x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Spanish style in the capital at Juan Amador Restaurant and Cellar

This is certainly one of the best high-end eateries in Abu Dhabi, but it still has room for improvement.

Juan Amador Restaurant and Cellar at the Park Rotana in Abu Dhabi.
Juan Amador Restaurant and Cellar at the Park Rotana in Abu Dhabi.

I have been looking forward to visiting Amador Restaurant and Cellar at the Park Rotana Abu Dhabi ever since the opening in February. Overseen by the three Michelin-starred chef Juan Amador, who is known for his forward-thinking, avant-garde cooking style, this is an important addition to the region's dining scene.

When I finally stepped into the bar area, there was a happy, chatty buzz about the place; waiters whirled about the room delivering drinks and great-looking plates of tapas and I was tempted to pull up a chair and settle down. Just in time, my friend and I were ushered into the main restaurant, which has a more refined feel to it. The space is relatively small - 10 tables - and a floor-to-ceiling glass screen at one end of the room means that the chefs are in full view.

The service here is nigh on impeccable; smooth, courteous, knowledgeable and friendly. My friend had dined there the previous week and the manager not only remembered her, but also her name, which is impressive.

After some deliberation, we decided to try the five-course tasting menu and soon after that, we were tucking into a couple of interesting canapés, including a cleansing imitation oyster containing cucumber juice and a sea (salt) foam.

The first proper dish of the night - blue shrimp with cauliflower, nougat and lime - was delicious; the large, chubby, perfectly cooked prawn had been cut in half, layered with sliced raw cauliflower and topped with a tangy, meaty sauce. A great start.

The next course took a good 15 minutes to arrive, which felt like too long. The centrepiece was a tranche of ever-so-slightly dry John Dory topped with crispy slices of Cecina de Leon (cured, air-dried beef), which were very tasty. Then, in various corners of the plate, there were dots of pomelo jelly and artichoke purée, half a braised artichoke, a scattering of pomelo pieces and an artichoke crisp. Like the lime jelly that was served with the blue shrimp, a couple of these elements felt a bit superfluous, to the point that you wonder if they are there for the tasting pleasure of the customer, or to demonstrate that the chef can cook a vegetable three different ways.

I'd been reliably informed that the next course - pomegranate-champagne nitro - was an impressive one, presented in dramatic fashion amid plenty of dry ice. Unfortunately for us, on that particular night, this was off the menu due to a technical problem, so we were given an alternative palate cleanser. While this was disappointing, it is perfectly understandable. However, the lime sorbet replacement had a very strong, soapy aftertaste and we both struggled to eat more than a mouthful or two.

The meat course offers a choice between lamb with aubergine, chickpea and tabbouleh or Mieral pigeon with purple curry (an Amador signature), so we chose one of each. Both dishes were presented in a similar fashion to the John Dory: a smallish piece of protein sitting on a spoonful of sauce in the middle surrounded by small, carefully placed squares or rounds of flavoured jellies and purées, garnished with micro herbs. For a restaurant that prides itself on its imagination, I found this surprising and it left me a touch underwhelmed.

My friend enjoyed her main course without being wowed by it. The lamb was nicely cooked and the sauce was rich and spicy; she liked the textural contrast between the burgul-heavy tabbouleh and the smooth aubergine purée but found the cube version of the vegetable a touch bland and underdone.

The meat element of my Mieral pigeon with purple curry, mango and coconut was excellent. The pigeon was pink and tender underneath its crunchy, buttery, salty-spicy masala crust. I can't rave about the accompaniments in the same way though: a small blob of thick mango mayonnaise was overpowered by the other flavours on the plate and the coconut jelly was very gelatinous indeed. Unusually, pre-desserts aren't offered on this tasting menu, so we moved on to dessert proper. Described as "brick in the wall", this consisted of a rectangle (brick) of set spiced milk custard covered (I think) in blitzed beetroot powder, served with beetroot sorbet, a couple of freeze-dried raspberries and tiny, crunchy swirls of beetroot meringue. In terms of cooking, this is a serious, technical dish and it was striking to look at it. Neither of us finished it, though, nor did we ooh and ah with delight, which must say something.

Looking at the meal as a whole, there were certainly a couple of very good dishes, but the tasting menu doesn't flow as effortlessly as it should. As well as being delicious in its own right, each course should act as a precursor to the next; they should complement and segue into one another and here I don't think this was the case.

A meal at Amador is certainly an interesting experience and this is undoubtedly one of the best high-end restaurants in the capital. But with Juan Amador's name above the door, we should expect nothing less. In fact, I think we should expect a little more. I wanted the meal to be spectacular and it wasn't.

A meal for two (tasting menu) at AmadorRestaurant and Cellar, Park Rotana Abu Dhabi, costs Dh1,160, including service charge. The restaurant is closed during Ramadan and reopens on the first day of Eid. For reservations call 02 657 3333. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are carried out incognito.