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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Restaurant review: Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera 

Fresh produce and clean flavours take precedence at Dubai Opera's first restaurant, which serves up deliciously simple seafood and steak dishes by Australia-based chef Sean Connolly 

Inside Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera. Photo by Ashleigh Stewart
Inside Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera. Photo by Ashleigh Stewart

Pizza.

It’s not something you’d envisage tucking in to, dressed in your best garb before a show at one of the city’s most prestigious venues, but thanks to the brand-new wood-fired pizza oven in Dubai Opera, it’s now certainly a reality. That pizza oven also happens to be housed within Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera, the Downtown Dubai landmark’s first restaurant.

The award-winning chef and foster father of the Antipodean culinary scene hosted The National for a glimpse on what’s on offer come September 1, when the eatery throws open its doors.

The Yorkshire-born chef, who is now based in Australia, is on hand for the opening, and is eager to show off his new masterpiece, which has been over a year in the making.

But first: pizza.

Connolly’s concept isn’t the highbrow, fine-dining concept you’d expect of its location. The setting certainly evokes an air of just-don’t-show-me-the-price-list, but Connolly is quick to insist that this is no ostentatious dining experience. While he shirks the word “affordable”, not just because the price list hasn’t been finalised yet, he says he is trying to price the restaurant in a way that those in the surrounding apartments can pop in for dinner, too.

This is where the pizza comes in. In 90 seconds, you’ve got yourself a piping hot slice of pie — which could soon be available during intermission. They’re “working on that”, Connolly tells us.

Wood fired garlic and onion pizza, served with ricotta, honey and pine nuts. Photo by Ashleigh Stewart
Wood fired garlic and onion pizza, served with ricotta, honey and pine nuts. Photo by Ashleigh Stewart

This is the “approachable” restaurant they had created, he said — where you can come for a bite of pizza and a Pinot, or splash out on oysters and a slab of A-grade steak.

Not one for an edible gas here or an experiment in molecular gastronomy there, Connolly labels his cooking as “homestyle”, with a bit more depth.

“You don’t want to come out for a list of canapés. It’s literally just hearty food,” he says.

But let’s not forget the main draw.

Connolly is self-confessed “mad” on oysters — he serves up to 75,000 a month in his outposts Down Under — so mad, in fact, that’s he’s modelled his restaurant after one.

The colour scheme brings in plenty of greys and mossy greens, reflecting the exterior of the bivalve, and pinks and creams for the interior.

The restaurant itself is an expansive, glittering setting — adorned with sea-themed art installations and views out over the twinkling lights of Downtown Dubai. The outdoor terrace looks set to be New Year’s Eve’s most sought-after table setting.

Indoors, the sweeping 1,115-square-metre space seats about 340 guests among tables and banquettes, and has two bar counters, a chef’s table, private dining room, and plenty of nooks for intimacy.

His star-studded staff are almost like a who’s who of Dubai’s most celebrated restaurants; we note at least a couple of former friendly faces from The Lighthouse and La Serre. But he’s also brought several of his own men across with him; the head chef and general manager are both Kiwi imports.

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But Connolly is a man who found fame thanks to his simple, yet consummate protein-driven offerings, so obviously the steak and seafood is what we’ve come for.

Connolly’s mantra of fresh produce and clean flavours comes to light in his small dishes; think ceviche of scallop, steak tartare and prawn sashimi, with local products worked in to a strawberry, tomato, watermelon and lemon labneh salad — and, most importantly, not a waft of dry ice in sight.

In Dubai, it’s rare to happen upon a plate without intricate decoration or inedible gimmick, yet it’s not even a concept worth discussing with Connolly.

Australian grain-fed T-bone; a star attraction of the main course line-up. Courtesy Ashleigh Stewart
Australian grain-fed T-bone; a star attraction of the main course line-up. Courtesy Ashleigh Stewart

“What you’ll find with my food is there’s very little [nonsense]. We don’t put edible flowers or any herbs on there that don’t deserve to be on there for a particular reason.

“The less we do the better it tastes.”

Main courses come in the form of slow-cooked New Zealand lamb with raspberry vinaigrette and star anise — the latter being a favoured ingredient for Connolly — duck-fat chips, and a monstrous grain-fed Australian T-bone; two throwbacks to the environments where his culinary prowess has thrived. A final accompaniment is a family tribute: “Grandma’s carrots, cooked within an inch of their life — five minutes later and they'll be soup.”

Connolly is a man who doesn't mince his words — not quite at the Gordon Ramsay end of the spectrum, but he's definitely no Pete Evans either. He’s his own celebrity chef, and is as laid-back and passionate as they come, with a mean comedic streak. He’s as happy discussing the Chardonnay vinaigrette as he is his latest must-views on Netflix, and won’t hesitate to recommend the Mighty Boosh to a keen ear.

With an Australian flag stitched on to the left arm of his chef’s jacket, it’s clear how much Connolly wants to bring an essence of his adopted home to Dubai. He insists he won’t be a “fly-in, fly-out chef”, and is spending a month here for the opening, before returning at least once a month for the first six months,

He may not know exactly how to describe the food on offer, but he seemed to like a term coined by a dinner guest commenting on its simplicity and smoothness.

“Yes, jazz food! Can we hashtag that? It's jazz food now.”