Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 November 2019

Restaurant review: Antika promises a party atmosphere, but does the food pack the same punch?

The UAE outpost of the Beirut favourite put a modern spin on Levatine dishes, with mixed results

The decor pays homage to 1950s Lebanese theatres. Courtesy Antika
The decor pays homage to 1950s Lebanese theatres. Courtesy Antika

It’s a stalwart of Beirut’s after-dark scene, and Antika now has an outpost in Dubai’s DIFC. Taking over the space once occupied by Sass Cafe in Al Fattan Currency House, the hotspot promised to bring a fusion of high-octane entertainment and contemporary Levantine dishes to the UAE, a blend that its counterpart in the Lebanese capital is known for. So does the new arrival live up to its big sister’s hype? We stopped by to put it to the test.

What to expect and where to sit

When we eventually turned up (navigating the labyrinthine maze that is DIFC with no visible Antika branding to be seen made us 15 minutes late), it’s not exactly the party atmosphere we were expecting. The only two patrons at 7.50pm, my dining partner and I were told by the waiter escorting us to our table that things tend to liven up when the entertainment starts “around midnight”.

Despite the empty tables, the decor ensures the interior feels vibrant and bustling, with a rich mix of jewel-toned velvets, neon lighting and lavish details. Decked out as an aesthetic homage to the theatres of 1950s Lebanon, the mismatched chairs and antique objets d’art speak to days of yore, but the towering carousel horses dangling above and the modern touches across the menu anchor Antika firmly in the 21st century. Glamorously kitschy and charmingly nostalgic, the decor is bound to please both Instagrammers and cinephiles alike.

While we plump for a decadently cushioned booth nestled under the mezzanine level, there is ample seating at the bar and in front of the stage; the latter, we are told by our helpful waiter, is the best spot for a prime view of that night’s live Arabic music, although unfortunately we couldn’t quite muster up the energy to stay until the early hours on a mid-week evening.

The menu

Focused around “Levantine fusion cuisine”, the extensive menu takes in everything from labneh and shish taouk to fattoush and kanafeh, but each has a little twist. The taouk is accompanied by a creamy wasabi sauce, for example, while the fattoush is laced with ­truffle-roasted beetroot. It’s not a place for purists, but those seeking to expand their taste buds while still nodding to the region’s traditional dishes will find plenty to try.

Crunchy fattoush with roasted truffle beetroot. Courtesy Antika 
Crunchy fattoush with roasted truffle beetroot. Courtesy Antika 

We begin with the fattoush (Dh55), a tart, satisfyingly crunchy affair that combines acidity and freshness with accomplished balance. The beetroot feta foam (Dh45), meanwhile, finished with truffle oil and green salsa, has a pleasing earthiness that tempers the creamy cheese, although there is just a little too much truffle on the menu as a whole (an issue that beleaguers many of Dubai’s restaurants, not just Antika). A gourmet take on the street-food favourite, the shawarma chicken rolls (Dh70) are a surprising standout of the mezze course, with succulent, beautifully marinated meat encased in Swiss-roll-like swirls of Arabic bread. Finished with zingy pickles and tzatziki, it’s a moreish plate that we wipe clean. The keshek (Dh65) with, you guessed it, black truffle, however, borders on overpoweringly rich.

In comparison, the mains are well balanced and comfortingly sized; enough to satiate your cravings, but not too overfacing when you’re several starters deep. The grilled chicken (Dh90), served with citrus hindbeh, feta and a butter crafted from sumac molasses, is expertly juicy and faultlessly seasoned, with the garnishes enhancing, rather than detracting from, the flavour of the meat. The same can be said of the two palm-sized beef sliders (Dh90), which are slathered in tahini molasses, adding a refreshing sweetness to the smokiness of the meat.

Beetroot feta foam. Courtesy Antika 
Beetroot feta foam. Courtesy Antika 

The desserts, a yoghurt fondant (Dh45) served with mango puree, and an ashta ice cream (Dh45), are not sickly, as some may be, but can swerve into the too-perfumed category for those who prefer more ­cocoa-heavy or fruity offerings.

Standout dish

They may sound deceptively simple, but the shawarma rolls were the dish we talked about the most on the taxi ride home, with their creamy yet savoury flavour lingering in the mind. The two mains also deserve special mention for their well-practised treatment on the grill, managing to retain flavour without losing any succulence.

Shawarma chicken rolls with tzatziki. Courtesy Antika
Shawarma chicken rolls with tzatziki. Courtesy Antika

We’d give the keshek a miss on a return visit; the use of truffle was ­oppressively heavy-handed, and three starters laden with the fungi was just a touch too much. On reflection, Antika appears to be a venue for those who want a nibble with their entertainment that surpasses the greasy fries and sticky ribs of myriad city bars, but not necessarily a spot for those who want the food to take centre stage.

A chat with the chef

Chef Alaa, who hails from ­Lebanon’s Baalbek region, cites the fattoush and beetroot feta foam as dishes to try, as well as the lamb shank, which is slow-cooked and served on a bed of freekeh, rosemary and Parmesan cheese. When it comes to rounding the night off, chef Alaa recommends ­trying the Antika dessert ­platter, announcing its mix of fresh fruit, vanilla ice cream, chocolate cake and signature bourbon pain perdu as “the perfect end to any meal”.

Value for money and contact information

The mezze plates range from Dh25 to Dh70, which seems fair given their hearty portion sizes, while the mains veer between Dh80 and Dh120. Again, a just price considering the mid-sized offerings. Antika is located on the first floor of Al Fattan Currency House, and is open daily from 5pm to 3am. Reservations can be made by emailing reservations@­antikabar.com or calling 050 735 9177.

This review was conducted at the restaurant’s invitation

Updated: November 6, 2019 07:11 PM

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