Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Ember - will it light your fire?

Ember, The Address Dubai Mall

It’s perhaps emblematic of our times that there’s a hotel in Dubai’s biggest shopping mall. 

The Address Dubai Mall would seem to cater for all kinds of travellers, not least those avid consumers who regard a town-sized shopping centre as a destination in itself. There would appear to be plenty of demand for such a place - the Address has another property at Downtown Dubai, no more than a Gucci handbag’s hurl away - but for those who live here it’s the hotel restaurants that really matter.

Hiking around one of Dubai’s malls can be soul-destroying at worst and exhausting at best, so it’s not uncommon to lessen the pain with food. If you’re particularly disgusted with yourself for going to a mall in the first place, that might involve a trip to Taco Bell. If you deserve better (and you do), The Address - which is licensed - offers something of an escape. Of sorts.

Ember is the recently-opened signature grill there. As a restaurant, it is one of the vital components of a five-star hotel, along with rooms, a reception, a spa and fitness centre, a swimming pool and a car park. Unfortunately for Ember, it’s smack bang next to the car park. What’s worse is that you can see the cars through a large window, and at rare interludes the screech of tyres or the impatient blast of a horn can be heard.

It’s a shame, since Ember is otherwise stylish, contemporary and very pleasing on the eye. Huge mirrors on roughly rendered walls make the elegant dining room seem larger than it is, yet the lambent glow of a candle on each table offers an intimate touch. The immaculate open kitchen sprawls along the edge of the room, while at the opposite end a bar blushes with warm red lighting and large invigorating photographs of vibrant bubbles and sloshing liquid.  

The setting certainly got us in the mood (adjoining car park notwithstanding), as did the capable maitre d’. Rarely have I encountered one so charming and knowledgeable at a new Dubai restaurant. He was even careful to warn me that the Japanese-style ‘Robata’ items on the menu were modestly proportioned, and that two might suffice for a starter. He was lying, of course. One would have been perfectly sufficient, but since I was here as a guest of the restaurant, perhaps he thought it best if I tried as much of Ember’s food as possible.

I wasn’t disappointed. I chose the spicy jumbo prawns, which arrived on a bed of kimchi sat upon a papad-like green onion pancake. The seafood was moist and suitably prickly with heat, while the option of further tangy hotness lay in a sprinkle of spicy powder at one end of the plate and a dab of chilli sauce at the other. Following the maitre d’s advice, I added the miso cod cheeks, which on this occasion was substituted with hamachi, a similar white fish from Japan also known as yellowtail. Either way, four dewy hunks of the stuff had been perfection-seared in miso sauce and presented with pea shoots and a scattering of orange flying fish roe.

My lucky companion opted for the foie gras, a hearty lobe indeed, seared and set across three slices of smoked duck, accompanied by a duck consomme, figs and a handsome ball of cabbage - rolled pleasingly into a perfect sphere not unlike a bumper Brussels sprout - stuffed with more shredded duck for good measure. 

For my main course, I had the braised short rib, which was every bit as tender, gooey and sticky with thick pinot noir sauce as I’d hoped. The American meat peeled away, deep red fibre after fibre, but I wanted to snaffle the accompanying potato and coarse grain mustard first, so it was just me and the meat left. If a stretch-Hummer, painted Day-Glo yellow, driven by a zombified Michael Jackson wearing a Macauley Culkin t-shirt had parked right next to my table, I wouldn’t have bothered looking up.

I did glance across the table, however, when a medium rare wagyu steak pulled up with a black truffle risotto and a zingy chimichurri sauce. The Australian grade 5 sirloin was as richly flavoursome and tender as I’d expected, although it was let down at the end by an unfortunate string of gristly fat.  

I rounded things off with a celebration of the Granny Smith apple which came in the form of a light cheesecake encased in paper-thin white chocolate, an apple sorbet, scattered crumble and a thousand shards of crisp apple. It was like having a regular cheesecake in an orchard that had been hit by an asteroid. I guess the chef really likes Granny Smith apples. Meanwhile, my accomplice demolished a selection of Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese with pear and a wispy salad, which was delivered on a thin black slate.

