Our undercover gourmet finds out whether Dubai's newest Japanese restaurant can set itself apart from the rest.
Nozomi: A different kettle of fish?
Nozomi opened with a lot to live up to. The modern Japanese food scene in Dubai has boomed beyond saturation point in the last couple of years, with the starry Okku, Zuma and Nobu fighting it out at the top and a flurry of second-string imitators paddling along behind. The concept of black miso cod has gone from a rare treat at Nobu to a tired cliché at any restaurant with pretensions in the course of just a few months. With this kind of quality available, it's a tough market to crack.
Add to that the fact that Nozomi is an outpost of one of London's top celebrity haunts, a restaurant that has equally inspired devotion among stars for its clubby atmosphere and revulsion among food critics for its style-over-substance approach, and you have a recipe for foodie controversy. But if there's one thing that Dubai's socialites love, it's a glamorous new hangout and a launch party to match. Said party was where I first got a peek at the decor and observed the service habits of its staff a couple of months ago. It was a good start: slick, professional and very stylish with low banquettes and circular wall features, it felt like the kind of place the rat pack might have patronised - though for a restaurant launch, the dearth of food to sample was not exactly inspiring.
Still, on our recent visit, my companion and I decided to give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt. And, largely, we were pleased. Nozomi has an extensive menu, pages of appetisers, meat dishes and sushi. We decided to order family style and stick to the seafood, with the exception of an order of beef dumplings. Those dumplings were the only bad move, as it happens: lukewarm and soggy, with a paté-like smoothness inside, which made for an unpleasant mushiness.
Returning to the sea, though, the seaweed salad was flavourful with a smokey taste and a pleasing crunch. Crispy soba noodles and shredded cucumbers added texture, making it, like the best of Nozomi's fare, a simple dish well executed. However, things can be too simple: the sea bass was good, but under-seasoned. Of course, Nozomi's raison d'être is the sushi, which was fresh, well-textured and tasty. The highlight was the yellowfin, which features bits of fresh ginger in the roll: a perfect combination of texture and a pop of sharp sweetness. At the other end of the scale, the spicy tuna roll - normally a personal favourite - was rather bland.
Curiously, Nozomi seems to have an obsession with cucumber garnish, not something that is generally ubiquitous in Japanese restaurants: there it was, curled, sliced or chopped, in each of our dishes. My dining companion and I both like cucumbers so it was more amusing than anything else. Where Nozomi has the upper hand on many of Dubai's other offerings is in the service. That's why it remains popular in London in spite of the reviewers' disdain, and that is how it will break through here. Our waiter was solicitous, informative and proactive without being overbearing or unctuous.
With this sort of detail Nozomi has the potential to be a real local dining spot, not just another hotel restaurant. And though I'd hoped that they would hold off from bringing out the DJ until after 10:30 - let the restaurant be a restaurant and save the club scene for later - there's no doubt the Sixties mod decor, the large patio on the 25th floor and the DJ will appeal to Dubai's young and flashy party kids. It does exactly what it aims to do.
Nozomi, Habtoor Grand Resort & Spa, Dubai, 04 399 5065. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh458. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.