In Deira's Asiana hotel an authentic Korean menu with sensational flavour combinations awaits.
Sonamu restaurant delivers up Korean delights
It's not often that I wholeheartedly recommend a restaurant, but for Sonamu, a Korean place at the relatively new five-star hotel Asiana in Deira - yes, Deira - I'm more than happy to make an exception.
That's not to say that the restaurant is perfect, just that a meal here will surely offer a new experience, as well as the chance to sample some really cracking flavour combinations and ingredients.
The authentic menu features a number of set meal options, salads, a selection of Korean pancakes and specialities, meat and seafood grills, noodles, hot pot dishes to share and various cuts of meat (primarily beef), which are cooked in front of you on a brazier grill.
Soon after settling ourselves at a sunken wooden table at the back of the room, we were presented with a little bowl of chilled seasoned water swimming with slices of chilli and cucumber. I was sceptical when we were instructed to drink it, but it was fantastic - cleansing, refreshing, hot and sour with a lasting vinegary tang; a really welcome precursor to what was to be a great meal and the perfect primer for our taste buds.
No sooner had we slurped the last of this and placed our order than a tray containing a pretty array of condiments - spicy kimchi, tart soused bean sprouts, wilted spinach and salted, crisp fried fish - was placed in front of us. The idea is that you use these items to tweak and customise dishes to your liking, but they looked so appetising that we couldn't resist digging in and trying them on their own.
Selected from the list of Korean specialities, a large bowl of stir-fried kimchi arrived next and immediately impressed. Slices of meat, spring onions and vaguely crunchy kimchi were served steeped in a spiced tomato sauce and topped with slabs of quivering, white tofu. The plainness of the bean curd provided the perfect foil to the assertive, hot, slightly sweet sauce and we finished off far more of the dish than I'd initially expected us to.
Far less robust but just as interesting was a delicate bowl of hwe salad, which featured slivers of raw fish tossed together with tangles of raw cabbage, radish and carrots, all bathed in a lime, sesame and soy dressing. It was as light and restorative as the previous dish was hearty and filling and we liked them both very much.
Following our Filipino waitress's recommendation (who told us that although she'd never tried Korean food before working here, she had sampled the whole menu and now loved the cuisine), we ordered the "dolsot" bibimbap as one of our main courses.
Her advice was spot on. A sizzling hot stone pot filled with unctuous, soft rice topped with mushrooms, shredded vegetables, eggs, nuts and sesame seeds was quickly presented to us before being discerningly mixed together at the table, with a spoonful or two of fiery chill paste added for good measure. The first mouthful of this rice concoction was delicious, but for me, the very best bit came at the end, when we scraped away at the crispy, crunchy golden brown crust that had formed along the bottom of the bowl.
While we tucked into the rice, our waitress fired up the grill. As soon as it started to smoke, she quickly added a generous slab of rib eye steak (our chosen cut and a bargain at Dh95), searing the meat on both sides, before slicing it into bite-size pieces with scissors and plenty of aplomb. More mushrooms, a few spring onions and some slices of white onion were thrown on to to the grill at the same time. After that, it was up to us to spear a piece of smoky, tender meat, add a spiral of onion or a mushroom and wrap it all up in a lettuce leaf, adding a dab of sauce (soy, sweet mustard, or sesame) along the way. A fantastic, fun, flavoursome mouthful, if there ever was one.
We ended the meal with a complimentary dessert: a small bowl of soojungkwa (a sweet, cinnamon-spiced Korean drink) and a little plateful of sugar-syrup-drenched crunchy biscuits. Lovely.
For all the positives, the service at Sonamu is a little off. As charming as our waitress was, it was rather disconcerting when our main courses arrived shortly after the starters, particularly as one of these was a hunk of raw beef. When we happened to ask another waiter to describe a couple of dishes, he was unable to do so, describing one item as "some tofu thing", which isn't exactly ideal.
However, this is a minor quibble. For those that like their food with plenty of character, who relish dishes that combine hot, sweet and sour elements and welcome an onslaught of colours, flavours and new ingredients, get thee to Sonamu. I don't think you will be disappointed.
• A meal for two at Sonamu, Asiana Hotel, Deira, Dubai costs Dh298, including service. For reservations call 04 238 7777. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito
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