When the English new wave pop group The Vapors sang "I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so" in 1980, it's pretty certain that they weren't referring to a future influx of contemporary Japanese restaurants in a large Middle Eastern city. But when I sat down to dinner in Mirai - the latest in a glut of such eateries to open in Dubai - I just couldn't get the song out of my head. In fact, I've been to so many of these places in the last 12 months that sometimes I wonder when it'll be Tokyo's turn to become overrun with shawarma dens.
To be fair, the Japanese are only partially responsible for this phenomenon. They might have provided the inspiration for places like Mirai, but there's a very western drive behind these trendy new restaurants. The executive chef at Mirai is Scott Hallsworth, a jovial Australian who perfected his art at Nobu in London and Melbourne before climbing on board the good ship Mirai in January and sailing it steadily to this Souk Al Bahar location. It arrived in Dubai with far less fanfare than Nobu did, but the question is: could Hallsworth go head-to-head with his old employers in Dubai and win? And could he fend off the challenge of the likes of Zuma, Okku and Kitsune in the process?
The first mistake I made was to draw direct comparisons between Mirai and the others. A quick scan of the menu revealed that Mirai was lacking what all of the competition have, and all seem to thrive on: black cod miso. The sticky-sweet fish dish popularised by Nobu Matsuhisa has been aped, copied and tinkered with by seemingly every other contemporary Japanese restaurant in town, and has become a massive hit. But I couldn't find it anywhere on Mirai's menu. This told me one of two things: either Hallsworth and company have missed a trick, or they have so much confidence in their creations that they feel they don't need to follow the herd.
To find out, we started with a dish that should showcase the chef's talents more than any other: the unagi kabayaki with foie gras. While at Nobu, Hallsworth wrote a book called The Japanese Foie Gras Project, which featured 57 Japanese-influenced foie gras recipes. Still, he has refused to flood his menu with foie gras dishes, preferring to keep it balanced and subtly nuanced. The hot foie gras and eel appetiser, carefully stacked and stabbed with tiny wooden stakes, decomposed into hot squeals of liquid umami on the tongue and obliterated any hankerings we might have had for black cod.
The spicy bouillabaisse-style miso soup was far less intense than I'd expected, and despite its complement of soft prawn, squid and scallop, it was woefully lacking in character. The same could not be said about the chef's special maki rolls, however, which combined more smoky unagi eel with tuna, shredded crab and salmon skin in creamy chilli sauce-kissed parcels of deliciousness. I lied; we were still thinking about black cod. So we ordered Mirai's roasted turbot with warm soba dressing to make those thoughts go away once and for all. The fish was beautifully cooked and enhanced with mizuna and baby pea shoot leaves, not to mention an intriguing soba or buckwheat salsa with a warm vinaigrette dressing. The flavours grouped like a gang of yakuza with a death wish to chase the black cod cravings out of heads.
Then we indulged in the nasu dengaku, or grilled Japanese baby aubergine in sweet miso sauce, dotted with sesame seeds and accompanied by a scattering of hijiki seaweed - a billowing inferno of smoky-umami sweetness to rival the unagi kabayaki. The Vapors continued to rattle through my head as we waited for desserts, despite the fact that the DJ had cranked up his turntables and was banging out some house music. It was overly loud, but it did kind of fit Mirai's pared-down-yet-elegant warehouse feel. With its sleek leather banquettes, glowing tubular lanterns and raven's-claw black tables, this was certainly a place to rival its super-chic contemporaries, yet the friendliness of the staff saved it from feeling at all pretentious.
The chocolate fondant with genmaicha green tea ice cream was suitably homely and comforting, even if it did lack the required ooze. And the Japanese Sunset brought down the night with its tingly raspberry sorbet, pineapple confit, mango foam and nuggets of chocolate popping candy. There was to be no clear winner in the battle of Dubai's contemporary Japanese restaurants on this occasion. But with its individual flair and unique sense of style, Mirai might just stand out as the most distinctive. I really think so.
Mirai, Souk Al Bahar, Downtown Burj Dubai, 04 439 7333. Average cost of a meal for two: Dh500-550.