The culinary scene in Abu Dhabi has come an awful long way in the four years or so since the Radisson Blu’s Italian flagship restaurant Filini threw open its doors on Yas Island. And the latest Italian presence on the capital’s mainland, Villa Toscana at the St Regis on the Corniche, has certainly upped the ante when it comes to authentic tastes of the country.
It’s perhaps unfair, though, to compare in such a manner – the difference in the star-ratings of the hotels that contain them is notable and Yas Island has long been a destination in its own right. Where Villa Toscana’s Italian waiting staff add an undeniable dose of smooth-tongued charm to proceedings, let’s just say that there’s not a “bellissimo” or “ciao” to be heard when you walk into Filini.
Filini’s setting does match up with such grander rivals, however. In fact, its popular terrace, which faces out towards the water, was so busy on a midweek evening that there were no seats available.
Fortunately, the starters soon banished any potential grumbles about the comparatively unremarkable indoor table and got the evening off to an excellent start. The insalata Caprese’s Neapolitan buffalo mozzarella and plum tomatoes with fresh basil was a simple but effective classic; the carpaccio di polipo, meanwhile, was a cut above – an attractively presented option that didn’t skimp with its wafer-thin slices of octopus, which carpeted the plate like a microscopic close-up of circular cells and fairly fizzled into nothingness in the mouth.
The momentum was dulled somewhat when it came to our second courses. My dining partner’s tagliolini all’astice slipped into average territory on most fronts. The long, noodle-ish homemade egg pasta was too thin to fully allow the flavour through and, at Dh85 (plus tax), the less-than-generous lobster pieces demanded a little more bang for your buck. To add insult to taste-bud injury, no offer of Parmesan cheese was forthcoming.
My cotoletta alla Milanese fared better and dominated the plate and all that surrounded it, including a miserly helping of sliced potato and a perfectly passable rucola salad with cherry tomatoes. The cotoletta (which translates roughly to “little rib”, due to the bone that protrudes from the dish) somehow felt nearer to Munich than Milan – put this breaded veal chop next to a Wiener schnitzel and only the rib will hint that you’re not at Oktoberfest.
Dessert fiends will always find themselves drawn to the page of the menu marked “dolce”, such is the Italians’ prowess in such matters, yet not everything was sweet for Filini, which only offers half a dozen options. That said, the tortino al cioccolato was a shoo-in: you can’t really ruin a soft-hearted chocolate brownie with ice cream. What you can wreck, it seemed, was fragile al balsmico. The intrigue roused by marinated strawberries with balsamic vinegar and black pepper, plus vanilla ice cream, soon turned to bemusement at a bowl that was three-quarters seemingly untouched fruit and frozen dessert, hiding a sludgy layer of balsamic-bathed berries beneath. It was an unsatisfying conclusion to a patchy meal that was only topped by a 30-minute wait for the bill in the by then half-empty restaurant.
Right now, then, Filini is lacking in the Italian charm and charisma to truly take on weightier competitors. And with the revitalised Yas Island Marina limbering up to take on all-comers with its restaurant court, Filini probably needs to toughen up if it’s likely to retain any semblance of true Italian stallion status in Abu Dhabi.
• A meal for two at Filini, Radisson Blu Hotel, Abu Dhabi Yas Island, costs Dh480 including service. For reservations, call 02 656 2000. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and conducted incognito