For Pierre Gagnaire, this is his second act in Dubai. A reinvention upon his return to the city that once lauded and loved him. His previous restaurant, Reflets, ran from 2008 until it’s closure in 2016 and was the Gallic temple of fine-dining, regarded by many as the best restaurant in the city. But times changed, Dubai changed, and eyes and wallets were turned to the many new openings.
Gagnaire’s return acknowledges the change in dining scene. It’s no longer the lavish romp through the excesses of French food, from champagne on arrival, through foams and fancy, to an inevitable ending swaddled in a world of fine cheese and sauterne. This is 2018 and restaurants are now dressing casually.
Built on the site of his previous establishment it’s still a sizable place with 115 seats, but there are areas in which to hunker down including some cosy covered booths that are idea for late-night dining.
The homemade bread is as good as it ever was, with exceptional butter that thankfully suggests Pierre can’t quite being himself to loosen the top button of his white jacket and go downmarket when it comes to the basics. There’s no scrimping on quality here. You can order a plate of cured ham as a starter, or some lovely Arancini croquettes that work well without excelling, and just as you start to think it might not be a place to wow you, the madeleines flavoured with rosemary and Parmesan cheese arrive and are the best use of Dh30 you’ll find this month.
Presented in a row of six, it’s perhaps this dish that best exemplify what somewhere like this is about. Warm French cake gives way to release a light scent of the rosemary that sets you up perfectly for the light hit of the Parmesan crisp, in a savoury take on the French classic and for late-night snacking with drinks they’re fantastic. It’s a perfect combination and if these were sold in a bakery then it’s the kind of thing that would make that bakery famous, not because they’re wildly original (there’s a hundred recipes for these online) but because they’re exceptionally well done. In fact, they’re high on the list of best things we’ve eaten this year.
And this place will stand or fall on its ability to offer something others don’t. A report from Dubai Municipality recently stated that 473 food outlets were opened in the first half of 2018 – from fast casual to fine dining. Even if you ate out at a different place every night, there would still be more places opening than you were able to keep up with, so now more than ever it’s about choosing somewhere that offers something you haven’t tried before or something you can’t get elsewhere.
So thankfully here comes the Gorgonzola and burrata ice cream with Campari tomatoes, which is not just a twist on the well-worn burrata dish but a total reinvention. The creamy white island of savoury ice cream sits in the middle of soup dish surrounded by a moat of chilled tomato soup – it’s unique to this restaurant. You might love it, hate it, like only parts of it, but it’s something noteworthy and new and once you’ve tried it you’ll want to tell other people about it.
The Madagascan prawns with black bread, preserved lemon and smoked spinach is another twist in familiar ingredients and arrives in a theatrical late-night cloud of smoke and is a mix of flavours you probably haven’t tried before. While the mains page of the menu also offers Wagyu and veal and slices of duck with foie gras and cranberry sorbet it also offers the PG burger for Dhs98. Yes, it’s a $27 burger, but it’s also a fantastic burger made with high-grade meat, topped with a bun of perfect consistency and cooked just right. And sometimes that’s just what you want, and Pierre shows that you can make concessions to casual bistro dining while maintaining a standard befitting the reputation.
Desserts mean an Apple tart with whipped cream flavoured with Calvados and chocolate ice cream which is sweet spot of a Venn diagram where late-night indulgence meets France. It’s designed to share largely by dint of its richness being too much for one but buried in here is the soul of the classic French bistro food given the Gagnaire uplift.
The adjacent lounge has sofas, ivy-covered walls and kitsch pink flamingos, and there’s a DJ all designed to create a space that invites you to stay for one more, perhaps two, as much as it creates a place for pre-dinner drinks. It’s a nice idea and a concession to the late-night dining town that is Dubai.
It’s a totally different menu to Reflets and yes, it’s technically a bistro, but one where you can order a Dhs91,000 bottle Remy Martin Louis XIII to go with your lobster fricassee. And while the location in Festival City isn’t going to do it many favours – this would be ideal in DIFC for a Thursday night – it is the sort of place that will become some people’s favourite restaurant, while others will try it once and never return. And that’s fine, there are more restaurants opening every week.
But when you add up all the little components it become clearer that this restaurant is a targeted and considered endeavour. The smaller-dish sharing concept is in place, there are outlandish flourishes, the cutlery is Hermès, the decorators didn’t scrimp on the gold, everywhere you look is an Instagram post waiting to happen, there’s a DJ playing House music and over there is a group of people with notable haircuts ordering a second bottle of champagne on a Monday night.
The food may well be bistro French-fusion but, in many ways, right now this is perhaps the most Dubai restaurant in the city.
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