Within seconds of walking into Ornina, a buzzy Mediterranean lounge in Al Bandar, you know the dishes will be small, the noise level will climb steeply and the meal will be costly. But you sit down nonetheless, famished, fingers crossed.
And if you surrender yourself to Ornina, you’re bound to have a good time. It will not answer to all your hankerings, but it will sate your appetite.
First, a tip: skip the main restaurant area, which peddles a menu created to pacify the tried and true. There are oysters, lamb rack and lobster – prepared and presented the way you expect them to be. By all means, come for the comfort of tradition, but know that you risk disappointment, or at least boredom.
So, insist on being seated in the lounge or on the sea-view terrace, where the lights are dimmer, the dishes are cheaper and flavour comes front and centre.
The lounge menu currently features two dozen tapas – the Spanish concept of small dishes to share – priced from Dh39 to Dh135. You’re not forced to splurge, but you’re allowed to.
You’d be wise to treat yourself to the octopus, tossed in paprika and olive oil, and served simply – boldly – with a boiled potato. The paella shares well in a group of four, while the spicy beef sausages with braised onions have an irresistible intensity. The confit duck spring rolls, which come with a sweet chilli mango sauce, have an energetic crackle, much like the dining room scene, with its cheery music and good-looking crowd. On all my visits to Ornina, it seems like everyone turns out for the posing more than the eating, but that’s what you get in a seductive setting gleaming with polished wood.
The standout dish is the grilled prawns with sun-dried tomato and spring onion, then presented with Parmesan espuma; Ornina’s attempt to stay up to the culinary minute. But forget the foam and appreciate instead how the dish subtly exalts the sun-dried tomato.
There were misfires: the trio of mini Angus beef burgers struck me as a menu filler. The patatas bravas – a tapas staple – lacked appeal. The cheese and mint spring rolls, a grown-up twist on the cheese stick, nodded in the direction of fast food.
The service could be better. Orders take time – and servers have a tendency to disappear – so if you’re in a hurry, don’t go. This is a place for lingering.
The dessert menu is blessedly short and worth the bother, particularly the churros. An intriguing dish called “orange and yogurt” – orange marmalade served with cream, yogurt, orange granita and mint leaves – is a keeper, if you manage to put it in your mouth before it dissolves on the plate.
In a local restaurant scene that sticks to the three-course playbook, Ornina’s lounge menu rejects ceremony – you don’t need to commit to a conventional meal. Should the dishes be eaten with fingers or a fork? Whatever. You come in and eat what you please – and that privilege provides enough reason to drop by.
• A meal for two at Ornina at Al Bandar, Al Raha Beach, Abu Dhabi costs Dh417 including service. For reservations, call 02 556 6090 or visit www.ornina.ae. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito