Does a new fusion restaurant in Dubai play out well?
The pedigree is promising. A new home-grown restaurant opens in Dubai that goes by the appealing name of Play. The chef patron is Reif Othman who moves across from one of Dubai’s top restaurants, Zuma. Whilst fusion interpretations are prolific in Dubai, he calls his cuisine ‘Mediterrasian’, a blend of Asian (mostly Japanese) and Mediterranean flavours. Love or loathe the anagram, at least he is doing fusion differently. A good (but not excellent), yet relatively central location atop the H Hotel’s office tower has spectacular skyline views from floor-to-ceiling windows. A no-expense spared restaurant, lounge and bar interior that oozes class and atmosphere, AND makes you want to stay all night. But is Play well executed?
It takes three attempts to get a booking over the phone. According to comments on FooDiva’s Instagram photo, I am not the only person to experience issues. It’s my second review in a trot where the telephone operator lets the service down. The only reason I persist is for the sake of the review; other punters decide to dine elsewhere. When I finally get a booking, I am told that I can only have a 7.30pm Friday table for a two-hour window. Or else, I can dine at 10.30…who wants to eat that late?! Agh here we go again…I brace myself for another disastrous Novikov-like experience.
A hostess on the ground floor by the elevators that lead straight up to the 36th floor and Play acknowledges our reservation (reserved in my dining companion’s name). On arrival at the restaurant, we’re greeted by a bevy of too many hostesses (you know how I feel about this, I won’t drum on again). We arrive early so settle on a drink at the bar first.
And oh my, what a delightful bar it is. So aesthetically pleasing and well designed, as are the lounge and mammoth restaurant space that flank it. An interior with Art Deco influences, neutral hues and bonsai trees, that despite its size still manages to capture intimacy. The cocktail list marries creative concoctions with classics. Both the Pisco Sours and Cosmos are excellent. One thing that irritates me is the bartender’s insistence on setting up a credit card tab even though we have a dinner reservation. Admittedly the card is handed back after our aperitif, but it still seems like a pedantic request.
A hostess escorts us to our table a deux which is sandwiched between other tables therefore lacking privacy, so I ask if we can sit in one of two neighbouring, vacant window tables. She says sure. But why do restaurants have to offer secondary tables when other better tables are clearly available and not booked up? Thankfully, this is where the arrogant service ends, and Play’s front-of-house operation begins to excel. Our waiter is pleasant, authoritative and more importantly has personality. He does try to upsell once though, which I will blame on his boss, not him – seven dishes between two of us (not including dessert) is more than enough; we don’t need any more.
A menu, I believe, should sell itself. I really don’t want to waste time hearing a waiter explain a concept – which thankfully he does not offer to do here. But the menu at first glance is a little confusing with dishes divided into sections like ‘Partager’; ‘Zesto’; ‘Binchotan’ further split into ‘Mariscos’, ‘Jardiner’ and ‘Tierra’; and ‘Uramaki’. Whilst my few linguistic skills allow me to translate some of these as ‘for sharing’ (French); hot (Greek); ‘seafood’ (Spanish); ‘from the garden’ (French); ‘from the earth’ (Italian); and ‘uramaki’ denoting the Japanese inside-out sushi rolls, I really have no idea what Binchotan means, and neither does our waiter when we ask him. He should know though. And I am sure many diners would share the same menu confusion, so perhaps adding a translation next to these foreign terms may help. Incidentally after googling, Binchotan refers to Japanese charcoal – the cooking technique used for the main courses.
Anyhow it’s about time we tuck into the food. Chef Reif’s cooking style at Play draws on his modern Japanese expertise and is very subtly interspersed with Mediterranean ingredients in some dishes. He manages to pull it off, in most parts, exquisitely. We order dishes from different sections of the menu. ‘S&T’ aka surf and turf air crackers; the king crab cracker filling topped with lychee ‘espuma’ foam is sublime, but the wagyu with foie gras foam lets itself down with an over-salted chipotle seasoning. The rock shrimps with a piquant citrus salt dip are addictively good, like popcorn. My choice of uramaki boasts spicy chutoro, the super soft medium fatty tuna belly, with yuzu flavoured tobiko (flying fish roe) adding crunch and the chilli mayo, a boost in flavour – excellent.
I really have to test his black ‘cod’ expertise and I am glad to see he steers away from mimicking Zuma’s, but instead creates what I reckon will become Play’s bestseller – served two ways with both versions boasting the famous sweet miso marinade; one arrives as succulent, grilled skewers teriyaki-style, and the other as moreish Spanish croquettes, sans the potato. The medium-rare lamb cutlets in a spice marinade served with pickled aubergine and tapenade could benefit from being a little tenderer. His Japanese sweet corn is a tad similar to Zuma’s, in that it is grilled, but at Play it is served drenched in the most wonderful butter sauce spiced with Moroccan ras el hanout and lime – this is what umami is all about.
As for desserts, we manage to squeeze in the hokkaido cheesecake for the sake of reviewing, and I am glad we do. Delectable – fluffy and creamy, with a crunchy walnuty biscuit base, and a drizzle of a delightful orange blossom sauce. The accompanying saffron milk sorbet overpowers the cheesecake in my opinion, but my dining companion enjoys the strong contrast.
We leave six minutes before our allotted two-hour window. In all fairness at no point do we feel rushed. The restaurant is far from busy yet still boasts a wonderful vibe. I gather they are trying to minimise bookings by holding covers to ensure the operation runs smoothly in its early days. Good call, but when guests try and reserve, then that should be politely explained. Surprisingly but refreshingly the menu, wine and cocktail lists are very well priced making Play at AED250 – 270 per person (without alcohol) a high-end, yet incredibly good value-for-money dining experience. Bar the telephone operator’s attitude, Play does live up to its pedigree ticking the food, atmosphere, location, service and value-for-money boxes. And for that, here’s to a 3.5 out of 5 FooDiva knife rating – fix the attitude and you’re up for a four.
Who’s dined at Play or should I ask who’s tried to dine at Play?
— FooDiva SamanthaWood (@FooDivaWorld) February 8, 2016