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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Can a luxury, nine-seater Japanese restaurant work in the UAE?

Because of its size, Hoseki feels like the most exclusive of venues, discovers former Tokyo resident Ashleigh Stewart after a meal at Dubai’s newest, smallest and most authentic Japanese eatery 

Authenticity is key at Hoseki. Courtesy Bulgari Hotel
Authenticity is key at Hoseki. Courtesy Bulgari Hotel

What good is a nine-seater restaurant in Dubai? This is the city of “biggests” and “longests” and “tallests”, so how is “possibly the smallest” going to be good for anyone’s marketing plan? Thankfully, Hoseki isn’t trying to be a superlative. It is, however, one of the most authentic Japanese experiences you’ll find anywhere in the world.

Hoseki is to be found deep in the innards of the newly opened Bulgari Hotel Dubai. And from the moment the lift doors deposit you at the reception, it feels like you have wandered into an (admittedly upmarket) izakaya – the term used to denote the small, casual eateries that line every street in the country.

“Irashaimase,” is the chorus from several kimono-clad hostesses, a welcoming phrase used the moment you enter the door of an eatery anywhere in Japan, shouted emphatically by anyone and everyone working in the restaurant at the time. Here, it’s a gentler greeting, inviting you to take in the surroundings of the traditional reception area or tokonoma, and at the subtle nods to cultural heritage – a Bonsai plant here, a wall hanging there. The kimonos are neither tacky nor token here; they are authentic, and each waitress comes from Japan.

I reply with, and immediately regret, a shaky “arigatou” before the waitresses – brushing aside my random attempt at cultural inclusivity – lead us down a dimly lit hall to the restaurant itself. I hadn’t the heart to tell them at that point that I’d spent six years studying Japanese and lived in Tokyo, and all I could muster was a badly pronounced “thank you”.

The live cooking counters. Courtesy Bulgari Hotel
The live cooking counters. Courtesy Bulgari Hotel

“Irashaimase,” chef Masahiro Sugiyama says from what at first resembles a traditional L-shaped sushi bar, but is definitely a step up from the eateries on the streets of Shinjuku. It’s an impressive space, with a large window framing the chefs as they set to work, the Dubai skyline glittering just beyond their hats. But for a restaurant with extremely limited seating space, we’re surprised to note we’ll be the only ones dining. There are only two seatings per night, at 6.30pm and 9.30pm, a waitress from Fukuoka tells us, and they’re usually fully booked – but people are good at cancelling or not showing up.

She hands us cool towels, a menu and a welcome drink, as she and the other hostesses wait patiently at the back of the room, occasionally speaking to each other Japanese – never far if you drop your napkin (which I did about four times).

Fair warning here, if you’re a picky eater, this is not the place for you. The menu simply consists of two options, and neither allows you to choose what you get to eat, but rather how much. Hoseki operates on the notion of omakase, which roughly translates in English to “I’ll leave it to you”, and means exactly that. You’re in chef Sugiyama’s hands now, and he’ll serve you food as he sees fit.

A kimono-clad server. Courtesy Bulgari Hotel
A kimono-clad server. Courtesy Bulgari Hotel

The hisui package offers an appetiser, miso soup, a selection of sushi and a Japanese omelette, and the ruri package offers that, as well as seasonal sashimi and grilled fish. But, as you might have guessed when you plugged the Bulgari Hotel into your GPS, it’s not going to come cheap. The former is Dh900, and latter is Dh1400. Saying that, this is fish that’s sourced from Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market, and even there your standard sushi goes for top dollar.

With the precision of a man who has honed his skills on the back of 157 years of family sushi-crafting heritage, chef Sugiyama slices up fresh catch on his bench directly in front of us, as we watch on entranced. He is the sixth generation of his family to be a sushi chef, he tells us, and this is his first time outside Japan. From hairy crab and bluefin tuna cheek to monkfish liver, each small morsel is crafted and placed in front of us, accompanied by condiment instructions. Drinks are poured from a collection of handcrafted vessels, each of which has been created by Japanese artists, as have the plates and serving platters.

The sushi fish is sourced from Tokyo. Courtesy Bulgari Hotel 
The sushi fish is sourced from Tokyo. Courtesy Bulgari Hotel 

Over two hours, and at least several dozen small morsels later, it’s dessert time. Elsewhere in Dubai, at even the most authentic of oriental eateries, this might be the chance to break from tradition and serve up a matcha sundae or sakura brownie. Here, we’re left with a small square of sweet Japanese egg, or “omelette”, which is about as authentic as you can get.

“Gochisousamadeshita,” I manage, as we stand to leave, still only able to summon a single snippet of Japanese from my lexicon. Nonetheless, I’d almost convinced myself I was still in Tokyo, such was the standard of service and attention to detail at Hoseki.

The illusion is somewhat shattered as our taxi pulls away from the five-star resort and its adjacent marina, having just overheard a man boasting about his 57-foot yacht, but it’s easy enough to return any time you need a slice of Japan in the UAE.

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