Li Jiang means "beautiful river" in China, and the South East Asian restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal, which is located on the banks of the capital's waters, represents its name well. It might not be the Yangtze, but if you nab the right spot, you can get a clear view of the hotel's lights reflecting off the water with the spectacular Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on the horizon.
My guest and I went to the restaurant on a Friday night. The venue was pretty empty but had a warm, sleek and modern Asian atmosphere. The chandeliers were all different, some designed in a mishmash of crystal glasses, which gave the room an interesting edge. The restaurant's most prominent wall was covered in a red, carpet-based design, adding some Middle Eastern flair.
To begin with, we were eager to sample from the restaurant's extensive menu of starters. The waitress recommended the tom yum dumplings, declaring them the most popular of the lot.
The yellow dumplings came in a group of four, with a bowl of lemon grass chilli sauce as a dip. Filled with prawns, scallops, snow peas, tobiko wasabi and topped with orange caviar, they looked fantastic, but tasted dull and bland. I was grateful for the dipping sauce, which was an unconventional type for dumplings, but added the much-needed flavour. If this was the top-selling dumpling, it could only go downhill from here.
The flavour of the har kau crystal prawn dumplings - filled with black fungus and spring onions - was better, but nothing to write home about.
The lobster dumplings with snow peas and enoki mushrooms came next. We were impressed with the amount of lobster stuffed inside each dumpling, but it was too salty. If I had not already known that I was eating lobster, I would never have guessed it.
Considering that the Chinese look upon dumplings as a symbol of wealth and good fortune, these ones were a disappointment.
We also ordered the chew yim soft shell crab dish, which came as a sizeable portion with red and green chilli, spring onions, garlic and fried shallots. It was a step up from the dumplings; the ingredients all served their purpose well, and the crab was both soft and crunchy.
My guest ordered the traditional Malaysian chicken laksa noodle soup with boiled egg. Her first impression was that it was aromatic, but that the colouring looked too dark. The taste was salty and the consistency grainy, as though a satchel of curry powder had been dumped into hot water and had not yet dissolved properly.
We hoped our mains would be more successful, and before long, out came the waitress with a whole Peking duck and commenced to shred it at the table.
It looked succulent with just the right mount of crispiness, and so we eagerly dug in, rolling the meat into the steamed pancakes, adding leeks, cucumber and a homemade sauce. We both agreed it was tasty, but again, too salty. To accompany the duck, we had a plate of Singapore mi fen noodles with prawns, onions, eggs, bean sprouts, shiitake, spring onions and bell peppers. It was possibly the best dish of the evening, because the noodles had a slightly burnt flair, which was just right.
As for the dish of wok fried XO scallops served with a heap of baby corn, beech mushrooms, water chestnuts, carrots and spring onions, the scallops were delicious and juicy, but the presentation and most of the ingredients were a let-down, considering the Dh135 price-tag.
For a taste of vegetarian, we chose the wild mushrooms, which included oyster, shiitake, bottom, beech and enoki varieties in a thick, dark brown oyster sauce. The mushrooms were palatable, but curiously, they were served inside a piece of tinfoil shaped as a bowl.
For dessert, I ordered the mango tatin with matcha tea ice cream and clotted cream. This mango caramelised tart was paired with grainy ice cream that tasted nothing like green tea.
My companion's deep-fried vanilla ice cream with warm tainori Valrhona chocolate sauce was sweet and tasty, but the doughy shell was too thick and not crispy enough.
Overall, the atmosphere at Li Jiang is sleek, the view pretty, but the food is far from spectacular.
A meal for two at Li Jiang, Abu Dhabi, costs Dh943, including service. For reservations, call 02 818 8888. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito.
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