x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pearls & Caviar: opulence with a side of tradition

Pearls & Caviar is a brand new seafood restaurant which manages to pay homage to what went before it.

The brand new Pearls & Caviar seafood restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel in Abu Dhabi.
The brand new Pearls & Caviar seafood restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel in Abu Dhabi.

At first glance, one might regard the name Pearls & Caviar to be a slightly crass allusion to excessive luxury, wealth and opulence. But in this case there is a historical context. For hundreds of years, some of the best pearls in the world were cultivated off the coast of Abu Dhabi. As such, the little white gems have become a symbol of the UAE's past. On the other hand, caviar represents today's Abu Dhabi, where extravagance and splendour is steadily replacing the simplicity of those pearl diving years. This brand new seafood restaurant - occupying a striking solitary construction at the water's edge of the Shangri-La Hotel clearly stands out for its luxuriousness. Yet it manages to pay homage to what went before it.

Take the decor, for example. Giant silver pearls surround the entrance as if to prepare guests for the tide of riches within. Inside, glittering black and white tones abound to give the place a cool and contemporary feel, yet the ornate coffee pots and mosaic tiled floors remind us of the origins of the region. It is these subtle touches that help to ground a restaurant that could easily float away in a puff of its own self-importance.

It may seem a like a cop-out to eschew the caviar so prominently advertised in the restaurant's name, but one look at the price (Dh1,500 for 30g of Beluga) made us consider the excellent (though admittedly pearl-less) Loch Fyne oysters instead. Better still, we chose the seafood platter for two, which included four incredibly plump, fresh and saline oysters among mounds of crushed ice. These were dispatched with a sprinkle of fresh lime juice before we attacked the crustaceans with the pristine array of forks, gougers and crackers that had been laid out on the table like a surgeon's implements. There were behemothic prawns and spiny langoustines, which yielded soft meat from their bursting shells. We also identified what appeared to be slipper lobsters, known more commonly in Western Australia as Balmain bugs, which offered less sweetness but more savoury seafood flavours.

It was a very fine platter indeed, even if it did take more than 20 minutes to arrive. Yet this gave us plenty of time to try the fresh nan breads and excellent dips of spicy sambal, tomato and fennel, and coriander and pine kernels. Meanwhile, the waiter explained the salt selection, which twinkled exotically in tiny pots: white salt from the Himalayas and Australia for the starters and black salt from Hawaii for the mains.

My friend selected the hapuka fillet, which is a type of grouper. The distinctive firm flesh was cooked with panache, but slathered in a saffron sauce that was perhaps a little too rich. The accompanying saffron crushed potatoes with green onion emulsion, however, was more suitably balanced and topped off with a few fleshy mussels for good measure. I chose the razor clams, which had been removed from their shells and arranged in a tangle of soft spring onion shoots. It was good to see such rare seafood making an appearance in the region, but the flesh was gritty and too heavily salted. Still, the side orders of asparagus with almonds, and potato and artichoke mash were good, and the paunchy Portobello mushrooms in garlic butter were excellent.

As ethnic chill-out music wailed loudly through the restaurant, we received our desserts. When my companion asked for "Cho ... choco ... chocolates", it had nothing to do with his stammering and everything to do with the menu's selection of cocoa-based fancies. The chocolate fondue was moist and rich, the Valrhona brownie was packed with dark smouldering hints, and the cold cookie ice cream presented an enjoyable contrast to the warm chocolate chip umm ali. I took delivery of a perfectly textured New York cheesecake, with ricotta and apricot "dice", a drop of jasmine-scented mascarpone and a delicate parcel of katayef with cream cheese and pistachio. That both desserts contained traditional recipes from the Middle East (umm ali and katayef) says everything about Pearls & Caviar. It may have its head in the clouds from time to time, but its feet are rooted firmly in Arabian sands.

Shangri-La Hotel Qaryat Al Beri Abu Dhabi (02 509 8888) 
Average price of a meal for two Dh900-1,150