Over the last 18 months, it’s seemed like a week can’t go by without me hearing about a new Peruvian restaurant opening, or one slinking off into a re-brand (Tesoro, I’m looking at you). I went to Coya a few weeks ago and found it a little hit and miss and in all my experiences of Peruvian food, I can’t pinpoint a time where I have been blown away. I find that fresh proteins are often overpowered by strong herbs and spices and you end up paying a fortune (especially in Dubai) for high-quality ingredients that are not allowed to sing. Still, not one to give up on my quest to fall in love with this Japanese-inspired, South American cuisine, I headed to Waka with a friend of mine to see what all the hype was about.
We arrived a few minutes early for our reservation so we sat at the bar; as standard in a Peruvian joint, we were offered a couple of Pisco Sours that were both excellent. They obviously have invested in a talented, passionate bar team and the head barman was more than happy to take us through some of his special preparations, referencing barrels dotted around the bar filled with various pisco fusions. They have some unique combos and a highlight was the “Lychee Chilcano”, the sweetness of the pisco and lychee liquor offset perfectly with the herby shiso leaves and sour lime.
We looked around the venue and found that the interiors were simple, but effective. You can see the Peruvian touches with the pretty tiled flooring and patterned wall coverings on the far side of the dining room.
We were led to our table in the dining room and were offered a bowl of “wakamole” to start off proceedings; I love guacamole so was more than happy to sample their take on it, it arrived in a mortar, with a steaming basket on top. The basket was removed and a waft of smoke filled the air – how theatrical! The smoke added a lovely depth to the avocado and a welcoming hit of heat permeated through with the addition of fresh chili. We scraped every last morsel onto the crunchy, homemade tortilla chips; an impressive start indeed!
Ceviche is by far my favourite aspect of Peruvian cuisine, so we moved on to the “Generoso” next – a seafood mix with crispy calamari and seaweed tempura. It didn’t disappoint, beautifully fresh with balance of flavour and texture coming from the corn, onions and calamari alongside the delicately poached fish.
We continued the fishy-theme with the “Causa Tartare” – a Nikkei take on the humble salmon tartare – unfortunately, this was the first course that missed the mark for me and my buddy due to the completely overpowering flavours running through the dish. Extremely sour, you couldn’t taste the freshness of the salmon and texturally, there wasn’t anything other than mush.
The next course was downright ridiculous – the Carne Y Trufa. An innocent, rectangular plate of wagyu carpaccio was brought to the table when out of nowhere, the chef appeared wielding a blowtorch. He began by scorching the top of the meat, then carefully and methodically began to construct the dish in front of our eyes – generous slices of truffle, fresh herbs and edible flowers, a squirt of lime, tagarashi (a Japanese spice blend) and soy sauce all brought the carpaccio to life. If that wasn’t enough drama, a liquid was then poured underneath the plate, activating the dry ice, filling our table with a waterfall of smoke. By this time, there wasn’t a diner in the restaurant not gawping at what was going on. The taste was just as magnificent as the presentation, gorgeously fresh wagyu and truffle were complimented – not overpowered – by the other elements and it melted in the mouth superbly.
I won’t talk about the crispy tuna tacos much, because they just weren’t that great – a bit bland and boring – probably not helped by the prior dish being rather spectacular!
Before the mains, we decided to give the “Waka Caliente” a go – the appeal being it was a hot ceviche, something I’ve not tried before. Again, another dish packed with drama; snapper, scallops and prawns served on hot stones with a peppery sauce poured over it, with crunchy corn nuts giving the dish texture. It was another case of too much flavour taking away from the the proteins though, the sauce was overly peppery and tart and we couldn’t really taste anything else in the dish. We questioned the hot stone cooking method as well, as we found the half-cooked, half-raw seafood off-putting.
The first main was the dish we were most excited for, being the carnivores we are (and my fellow diner having strong ties to Argentina) – the “Wagyu Ojo de Bife” (coming in at a staggering 295 AED) sounded too good to miss out on. We requested it medium-rare and it arrived at the table, sliced, on top of a small, wooden barbecue grill with a coat of chimichurri and gnarly, roast potatoes on the side. The lack of a steak knife was initially concerning, but my fears were allayed as you could have cut through the meat with a plastic spoon: it…was…divine. If I was to be super-critical, it was nowhere near medium-rare, more on the “blue” side, but I didn’t care as the quality of meat was so high. The chimichurri, was a perfect, fresh accompaniment and the potatoes delicious. It was my favourite dish of the night.
The final savoury dish was the “Camarones a la Piedra” – tiger prawns, cooked on the table with yuzu and butter. Similarly to the “Waka Caliente”, the prawns were heated on hot stones, however this time, the procedure was done in front of us, then finished off with a blow-torch and a sprinkling of yuzu butter over the top. Also similarly to the “Waka Caliente”, we found the method to be a bit “style-over-substance”, some parts were raw, some parts a little overcooked and at 190 AED a pop, for 5 inconsistently cooked prawns we weren’t particularly impressed.
Waka’s showpiece, that has been doing the rounds on social media for the past few months (I of which, am I proud contributor to) is their “Chocolate Bomb”. We also had the cheesecake but as I’ve waffled on for too long already in this review, I’m not going to really talk about, as it was very average. WHERE’S THE BASE! Anyways, this Bomb… holy moly… IT WAS THE BOMB. An intimidatingly large, sphere of expertly-tempered Peruvian chocolate was cracked open at the table to reveal a cacophony of flavour and texture. A tangy lime and raspberry sorbet, meringues, brownies – it was utterly fantastic, something you’d expect to see on a Masterchef Pressure Test. Between the two of us, I think we barely got through half of it, so make sure you bring friends!
It’s always nice to leave on a high note, so we settled up and left the restaurant both talking about some of the big highlights of the meal. I’m confident we’ll be back to visit with our other halves in the near future.
FOOD: 11.5/15 – A few absolutely stunning dishes with a couple of average ones at best. The stunning dishes are really worth going back for though.
SERVICE: 12/15 – Was efficient all night, all the food came out at a steady pace, and the staff kept our drinks regularly topped up.
DRINKS SELECTION: 4/5 – They have a wide selection of cocktails, wines and spirits but it’s disappointing to have such an extensive gin menu with no premium tonics available.
AMBIANCE: 4/5 – For summer, it was a busy ladies night and the room was loud with chatter.
DESIGN: 4/5 – A simple dining room, with some pretty, Peruvian touches.
VALUE: 2.5/5 – Some of the dishes were extraordinarily expensive, but if you’re careful, you’d be able to dine on a medium sized budget if you keep away from the mains.
CONCLUSION: Waka has got a lot of positives going for it – expert bar staff, efficient service, popularity and a strong team in the kitchen. There’s just a couple of dishes though, where I feel that theatre takes over from the actual enjoyability. A few tweaks to the menu and I believe they can be up there with one of the top restaurants in Dubai.