The simplicity of well-cooked English staple dishes proves a delight at Rivington Grill in Souk Al Bahar.
Rivington Grill: bringing home the bangers
These days, it would seem, a restaurant isn't worth its black Himalayan salt unless it has a star chef - preferably one who has got a book out and a prime-time TV show that makes everyday folk feel inadequate about their eating habits. But in this era of celebrity, far too many restaurants appear to have forgotten the importance of a talented and charismatic maître d'.
His or her role is to establish a personal connection with the guests, to identify their needs and to satisfy their curiosity. For most non-British diners at Rivington Grill, there's no shortage of curiosity, especially when faced with such mysterious and exotic delicacies as bubble and squeak and game faggots. This kind of inquisitiveness has the potential to mutate into revulsion, nausea, terror even, and a sudden compulsion to stampede for the exits or bail out over the balcony. Which is where Rivington Grill's maître d' calmly and capably steps into the breach. We were met by Emmanuel Sabater at the reception desk, where we were practically wrapped up in a ball of charm and rolled gently to our table. With a luxuriant mound of floppy brown hair threatening to droop over his geeky Woody Allen spectacles at any minute, he looked wonderfully eccentric. But his informal manner, natural charisma and knowledge of the menu would be enough to put even the most venomous anglophobe at ease.
We sat among Rivington Grill's pared-down minimalist interior, opposite a whitewashed wall strewn with a twist of neon that spelled, inexplicably, the words: "I love to boo hoo". Yet there were no tears from my non-British dining partner when her beetroot salad arrived. The dish was a stupendously light, crisp and decorative collection of fresh leaves, delicate shavings of beetroot and silky strips of warm smoked salmon with a well-balanced shallot and caper dressing. Being an Englishman, I have an upper lip so stiff you could chop onions on it with a pickaxe and I still wouldn't cry (unless my football team loses, of course). But my dressed Cornish crab starter was so sweet, moist and redolent of the English seaside that I almost started blubbering onto the accompanying farmhouse toast through sheer nostalgia.
Erring on the Anglo-sceptic side of caution, my companion chose the grilled farmed sea bass with lemon butter for her main course. The moist, white flesh was tasty, flaky and soft, but to me it didn't really encapsulate the best of British food. I decided to put that right by ordering the game faggots. A traditional delicacy from my native English West Midlands, faggots are essentially meatballs fashioned from cheap offcuts such as heart, liver and other types of offal. At worst, they can be a visceral puzzle of rubbery ventricles, pipes, glands and gristle. Not Rivington Grill's faggots. These were sumptuously tender and exploding with rich, gamy flavours, with soft and smoky split yellow lentils in a thick onion gravy - English nose-to-tail eating at its very finest.
Another British dish traditionally made from leftovers is bubble and squeak. Rather like the Irish dish colcannon, it consists of mashed potatoes, cabbage and other assorted vegetables, formed into patties and shallow fried until crisply golden. My side order didn't look like much, but it was the tastiest interpretation of the dish I had ever eaten - creamy on the inside with a toothsome outer crust.
By this stage, I might have been tempted to stand on my chair and sing Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory while waving a Union Jack (if I'd known the words). But I was able to compose myself before the desserts were served. I couldn't resist the spotted dick, a heavy suet pudding with dried fruit, covered in creamy custard. But it was perhaps a little too dry to let any jingoistic high-jinks get the better of me. My friend was happy with the apple and rhubarb crumble, which offered just the right balance of acidic fruit and sweet, powdery topping to win her over.
Before Rivington Grill, the standard bearer for British food in the UAE was Rhodes Mezzanine. The English celebrity chef Gary Rhodes's Dubai enterprise - a modern, sleek and highly polished fine-dining restaurant at a five-star hotel - was perhaps a little too exclusive to bring British food to the masses. So, in its popular Souk Al Bahar location, next to Dubai Mall, Rivington Grill's accessibility, which is helped in no small way by its accomplished maître d' and simple, well-cooked food.
Rivington Grill, Souk Al Bahar, 04 423 0903. Average price for two: Dh500-600.