Just how rogue is R Trader
When I first read the promotional material for R Trader, the new ‘modern British with international influences’ restaurant in DIFC’s Al Fattan Currency House (brought to us by the same team behind Pier 7’s The Scene by Simon Rimmer), I thought it might specifically target a certain type of high-end banker. Between a name that’s self-consciously a play on ‘rogue trader’, the financial district location, and the 1920s speakeasy theme, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was the main audience. So I’m glad that I didn’t allow my preconceptions to cloud my judgement, because R Trader served up some excellent food.
But before we get to that food, I’m going to have another rant about ill-conceived sharing concepts. R Trader’s main menu is divided between ‘raw’, ‘sea’, ‘birds & beasts’, and ‘land’ (menu-ese, I think, for ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegetables’). Each of the selections within these sections is then designated with an ‘S’ for ‘small plate’ or ‘L’ for ‘large plate’. When I asked our (lovely) waiter if these were the equivalents of starters and mains, the reply was the dreaded phrase ‘well, we have a sharing concept, and you can share the small plates’.
Why do restaurants do this? What marketing study tells them that ‘sharing concepts’ have to be shoe-horned into a menu where they don’t really fit? Neither of our ‘small plates’ were brought to the table in a style designed for sharing; they were starters for one. The food at R Trader is well executed, but it grates that there’s a forced ‘sharing concept’ that doesn’t fit the menu or the way courses are served, and doesn’t seem to tie into the larger plates at all. Why not just keep the broader thematic menu divisions and just call the small and large plates ‘starters’ and ‘mains’? Which, realistically, is what they are, and was how we ordered.
But that’s going to be my last complaint about R Trader. I don’t usually play the Dubai restaurant bingo game of ordering foie gras and/or truffles, but I made an exception here. My foie gras and brioche sandwich was served with ‘fairground onions, toffee apples, popcorn’, which might sound like a nightmare combination of fattened bird liver and fairground, but was both deliciously balanced between the rich foie gras and tart apples (with little candy discs on top), and one of the more aesthetically pleasing plates of food I’ve had in Dubai. This set the scene for some excellent presentation over the evening; which wouldn’t save the food if it was mediocre, but is a bonus when the food is this good. It’s perhaps harder to get creative with a serving of caramelised cauliflower risotto (served with Banyuls, a French fortified wine), but they certainly don’t skimp on the shaved truffle. The rice grains were maybe just a little on the firm side of al dente for my tastes, but I appreciate that this is a personal preference (and one that might appal Italians), and there was certainly no problem with the rich, almost meaty, flavours.
For mains (sorry, ‘large plates’) I ordered the hand-dived scallops with grilled leeks, tater tots, and dill. I’m not sure how many Dubai menus make a virtue of their scallops being hand-dived, but – from a marine conservation perspective – I hope it becomes a trend. The dish was served with a remarkable rösti on top that looked more like delicate sugarwork rendered in potato than German Switzerland’s national dish. If I was going to quibble, the rösti and leeks were slightly awkward to cut up – it’s not a plate of food I’d recommend to neat and dainty eaters – but the scallops were perfectly cooked and richly tender. My dining companion ordered the BBQ Welsh lamb with aloo gobi, onion bhaji, and chaat masala. The Indian flavours here were delicately restrained, allowing the lamb to come to the foreground while still complementing the dish (my companion found it just slightly over-salted, but we agreed to disagree). The ‘onion bhaji’ consisted of some excellent Indian-spiced onion rings – a notoriously difficult dish to get right (the onion rings, that is; not the Indian spicing), but which R Trader pulls off with style.
The real highlight of the meal was the desserts. R Trader takes some real risks here, instead of offering safe, comforting options, and this pays off handsomely. The ‘hot & cold’ single bean chocolate with ‘Aztec flavours’ and smoky churros doesn’t hold back from the chilli; though – as any good Aztec can tell you – chilli and chocolate are an excellent match. But my baked Roquefort cheesecake with madeira and pickled grapes was magnificent, the central cheesecake encased in a madeira jelly. The waiter was clearly concerned about what I’d think of this dish, warning me that it was savoury rather than sweet. He needn’t have worried; just think of it as a strongly-flavoured cheese course at the end of the meal – hardly an unprecedented concept – and you’ll be fine.
Speaking of service, our waiter was excellent; attentive, knowledgeable about the menu, friendly without being overfamiliar, and doing his level best to cover for the worrying lack of atmosphere. We were the only table of diners in the restaurant on a weekend evening. R Trader has a good strong concept (‘sharing’ theme aside), wonderful food, a warm wood-toned art deco-tinged décor that matches the 1920s speakeasy theme, and separate bar and restaurant areas so that you can linger over a drink. At about AED300 a head without alcohol, prices are reasonable for what’s on offer – but there are almost no customers. Yes it’s new, but this is the second new DIFC restaurant I’ve reviewed in a row with almost no punters. We were walking out just as the band was about to start to play. Who were they going to play for?
I’d love to give R Trader a four knife rating, but until it can bring in more customers to create the vibe it’s looking for (and hopefully still deliver on great food and service), it’s going to have to be three and a half out of five FooDiva knives.
But I hope those customers turn up, because on the basis of the food, service and pricing, R Trader really deserves to be a success. I’d return just for the Roquefort cheesecake.
How important is atmosphere to you? Are there perhaps too many competing restaurants now in DIFC?
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. While now based in the UK, his work occasionally brings him back to Dubai.
— FooDiva SamanthaWood (@FooDivaWorld) March 1, 2016