We left asking each other a simple question: did we really eat that well - in a mall? Technically speaking, the answer was no. Ember isn’t in a mall. It’s in a hotel with direct access to a mall. For some that may be too close. But although the views onto the underground car park might bring home the reality of Ember’s location, the gentle ambience, fine service and great food - at its best - can take you someplace else. 

Besides, the car park problem can always be solved by some kind of big, heavy curtain. I'd bet they sell them in Dubai Mall.

Meal courtesy of Ember restaurant, The Address Dubai Mall, open 6.30pm - 11.30 pm, 04 438 8888.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Bon Chon Chicken: do these Korean wings flap or flop?


Bon Chon Chicken

Times have changed. It wasn't so long ago that King Kong tried to take New York and got his big hairy behind kicked. Now it appears a South Korean chicken joint has prevailed where a 60-foot gorilla fell flat on his face. Bon Chon Chicken has seemingly swept all before it in the Big Apple, winning gushing plaudits from the likes of Esquire magazine, GQ and the New York Times. But since New York is the town that recently went all giddy over cupcakes, should we be getting equally excited about the fried chicken chain's arrival in Dubai? 

Bon Chon's first foray into the Middle East occupies an unassuming location among a stretch of fast-food joints on Trade Centre Road. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hardee's, Pizza Hut and KFC, Bon Chon appears to be having no delusions of grandeur about its place among the city's restaurant hierarchy. Yet unlike those giant, impersonal corporate fodder factories, Bon Chon has a certain charm and amateurish naivety about it that instantly sets about winning you over before you've so much as nibbled your first wing. 

A wall plastered with Post-it notes drew me across the bright and cheerful restaurant while we waited for our food (which wasn't as fast as fast-food should be). The doodled missives to Bon Chon's particular brand of fried loveliness ranged from opportunistic classified ads - "Sanoo Architects & Engineers :)" - to this artful little sketch...

The Spy Who Fried Me: Yes, the James Bond character appears to have bludgeoned Colonel Sanders with a chicken drumstick.

... and this culturally sensitive tribute to the first Bon Chon Chicken to open in a Muslim country:


It was just as well the wall-art was so absorbing, as our chicken took a while to materialise, which wasn't completely ideal since the air conditioning wasn't working. It hadn't taken us long to choose, however, since the menu is somewhat limited. I plumped for the chicken fillets combo, consisting of three pieces of chicken, three Korean style mandu dumplings, some bread and a diet coke - all for the grand sum of Dhs20. 

Across the table, my by-now ravenous companion opted for the wings combo, featuring half a dozen wings, French fries, bread and a coke. I added a tub of kimchi coleslaw for good measure and set to work demolishing the lot. What became immediately apparent was that Korean-style chicken isn't like KFC-style fried chicken in that it isn't slathered in a thick, breadcrumb-based batter. Instead, it's merely licked by a special marinade - either "soy" or "hot" flavour - that thinly coats the surface, leaving it light and crisp to the touch after being fried in oil that contains no trans-fats. The frying process takes place in two stages so that the meat cooks through, but the coating doesn't burn or go too dark and crunchy. What you're left with is a barely dressed morsel, sizzling hot and full of tangy spice - a kind of Asian KFC in nothing but its underwear. 

The chicken wasn't quite as crisp as promised, and neither did it sing sweet songs to my palate in either of its garlicky "soy" or  lip-burning "hot" incarnations. The fillets were little more than goujons, modest strips of breast meat, while the wings were so tiny they were barely enough to get into a flap about. What we had here was a preparation style that was different, tasty, and arguably healthier than the fat-saturated fried-chicken to which many of us have become accustomed. But there was very little more than that. In fact, I was just as taken with the kimchi coleslaw, which presented the famous Korean fermented pickled cabbage in a spicy mayonnaise sauce. Although quite what those big lumps of baguette were all about, I can't quite fathom. Still, the diet-friendly portions were soon stripped to the bone...

Since "banchan" is the Korean word for a small side-dish, perhaps Bon Chon is best regarded as nothing more than a welcome addition to the Dubai fast-food scene, a pleasant distraction rather than a main event in itself. But if this is the way to get New Yorkers' knees knocking, perhaps next time King Kong decides to shimmy up the Empire State Building he should think about wearing a giant chicken suit?    

Bon Chon Chicken, Trade Centre Road, Dubai, 055 266 2466.