Etoiles at the Emirates Palace hotel lives up to the stars in its name.
Stellar eating - Etoiles
Let's face it: Etoiles, the exceptionally glitzy nightspot at the Emirates Palace hotel, is all about the flash and the cash, although most of its patrons would equate it more with a night of dancing, seeing and being seen than with fine dining. Indeed, when someone suggested eating there last week I was underwhelmed, envisaging the overpriced spring rolls and satay that often pass for bar food in many establishments.
Clearly, I'd missed a trick. The food at Etoiles is, in the main, fantastic: technically accomplished, gorgeously presented and tasty, with a well-balanced (if disconcertingly long) menu. And, in the spirit of a place that is defined by its style-conscious clientèle, the dishes are well dressed with a fashionable selection of foams and jus and fondants. The length of that menu does cause some difficulties, though: with 10 starters, 12 mains and three pasta dishes, each described in exhaustive detail, there was a considerable period of studied silence as we went through the options. Would we go for the Carpaccio of Black Angus beef, truffle egg dressing, pickled mushrooms, rocket and Parmesan? Or perhaps the roasted halibut, caramelised endives, blood orange dressing, brown shrimps and capers? Or maybe we'd join up and go for the Etoiles Surf & Turf: roasted chateaubriand, whole roasted Canadian lobster with garlic and herbs, spring onion mashed potato and red jus? They might as well have printed the recipes.
For our starters, we found ourselves choosing the sweet butternut squash soup, Parmesan foam, sour apples and pine nuts for my companion and roasted diver scallops, fennel purée, wilted greens, micro cress and pea foam for me. The soup was silky and luxuriant, though the Parmesan foam, in a little jug ready to be spooned over the broth like a cappuccino, seemed like a lot of fuss for very little flavour. Shaved fresh Parmesan would have packed more of a punch in the face of a sweet soup.
The scallops, meanwhile, were nicely cooked, though chopped up, allowing for none of that variation in texture that is so satisfying in a large scallop. Unlike the Parmesan, the pea foam on this dish was powerfully flavoured and delicious, light as air and a fine accompaniment to the seafood. Even better, the micro cress was delicate, piquant and fresh: a wonderful change from the bland mixed lettuces that too many salads rely on.
These were, though, sizeable portions, leaving little room to explore the mains fully: for my companion, sea bass, braised fennel and cabbage, mustard seed vinaigrette and deep fried scallop bonbon; for me, a rack of grain-fed Australian lamb, Dijon and herb crust, Dauphinoise potatoes and tomato basil jus. The sea bass was very nicely cooked, with the aromatic fennel and mustard flavours adding some zing to the flesh. The scallop bonbons, though, were an odd addition, rather like three spring rolls piled on top of the fish.
The lamb was perfectly cooked, though was not the rack I was expecting; rather it was two pieces of lamb, one large and one small. I was sorry to be denied those sweet nuggets of meat to be found in a rack, but it was tasty, with a succulent, minty layer of herbs on the outside (added later rather than as a cooking crust). Full though we were, we took a warm chocolate and orange fondant with kumquat ice cream for dessert, the fondant perfectly gooey inside, accompanied by a little tart of kumquats - a rarely seen ingredient here - and an ice cream that tasted of little but was refreshing for all that.
It was a hefty repast, and rather than twirling off on to the dance floor, we regretfully waddled away. Did style win out? Perhaps, but there was substance to spare as well. Etoiles, Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi (02 690 9000). Our reviewer's meal for two at Etoiles cost Dh535 without beverages. Restaurants are reviewed incognito.