First, the very good news: Frankie's, one of the flagship restaurants in the recently opened Fairmont Bab al Bahr, is a delightful place to spend an evening. From the moment you're greeted, with the sort of warmth that seems to be second nature to everyone working at the hotel, to the moment you leave, the service is as friendly as it is efficient. And any establishment where the resident pianist/vocalist launches into commendable versions of Eddy Grant's Gimme Hope Joanna, Carlos Santana's Black Magic Woman and Bobby Darin's Somewhere Beyond the Sea and then fires up Van Morrison on the sound system when he takes his break has scored big-time brownie points with this customer.
Frankie's, for the record, is the latest in a stable of high-profile restaurants that are a collaboration between the Italian-born jockey Frankie Dettori and the chef Marco Pierre White, whose three Michelin stars have long since been overshadowed by his personal life. Now for the not-so-good news: the food is rather ordinary. At least it was on a recent Friday evening. A sauce so thick as to be borderline unpalatable; a distinct lack of seasoning on one dish; another minus the sauce that was supposed to accompany it. Not what you would expect from a kitchen created by someone who has spent his professional life in the culinary major leagues.
Before deciding on our appetisers, we were unable to resist an attack on the bread basket. The breads were freshly baked on the premises, almost feather-light and quite scrumptious. A promising start. We decided on one appetiser, scallops, that was an off-menu special. Unfortunately, because of a slight language gap, we weren't able to discover exactly how they were going to be prepared, but my companion, a scallop aficionado, decided she would have them anyway.
I wanted to test the kitchen's Italian mettle, and settled for the sautéed mussels and clams in fresh tomatoes and chilli. My dish consisted of nine or 10 small mussels and the same number of tiny clams in a zesty, aromatic broth. The mussels were by no means the best I have tasted - that accolade goes to the succulent bivalves of Cortes Island in Canada's Georgia Strait - but they were fine, and the broth reflected a touch that was light yet bold.
My companion's three plump scallops were criss-crossed with grill marks and nestling on a bed of greens and cannellini beans. She pronounced them fairly good, but no more than that. I tried a couple of mouthfuls and had to concur: they were sadly lacking in pizzazz. We asked how they'd been prepared, and were told they had been marinated in lemon juice and sprinkled with a little salt and pepper. But we could detect no hint of any kind of kitchen input that might have helped justify an asking price a shade under Dh30 per scallop.
For main courses, we decided on a meat option - oven-baked rack of lamb with a macadamia nut crust and mint jus, served with gratin potatoes and baby vegetables - and one of the pasta offerings, potato gnocchi with a Gorgonzola sauce. My companion's lamb arrived perfectly pink, as ordered, and was tender enough to cut easily with a fork. The outer layer with the crust was excellent, but the rest of the lamb cried out for some help from the advertised mint jus, which was nowhere in evidence. The gratin potatoes were exceptional and the vegetables crisp and flavourful.
My gnocchi were light in texture, and a perfect foil to the robust Gorgonzola sauce. The only problem was that the sauce was thick. Very thick. Removing a piece of the gnocchi left an indent. The sauce was an immovable object and would have been helped immeasurably by the addition of a little vegetable stock. Despite these shortcomings, it was an evening we enjoyed thoroughly, and it would be unfair not to report that colleagues who have eaten at Frankie's are unanimous that their food was excellent, and assure me I must have caught the kitchen on a rare "off" night. Judging by every other aspect of the operation, I have no trouble in believing that.
Frankie's, Fairmont Bab al Bahr, Abu Dhabi, 02 654 3333. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh467.48 without beverages. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.