Restaurant review: Abu Dhabi’s Tamba serves great dishes but poor social skills leave a bad taste
You could probably write a psychology essay on the dangers of dining in fusion restaurants.
You run a gamut of emotions that can be divided into stages: excitement at never-seen-before combinations; wonder, when the weird concoctions arrive at the table; confusion at what the heck you are actually tasting; and, often, regret that you didn’t just order a dead-cert favourite dish.
We certainly experienced most of those sensations at Tamba, the new Indian-inspired fusion restaurant in The Hub at The Mall at Abu Dhabi’s World Trade Center – but largely without the regrets.
We nearly didn’t get far enough to form an opinion, however. If you really don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, Tamba might want to have a quiet word with its door staff.
When we arrived for a supper time dinner on a Tuesday night, we correctly assumed reservations were not required. But after the simple request for a table for two, the receptionist repeatedly insisted on taking my name – entirely unnecessary for a walk-up guest in a restaurant with only a handful of occupied tables.
After a few polite refusals, I pointed out that all we wanted was dinner, not to be entered into a restaurant database. She had a mini-strop, audibly huffed, got a bit flustered, knocked over a pile of menus and gesticulated to a waiter to show us to a table with all the social skills of a surly teenager.
After such a “welcome”, it was fortunate that Tamba’s waiters were some of the friendliest in the capital, keen to explain the menu’s quirks and oddities. And there were plenty to unravel.
The dishes, our main waiter informed us, are all designed to be shared. Our three tapas-sized starters and two full-portion mains were served one-by-one, in a non-stop succession that was as tempting as it was overwhelming.
The lamb kofta with foie gras and “magic” chutney (a minty sauce with secret spices) arrived first. The five small, spherical, foie-gras-flecked balls were surprisingly light and a perfect introduction. Better still were the taco-shaped sweet-and-sour pumpkin in spinach parathas – a tangy flavour explosion.
Our final starter, paneer apricot tikka with plum sauce, topped with “chutney air” (a foam that tasted like the magic chutney) and viola petals, was my dining partner’s favourite. I felt that the paneer was a touch too seared around the edges.
On to the mains, and our smoked chicken with tomato gravy and black-pepper burrata was basically a posh butter chicken, and I was a little disappointed the poultry’s promised smoky flavours were engulfed by the sauce.
Our waiter’s genuine excitement about the beef short ribs with laal maas (a red Rajasthani curry) – “It’s my favourite dish,” he told us – perhaps overly heightened our expectations. The generous slab of meat, presented atop a chunky bone, wasn’t as invitingly fall-apart as one might anticipate.
The dessert menu attempted to tell the cheeky story of a relationship in five stages, with a fittingly Indian twist – but thankfully, we didn’t get as far as the finale, The Break-Up.
The Sticky Situation – caramelised banana-toffee cake with pecan praline and cardamom ice cream – failed to prove as inventive as its title suggested.
The Bride, however, was by far the most memorable dish of the evening. Those fusion-restaurant emotions were tested to the max: the idea of chilli meringue, Chantilly cream, raw mango and coconut sorbet piqued our interest, with the many disparate parts. Visually, it was an absolute hotchpotch – but it tasted like nothing else. A true victory of content over presentation.
For a restaurant that seems to aim to replicate the ambience of Zuma or Hakkasan, with an open kitchen, club-esque music and wooden trellises aplenty – and with prices nearly in that stratosphere – Tamba does need to polish its social skills.
Towards the end of our meal, as the number of other diners began to thin, we barely took two mouthfuls without a waiter checking in on us.
But based on food alone, Tamba is trying something laudably individual – and when the innovation comes off, you might be talking about your meal for days afterwards.
• Our meal for two at Tamba, The Hub at The Mall, World Trade Center, Abu Dhabi, cost Dh649. For more details, call 02 672 8888. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and conducted incognito