Is Ají hot on flavour and service?
How times are changing. Dubai can finally boast a beach and seafront location with licensed restaurants outside a hotel environment. Club Vista Mare on Palm Jumeirah developed by Nakheel sits on the eastern trunk. Ají, a homegrown Nikkei (essentially Peruvian-Japanese fusion) concept is one of seven restaurants currently open, brought to us by the same owners as Pantry Café. Translating to chilli in Spanish and flavour in Japanese, does Ají (pronounced aa-hee) deliver on its name, and more?
The mammoth menu essentially covers the Dubai norm of Peruvian-cum-Nikkei dishes, along with an extensive selection of sushi and sashimi. We focus on the former with more interesting ingredients, ordering a dish from each section.
The signature ceviche dish mixes succulent raw sea bass, scallops, octopus and shrimp. The traditional leche de tigre sauce spiced with ají amarillo is zingy and well balanced, and there’s enough to soak up the seafood without overpowering it. The causa we order is deconstructed, with the key ingredient of whipped potato sitting just under the soft shell crab surrounded by an ají coulis, and dotted with pickled onions. It’s hard to go wrong with deep-fried soft shell crab and Ají’s is both perfectly crispy and crunchy, but the marriage with the potato is too harsh a combination. Grilled seafood would have been better suited, in my opinion.
From the tiradito section, the grilled octopus is the star dish of the night – super tender, it melts like butter in my mouth. Served with black olives, coriander and the delicate and delightful Japanese togarashi chilli that gives it a more gentle kick than aji. A chicken karaage dish differentiates by just using chicken leg, which makes for a more moist and moreish texture. Another deep-fried number, it’s so deliciously finger licking good, we eat it like popcorn.
The prawn teppan arrives sizzling on an iron plate. Drizzling in butter, onions, coriander and a fiery boost of chilli, the smell and the taste are both captivating.
Five generously portioned and well presented dishes later, I am done and happily satiated. The dessert menu is appealing, in particular the yuzu cheesecake, but I can’t stomach any more (not helped by the fact I scoffed a dessert at an event prior to dinner). Pisco sours are excellent, albeit at AED70 a pop, rather pricey.
I can’t help but feel that the gorgeous interior of Peruvian prints, birdcages and green leather has a strong Moorish influence – no surprise given Peru’s history. French windows open out onto the terrace which leads down to a sandy beach. On arrival around 7.30pm on a Thursday evening, Ají is relatively quiet and we pretty much have the pick of a table, but it does get busier and buzzier as the evening progresses.
The service whilst authoritative and knowledgeable is intrusive. Within just a few seconds of being handed the menu, we are asked if we are ready to order. Our waiter hovers like a hawk, often interrupting our conversation. Two waiters explain the same dish within a minute of each other. All very irritating.
The price point of AED250 per person based on three courses without alcohol is reasonable, as long as you steer away from some over-priced main courses (and watch the cocktails).
Ají serves up affordable food that is hot on spice and that boasts bundles of flavour. The location is ideal especially now for al fresco dining. The décor is cosy and the vibe is welcoming. Whilst the Club Vista Mare surroundings are casual (and you can wear what you like), the food and decor at Ají are not – and are on a par with smart high-end restaurants. But the over-attentive service and the expensive cocktails let Ají down – address those and I’ll be back in a jiffy. Here’s to a 3.5 out of 5 FooDiva knife rating.
I also lunched at the Lebanese seafood concept, Ibn Al Bahr – more here. Have you tried any of the restaurants at Club Vista Mare?
— FooDiva (@FooDivaWorld) January 30, 2017