x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Cafe Arabia: simply refreshing

At Abu Dhabi's Cafe Arabia expect to find fresh ingredients handled with care and served in a spot with great ambience.

Cafe Arabia's labneh roll on saaj bread.
Cafe Arabia's labneh roll on saaj bread.

Located on 15th street, opposite Abu Dhabi's Al Mushrif children's park, Cafe Arabia is a proper little find. As soon as you enter the bright, airy café, you can't help but feel engulfed by a sense of calm. Music plays gently in the background, candles flicker away, local art adorns the walls and colourful Arabian lanterns dangle from the ceiling. Whether you choose to settle upstairs in the majlis, or slump on to one of the comfy white sofas on the ground floor, this converted villa has an appealing charm to it.

The menu features a good selection of breakfast dishes, sandwiches and salads and larger main meals - all with a fresh, healthy feel. We began with a cup of ginger tisan. Poured from a pretty, floral teapot, the amber liquid was clean and lemony, with a nice sweetness and a pungent gingery kick: the perfect post-work pick-me-up.

We then ordered hummus and foul medames to start, followed by a couple of main courses. Despite specifically asking for the mezze dishes to be served first, all the food arrived at the same time. This was a bit of a shame as not only did it crowd the table, but it also rather overwhelmed the taste buds.

Nevertheless, the hummus was good: smooth, creamy, faintly garlicky and simply garnished with a slug of good-quality olive oil. Foul medames was served warm, the fava beans had a subtly spicy aftertaste and had been slowly simmered to the point that they were just beginning to break down to create a thick sauce. A sprinkling of finely sliced red onion and chopped parsley added freshness and crunch.

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I rarely order salad in a restaurant for fear of being presented with a depressing bowl of limp lettuce leaves and tasteless tomatoes. The signature fattoush salad at Cafe Arabia was quite the opposite - a mound of vivid green herbs, flecked with colour and bursting with flavours and textures.

The watercress was bittersweet and properly peppery, the chopped mint was cooling and the parsley grassy. Pomegranate seeds provided pops of fruity sweetness and the chicken had a pleasantly charred flavour. A dressing made from pomegranate molasses was sharp, sweet and sour all at once. I asked for halloumi to be added to the salad and the five strips of salty, squeaky cheese were milky white in the centre with a golden brown crust.

My friends's Arabia garden ruz (a risotto-type dish, prepared with Egyptian rather than Italian rice) featured green beans, broccoli and spinach and was finished with a drizzle of pesto. While the rice was cooked al dente and the vegetables were a vibrant green, the consistency of the dish was a bit watery and it was under-seasoned to the point that I don't think any salt had been used in the preparation. As we all know, too much salt is bad for us, but used sensibly it brings out the natural flavour of ingredients. This is achieved most efficiently during the cooking process, rather than after.

A number of desserts (cheesecake, chocolate éclairs, millefeuille) were displayed in a glass counter at the back of the restaurant. Something about the presentation - their uniformity and slightly tired appearance, not to mention the occasional sheet of plastic wrapping - suggested that they had been bought, rather than made in house. Because this seemed so at odds with everything else we'd eaten, we opted out of dessert. That was until on the way back to our seats we spied a cake stand, almost hidden among the arts and crafts. A slice of orange cake was moist and syrupy, flavoured with honey and pieces of bitter, marmalade-y candied orange peel - a nice, homemade end to the meal.

There is nothing complicated about the cooking or the presentation of the food at Cafe Arabia. This observation is far from a criticism. It was thoroughly refreshing to enjoy the simplicity of good-quality, fresh ingredients, put together with a bit of care and attention. A light lunch here certainly isn't the cheapest in Abu Dhabi, but it may well be one of the nicest.

A meal for two at Cafe Arabia costs Dh227 not including service. For reservations call 02 643 9699. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito.