Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara: does the expensive price tag serve quality?

Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara - Burj Al Arab - Dubai restaurants - FoodivaWhen I looked at the online menu for chef Nathan Outlaw’s new seafood restaurant in Dubai at the Burj Al Arab, the ‘cheapest’ dining option was an AED450 three-course lunch menu (dinner menus are AED650 and 850). This price point is in keeping with what Nathan mentioned when I interviewed him in March, but what he did not specify, was that one could not just dine on one or two courses – therefore forcing guests to spend a minimum of AED450 per person. In stark contrast, a four-course lunch menu at his two Michelin star UK restaurant costs £59 (AED265) – admittedly thanks to a plummeting pound.

He also claimed, we’ve looked around at other restaurants and I think that we will be more competitive to what’s on in other hotels.” Hmmm…I don’t think so. Given the minimum spend, Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara is Dubai’s most expensive restaurant, in my opinion – beating the likes of Atmosphere, Billionaire Mansion, Ossiano and Reflets (the latter sadly closing down this weekend) – where you can just order a la carte or a more reasonably priced set menu. So if I am going to eat such an expensive meal, I want to see value for money with the utmost quality and perfection across all levels of the dining experience. But, do I?

Contrary to perception, Al Mahara is not an undersea restaurant, but sits on the ground floor (on the same level as the new imported deck in fact). It has been slightly revamped – with a new terrace, but sadly you can’t enjoy your meal outside. It’s reserved for pre and post dinner drinks, or the oyster and caviar menu – thereby forcing you to spend even more money should you like a side of sea breeze with your order. I ask if we can have our desserts outside, to which I am firmly told, no.

Inside, the aquarium still stands, but our waiter informs us the coral has been replaced. The white tablecloths have been removed to show off new Japanese-style lacquered tables, plush velvet chairs, and a new, rather kitsch, carpet. White linen aside, I can’t tell the difference – the décor is just as dated. Al Mahara is at a push, a third-full for a Friday lunch, and we are clearly the only residents. Unsurprisingly, the other diners are mostly Far-Eastern tourists instagramming every moment.

We order small bottles of still (local) and sparkling water. Large bottles of imported Aquafina and San Pellegrino arrive – to which I object. There then follows much confusion between different waiters as to whether Al Mahara stocks local water (even though our waiter initially confirms they do). Twenty minutes later, they confirm no local water is available and return with two small bottles of imported water (each priced at AED40). Note, larger bottles are AED55 – shocking. Needless to say, by that stage we have decided on our order.

The AED450 set menu comprises of seven starter choices, six mains and another six desserts – which makes for a decent selection. All of Nathan’s seafood is sustainably sourced from the UK in keeping with his ethos, but there’s no local fish on the menu, as of now. If you’re not a seafood fan, allowances are made with carnivore and vegetarian dishes. Nathan’s signature appetiser from the UK, a lobster risotto boasts an AED50 supplement, as does the cheese course, and side dishes are priced AED30. Really, can you not throw in a few sides?! A wine pairing option of two glasses for AED175 is available – a reasonable price given the rest of the wine list (a coupe of Louis Roederer Brut Champagne will set you back AED195!). It’s just a shame they can’t throw in three glasses to match each course. The sommelier is a service highlight – slick and knowledgeable. When we place our order at the start, our waiter asks us for our dessert choice. For a restaurant of this calibre, especially one that isn’t particularly busy, surely we can wait to choose our dessert at the end? Which we do, but only after asking.

Our lunch begins to show signs of improvement with the arrival of freshly baked warm rolls – one is speckled with fennel seeds and another with a sharp hard cheese. But the highlight is a delightfully bold smoked cod roe dip dusted with paprika – a clever twist on Greek tarama.

Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara - oysters - Dubai restaurants - FoodivaNathan Outlaw at Al Mahara - sea bream - Dubai restaurants - Foodiva

We’re in a restaurant named after an oyster shell (Al Mahara), so it would be remiss of me not to try these gorgeous bi-valves. Three lightly pickled Gallagher Irish oysters topped with sliced jalapenos and gherkins have a refreshing yet slighty tangy taste (thanks to the pickling) and a plump, juicy texture. No 2s – at least the Burj does not skimp on portion size. Our favourite dish of the day. I question the waiter on the origin and the size, but he has to check with the kitchen before confirming – unacceptable for the high price point. Interestingly, a half dozen of these oysters from the oyster and caviar menu is priced at AED100 which is a good deal – that’s only slightly more than Market & Platters’ retail price. Our second starter disappoints – a pan-fried fillet of sea bream is bland and over-cooked, whilst the chicory tart that it sits on is messy and oily.

Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara - baked cod - Dubai restaurants - FoodivaNathan Outlaw at Al Mahara - Dover Sole - Dubai restaurants - Foodiva

Moving onto main courses, the baked cod is perfectly flakey, whilst accompanying carpet shell clams doused in a herbal butter sauce are moreishly good. The broccoli florets the fish sits on are a little over-charred though. My Dover sole arrives sliced into four fillets, and, sadly, like with the sea bream is overcooked – slightly redeemed by a delicious combination of two plump oysters in a decadent seaweed butter sauce. Some green asparagus spears are wonderfully al dente. In fact, neither of our main courses really require any additional side orders.

Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara - strawberry Champagne sorbet - Dubai restaurants - FoodivaNathan Outlaw at Al Mahara - sticky toffee pudding - Dubai restaurants

It’s a similar mixed bag with our desserts. A scoop of strawberry and Champagne sorbet perches on a bed of dense vanilla ice cream and is dotted with sliced strawberries and mini meringues. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing wow either – a forgettable dessert. In contrast, the sticky toffee pudding topped with caramelised dates (a welcome nod to our region) and a scoop of clotted cream are excellent. In fact, we end up scooping the vanilla ice cream from our first dessert to the sticky toffee pudding, and polishing it off.

I am surprised not to see an amuse bouche served for this type of experience, at this price – however petit fours are offered. Some dishes excel and others are poorly executed, so the food, overall, is average. It’s a similar situation with the hit and miss service, and for this level of dining, all staff should be slick and knowledgeable. The location may be one of the world’s most iconic, but the drab interior is far from inviting, and, aquarium aside, is not reflective of a light and refreshing seafood concept. The terrace is a missed opportunity – imagine what the Burj could have done with a high-end seafood concept on that deck, with that view. To top it all off, the atmosphere is stiff and formal. I had high expectations when I interviewed Nathan that the Burj Al Arab would be able to turn round its F&B with the ‘revamp’ of Al Mahara, but sadly, for a minimum spend of AED450 per person (without alcohol) you’re better off spending your money elsewhere. Here’s to a 2.5 out of 5 FooDiva knife rating.

What do you think is a reasonable price point for a high-end licensed restaurant in Dubai?

A bientôt.

FooDiva. x

FooDiva Rating: Knife Rating: 2.5
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13 Responses to “Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara: does the expensive price tag serve quality?”

  1. Dave Reeder October 31, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Of course, just because it’s the Burj, I think you’re going to pay premium prices, but your review suggests that the kitchen brigade is not yet fully up to speed. Maybe all new restaurants should charge lower prices for a warm-up period, before everything is running smoothly? Prices are subjective, based on food, service, ambience and location but, for Dubai at the high end, I think Social by Heinz Beck has the right sort of price points. It’s interesting, I think, that whilst many other major cities – Paris especially – are seeing chefs opt for simpler decor and menus, settling maybe for a single star, Dubai is still en route for glitz and glamour. Would I rather eat at Al Mahara or, say, The Croft? The Croft every time…

    • FooDiva November 1, 2016 at 3:14 pm

      I think that’s a great idea Dave. In fact I remember when Roberto’s opened at DIFC they offered 50% off for the first couple of weeks. I agree Social by Heinz Beck is a good price point for excellent, creative fare – the lack of atmosphere lets it down though. Dubai is beginning to embrace simpler, more casual licensed options, but they still feel the need to import ‘celeb’ chefs. The sad demise of Reflets will hopefully act as a wake-up call to many top-end restaurants.

  2. GA October 31, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    Great review, ridiculous pricing though even for the Burj. The main courses don’t look that appealing to be honest with you and even though you say you don’t need sides with them, you would want them at that price point!! There are tons of really good seafood places in Dubai, both licensed and unlicensed. I am no longer dining anywhere that doesn’t serve local water, its a disgrace when local businesses don’t support the local economy. I will stick with locally sourced fish and seafood and a bottle of Masafi.

