For possibly the first time ever in a restaurant, I laughed out loud when I clapped eyes on my friend's chocolate fondant.
Azur, Al Raha Beach
Azur is the Al Raha Beach Hotel's newest restaurant, but it doesn't look it. When we entered the Mediterranean-themed dining room on a lazy Friday afternoon, we wondered if we'd got the right place. It had a dated canteen-style feel, all pastel colours, lavender, eggshell blues and terracotta floor tiles. We were seated against the back wall beneath a checkerboard of quaint watercolours, peering out across tables scattered with diners, most of whom had sauntered in from the hotel's beach and swimming pools nearby. Consequently, it had a languid and relaxed atmosphere, until the water pipes hidden somewhere in the wall behind us started hissing. This, coupled with the sole waiter's agitation at more guests arriving for lunch, helped to inject a little life into proceedings. So we got on with the business of ordering.
"Sea and land tantalising like that", blurted the menu in its inimitably garbled stream-of-consciousness style. But once we'd decoded its contents over some crudités of carrot, celery and cucumber, I plumped for the traditional Mediterranean seafood soup. The heady saffron, herb and tomato broth was crowded with baby octopus, squid, portly prawns and hunks of hammour - all slightly overcooked. Across the table, my companion tackled the chargrilled aubergine and feta cheese salad with balsamic reduction, but the stacks of thick and irregular tomato slices heavily outnumbered the soft slivers of aubergine.
Somewhat underwhelmed by our starters, we eagerly received our main courses and were pleasantly surprised by the improvement. My grilled jumbo prawns were suitably large, juicy and delightfully fragile, bursting with torrents of flavour with a sweet chilli and herby cream sauce. The accompanying grilled aubergine salad complemented the tender seafood with a flourish. At last I was witnessing some of Azur's much-touted Mediterranean promise. Likewise, my dining partner was relishing the tortellini pasta, which was stuffed with a delicate ricotta cheese filling and bathed in a soothingly thick tomato and rosemary sauce. Our afternoon was certainly looking up, and not even hissing water pipes would ruin it. Or so we thought.
For possibly the first time ever in a restaurant, I laughed out loud when I clapped eyes on my friend's chocolate fondant. Instead of a moist, crumbly cake filled with molten chocolate loveliness, she was presented with a dark shrivelled crust that looked to all intents and purposes like a hard-baked trumpet muffler. A rock drill would capably have stepped in where the spoon failed, but after a number of attempts we were able to penetrate the dry outer layer to reveal the stodgy cocoa paste within. It was nothing short of disastrous, except for the accompanying wild berries and vanilla ice cream, which were average. At least we could turn to my Mediterranean fruit platter with saffron ice cream for comfort.
Azur had certainly had its moments of triumph, but they were too few and far between. Part of the trouble was that, for a rather young establishment such as this, it felt as if it were merely going through the motions. The uninspiring decor and occasionally below-par food would suggest that this was more than just a midsummer's afternoon slump. Perhaps ironically, the only hope for a young restaurant that already feels old is that it might improve with age. Here's to the future.
Al Raha Beach Hotel, Abu Dhabi, 02 508 0555. Average price of a meal for two is Dh500-550.