x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Open-air fare

Thanks to the hotels that have just opened on Yas Island, diners have more al fresco options than ever.

The temperature is sliding down in the appropriate fashion, humidity is dropping and the smell of barbecue is hovering in the air. That's right, folks, it's al fresco time. No more shall we be cooped up inside like hamsters, gazing through windows misted with condensation as roads and pavements melt outside. Out we go - merrily booking open-air tables at restaurants and revelling in the ability to eat food unencumbered by beads of sweat trickling down our faces and plopping into our food.

This balmy season, there are plenty more outdoor tables to be had than ever before thanks to the grand opening of Yas Island and its accompanying seven hotels. Among them, there are 22 restaurants, most of which have adjoining terraces. Is there anything quite like perching outside of an evening, cool drink at your side, menu in hand while you deliberate over perhaps a gazpacho soup, fresh Gulf shrimp salad or bruschetta, whiling away the night with a spot of shisha afterwards?

Some will query the practical side of reaching the island, given its location. Worry not. What is mere seconds away for the residents of Al Raha Beach or Khalifa City is only 20 minutes or so from downtown Abu Dhabi and an easy, straight stretch 45 minutes from Dubai on a speedy run. There are no parking issues to wrestle with, there is the chance to scope out the new "entertainment and dining venue" (as the marketing powers tell us we must name this cluster of new hotels) and an opportunity to get up close and personal with those dazzling lights of the Yas Hotel. Eating outside in the UAE has never looked so good.

It is the Yas Hotel that onlookers are most curious about. For the Grand Prix weekend, it was available only to selected guests and VIPs, and though it officially cast open its doors to all last week, it is still in the soft-opening stage. The 499-room monolith is capable of serving 1,200 customers across its eight restaurants (although one, a French fine-dining restaurant called Vine, isn't due to open until next year), with more casual spots with tapas-type menus too.

This week, the hotel is dusting itself off from the inaugural Grand Prix weekend and gearing up to host 130 Miss World contestants this evening, all on a stopover ahead of their flight to South Africa for the pageant early next month. Things there are busy but good, says Kate Midttun, the hotel's marketing and communications director. "We don't want to be known just as the Grand Prix hotel," she adds, talking of hopes that Yas Island will attract people independently of the events it holds.

All of Yas Hotel's restaurants have al fresco areas from which you can peer out over parts of the track. It's perhaps the right place to go if you're having one of those "I don't know what I feel like" moments or have a fussy eater with you. Of the seven options available there, each presents a different cuisine with the kind of flourish (and price) that you'd expect from such a hotel. Japanese, Italian, Indian, Pan Arabic, contemporary Asian and seafood tastes are all catered for, along with the rather more ambiguous international all-day dining outlet, Origins, which means all the bases are safely covered.

It is perhaps Nautilus that makes the best al fresco spot, looking out as it does towards the Marina and serving seafood that has recently been plucked from surrounding waters. Seafood, with fresh, summery connotations of ocean and beach makes for ideal hands-on, outdoor eating. The menu is a hefty folder, requiring two hands and solemn reading. Get stuck in there, fingers and all, with king prawns, or a few shucked oysters, or a crab claw. Pack your credit card (a signature Nautilus sharing platter for two, with oysters, prawns, langoustines, lobster tail, crab, crayfish, clams and octopus will set you back Dh515), but if you're looking for a new, luxurious outdoor venue then this is the spot for you. Just remember to book first.

There are more casual al fresco spots on the Yas Hotel's roof, places with lighter menus that don't fall under the category of "restaurant". The poolside bars Longitude and Latitude offer a barrage of options. Thai beef salad? Arabic mezze? Cheese platter? Crab cakes? Salmon skewers? If there was a competition for the most comprehensive set of menus designed to make you simultaneously dizzy and sick like a small child, then Yas would surely clinch it. We salute them.

But let's not forget the remaining six hotels on the island, which have flung open in the past few weeks. They are from three hotel groups: the Rotana Group, whose presence on Yas is marked by the Yas Island Rotana and the Yas Island Centro; the Radisson group with its Radisson Blu Yas Island and Park Inn Yas Island (spot the common name thread here?) and the Intercontinental Hotels Group's Crown Plaza and luxury apartment hotel Staybridge Suites.

