With a plethora of fine-dining establishments in Abu Dhabi, the overworked concept of the excruciatingly expensive hotel restaurant can grate a little. Perhaps because you can’t escape the echo of continuity – the likeness, the lack of distinction, or worse, the clattering of the breakfast buffet being set up next door. Although you can see where the millions have gone, if you remove all the gilded trimmings and the familiar razzle-dazzle, the food (which should be the star of the show) can leave us feeling a bit ho-hum.
Enter Antonio Saez, the 34-year-old Barcelona native who has worked under renowned masters such as Martin Berasategui and Ferran Adrià. In 2009, at the age of 29, he was the youngest chef in Spain to receive two Michelin stars for his work at Lasarte. Now he is here to launch Abu Dhabi’s first Catalonian restaurant at the new ultra-luxury hotel Rosewood Abu Dhabi on Al Maryah Island.
Set away from the main lobby, with solid Gaudi-inspired wooden doors, Catalan gives off the initial impression of a lack of ornament. Plus, it only sits about 45 people. With beautiful views of the city and its floor-to-ceiling windows, it is distinctly unassuming in comparison to many of its contemporaries. This is a good thing.
To my delight, the menu is elegant, self-confident and ever-changing. Although the more traditional boisterous Catalan flavours such as paella and seafood are present, we are here to experience Saez’s own tasting menu.
It began with three neatly presented tapas: stuffed olives, codfish buñuelos (fritters with cheese) and a crisp bread with tomato served with a cucumber gazpacho. It was, however, the home-baked black olive bread – served with our own little bowl of imported Catalonian olive oil – that stole the show.
Next up was the escabeche of duck foie gras. Escabeche, I was informed, is a typical Spanish method of slowly poaching meat or fish in an acidic mixture. Served with a fresh cabbage salad, spring onion cream and honey dressing, I could have left a satisfied customer at that.
But it was only the beginning.
They say the key to a successful tasting menu lies in teasing the palate and consistently surprising the taste buds. The oysters, served with broccolini purée, almonds and a green apple salad, was presented with such artful consideration and punch, it almost called for applause.
What followed was a colossal blur of utmost creativity and explosive taste. An organic egg, slow cooked for 30 minutes and served on a stack of crispy potato, drizzled with black truffle sauce, was remarkable.
My fish, oven-roasted sea bass, was mediocre. The slightly Asian tang from the bok choy and sesame dressing felt a little off the beaten track.
By now, giddy with excess, we feel a sense of shame at the memory of the pieces of exquisite tenderloin steak with creamy gnocchi, Comté cheese and a foie gras emulsion. We poked around our dessert of tea gelatin and lime and basil ice cream wholly defeated.
Dinner at Catalan may be expensive – and with the number of dishes (at least 12) and duration of the meal (three hours), it is a test of will – but it’s also as delicious as it is brave and unique. The attention to detail is exhilarating, the care and sensitivity of its specially imported ingredients and its exemplary staff run nothing short of a well-established orchestra. Each individual component contributes to the overall experience.
Perhaps Abu Dhabi isn’t quite ready for molecular gastronomy yet, but it is fairly obvious this is where Saez gets the chance to experiment with the skills he learnt under Adrià. And that in itself is worth going for.
• The tasting menu at Catalan, Rosewood Abu Dhabi, costs Dh495 per person. For reservations, call 02 813 5573. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito
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