x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Restaurant Review: Take a wok on the wild side at Smoking Doll

The new Asian fusion restaurant Smoking Doll, located in Reem Island, offers focused cooking and several standout dishes that transcend gimmickry.

Smoking Doll's 'fashionable gloom' interior. Courtesy Smoking Doll
Smoking Doll's 'fashionable gloom' interior. Courtesy Smoking Doll

To understand how well Smoking Doll manages to balance the sensations of fiery and sweet, turn to the very first item on its menu: bits of candied beef cheek served on a betel leaf. Imaginatively composed and garnished with fragrant herbs and fried shallots, it’s a flavour bomb.

The dish encapsulates this new Abu Dhabi restaurant’s approach to Asian fusion – certainly a concept that has been put through the culinary wringer, often coming out the other side with muddled results. Though the term encourages exploration, it frequently discourages discretion. Smoking Doll offers a compromise: the food is fussy, but focused.

The marquee dish is curry. There are 19 variations on offer, led by the smoked fish curry, presented to the table covered in a glass dome. When the server lifted the lid, steam swelled outward and across our table. It’s a precious and terrific moment.

The truly striking flourishes, however, are in the dish itself: perfectly proportioned, the fish is served with fermented radish, pickled cucumber, mushrooms and broccoli. The intense curry sauce is served on the side, so you can control how high- or low-impact the dish will be.

The curry, and the rest of the mains, are best eaten with the egg and vegetable fried rice. Unadorned, its artistry lies in simply going for the gut.

At Smoking Doll, there’s plenty to eat, whether you’re craving for delicacy or hearty. The menu is substantial – close to 100 offerings, all meant to be shared. Other notables include the Thai beef salad, the Pad Thai and the calamari, which was flash-fried to crunchy, but not dry, perfection. The squid sat atop a mini-mountain of spring onion, Szechuan pepper and pickled ginger – an unexpected and delightful combination.

But not all dishes were pleasurable. There’s a frantic quality to the San Choy Bow, basically minced beef served in lettuce cups. For all the technique lavished on it – the beef is wok-tossed with water chestnuts, seasoned with soy and ginger, then mixed with spring onion and peanuts – the results were weak. It was more interesting to gaze at than graze on.

The Vietnamese king prawn roll was forgettable – there was a single tiny prawn inside.

Thankfully, the desserts are a treat. Our final course, the mango sticky rice, straddled another divide – this time between sweet and savoury, the cold slices of mango contrasting with the flawlessly cooked rice, served piping hot.

Smoking Doll’s theme is fusion – but it is also contradiction. The food is of five-star-hotel quality, but the prices are affordable. The banquettes are bright orange and leather, but the walls are painted black and the lighting is dim (a friend accurately called it “fashionable gloom”). The plates and cutlery are fancy – they even change your plates after every dish – but the napkins are paper. The service is friendly but uptight – the staff’s smiles seemed genuine, but the overall mood was tense.

And then, the music: club mix boomed from the speakers. Madonna, electronic dance, 1990s hip-hop. It was the soundtrack of everywhere and nowhere, a contradiction to Smoking Doll’s cooking, which was complete and grounded. We left with hurting ears but satisfied appetites.

• A meal for two at Smoking Doll in Boutik Mall, Reem Island, Abu Dhabi costs Dh293. For reservations, call 02 677 8849. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and conducted incognito

jgabrillo@thenational.ae