From the outset, Tori No Su is about the joy of simplicity and how many ways you can showcase that trait on a plate.
“Octopus,” our server said simply as she delivered the night’s sakizuke, a welcome appetiser every guest receives upon arrival.
It would have been OK if she hadn’t said anything, since the dish spoke for itself. On a tiny soy sauce bowl were three strips of raw octopus mixed with bits of raw tofu. They were delicate and bold.
What Ando, the restaurant’s Japanese head chef, is teaching diners – and other local restaurants and their chefs – is control over form. His dishes possess, among other qualities, a strong sense of flavour so that everything else – say, the asymmetrical bowls, saucers and plates, or Tori No Su’s spectacular interiors – do not matter.
It was evident in the sushi and sashimi, where the fish used was of discernibly high quality. Tori No Su’s scallops, in particular, were a stand-out.
The kitchen’s skill asserts itself in the cooked dishes, too: the lobster, the eel, the duck, the skewered culinary creations and even the tempura platter – prawn, cuttle fish and vegetables – were unfailingly airy, fairly crunchy and not oily.
I found little fault with, and abundant pleasure in, the wagyu beef, cooked with shiso, lemon, garlic and ponzu. It reflected the chef’s intention to find a balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy in one bite – and he hit his mark.
The enoki mushrooms might not be a first choice to order, but make room for them on your table. They were pleasingly supple and seasoned plainly with salt and butter.
For dessert, try the yaki kabocha pudding, composed of pumpkin, red bean paste and vanilla ice cream. It sounds like a clichéd Japanese treat, but a well-executed cliché at that.
The restaurant’s virtues were clearest in the off-the-menu drink Tei-en (“Japanese garden”), a mix of kiwi, cucumber and apple juice, garnished with shiso leaf. The hint of shiso was just that – a hint, not an exclamatory statement.
“It is special,” our server modestly declared.
Indeed. Refreshing and refined, it’s a drink you should ask – no, demand – from your waiter.
Not that the restaurant is flawless. One dish in particular was a clear misstep: the scallop tamamotoyaki, in which grilled scallops swam in a massive bowl of heavy mayonnaise. Such thoughtlessness was out of place; it’s a dish that should be removed from the menu at once.
A meal at Tori No Su is built through a succession of small plates, akin to tapas, to borrow a term from another dining tradition. Order something cold and hot, a seafood and a meat, then throw in some vegetable on the side. All this will translate into a satisfying meal, but also into a pricey bill. You can easily spend Dh300 per person, as my four companions and I did one night, sharing about a dozen dishes together. A recent teppanyaki set menu for two – where my friend and I were served 10 courses in a dazzling, dizzying three hours – totalled Dh950, with beverages. Tori No Su is, after all, attached to the plush property Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, so the expense is expected.
But this shouldn’t repel the more economical diners. If you order carefully, you could enjoy Tori No Su’s creations without emptying the wallet. On one solo visit, I sat in the dimly lit lounge area and ordered a soft shell crab roll, a bowl of ramen and a drink, all for Dh110. A seven-item bento box, in fact, is priced at Dh125.
Those not wishing to peruse the menu can take the omakase option – whereby the chef will serve you, courtside at the sushi counter, a line of dishes inspired by the day’s fresh catch.
On my several visits, Tori No Su was consistently close to empty. Only three other tables were occupied on a recent Friday night. A shame, because this restaurant offers one of the country’s most memorable dining experiences.
On a corner of one of the pages of its menu is a haiku from the legendary Japanese poet Matsuo Basho: “Seek on high bare trails / Sky-reflecting violets / Mountain-top jewels.”
In Tori No Su, gustatory treasures await those inclined to grab them.
• Tori No Su is located at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi. For reservations, call 02 811 5666. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito
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