Drive up to the cluster of them, built just across from the circuit's West Grandstand, and you come first to the Radisson pair. Between them are six places to eat, though the Radisson Blu's upmarket Persian restaurant, Zeeba, is yet to open. The most impressive outdoor spot currently is Filini, the hotel's Italian offering. The outside terrace looks across the budding golf course and out towards the mangroves. The only sound at lunchtime earlier this week was a gentle hissing coming from the sprinklers, encouraging fresh grass on the golf greens. Vast, cushioned sofas surround the tables, tastefully decorated in greens and beige. The kitchen churns out the usual Italian fare - antipasti, risottos, osso buco and pizzas "croccante" (thin crust) along with sides and puddings. You could eat well here for between Dh150-300 a head.

The wine list, too, warrants a mention on the basis that it is long and purely Italian. It is an idyllic spot for a long, unhurried lunch, of the sort that lasts hours - as if you are in Tuscany itself. How did all the hotels ensure they didn't all have samey Italian and all-day dining concepts? Aldar co-ordinated the concepts, explains Rafat Kazi, the communications manager for both Radisson hotels.

Avoiding overlap has clearly been a carefully orchestrated food and beverage operation, because in the Radisson Blu's sister hotel, the less expensive Park Inn, there is the island's only Mexican joint. Called Amerigo's, it has a younger vibe than next door. It churns out the usual guacamole, tacos and fajitas, but with a Mexican restaurant manager and a Spanish-speaking chef, the authenticity is assured. Shisha pipes will be arriving for the paved, outside terrace soon, says Kazi, and a DJ will play outdoors in the evening. Arriba.

Move on up from the Radisson block and you come to the Crowne Plaza, with its building of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments - Staybridge Suites - tucked just behind. For the purposes of eating out, you would look solely to the Crowne Plaza, because Staybridge Suites has no restaurant. The Crowne Plaza has three offerings: Jing-Asian (the obligatory all-day dining restaurant but with good views from its terrace out over the pool and to the mangroves); Barouk, their smart Lebanese restaurant with an extensive eight-page menu; and Stills. It is this third option that is probably the most exciting. A kind of Belgian beer cafe, Stills has a long bar and dark leather sofas with bare yellow bulbs hanging artfully overhead. The best news though is that it also has an outside terrace from which you can order hearty steak pie, fish and chips or a big bowl of steaming mussels with frites all clocking in at around Dh60-70. Just the kind of place in which you can relax and loosen your tie after a hard day's work.

Finally, you can wend your way around the conglomerate of hotels to the Rotanas - one is a Beach Rotana equivalent, the other a budget version. In the Yas Island Rotana, carnivores can seek solace in Blue Grill, which will be vaguely familiar in concept to anyone who's been to the Beach Rotana's Rodeo Grill. The restaurant is dark blue and masculine in feel. The biggest steak on the menu is a 600g porterhouse from Australia (Dh228), but there is American prime and Wagyu listed too. The downside to the al fresco space here, however, is that is overlooks the central plaza to the cluster of hotels, which is where cars come and go to park.

Happily, at the hotel's other signature restaurant, Rangoli, the terrace is on the other side, with the Yas Hotel and all its Technicolor glory in its sights. It features more interesting cuisine too - contemporary Indian dishes, such as Tandoori duck and courgette bhaji, with the spices for its curries shipped in from India. The head chef, Nitin Rageha, laughs as he recounts how specially ordered pots and pans from India arrived on October 30, two days before Grand Prix race day, when the hotel was filling up. Scary? "Challenging," he says diplomatically.

Across from there, in the Yas Island Centro, there is a more laid- back, all-day option called c.diner, which has al fresco tables distributed around its pool. It's best for a quick salad or sandwich pit stop. But with such a glut of openings, isn't there competition among them, I ask Niamh Keohan, the marketing manager at the Crowne Plaza. Aren't they all desperately fighting for visitors? "No," she replies simply. "We're all friendly; we all want people to come out here." The only problem to watch out for is transport. If you're not driving to Yas then hopping in a taxi home could prove a problem because they're not freely casting around the roads there. Hotels are, unsurprisingly, delighted to book one for you though, so make a mental note to do this as you grab the bill. Just do go and have an al fresco experience for yourselves; the forecast is sunshine and it's a trip worth making.

smoneycoutts@thenational.ae