Nathalie’s, the colourful little cafe on the ground floor of twofour54 that promises to deliver healthy, hearty, homemade fare, can very well run out of food if you happen to head there at the wrong time of day.
After my first visit, at 6.30pm on a weekday evening, attempts to order dinner – “Can I have the traditional Niçoise salad? The chargrilled broccoli with chilli and garlic? The roasted pumpkin, beetroot and pecan nut salad? None are available?” – mostly failed. Each question was met with a resounding no, but since my companion and I were already there and we were hungry, we ordered two pieces of what they did have – some pretty good whole-wheat lasagne – and called it a day.
Still, the quick glimpse I had of the place was enough to rouse my curiosity: the tables are simply set with cutlery and napkins held in delightful yellow tins; the table furniture is pretty, colourful and functional while the menu is refreshingly simple and easy to follow, with all of the calorie, fat, protein and carbohydrate content marked below each item. It looks like a family-run venture, presided over by someone who really cares about food, customer care and unpretentious grub. All the foundations are there, anchored by a safe and simple menu that changes daily, served in a slightly laid-back, bohemian atmosphere.
Its selling point, which ironically enough forced us to leave hungry on our first visit, is that a certain amount of food is prepared daily, ensuring that the pickings are always freshly made. To truly enjoy Nathalie’s, don’t make the mistake of heading there for dinner after a long day.
Armed with that knowledge, I returned a few days later, this time at 11am. Take two: I was quickly seated and after three separate staff asked me if I would like to order – better than none, I suppose – I managed to finally place that elusive order.
It started badly. The restaurant only had one out of the four teas on offer, so with no other choice, my friend opted for the homemade cinnamon peach iced tea which, although described as sugar-free, arrived sweeter than candyfloss. I chose the safer option of black coffee and fresh orange juice. Both were satisfying, the juice was fresh and perfectly chilled.
We decided to order our food to take away. It was nicely wrapped and packaged and ready remarkably quickly. We started with the selection of salads; the light Greek salad was a sore point, poorly dressed with the tomatoes a little on the soggy side, although the feta was perfectly salty and crumbly.
By contrast, the grilled aubergine in coriander with tahini dressing was of finger-licking proportion, the kick from the fresh chilli offset perfectly by the creamy tahini dressing. The roasted root vegetable salad was also pleasing, with just the right amount of crunch, the sweetness of the light dressing enveloping its tang.
Satisfied, we moved on to the mains, starting with the chicken moussakhan wrap, a Palestinian dish composed of roasted chicken baked with onions, sumac, allspice, saffron and fried pine nuts, yet unexpectedly served in layer upon layer of Nathalie’s signature bread (so thin you could peer through the sandwich). Fairly faultless and bursting with flavour, the chicken was eloquently spiced with the added contribution of a light chickpea paste and cinnamon. The baked falafel whole-wheat wrap was also pleasant, the healthy version of the Middle Eastern staple arrived light and fluffy, as it should be, with the addition of pickles, tahini, parsley and mint. The traditional fish siyyaddieh was sensational and the clear winner: it was rich, sophisticated and fell off the fork as few fish dishes that are not served straight from the pan can claim to be. We licked the plate clean.
Unfortunately, its memory was obliterated by one of the worst desserts I have ever tried: a bizarre version of carrot cake, made with whole-wheat flour and rich sweet icing comparable to chewing on the heel of an old piece of bread.
What I value, and what I often miss, about dining in Abu Dhabi are the casual eateries with simple, unpretentious, tasty food. As the number of five-star restaurants grows, the number of inspired and diverse cafes shrinks. Nathalie’s is trying to be everything you want it to be: personal, casual and cool, cherry-picking the best of local flavours and fusing them for a modern, multicultural palate. And for that alone, I’d go back. The promise is there, once a few vital components are neatly ironed out.
• A meal for two at Nathalie’s costs Dh209 including service. For home deliveries and catering, call 02 441 1330, or visit www.nathalies.ae. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito
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