Emily Shardlow tries out Porto Bello in Abu Dhabi and finds the chefs need to concentrate more on the basics and less on culinary flourishes
Porto Bello, the Italian restaurant at the Grand Millennium Al Wahda, is not a restaurant that oozes character. It occupies a large space on the ground floor of the hotel and has an unmistakable lobby feel to it. The room is large and cavernous, with sparsely decorated walls which creates a sense of sterility far removed from the cosy, convivial atmosphere you might associate with a local Italian.
The restaurant offers a menu suitable for people with diabetes and when we visited, they also had a shortlist of seasonal specials, both of which are commendable endeavours. Unfortunately though, the feeling that I took way from our meal was that in terms of both the service and food, Porto Bello is missing the mark.
Bottles of good-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar were placed in front of us with some ceremony. A bread basket arrived a while later, after some prompting from my friend, as did a little pot of sun-dried tomato pesto. However, it fizzed unpleasantly in the mouth, suggesting that it was past its best.
A complimentary amuse bouche - the little bite, intended to cleanse the palate and enliven the taste buds for the meal ahead - came in the form of a shot glass containing crumbled pieces of biscuit, which were topped with a spoonful of apple sorbet and a spritz of foam. It was sickly sweet and would have been far more appropriate as a pre-dessert: eaten as a precursor to a three-course meal, it just felt wrong.
A wild mushroom and barley broth selected from the seasonal menu was by the far the better of our two starters. The chunky mushrooms were nice and tender and the portion was hearty, although the stock did lack depth of flavour.
The menu claimed that the scallops were filled with burrata cheese. Unfortunately, they were overcooked and therefore so dry and chewy, it was impossible to tell.
You also have to question the logic of doing this in the first place: burrata is made from a layer of stretched mozzarella which is formed into a pouch and filled with cream and more mozzarella pieces. Part of the joy of eating this cheese is piercing the skin, to see and then taste, the buttery liquid that oozes out. To inject this cheese into the centre of a scallop seems nonsensical.
The scallops were served with finely chopped celery swimming in a tart vinaigrette, garnished with a sprig of frisée and three thick slivers of truffle, which were coarse, dry and devoid of both aroma and flavour.
Black cod "in a black olive and potato crust", was actually black cod with a sharp, overpowering olive crust, served on a bed of roasted potatoes that looked as if they should have had a crisp, crunchy exterior, but were in fact soft and soggy. A side order of spinach was woeful: the leaves were gritty and underseasoned and left a slimy, unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Guinea fowl had been deboned, rolled and stuffed with chicken liver, before being coated in a layer of chewy, fried breadcrumbs. The meat was tender enough, although it veered towards dry in the centre, while the flavour of the chicken liver was only felt intermittently.
A Jerusalem artichoke purée was properly seasoned, if a little oily, and the thick, rich, meaty sauce drizzled around the edge was just fine.
A side order of polenta-topped Parmesan was the highlight of the meal.
The pear and ricotta tart that I had for dessert was another disappointment. It was clearly served straight from the refrigerator, meaning that it was far too cold. The pastry was soggy and undercooked while the poached pear was almost impossible to cut without a knife - we didn't have one.
At Porto Bello it feels as if the chefs are trying and failing to do too much. They are so caught up in their attempts at culinary flourishes and finishing touches - slicks of sauce, mousses and foams - that they've lost sight of the basics. And that can never be a good thing.
A meal for two at Porto Bello, Grand Millennium Al Wahda costs Dh547, for reservations call 04 443 9999. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito