Given the grandeur of its Al Qasr hotel location - jewel-encrusted chandeliers and dramatic water features - Al Hambra, the Spanish tapas restaurant located on the ground floor, is surprisingly relaxed. That's not to say it's unremarkable though; the terracotta interior has a rustic charm about it and the lantern-bedecked outdoor terrace, with its views of the meandering Madinat Jumeirah waterways and Burj Al Arab backdrop, is rather lovely.
What I particularly like about the place though is the atmosphere - from the tick-the-box menu to the cheery staff and reasonable pricing, there's not a whiff of pretension about Al Hambra.
Arriving hungry, we sat outside and were soon tucking into a large wheel of warm bread and dipping pieces of it into the pungent aioli and chopped tomato dip and sampling pieces of paprika-marinated beef. A good start.
On this occasion we decided to stick with the tapas items that the restaurant is known for (and order plenty of them), rather than opt for the larger paella and grilled meat dishes. That said, I have tried the paella Valencia (paella with chicken, rabbit, fava beans and red peppers) before and it was well done.
As befits the relaxed mood of the restaurant, dishes arrive as and when they are ready and are, of course, perfect for sharing. First up was a plate of gambas al ajillo. Six decent-sized, shelled prawns were served swimming in a chilli-infused olive oil that was flecked with blackened, chewy, almost sweet slivers of garlic; a slice of classic Catalan pan con tomate (farmhouse bread rubbed with tomatoes) was placed on the side. The prawns were marginally under-seasoned, but apart from that, there were no complaints.
Our next dish was equally good. Four lightly breaded piquillo peppers were stuffed with a smooth mixture of diced prawns and cod and oozed melted cheese. They were accompanied by a pile of marinated, sliced red peppers with a hint of smoke and a vinegary tang about them, which countered the richness of the filling well.
A large plate of calamari was well executed and a good example of a simple dish that is so often fluffed up. The batter was light, crunchy and slightly salty, the thin squid rings were tender and a couple of muslin-wrapped lemon wedges and a small bowl of creamy aioli added zing and punch in equal measure.
Rather than featuring a few limp lettuce leaves hastily flung together and a scattering of chopped cucumber, a much-needed mixed salad (to break up the richness of the other tapas) contained olives, thinly sliced red onion, asparagus and boiled quails eggs tossed with a variety of leaves and dressed with vinaigrette.
Pincho Moruno - "Andalusia-style" lamb brochettes - was a last-minute order, but proved to be a surprisingly good addition to the meal. The bite-sized chunks of meat had been marinated in a lemon, garlic and rosemary concoction and were, as a result, moist and flavoursome.
A generous plate of patatas bravas was perhaps the least interesting dish of the night, suffering from an excess of very plain tasting tomato sauce that didn't do much but render the potatoes soggy.
Dessert proved to be a real treat. A properly delicate, shallow bowl of crema catalana (essentially a Spanish take on crème brûlée) had a wonderfully crisp, thin sugar crust. While you had to chase the scoop of lemon sorbet that had been placed on top around the plate, it was well worth it, providing a tart contrast to the sweetness of the vaguely cinnamon-tasting custard.
On the other side of the table, three warm, sugar-dusted churros (fried fritters, similar to doughnuts) were moist and impressively fluffy in the centre, with a golden-brown exterior. Coffee ice cream had a strong espresso kick to it that we liked, the slight bitterness being well judged here. A cutesy Kilner jar containing chocolate dipping sauce proved to be a victory of style over substance, though - it was impossible to reach the sauce without tipping the jar up, which I don't think was the intention and even if it was, made things far too messy. Still, a minor complaint really and one that could easily be addressed.
Al Hambra is not a new restaurant by any means, but with its charming staff, convivial atmosphere and authentic, tasty food, it's one that shouldn't be missed.
A meal for two at Al Hambra, Al Qasr hotel Madinat Jumeirah, costs Dh245, including service charge. For reservations, call 04 366 6730. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito.
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