much prefer to dine on Russian food, especially as it’s an untapped market here. Furthermore, I recall reading restaurant critic Jay Rayner’s review of Novikov London in The Guardian a few years ago that went viral – have a good giggle here.
Anyhow my job demands I try new restaurants with an open mind whether my perception of them is good or bad, and so I make a reservation for Friday night. When the email confirmation stipulates a two and a half hour slot for an 8.30pm booking my heart sinks even deeper. But not as frustratingly deep as when the hostess approaches us at the bar at 8.20pm where we are sipping a delightful Ferrari Brut aperitif (an Italian spumante I tasted this summer in Italy produced with the champagne method – just as decent and much more affordable than French champagne) to tell us: “I hear you would like to move to your table.” Me: No we don’t, we’d like to finish our drinks. Our booking is at 8.30pm. Hostess: You do realise the table is only booked for one and a half hours.
That makes me double check the email confirmation only to find she is wrong. Without wanting to spoil the evening for my dining companions I decide to keep quiet and wait to see if we are kicked off our table. Ten minutes later, on the dot, she escorts us to the dining room, where thanks to a round table my frustration dissipates.
The L-shaped restaurant seats a staggering 280, but the impressive, welcoming design steers away from the vastness with granite walls, cracked stone, dark leather, and mammoth crimson globe-like chandeliers. The dimmed lighting, a well-selected playlist and a packed restaurant all help create a wonderful vibe.
The menu is as mammoth as the restaurant, with many dishes priced so ludicrously high, unless you’re on an expense account, you are forced into ordering the ‘cheaper’ siblings which is what we pretty much do. The starters, i.e. appetisers, sashimi, sushi, salads, dim sum and tempura range from AED50 to 540 – with main course grills and wok dishes at AED80 to 650 (the odd veggie dish is slightly cheaper). At the far end of the dining room, there’s a huge fish market where you can choose your own seafood at a displayed ‘market price’, along with hanging Peking ducks. A quick comparison check of the menu on the London website shows that most dishes, but interestingly not all, are more expensive here in Dubai. Expect to pay for three courses a bare minimum of AED400 and upwards per person, without alcohol, making Novikov one of Dubai’s most expensive restaurants, if not the most expensive and on a par with Pierre Gagnaire’s Reflets and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Dining Room. The Ferrari Brut is reasonably priced though at AED500 per bottle. So how does our food fare and is it worth the price tag?
Toasted edamame and salted Spanish padron peppers make for novel nibbles whilst perusing the menu. From our choice of appetisers, a dim sum of black cod rolled in a denser version of fried shredded filo pastry and served with a mango dip impresses with its creativity, flavour and textural balance, whilst the prawn tempura is excellent…but you can can find good (and cheaper) tempura in many restaurants, Japanese take-away included. A crab and avocado salad arrives as a tower of tartare, but is a little bland. A tuna tartare seriously disappoints mainly because it is mashed at the table, making my niece’s baby food look positively delicious – whilst the nigiri sushi and sashimi, even the decadent otoro, the supreme fattiest of tuna bellies, is much more buttery elsewhere. Perhaps because Novikov’s is sourced from Spain not Japan?
For our main courses, a steamed sea bass fillet with ginger and soya, and wok-fried Szechuan prawns are well executed, but the latter should have more of a kick to match the ‘three chilli’ rating on the menu. Sadly the razor clams with coriander and garlic also lack punch, but more importantly, lack meat, with barely a sliver of clam on each shell. The grilled miso baby chicken never arrives, despite our waitress highly recommending this dish. Is it so delicious that it goes walkies? I don’t mention a word and neither do they notice (thankfully we are not charged for it). On that same note, service is mostly unattentive where we are having to chase for our order to be taken, and for more spumante to be poured. In ironic contrast, they are quick to upsell more bottles.
Despite our mini feast, my dining companions are hungry and turn to a couple of desserts which I taste – a twist on banoffee with miso, and a chocolate fondant. Again good but nothing wow. And that really exemplifies our whole meal. Bar the tuna tartare and the razor clams (two out of 13 dishes), I can’t fault the food but there’s nothing remarkable on that menu to draw me back in a heartbeat. And there should be for such a hefty price. I would return to the bar though for the eclectic and electric atmosphere…and the Ferrari Brut. Topped off by lacklustre and smug service, and with so much excellent choice in Dubai’s Far-Eastern restaurant segment, if I am going out for a slap-up meal, I would rather take my hard-earned money elsewhere. With this in mind, I am giving Novikov a 2.5 out of 5 FooDiva knife rating. Looks like my perception is right.
Or have you had a different experience? What are your thoughts on Novikov Dubai, or even London and Moscow?