Before I start, let's be clear: I am well aware that Carluccio's is a chain restaurant with international outposts. A meal at its Dubai Marina Mall spot was never likely to offer the last word in authentic Italian food - and nor would I expect it to.
However, if the number of covers that it does is anything to go by, it had to be doing something right (or so I thought). Every weekend its outdoor terrace is full to the brim with customers and yet, last Saturday afternoon, I left there feeling disappointed with the service, cooking and general attitude.
Unlike countless other Italian restaurants, bread is not delivered to the table as standard. Should you fancy nibbling on something while you wait for your starters to arrive, you'll have to pay Dh16 for the "savoury bread tin". This would be justified if the bread tin came piled high with a generous selection of gorgeous, warm, freshly baked bread. Not so. If you happen to glance towards the waiter's station when walking through the restaurant, you'll spot at least six pre-filled (but not particularly full) bread baskets. How long they've been sitting there is anyone's guess - perhaps a few minutes, perhaps since service began.
We ordered drinks - two decent mint lemonades - and a couple of starters. The first four items that were delivered to the table were deposited wordlessly - no "enjoy your meal" or even a hint of a smile. The service did improve as time went on - the waiters and waitresses actually spoke to us towards the end - but given that we were looked after by at least five different members of staff, there was no real sense of continuity, care or attention.
I may as well get my other major gripe out of the way now. We asked for local water; it doesn't sell it. So we ordered a litre of Acqua Panna (Dh24), which is irritating. However, what really got my goat was that at the end of the meal, my friend asked for an espresso and with it came a glass of iced water that certainly wasn't Acqua Panna. I don't imagine it was tap water, either, which probably means that Carluccio's does have local water on site. It just doesn't sell it.
We shared a portion of grilled garlic focaccia with cheese. It wasn't terrible by any means (how bad can cheesy garlic bread be?), but the focaccia was barely warm and the Provolone cheese barely melted. Much better was a generous portion of calamari served with a large wedge of lemon and a little dish of shop-bought mayonnaise (homemade stuff is not brilliant white in colour). The chunky rings of squid were tender and coated in a crisp, well-seasoned batter.
The rest of the dishes we tried were disappointing. There was beef carpaccio - selected from the antipasti section - and rarely, if ever, have I eaten a more lacklustre version of this dish. The meat was soggy, lacked flavour and texture and clung to the plate sadly, as if it had been laying there for some time. The little pile of rocket leaves in the middle had not been dressed with vinaigrette and the shaved Parmesan tasted cheap - certainly nothing like the salty, crumbly Parmigiano-Reggiano that you can purchase from Carluccio's deli.
A bowl of gnocchi porcini was just as bad, if not worse. Claggy, slippery pieces of potato dumpling were bound in a bland cream sauce, with no hint of the Parmesan and thyme suggested on the menu. The porcini mushrooms, meanwhile, leaked water the moment you bit into them. This meant, of course, they had been frozen, which is fair enough - when we ordered the dish, we didn't imagine we'd be eating premium-priced, fresh, wild mushrooms. What I did expect, though, is the chef to cook them over a high enough heat, long enough for the water to evaporate.
So why is this place so busy? Well, the location is handy, the views of the water from the terrace are lovely and it is a child-friendly space. That said, I believe Carluccio's is popular by default; the lack of other options means that people are having to settle for mediocracy and pay rather handsomely - our bill came to more than Dh250 with only one main course and no dessert - to do so.
A meal for two at Carluccio's, Promenade Ground Level, Dubai Marina Mall costs Dh268. For reservations, call 04 399 7844. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito
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