    GA xx

    • FooDiva November 1, 2016 at 3:24 pm

      Thanks GA. LOL. I don’t think because it’s the Burj we should expect them to charge high prices. They will be judged like any other high-end venue. Nathan and the team made it very clear they wanted to target local residents with this new restaurant, and they’ve done everything possible not to. Hopefully they will figure it out for themselves before it’s too late. x

  3. Christiane October 31, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    I totally agree with your review. We went there the 1st day it opened and would not go back. Ridiculously overpriced, decor nothing to write home about, food is a “mixed bag”. Don’t think it will last long.

    • FooDiva November 1, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      Thanks Christiane. If they don’t make some drastic changes, it won’t last longer than a year. I honestly expected a complete interior revamp of Al Mahara with the new deck as the prime lunch and dinner spot during the cooler ‘winter’ months. Why wouldn’t the Burj maximise that outside space for a seafood concept? So when I walked in, I was utterly disappointed, and that set the tone for the rest of the meal.

  4. Matt Broderick October 31, 2016 at 9:57 pm

    great review, as always! This is disappointing but confirms one of my worst fears – that the natural brilliance of Outlaw would be out of place at the Burj (and Al Mahara). I can understand that when I have Michel Roux Jr’s 37GBP lunch menu I might be charged a few extra pounds for extras but at Outlaw’s price point, everything needs to be included. Amuse bouche’s are a highlight and tell a lot about a restaurant (best I ever had was at Alimentum in Cambridge). The water issue has to be the most infuriating, not to mention the lack of flexibility. I will still try it one day because I love fish but can’t help think that I can save my money and visit the real thing in the UK (I can actually get a 1-stop flight to London for the same price as the full tasting menu!).

    I’m still to find a fish restaurant that I love in the UAE – Bord Eau in Abu Dhabi does it well but usually only one or two options on the menu.

    • FooDiva November 1, 2016 at 3:33 pm

      Thanks Matt. I really did feel for you and your love for Nathan’s food when I was writing this review. Incidentally my parents are in town and they dined and raved about his his two-star spot a few years ago (when it was located in Rock). By all means do go and try it, but I have a feeling you’re better off visiting his UK restaurants when you’re next home. I am heading to Fish at the Meridien Mina Seyahi tonight for a family dinner (the one I included in the media dine around last month) – Turkish taverna concept right on the beach. That’s what Dubai needs more of – and just to reiterate an earlier response of mine above – the Burj could have turned that deck into something special.

  5. H.P.Drescher November 6, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    your review is straight to the point and narrated as a typical guest experience. The pricing seems way over the top and it is right to have high expectations of the food quality , presentation , service knowledge , beverages , ambiance , Interior design all adds to the overall experience. Surely, to open a new restaurant is a nerve wrecking experience for the operators ,millions of details need to be taken care off ,staff training , food tastings , trial cooking etc.. The most important element however , is the Wait staff , if they are not sure about the menu items , or whether there is local Water available or not ,or insisting that the Terrace cannot be used than all the efforts , sadly , have been in vain .I recently went for a Food tasting at a new Turkish Restaurant , these guys were having trials for an entire week , full a la carte ….I sincerely wish the Team at Al Mahara all the best of success and perhaps surprise the Guests with a choice of local Waters and a Waiter who does not go back and check something and perhaps an affordable tasting menu …

    • FooDiva November 14, 2016 at 11:11 am

      I heard on the grapevine that this particular restaurant had been running intensive training and trials for weeks in the build-up to the opening. Perhaps those staff have since left?! I hope they will address some of these issues, before it’s not too late. I have a feeling I know which Turkish restaurant you are referring to 😉

  6. JayEim November 10, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    …………….I am trying very very hard to write a decent and acceptable comment and all what is playing up in my head is the song: Give me my Mind back.

    Nuff said……

    • FooDiva November 14, 2016 at 11:13 am

      Oh come on Jay you disappoint me. Try harder please! 😉

  7. JayEim November 19, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    I tried harder.
    I ended up getting a sermon that Pisco Sour is sooo last year and now you should only have Frozen Pisco Sour…….Heaven on the Beach.

    It goes without saying that I needed some solid stuffing of Kourampiedes from Cretia to compensate…….Double heaven.

    Moral of the story is Al Mahara got lost in the translation.


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