x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

There's room for improvement at Sophie's cafe on Palm Jumeirah

Sophie's in Dubai short of its gastro-cafe aspirations due to its selection of pre-cooked food.

Customers at Sophie's cafe can choose from the fresh fruit selection and make their own juice concoctions.
Customers at Sophie's cafe can choose from the fresh fruit selection and make their own juice concoctions.

When, a few months ago, I received a press release announcing the opening of Sophie's, a "home-style fresh and natural gastro-cafe concept", which promised to serve "freshly prepared healthy food" with an emphasis on organic and local produce in a relaxed atmosphere, my immediate thought was: what's not to like?

Given that the men behind the project - the business partners Markus Thesleff and Ramzy Abdul Majeed - are also the founders of the very successful UAE-born Japanese restaurant Okku, this made the prospect seem all the more promising.

Sophie's forms part of the Riva Complex (which also boasts a separate restaurant and beach club) on Palm Jumeirah. However, there's no getting away from the fact that the location of the cafe within the complex is not ideal; essentially, it is in a windowless space on the bottom floor, with a door that opens out on to an underground car park.

In fairness, this description makes it sound worse than it is; the room itself is pleasantly decorated, with lots of light, ash blonde wood (tables and chairs), a large chalkboard displaying the menu choices, walls adorned with images of vegetation and greenery and a few oversized plant pots. Not terrible by any means, but not really what I was expecting and it does give the impression that a compromise of ideals has been made somewhere along the way.

When we visited late afternoon, there was only one front-of-house staff member on duty and very helpful, personable and well-informed he was too, explaining that we could simply pick out a salad or two or order a "main" option from the display counter on the right and included in the price were two salad accompaniments - such as quinoa or couscous with roasted vegetables, coleslaw, braised lentils, tomato pasta, potato salad - of our choice.

From a selection of chicken Milanese (breaded and fried), stuffed peppers, chicken with mushroom sauce, chicken cacciatore (a tomato, aubergine and courgette style stew), salmon (grilled or poached), kingfish fillets or meatballs, my friend opted for the chicken in mushroom sauce with sides of wild rice and a butternut squash and feta salad. I went for the grilled salmon with Greek salad and the butternut again.

And herein lies my overriding issue with Sophie's. The food in those display counters had been pre-cooked and chilled down (presumably that morning), to be reheated as and when they were ordered. Now, to me at least, there is something decidedly ironic about being in a restaurant that purports to place such emphasis on freshness, healthiness and home-style cooking, only to watch part of your meal being placed in a microwave.

As a result of being nuked, the salmon was tough and dry, and both looked and tasted tired. A wedge of lemon might have helped bring it to life, but if it had been grilled to order, I daresay it would have been even better. My friend's chicken (also microwaved) was too sinewy for my liking and the dark brown, sticky sauce that it had been smothered in was bland and vaguely synthetic tasting, without any discernible mushroom flavour.

Bar the wild rice - hard, undercooked grains, served plain - the salad options were more appetising. Roasted cubes of butternut squash were silky, sweet and soft, the feta was pleasantly salty and tossed together with a few spinach leaves and a scattering of toasted seeds. This version did justice to what has become a classic combination. My Greek salad was pleasant enough, with lots of crunchy red pepper and pieces of peeled cucumber, but I missed the chunks of juicy tomato that traditionally make an appearance here. The other thing that I would flag about the salads is that when something is served straight from a very cold fridge, the flavours are inhibited and for the first few mouthfuls at least, this makes it difficult to taste anything apart from "fridge".

With our food, we drank freshly blended juices of our own concoction, chosen from the selection of fruits that were on display, which I thought was a nice touch. The apple, pear and ginger combination was particularly good.

The idea behind Sophie's, although simple, is a very welcome one. However, in terms of execution, at the moment you can't help but feel that the cafe is falling short of its aspirations, which is a shame for both the customers and the business itself.

A meal for two at Sophie's, Riva Complex, Building 8, The Shoreline on Palm Jumeirah costs Dh181, including service charge. For reservations, call 04 430 9466. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito