x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Tagine: a palatial setting for pastilla and pudding

If atmosphere and setting were the only criteria to judge a restaurant by, Tagine would win hands down.

The decor at Tagine is sumptuous and romantic.
The decor at Tagine is sumptuous and romantic.

If atmosphere and setting were the only criteria to judge a restaurant by, Tagine would win hands down. Set in the stunning Palace section of the One and Only Royal Mirage in Dubai, even getting to it is something of an adventure - down a flight of steps, across a cobbled courtyard, past a gently babbling fountain and through a hefty creaking wooden door.

Inside is a sumptuously decorated cavern with every detail meticulously taken care of, from the candles throwing shadows across red couchettes scattered with vibrant coloured cushions to the low-lit Moroccan lamps, rose petals strewn on the tables and mountainous topiary of red roses in the middle of the restaurant.

If the food was every bit as wonderful as the decadent setting, it would be an outstanding place for a romantic dinner or special occasion. Unfortunately, the magic begins and ends with the lush surroundings. Despite booking a day earlier, we had to wait 25 minutes for our table to be cleared. There is a cosy bar attached to the dining room to whet your appetite but as it was already past 9pm and we were hungry, it was somewhat irritating to have to wait longer than the allocated time. Once we had been ushered to our table by fez-wearing waiters, we were given complimentary rounds of deliciously fluffy sesame bread acccompanied by a slightly acidic harissa paste. Even after 9pm on a week night the restaurant was heaving, but busy as it was, it did not detract from the intimacy of the decor, instead adding an air of conviviality. The only negative effect was the unbearable heat generated by so many bodies.

Despite the sweltering temperatures inside, the staff did nothing to adjust the air conditioning, making it unpleasantly sticky and warm. Worse, our waiter snorted contemptuously when we ignored his suggestion to order more food and stuck to our guns by sharing starters, a salade marrakechia and pastilla bil hamam. In fact, there was more than enough food between us. The pastilla consisted of light, flaky filo pastry dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar which crumbled to give way to moist pigeon meat minced with crushed almonds and was delicious.

The other starter, a selection of five small bowls of mixed salads, was equally tasty. A tomato and onion salsa marinaded in lemon juice seemed more reminiscent of a Mexican dip but the plump okra and broad beans, both sautéed in a rich tomato sauce, were a flavoursome match for the bread. Mains consisted of a traditional mixture of tagines and couscous dishes so we ordered several for variety. The portions, which were dramatically unveiled by waiters lifting silver lids simultaneously with a flourish, were enormous, but the quality variable.

Couscous bisamak had a generous slab of hammour perched on a mound of couscous, surrounded by prawns and thick-cut chunks of carrot and savoury potatoes, but we had to leave more than half as the dish was over-salted and the couscous so dry, they stuck in our throats. A side bowl of sauce did nothing to drown their aridity, merely adding more acrid saltiness to the mix. Tagine d'jaj m'kelli was more of a hit, with a layer of caramelised onions and garlic at the bottom of the pot lending a sweetness to the braised chicken without over-cloying the flavour.

It was a pleasant contrast to the pungent preserved lemons and olives scattered over the top but we were disappointed to find just one small piece of chicken. Couscous k'dra fassia had delicate chunks of juicy lamb stewed in honey but it was marred by an abundance of sultanas, making the already-sweet dish far too sickly. The sauce on the side was basically a bowl of yet more sultanas, which did nothing to improve the taste.

Desserts in Moroccan restaurants are too often an afterthought but a little more care had gone into our roz bil halib, an orange blossom- infused rice pudding with an almost velveteen creaminess, topped with chopped almonds. The kenaffa was a small portion but had delicate pastry layers sandwiching a delicious vanilla cream. Accompanied by hot, sweet Moroccan tea, it helped compensate for some of the disappointment of the main courses but overall, it was a distinctly average meal which failed to live up to the expectations set by the lavish surroundings.

A meal for two including soft drinks cost Dh518. Tagine, the One and Only Royal Mirage, Jumeirah, 04 399 9999. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National. Ilsa Lund is a nom de plume.