Ohhhh Asia Asia. I remember, all those years ago being blown away by this grandiose new edition to Pier 7; the majestic entrance, the lemongrass aromas emanating throughout the venue, the beautiful furniture, it really was spectacular. I was excited to see if it had aged well so headed there with a few friends on a Sunday night to checkidy check it out.
It’s an extremely popular place; from the feedback I’ve received from my contemporaries it gets crazy on their ladies night and they also have a rowdy brunch that is well received. Sadly, I think this transition from “fine-dining establishment” to “sophisticated piss-up” has taken its toll on its aesthetics. Tables are chipped, cupboards are falling off their hinges in the bathroom – it just seems to have lost its sheen ever so slightly.
I sat at the bar and waited for my group and enjoyed a couple of their fine Japanese whiskies. I started with the Nikka from the Barrel – well-known for being one of the best value for money whiskies, it was offensively overpriced at 89 AED (although of course enjoyable) for a 30ml measure. If you’re going to spend that though, you might as well do what I did next and drop another 6 beans and get the Yoichi. Some people are snobbish about paying such high prices for whiskies without a defined age, but it’s definitely one worth breaking the rules for. Powerful, smoky, magnificent. The “no age” is now no longer made and has been replaced by the single malt, which is even better – so hopefully that will be available next time!
My lovely group arrived and we were led to our table by the window. Asia Asia is situated on the 6th floor of Pier 7, so it affords tourist wet-dreamesque views over the Marina, even as somebody who has lived here for 6 years, I can’t help staring at times and getting a little lost in what Dubai has built in such a short space of time.
If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you know I like a good old tasting menu, so when I turned the first page and saw it, I was sold. I didn’t even have to look at the rest.
We finished ordering, got a few more drinks between us and waiting patiently for the food to arrive. The first set of dishes on the tasting menu were Tuna Tataki, Blow-torched Grey Mullet and Halibut Crudo:
For me and my fellow tasting-menu diner, we both agreed that the crudo was a bit pedestrian, lacking a real punch of flavour and devoid of any texture. There was no doubting the freshness of the fish, but it was just all a bit mushy. The tuna fared better, tasty tuna (if a bit stingy at two tiny pieces each) and texturally a big improvement with the fresh cucumber, asparagus and the crispy wonton bits. It did have a strange “pear and honey sorbet” (it says sorbet in the full menu anyway) that was more like a petits filous, it wasn’t particularly offensive – just a little odd.
Finally, the blow-torched mullet didn’t quite have as much of the smoky, blow torched flavour I was hoping for. The celery puree was a complimenting accompaniment and the piperade gave the dish a pleasing-to-the-eye look, it just wasn’t wow.
It’s worth noting, that all the dishes were plated very well – great choices of crockery and colourful ingredients to make each starter pop.
The next plate that rocked up was the Aburi Sushi – Aburi simply means that the fish is partially grilled on the topside and raw underneath. I of course knew this because I am such a knowledgeable food critic and wouldn’t dream of resorting to wikipedia to back my critique up with stolen food knowledge and pass it off as my own
I liked it! There’s an absolutely world-class sushi restaurant in Marylebone, London called Dinings that first introduced me to truffle in sushi and it’s probably my favourite thing to eat, so when I found it on top of the salmon nigiri I was really happy; you could throw some on top of some Yo Sushi and I’d rate it highly. As a whole, the sushi came in generous mouthfuls, the rice sticky, firm and held together well and again, the fish was importantly fresh. The wasabi had a real kick and did a great job of cleaning the sinuses when I was a little too liberal with it.
Course three was the Tempura Anago (eel) and Escargot. Yes, escargot. I’ve seen some pretty weird things on tasting menus in my time, but never before something so odd, inappropriate, jarring or unfathomable. I was thinking it could be interesting. I was thinking they could possibly take this French/Portuguese classic, infuse it with Asian flavours and tear up the rule book on how to prepare this divisive protein, but instead they stuck with the classic garlicky, buttery flavours and it fit in about as much I fit into the suits I had before I became a food writer. If that wasn’t enough, the snails were served on top of what looked like some sort of granita – perhaps daikon? I took a spoonful and it was SALT! PURE SALT! At least mention it on the menu that it’s on a salt-bed so others don’t make the same mistake I do!
The eel was much better though, deliciously creamy inside with a palatable shiso tartar dipping sauce.
Main was next, we’d opted for the USDA striploin and it looked absolutely magnificent, beautiful colouring throughout, perfectly medium-rare and generous.
WHAT A DISAPPOINTMENT THOUGH! The expert cooking of the steak couldn’t hide the fact it was so terribly under-seasoned, the teriyaki sauce tasted like it had been freshly made, then the volume doubled with water; weak, tepid, meh (I think they must have used up their salt-supply on the ridiculous snail dish). The sautéed green beans were the redeeming feature, deliciously crunchy with a garlic miso butter.
The other two diners ordered a selection of different dishes to ours, and the pinnacle of their meal was the crispy duck. It arrived looking rather magnificent; unusually deep-fried, I was intrigued to see whether they’d be able to maintain the juiciness of the meat with that cooking method. No, they couldn’t. It was dryer than Ghandi’s flip flop, such a shame.
We ended the tasting menu with the Azuki Bean Ice Cream. I think “azuki” must be Japanese for “flavourless”, as I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a dish that tasted of absolutely nothing. The key to fine Asian cooking is getting that umami, sweet, sour balance correct and maybe this dish did it to such an extent, that everything canceled each other out. Yeah, I might have been watching too much Masterchef Australia recently, but it really could have done with a smash of flavour to perk it up – a wasabi element perhaps? The textures were lovely, but that was it. Having said all this, one of the diners absolutely adored the dish – and her being somebody who is not a fan of over-sweet desserts and a much more respected figure in the culinary-review world, might indicate that I’m talking absolute horse-shit.
The bill came in at 2990 AED for the four of us, so it definitely falls in the “extremely pricey” category. We finished by sitting outside, enjoyed a couple more drinks with the awesome views and reflected on what was a pretty average dining experience overall.
FOOD: 7/15 – No doubting the quality of the produce, but not enough flavour in a majority of the dishes.
SERVICE: 10/15 – It was a little impersonal from the regular service staff, we didn’t really get introduced well to the dishes and some items got taken away that we hadn’t finished. For the price, I’d expect a general better level of service and an attempt of building rapport with our table.
DRINKS SELECTION: 5/5 – Excellent selection of everything, some very fine Japanese whiskies, good sake and interesting signature cocktails.
AMBIANCE:5/5 – For a Sunday night we were all extremely impressed by how many people were there and there was a general buzz in the air.
DESIGN: 4/5 – The design is stunning and when it first opened it would definitely have got a 5, a few tables are chipped though, cupboards in the toilets were falling off their hinges and it’s starting to look a bit tired.
VALUE: 2/5 – Far too expensive for the lack of flavour in many of the dishes, however I think the tasting menu was priced fairly for the volume of food and the quality of produce.
CONCLUSION: I think for the price, there are so many other options out there now in the Asian category such as Zuma, Nobu, Hakkasan, Buddha Bar that serve up better food. Luckily for Asia Asia, they have one of the best locations in Dubai so they’re always going to get decent traffic, but if they keep serving such mediocre food, the numbers will start to dwindle.