x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Manga: the light fantastic

Manga offers good sushi and a sense of fun but its gimmicks are a bit much.

Japanese anime, televisions and dancing waitresses are all part of the Manga restaurant experience.
Japanese anime, televisions and dancing waitresses are all part of the Manga restaurant experience.

I saw a light. A bright, intense, white light. I became transfixed by its wild, shimmering beam, which shone brilliantly outwards as if through a swirling tunnel. I was temporarily hypnotised by its vivid all-consuming incandescence. I looked away from its blinding shaft and saw a wall of televisions showing Japanese anime cartoons. There were women around me, all dressed up as schoolgirls. And then the Dragonball arrived.

I might have been having a near-death experience, or a feverish dream. But I wasn't. Instead, I was trying to get my eyes to focus amid the luminous glare emanating from the end of a long sushi bar at Manga, a new and original Japanese restaurant concept on Jumeirah Beach Road. Such derangement of the senses was to be compounded by my first taste of the Dragonball sushi, which combined Alaskan crab claw, avocado and a spicy mayonnaise sauce wrapped in smoky barbecued eel. The "expressive new-age maki rolls" burst in the mouth in a series of fresh and velvety explosions that almost made me dizzy with approval. But to eat at Manga is to surrender to its sensory overtures.

There are huge original wall murals depicting colourful manga characters, bookshelves stuffed with comics for public perusal, and video screens beaming weird scenes from animated motion pictures. And then there are the interestingly attired waitresses, in their pleated skirts and girlie knee-length socks. Even the menu is filled with manga vignettes, including a bizarre scenario involving a dead cat. It's that kind of place.

We started with a table full of small dishes that were prettily presented and artfully prepared. The tuna tataki offered several peppery slices of raw fish dusted with a mix of spices and served with a citrussy ponzu sauce. There was a small bowl of soup called tori jiru, which was a fairly normal miso broth with soft chicken pieces. The Tokyo was a platter loaded with thinly sliced raw red snapper, shredded radish and another, slightly different ponzu. And the ikura temaki was a cone-shaped sushi roll brimming with plump and sticky salmon roe.

Our senses were gradually settling down when there was a loud burst of music and all the waitresses quickly assembled to perform some kind of surreal formation dance. Chopsticks bearing mouth-bound pieces of sushi halted in mid-air throughout the restaurant. Time seemed to stop. The dancers were almost as embarrassed as the diners, and we were all relieved when the uncomfortable spectacle was over. Still partially stunned by the calamitous choreography, we opted to eat more food. Our waitress gave us a sheepish look that seemed to say, "Sorry, I was just doing what I was told", so I forgave her and ordered the ebi tempura.

The crispy battered prawns passed the sogginess test with flying colours. Alongside the tempura, we indulged in a plate of spicy beef teriyaki, which was cooked to a state of soft, pink precision. The plate also featured a scoop of cold mashed potato with chopped carrots, some shredded coleslaw and lettuce, which we complemented with some fairly average aromatic garlic fried rice. It was probably because we felt like we were in a cartoon that we ordered desserts, despite being completely stuffed. My dining partner selected The Sunrise, which consisted of a ball of fried tempura ice cream in a strawberry and vanilla sauce that was drizzled onto the plate in the shape of butterfly wings. My Choco Maki was lightly dusted with chocolate flakes and crammed with strawberry, melon, papaya and pineapple. Both desserts were pleasant, but it was all far too much. There's no doubt about it, Manga (the restaurant) is a huge gimmick. But it's a very interesting and endearing one, as long as you can deal with its hyperactive idiosyncrasies. In these troubled times, the feeling of financial gloom and job insecurity is very real, so Manga's sense of fun and escapism is a welcome antidote. Come, step into the light.

Manga, Jumeirah Beach Road, Dubai, 04 432 8300. Average cost of a meal for two: Dh300-350. jbrennan@thenational.ae