We talk to the head chef of the London Ivy ahead of the opening of the Dubai version.
London's A-list haunt The Ivy arrives in Dubai
The time has arrived to satisfy any long-held cravings for shepherd's pie (HP sauce optional), because tomorrow The Ivy Dubai opens its doors to the general public for the first time. It was in November of last year that Caprice Holdings and Jumeirah Restaurants announced that they would be bringing a version of the London restaurant to Emirates Towers. Expectation levels have been rising ever since.
Interest was heightened when Tim Hughes, the chef director of Caprice Holdings, took to the stage at Taste of Dubai and whipped up Ivy-inspired dishes such as iced plum tomato soup and cod with clams. Taste buds were further tantalised when the head chef of the London Ivy, Gary Lee, arrived in town to oversee a one-night-only tasting dinner at Rivington Grill, which left diners crossing their fingers that the chocolate and clementine bombe would make its way on to the final menu.
Many of us have hungered after a coveted table at The Ivy for far longer than just seven months, though. The original restaurant - celebrity haunt, British institution, dining destination - is notoriously difficult to get a reservation at. The waiting list once surpassed the nine-month mark, although I've been assured that these days, thanks in part to an efficient online booking system, you only need put your name down a mere eight weeks in advance.
When I interviewed Gary Lee and asked him how he would describe The Ivy experience to a first-time visitor, he was quick to insist that: "There's something for everyone. It doesn't matter what walk of life you're from, you can go to The Ivy and have something to eat, be it shellfish, caviar, a burger or fish and chips. What you see is what you get: it's very honest, truthful food."
In a city such as London, which boasts a culinary landscape awash with restaurants and chefs, many of them striving to impress and innovate, it says something that a place serving what has been described as nursery-style comfort food is so enduringly popular.
You only need to look at the Ivy Dubai website to see that it hasn't strayed far from this ethos. The menu is quite extensive: starters include smoked salmon, Caesar salad and steak tartare and there are hearty-sounding main courses such as herb-crusted rack of lamb, chargrilled baby chicken, veal chops with anchovy butter and, of course, those famed fishcakes - just the ticket when you're feeling fragile, are craving sustenance and need to be nurtured. Which is, I suppose, entirely the point.
A meal at The Ivy has always been about far more than just the food, though. Celebrities have long favoured this establishment, which offers respite from the glare of the paparazzi lens (at least until they step outside), familiar food, suave surroundings and attentive, yet discreet, staff. And of course, it's rather good for the ego to be able to command a table in such a hot spot at short notice.
Whether well-known faces flock to the Dubai version remains to be seen, but the high level of service is likely to be in evidence nonetheless. Lee tells me that Caprice-trained staff have been flown over from the UK and others have been sent to London for work experience. It seems every effort has been made to ensure that expansion doesn't mar The Ivy's good name.
Continuity and training are of the utmost importance, says Lee, particularly when it comes to the food. "There is a thesis behind how the kitchens are run within Caprice Holdings, which we stick to. The hardest thing is ensuring consistency; we test recipes time and time again and stick with those that work - some of them are 15 or 20 years old," he says.
This is precisely why Hughes, the Ivy Dubai executive chef Colin Clague and Lee laboured over the menu and sent the new head chef Simon Conboy (formerly of Rivington Grill, Caprice Holdings' first Dubai venture) over to the UK to work in the London restaurant. "He spent a month with us and took to it like a duck to water. He integrated himself fully with the team, mixed it up with the other chefs and just generally got involved," says Lee.
Much like the menu, inspiration for the decor has been taken from the original. The interior was designed by Martin Brudnizki (who was responsible for The Club at The Ivy) and plays a ready homage to its well established retro-chic style, with leather banquettes, plenty of oak panelling, distinctive stained-glass windows and specially curated art work adorning the walls. A comforting, refined space? Certainly. Ostentatious? Absolutely not.
At the moment, Jumeirah Emirates Towers seems an odd place to find the The Ivy. In contrast to the London location (with all the hustle and bustle of theatreland and proximity to Covent Garden), you can't help but feel that the towers have a slight sterility about them - more high-end shopping destination than foodie hub.
But then, all this could well change. After all, when Abel Giandellini opened a little café on the corner of West Street in London in 1917, few would have predicted that it would go on to become a restaurant of such notoriety.
One man who has little doubt about the future success of the Dubai Ivy is Lee. "To step over the water like this is a big ask, but I think it's going to work really well. Yes, there are already plenty of restaurants here, but if you're looking for comfort or a home from home, then this is exactly what we're going to provide," he says. And who can say no to that?
The Ivy's top dishes
Served hot with hollandaise or cold with vinaigrette, either way, this vegetable is in season at the moment and therefore at its best.
Bang Bang chicken
Served with peanut chilli sauce, this is an original appetiser and still going strong. There’s a reason for that, after all.
A signature dish good enough to rival your grandma’s? Just wait and see.
Dover sole meunière or salmon fishcakes with sorrel sauce – a toss up between two classics.
Scandinavian iced berries with hot white chocolate sauce – much copied, but possibly never bettered. A lesson in simplicity.
Elderflower and raspberry jelly with raspberry ripple ice cream – summer in a dessert dish.