Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 25 August 2019

Iftar review: Break your fast at the Mexican fiesta that is Dubai’s Puerto 99

Head to this cantina on Bluewaters Island for an ample selection of authentic fare, which could cost you as little as Dh90

The rich mushroom soup is a standout among the starters. Courtesy Puerto 99
The rich mushroom soup is a standout among the starters. Courtesy Puerto 99

If you want a break from traditional Middle Eastern ­iftars this week, why not go all out and look to a Mexican cantina? Despite being new to the Dubai culinary scene, Puerto 99 on Bluewaters Island channels a vibrant ambience and, seemingly, already commands a host of loyal customers. Throw a mariachi band, incredibly authentic fare and a few Mexican wrestlers into the mix, and what more could you possibly want from an iftar?

What to expect and where to sit

The restaurant looks out over the Dubai Marina skyline and JBR so, ­weather-permitting, it makes sense to head straight for the outdoor terrace on the ground floor. As the sun goes down, your table will be illuminated with fairy lights as the Marina’s skyscrapers twinkle in the distance.

It’s particularly telling that it isn’t just tourists who are packing into this otherwise unassuming restaurant from the moment our waiter addresses us in Spanish. Responding to my ­bewildered gaze, he apologises profusely, ­saying most of his tables that night are taken by Latin-American residents from Dubai and further afield. He’s certainly not wrong; as the night wears on and tables become hard to come by, Spanish becomes the official language of the restaurant.

It’s probably why the live mariachi band don’t come across as the least bit gimmicky. The talented group seem better suited to a stage than entertaining a small space in Dubai, and really ramp up the atmosphere when they take to the floor every half-hour or so – the rapturous applause and whistles after each number proving just how good they are.

Each of the chefs here is from Mexico, and the waiting staff from Colombia, Nicaragua and the Philippines, so it’s fair to say authenticity has been taken on board.

The menu

The iftar menu is extensive, and my dining partner and I have to reread it several times, figuring we’re supposed to choose a selection of what’s on offer. Not quite, our waiter says, telling us we’ll be served all 13 dishes. He goes on to suggest we order one iftar and share it. He’s not wrong.

Among the starters, the guacamole, pescadilla tacos (fish tacos), sangrita cocktail (shrimp, octopus, snapper and scallops in a tomato sauce), baked jumbo Mexican shrimp, and kale and Caesar salads are all impressive.

If one had to choose a standout, it’s the caldo de setas (mushroom soup) that leaves a lasting impression; a soup so full of rich broth and fungi that we’re wondering if we can order a vat of the stuff to take away with us. Often, when a lot of thought and variety goes into a starter selection, the mains can be a let-down. Not here.

The roasted meats are cooked in mesquite wood, flown over from Mexico. Courtesy Puerto 99
The roasted meats are cooked in mesquite wood, flown over from Mexico. Courtesy Puerto 99

The roasted lamb, goat and chicken from the rotisserie is cooked with wood charcoal from the mesquite tree, which is native to Mexico and the southwestern United States, to achieve a unique, smoky flavour. And while I never thought I’d wax lyrical about something I flat-out refused to eat for most of my young life, the side of Brussels sprouts resulted in a fight between my partner and I over who would get the last one. These are also cooked in mesquite, and smothered in a tamarind- Chile vinegar and Cotija cheese.

The desserts, although flavourful, didn’t quite live up to the hype. Considering everyone within earshot seemed to be talking them up all night, the churros, tres leches cake and guava flan were a little underwhelming.

Standout dish

The goat in the main rotisserie dish was an interesting touch and something I’ve not seen on a menu in Dubai before. The tender meat and smoky flavours rivalled my love of the lamb sitting alongside it, and given my partner and I are both New Zealanders, that was no mean feat.

A chat with the chef

Ironically, although all the chefs around him are from Mexico, head chef John Gray is not – the southern Californian began his culinary career at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. His immersion in Latin American cuisine truly began when he moved to Mexico to help open The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun. He went on to launch his own restaurant group throughout Mexico, worked in Panama, and then moved to Miami, before coming to Dubai to launch Puerto 99.

“Our first Ramadan at the restaurant was the perfect opportunity to showcase a selection of some of the greatest hits from the menu to be enjoyed in abundance at iftar together with family and friends,” Gray says. His recommended dish is the mixed platter of rotisserie lamb, goat and chicken served with Mexican rice, Brussels sprouts and warm tortillas – perfect for preparing tacos at the table.

Value for money and contact information

Perhaps the best part of this whole affair is the fact that while the iftar is priced at Dh180, staff are only too pleased to suggest that it’s big enough for two people to share. For Dh90 a head, and with the quantity and quality on offer, there can’t be many better-­value meal deals in the city.

For reservations, contact Puerto 99 on 04 557 6627.

This iftar was reviewed at the invitation of the restaurant

Updated: May 20, 2019 07:53 PM

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