Mexican chef, Richard Sandoval – most famous for his Latin-American cuisine hosted at venues Toro Toro and Maya across the Emirates, has returned to the capital, after Toro Toro in Abu Dhabi closed its doors earlier this year.
“VaKaVa”, promising, “vibe and flavour” coming together “to set your soul on fire”, sounded intriguing and well worth the drive over from Dubai, so the wife and I headed down to Etihad Towers for the night to see if Sandoval has another hit on his hands.
*please note that VaKaVa politely requests its guests to not take photos inside the venue on the invitation, so all images are provided by the venue itself or shared from instagram *
We arrived early to find the restaurant already filling up. The interiors scream Latin-American but in a classy, vibrant fun way rather than a load of sombreros adorning the walls; traditional music played in the background and it created a strong first impression once we’d be led to our table.
One of my favourite appetizers in town is the smoky guacamole at Waka (arguably VaKaVa’s closest match in Dubai) – so when I saw it on the menu, I had to order it. It arrived in a similar, spectacular fashion:
Although I didn’t think the guac captured the same level of smoke as Waka’s, it was fresh and flavoursome and was a great start to the evening whilst we mulled over what else to eat from the VaKaVa Food Menu.
After a lengthy debate with the wife (it’s not easy to want 90% of the menu and have to settle with less!), we went with the Seabass Coconut Ceviche, the Beef Filet Anticucho, the Peruvian Tuna Tataki and the Soft Shell Crab taco.
Throughout the evening we sampled a range of drinks, including wine and signature cocktails – the bar staff definitely know what they are doing as they do a great Old Fashioned and Espresso Margarita. The wife thoroughly enjoyed the wine options as well.
I’ve expressed a reasonable amount of unimpressed-ness to Peruvian food in general over my years of running the site – especially ceviche. I usually find that beautiful fish is way “over-flavoured” and you just get a chewy mouthful of something that just tastes like lime. Not in the case of VaVaKa though, I can confidently say that this was the best I’ve ever had:
For the first time, I found the ceviche perfectly balanced – salty, sweet, sour, spicy notes spread across my palate, as the integrity of the gorgeously fresh seabass remained intact. It was a truly memorable appetizer and both the wife and I licked our plates clean.
Next arrived the beef filet anticucho:
The dish comes served on a hibachi grill and turned heads with the sounds and aromas emanating as it was whisked through the restaurant and placed on our table. We tucked right in and again, it was a fantastic serving of food. The fillet melted in the mouth and was packed full of the gnarly smokiness from the cooking method. Faultless so far!
Next up, was the soft-shell crab tacos. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with soft-shell crab – firstly, I can’t say it and regularly order shoft-sell crab and two, after having it as a snack by the pool on my wedding day with my best man and it being incredible, I’ve never quite appreciated it as much since. The dish looked appetizing when it arrived, but it was probably my least favourite dish of the night. It was cooked well, but just lacked the depths of flavour of the first two dishes and a bit of moisture – felt quite dry on the palate. Saying this, it didn’t stop us polishing the dish off and the wife loved it!
The Peruvian Tuna Tataki was another hit – lightly seared, swimming in a delicious smoked aji Amarillo, with garlic chips as a jolt of texture; another well-thought-out, masterfully balanced plate of food.
Once the appetizers were cleared, it was time to pick a main. In all honesty, I could have picked anything from the list, but as the fish had been exquisite so far, we opted for the Pescado del Callao – Sea Bass with lemongrass and ginger miso as recommended by the friendly and attentive host we had all evening.
It was another stunning dish; plated and cooked beautifully. Packed with the tasty, classic combo of lemongrass and ginger and despite the wife not being a fan of miso, the subtleness of it here just brought welcome umami-ness to the dish rather than being overbearing.
Despite being as full as a cow’s bum, we were told we had to try the desserts, so we gave the Tres Leches (as it was recommended by our server) and the intriguing Churros and Goats Cheese Ice Cream a go.
Tres Leches if you don’t know, is a very popular milk cake, usually made with condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. VaKaVa’s was light and decadent but didn’t really blow me or the wife away. The churros were excellent on the other hand, crispy on the outside and light on the inside, the only thing we questioned was the goat’s cheese ice cream – it was just a little too weird for us, but I think some people will like it.
Overall, our experience at VaKaVa was a very positive one. The service team were enthusiastic, energetic, smiley and well-informed on the restaurant’s offerings throughout the evening. Our drinks were kept topped up pretty well throughout the night and the general vibe in the restaurant was enjoyable. The live Latin band playing upstairs really gave the venue a party feel that was in perfect harmony with the vibrant decor. I highly recommend coming to pay the restaurant a visit if you’re in the capital.
FOOD: 13/15 – All the food was of high quality and cooked extremely well. Only a couple of dishes failed to reach the 9s and 10s.
SERVICE: 12/15 – Service was sharp, polite and friendly all evening. There were a just a couple of times where we were sat without a drink for a little too long.
DRINKS SELECTION: 4.5/5 – Your standard, cafe fare. Decent coffees, teas and juices.
AMBIENCE: 4/5 – The restaurant was quite full and the live band was a really welcoming touch.
DESIGN: 4.5/5 – The space is decadent-but-fun and well-spaced out. We were comfortable the whole evening.
VALUE: 3/5 – It’s certainly not cheap with our starters ranging from 60 AED (the guacamole) to 80 AED (the tuna tataki) and the main being 135 AED, but if you’re going out to celebrate, the prices are justified for the quality of food. 1400 AED for dinner for two with a few drinks.
TOTAL: 41/50 – One of the highest scores I’ve given and justified. A lot of thought has gone into making exceptionally balanced, fresh dishes and I sincerely hope VaKaVa is another one of Sandoval’s big success stories.
I was invited as a guest of the restaurant but all comments are my own and an honest reflection of my evening there – Dan.*