Our reviewer finds a truly drool-worthy dish - and many mediocre ones - at Shang Palace in the Shangra-La hotel in Abu Dhabi.
Ducks by the pros
Flushed, plump and glistening, the bronzed bird was lowered onto a little trestle table ready for carving. With meticulous precision, the waiter sharpened his blade and hunched over the duck, his face centimetres from the crisp, ruddy skin. With a deft swish of the knife, he made the first incision, carefully separating the skin from the flesh and placing the wafer-thin morsel onto a separate plate. He continued until all of the breast skin had been removed, and then began carving the meat. All the while, we tried not to drool.
Peking duck is one of Shang Palace's signature dishes, and the sight of it - not to mention the sweetly smouldering aroma - made us anxious to start wrapping the meat up into pancakes along with the shredded spring onion, cucumber and smoky hoi sin sauce. Of course, the duck was huge, and the portion far too big for just the two of us. So I felt compelled to eat as many of the bulging pancakes as I could, despite the starters that preceded them. We'd already dispatched a plate of vegetable spring rolls, which arrived at the table fresh from the deep fryer. They were blisteringly hot and impossible to eat for several minutes until they had cooled down. Luckily, I'd also ordered the chicken and sweetcorn soup, so I was temporarily able to lose myself in the firm yellow kernels and soft nuggets of meat swimming in the steaming, thick broth before I returned to the spring rolls. Once they'd reached a manageable temperature, I discovered that they were unnecessarily greasy parcels of bean sprouts, carrot and mushroom.
It seemed that everybody in the restaurant was having the duck. As soon as our meat had been carved, the trestle table was whisked over to another table, where a similarly stout bird soon came to rest. The popularity of the signature duck was certainly justified, so I wondered if any of the other signature dishes would be as good. I opted for the Sichuan shredded beef, but the crispy, lightly battered meat was a little too dry. There was some moisture to be found in the accompanying green and yellow bell peppers, however, and the presence of chilli did give the dish an enjoyably spicy kick. Disappointed by the beef, I expected more from the crab with black pepper sauce. It was presented in the body shell, yet while the meat was soft and plentiful and the sauce robust and flavoursome, every mouthful contained sharp fragments of shell. The excellent cashew vegetable fried rice with carrot, spring onion and shiitake mushrooms couldn't make amends for the shortcomings of the two mains.
With a feeling of slight disgruntlement, we ordered desserts. I had the pomelo, which offered beautifully fresh chunks of the sweet, slightly bitter South-east Asian fruit drenched in milk. Across the table, my companion - who was still smarting from the splintery crab - tried to console herself with the sago pearls with melon and strawberries. It was reasonably good, but since desserts are rarely the motivating factor in deciding to eat at a Chinese restaurant, our disappointment remained.
Having dined at the brilliant Bord Eau French restaurant upstairs, I'd hoped for much better from the Shangri-La's flagship Chinese restaurant. It has certainly gained a reputation for its fine food, and judging by the number of diners present on our visit, a very healthy and loyal following. Among the stone-turret pillars and quaint ornamental teapots, every table of the small restaurant appeared to be full. Perhaps the superb duck had something to do with that.
? Shangri-La hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, Between Two Bridges, Abu Dhabi, 02 509 8888. Average cost of a meal for two: Dh800-900. firstname.lastname@example.org