I'm a sucker for prawns. Have been since I first tasted them, more decades ago than I care to remember, in the fishing village of Cullercoats on the wild north-east coast of England. The UK was still in the culinary dark ages, and prawns were a revelation to young and unsophisticated taste buds: tiny, salty-sweet and unbelievably delicious. I've had a soft spot for them ever since, despite a multitude of disappointments. The fact is, prawns are easier to ruin than cook properly. Leave them on a smidgen too long and they're dry and chewy before you know it.
The prawns I sampled the other night at the Mombasa Grille, in the Souq Qaryat Al Beri at the Shangri-La Hotel, were as good as any I've tasted: grilled to the split second, gently seasoned and so juicy they virtually exploded with flavour. And we had two cracks at them, first with my companion's appetiser, then with my main course. That the rest of the dishes we sampled were in the same league is testimony to the skill and attention to detail of the Mombasa's executive chef, the much-travelled American Rick Ney, who has plied his trade in leading hotels in Shanghai, Pattaya, Hong Kong, California and Dubai over the past couple of decades.
The Mombasa is tucked away amid a veritable maze on the first floor of the Shangri-La's upmarket souk, and if my companion hadn't been there before we'd probably still be trying to find it. I could point out that the name is a touch misleading; certainly there's precious little that's African on the menu. Much more important, though, what is on the menu is fine and then some. Ney and his kitchen team can cook for me any day.
After agonising over what to choose - there wasn't an item on the menu that didn't sound enticing - we settled on the restaurant's signature dish, the Mombasa trader platter, consisting of lamb chops, king prawns and South African-style Boerewors sausages, and the braised lamb shank with masala onion jus for main courses. For appetisers my companion ordered roasted pumpkin tortelloni with grilled prawns and biltong - partly because the biltong, a form of cured beef, was another of the menu's few nods to Africa. Our friendly waitress made an enthusiastic pitch for the soup of the day, peanut enhanced with coconut cream, and she was doing me a favour. The soup was superb: ultra-smooth, leaving you in no doubt about its primary flavour but with delectable hints of basil oil, just the right amount of coconut cream, and, to help both taste and texture, a few slender strips of tender chicken. An unadvertised afterkick added immensely to the enjoyment.
The tortelloni was rather good, although the pieces I sampled were a trifle undercooked and the pumpkin filling wasn't a match made in heaven, despite the help of a pleasant roasted garlic sauce. The scattering of tiny morsels of biltong left you wanting more, and the grilled prawn that topped the dish was scrumptious, so good I felt almost guilty about accepting a second piece - only in the line of duty, you understand - from my companion.
The main courses were equally successful. Overall, the presentation of food in the Mombasa is elegant, but they didn't make the mistake of trying to fancy-up the lamb shank. It was big, robust, beautifully tender, resting on a sea of hearty masala sauce with a tantalising hint of sweetness and accompanied by a mound of excellent crushed potatoes. My trader platter consisted of two medium-sized lamb loin chops, cooked perfectly pink, two Boerewors sausages that could have been a little more tangy but were still fine and two - thank goodness - plump grilled prawns, cooked just as perfectly as the one in my companion's appetiser. There was no question of avoiding payback time when she spotted the tantalising twins before I could rotate my plate and try to hide them under the lamb chops.
We managed one dessert between us, a delicious malva pudding - apricot-based and sinfully lathered with creme anglais. Add service that was as friendly as it was efficient, pleasant background jazz with occasional Latin overtones (I'd have loved some Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim or Salif Keita to give a touch more African flavour), and the evening was a resounding success. Mombasa Grille, Souq Qaryat Al Beri, Shangri-La Hotel, Abu Dhabi, 02 558 1868. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh433 without beverages. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.