John Henzell indulges in a geographical spread of South-east Asian dishes – with a few hiccups – at Toshi restaurant in the Grand Millenium Al Wadha.
Restaurant Review: Toshi offers a culinary journey, of sorts
Quiet restaurants are one of the benefits of Ramadan, but we weren't expecting what we found at Toshi: arriving 10 minutes early because of the unexpectedly easy iftar traffic, not a single member of the waiting staff could be found.
We ended up being seated by a bemused but hospitable chef who had been doing prep.
At 6.59pm, one minute shy of our booked arrival time, the greeter and some waitresses arrived. Possibly unused to anyone ever being early on nights when nothing can be eaten or drunk before the Maghreb prayer, they seemed a little flustered to find us sitting at a table by the window.
This less-than-auspicious start continued when we were furnished with menus – mine featured smears of food. Fortunately, the evening took a turn for the better once we started reading the menu rather than seeing the remnant examples of it.
The concept behind Toshi is of a Japanese chef who moved to China and absorbed new culinary influences, but that drastically understates the menu's geographic reach. Besides the standard Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese dishes, there are also recipes from throughout South-east Asia.
Given this geographical spread, it seemed only fair to choose what the menu touted as the Toshi Culinary Journey (Dh155), comprising tom kha kai soup, deep-fried vegetable spring rolls, lamb Penang, beef chao fan and Mandarin lemon grass sorbet.
Thai food is possibly the most difficult in the region to get right, which makes tom kha kai a helpful benchmark for assessing the skills in the kitchen.
Toshi's effort featured chunks of galangal and lemon grass, as good tom kha kai should, and was a delicate balance of sweet, sour, salty and (modestly) spicy. On the negative side, the coconut milk had separated in the preparation, although this was only a cosmetic flaw and didn't affect the flavour.
That proved to be the only discordant culinary note of the evening.
My companion began with the "duo of satay", featuring lamb and chicken with two dipping sauces and which was done perfectly although a little steeply priced at Dh45 for six skewers.
My spring rolls arrived between her entree and main courses so we shared them. It's easy for spring rolls to become soggy and fat-soaked but these were crisp and spicy.
Her main course was the lobster Al Wahda, a Canadian import featuring an entire lobster, sliced down the middle and with the cooked meat redeposited in the open shell.
I was somewhat sceptical about how this mix of subtle and robust flavours could work without the latter obliterating the former but the accompanying red curry sauce came in a tiny cup, allowing you to use as much or as little as you like so that the taste of the lobster and the accompanying snow peas could shine through.
My beef chao fan and lamb Penang arrived simultaneously. The beef was falling-off-the-bone tender – among the best I've ever had - and the breadth of traditional Cantonese spices made it even better. The lamb suffered slightly by comparison. There was nothing wrong with this Malaysian staple except that it failed to stand out.
By this time, the Toshi culinary journey had bested me and the staff helpfully suggested the final sorbet course be split with my dining partner, who hadn't nominated a dessert. This was the ideal finale, with a surprisingly strong lemon grass flavour.
For all the hiccups along the way, we were unanimous in the view that Toshi is a place to which we would return when we wanted to sample a range of east and South-east Asian cuisine.
A meal for two at Toshi, Grand Millennium Hotel Al Wahda, Abu Dhabi, costs Dh460, including service. For reservations, call 02 443 9999. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are carried out incognito.