It feels like Buddha Bar has been around forever – 10 years apparently, which in this transient Emirate is particularly admirable, especially when you look at some of the high-end places that have been and gone during that time: Rivington Grill, The Ivy, Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, Verre, Mango Tree, Le Classique, Qbara…the list goes on.
After a disappointing experience earlier in the week, I was determined to quell my appetite for some exquisite Asian food. It’s been a few years since I visited Grosvenor House’s signature Asian spot – and I admit, I’ve only ever been for the cocktails so I was intrigued to see if their food could match their outstanding drinks and grand venue.
We managed to bag a reservation at the start of the week and upon our arrival it was apparent why we were advised to book a few days in advance, as the dining room was filling up nicely even before 8pm. We were given a quick tour around the venue by their friendly hostess and led to our table by the window.
The dining hall is pretty iconic and will wow first-time visitors for sure; from the breathtakingly high ceilings hang pink chandeliers and the famous Buddha sits proudly, watching over the whole dining room – it’s all so unashamedly ostentatious. I don’t think the venue has had much of a face-lift since it opened though, and it is starting to look a tad dated; there’s nothing offensive about it, but with some incredibly designed restaurants like Coya and Ramusake springing up with a similar target audience, it might be time for the place to get a bit of a spruce-up next summer.
Our host for the evening was Zoha – he welcomed us warmly and gave us a quick run through the menu and the drinks. He recommended a delicious bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for the wife and one of the signature cocktails for me. Before we’d had time to ask – he read our minds and asked how we’d like our edamame. Very efficient! We decided to start with one of the sushi platters and off he went to place our order and retrieve our drinks.
One aspect of Buddha Bar that is thoroughly impressive is their service. Not only was Zoha exceptional throughout the whole evening (learning our tastes, making thoughtful recommendations, having a thorough understanding of the drinks and the brand as a whole), the rest of the team were totally on the ball too. By the time our main courses was getting served, the restaurant was full but not a moment went by where our glasses were empty nor did we have an occasion where finished plates were sat on our table for a prolonged period. My chopstick rolled off the table at one point and was instantly replaced with a fresh pair.
We munched our way through the edamame and our first course arrived, a spectacular display of sushi and sashimi complete with a Burj al Arab ice sculpture and a skilfully-made carrot net. The sushi itself was wonderful – extremely fresh, beautifully prepared and the additional mini lobster rolls were heavenly. It was an awesome start to the evening.
For the second starter, we selected the Lobster Dumplings and the Grilled Jumbo Prawns. Once again, both dishes were crackers; fresh, packed with flavour, juicy – perfectly cooked. A big tick so far.
We chose a mix of proteins from the Robata (a method of cooking similar to a BBQ, where meat is skewered and grilled slowly over hot charcoal) for the first of our main dishes. The Robata produces a lovely, dark, smoky flavour and this was demonstrated finely in the salmon, crab, beef and lamb that we sampled. It was served to the table on an Habachi grill and we took our time to get through it, as we’d already eaten quite a lot. Frustratingly, we took a bit too much time and by the time we had started tucking in, it was cold. Confused, I checked the inside of the grill and it was empty! I asked Zoha why would they serve a dish on a grill that is not even lit and he said that unfortunately, due to health and safety, they weren’t allowed to serve the food on lit grills to the tables any more. Shame. He did kindly offer to get the course remade, but we politely declined as we still wanted to try a few more dishes.
For the second round of mains we tried the Wok-seared Cantonese Beef, Singapore Chilli Prawns and the Stir-fried Broccolini. The beef was cooked medium as advertised and was clearly a high quality piece of tenderloin, but I did feel it lacked a bit of the complexity and character as some of the earlier courses; it just didn’t feel like a complete dish with the onion and broccoli accompaniments, it perhaps could have done with some sticky rice or something to bring it all together (I suppose we could have just ordered the rice separately though). The Singapore Chilli Prawns were cooked well, but I just didn’t get that hit of chilli that the dish was crying out for – I am the kind of person that yearns “Thai-spicy” food though, and in such a restaurant, I appreciate that they don’t want to physically blow people’s heads off who aren’t accustomed to high spice levels.
We finished our meal with the Chocolate Fondant and the Slow-poached Champagne Berries. The Fondant was everything you’d want out of this melt-in-the-middle classic – served à la mode with the vanilla ice-cream quenelled supremely, it was oozy and rich and despite us being well satiated, we polished it off. The Champagne Berries, well, I didn’t get it (at first) – it felt like it should have just been served up in a glass rather than a bowl, but after a few spoonfuls it actually worked has a tasty palate cleanser and a really refreshing ending to what was an extremely satisfying evening of food.
We ended the evening with a few of the signature cocktails; they have terrific bar-staff who serve up some of the finest concoctions in the country and we had a great time sampling what they could come up with. The well-executed Old Fashioned (with my requested Japanese whisky) was served in a smoke-filled skull and it turned heads as it made its way to our table. We also had a couple of comedic drinks – a sweet and sour cocktail served in a Great White Shark and a fruity mix served with the glass inside an inflatable flamingo, it was all very twee and amusing.
We finally staggered out of the venue just after 1am. It’s testament to the atmosphere and enjoyability factor that we were there for over 5 hours and didn’t feel bored or keen to move elsewhere once. The only thing that stopped us from leaving later, were our plans to walk our pooch at 5:30am (a decision we regretted fully heading to Al Qudra Lakes at 6am!). All in all we had a splendid night and vowed to return in the not-too-distant future.
FOOD: 12/15 – Fresh produce, everything well cooked, just a couple of main dishes could have been cranked up a notch in spice and flavour.
SERVICE: 15/15 – Flawless. A rarity in Dubai!
DRINKS SELECTION: 5/5 – Fantastic selection of cocktails, beers, wines and spirits. It’s one of the best loved bars in Dubai and you can definitely see why.
AMBIANCE: 5/5 – Thursday night and it was fully booked, joy was in the air, the music was trendy. A true hot spot.
DESIGN: 4/5 – No doubting how staggering it is, when you first walk in; a few touch-ups could be made soon, to bring it up to date.
VALUE: 2.5/5 – It’s very, very highly priced. For a couple, you’ll do well to come out with much change from 2,000 AED. However, the food and service is what you’d expect from a top restaurant such Sexy Fish in London, so you get what you pay for.
CONCLUSION: It’s clear to see why Buddha Bar remains so strong and popular. The service is impeccable and they serve some truly excellent food. Yes, it’s going to leave a huge dent in your bank account, but if you can afford it – it’s a top-notch experience.