I imagine the majority of people reading this review are familiar with Jones the Grocer, the deli/café/gourmet food store that sells everything from wagyu beef burgers to fine cheeses, not forgetting cookery books, infused oils and cookie-making kits. In the UAE, this Australian franchise, which also has a presence in New Zealand and Singapore, is clearly thriving. The second Abu Dhabi-based store opened in Khalidiyah a few months ago and there are plans for another in Al Raha Gardens, as well as expansion to Dubai.
Too many cafés and coffee shops over here insist on churning out pre-packaged salads and sandwiches, which is, in part, why Jones has been so well received. This popularity has certainly been helped by the fact that in the sit-down restaurant they offer the sort of food (wholesome, faux rustic, deliberately simple) that is found in abundance across the UK and Australia (in gastropubs and upmarket cafés alike) but is much harder to come by in the UAE.
So, although the Khalidiyah store may look slightly different from its older sister in the Al Mamoura building (narrower, sleeker, more utilitarian), the menu is almost identical, which is no bad thing. My pumpkin salad starter was vibrantly coloured and flavoured: the bitterness of the rocket leaves provided a nice contrast to pieces of creamy white feta, slivers of sundried tomato added a slight sweetness and the whole thing was lightly dressed with good-quality olive oil.
A glass of homemade ginger and apple cordial was refreshing, cleansing and really very nice, although some may find irksome the absence of local water on the drinks menu. My friend's lentil broth was subtly spiced, the lentils were soft and yielding without being sloppy and a handful of fresh herbs added a nice finishing touch. The soup managed to feel hearty and healthy at the same time and was served with a warm bread roll on the side.
Although she also enjoyed her chicken main course, it wasn't perfect. There were no complaints regarding the meat itself, which was covered in a tasty marinade and bore the hallmarks of the chargrill (blackened and crusty in places). The dish consisted of a leg and a thigh, which are far more flavourful than breast meat and don't succumb to dryness in the same way, so this provided another plus. We felt that the couscous bordered on the bland, though, and an orangey harissa sauce was overly sweet and lacked sufficient chilli zing. A dish that reads like a north African-inspired one on the menu needs to provide the flavour profile to back this up.
I ordered the fish of the day, which I was told was sherri. It came as something of a surprise, then, when a wooden board bearing a slim fillet of salmon arrived. When I questioned this, our waitress told us that she'd made a mistake. We didn't push it further and the salmon was very nice; the fish was moist, the skin crispy, and it was served on a pile of perky mixed salad leaves. Unfortunately, the dressing had leaked into the scant smear of not-particularly-smoky baba ganoush hiding underneath, which rather overpowered it. We shared a side order of truly excellent fries; they were piping hot, golden brown, crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside - pretty much perfect.
The same really cannot be said for the service that we encountered. Our waitress was very sweet and well meaning, but on top of getting the fish confused, she took an excruciatingly long time to take our order, then asked my friend if she wanted her chicken to be served "well done" (which is downright bizarre) and delivered our main courses to the table when we were still eating our starters.
Jones the Grocer has a reputation for offering good food at a rather high price point. People, myself included, are prepared to pay over the odds for a sandwich or salad here primarily because the end result exceeds that being served by its competitors. This is, if you like, their unique selling point. In the Khalidiyah store at the moment, it feels as if the service and a couple of the dishes need tightening up around the edges. This can easily be rectified and let's hope it will be. It would be a great shame if with expansion came a lowering of standards.
A meal for two at Jones the Grocer, Pearl Plaza, Khalidiyah, Abu Dhabi, costs Dh263 not including service. For reservations call 02 639 5883. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito.