Popping into Atisuto for a weekday lunch, I was pleasantly surprised: the small Japanese eatery inside the intimate Galleria Mall in Dubai is not your typical mall restaurant. Atisuto, which means artist, is designed to resemble a typical back-alley sushi restaurant in Japan and the tiny wooden stools drawn up around wooden tables give off a distinct street vibe.
The decor pays homage to both modern and traditional Japanese culture. Graffiti art is everywhere. Large paintings in shades of grey and splashes of crimson show street life in Japan – a small child talking on a corded telephone; a pensive-looking geisha; a woman with her eyes covered in red paint. One wall holds up seven Noh theatre masks, while traditional fans hang from the ceiling. It’s a lot to take in – even before you open the menu.
I expected lots of sushi, but found just the opposite: Atisuto also serves yakitori (grilled meat skewers), teriyaki, noodles, salads, donburi (Japanese dishes served over rice), robatayaki (charcoal grilled meat) and more. Though the menu does feel overwhelming, packed as it is with nearly 100 items, the signature dishes are listed in red for easy navigation.
I decided to start with chicken gyoza (Dh39) and nasu dengaku, baked aubergine rolls (Dh39) – both signature dishes. The nasu dengaku is plated to look like mock sushi, with the skin of the aubergine substituting the nori. Five soft, creamy aubergine rolls are topped with a sweet, caramel-like yuzu sauce, spring onions and sesame seeds. They are equal parts sweet and salty and it’s impossible to eat just one. Tip: Let these piping hot rolls cool off a bit before popping one in your mouth.
The chicken gyoza were also a hit – the group of five pan-fried chicken dumplings come perfectly paired with a spicy ginger-garlic gyoza sauce. And, in a show of creativity from the chef, the dumplings are delicately joined together by one flaky, thin gyoza wrapper. The crispy, slightly burnt edges of this extra bit of flair add a surprising layer of texture and interest to the generously stuffed, soft dumplings.
While it’s an unlikely dish to choose at a Japanese restaurant, I opted for the Wagyu burgers (Dh75) for my main course. It was one of just two signature robatayaki dishes – all of which are grilled over lava rocks originating from Mount Fuji. The three mounds of smaller-than-slider-size beef patties are set on crisp, iceberg lettuce leaves instead of buns. The meat was under-seasoned and came topped with a rather lacklustre chutney made from aubergine, onions, red peppers and garlic, but all was not lost. The burgers came to life when dipped in one of the three accompanying sauces: miso butter, teriyaki and a spicy sauce. There was also a moreish side of onion rings dipped in a batter made with panko breadcrumbs, adding extra crunch to the thick rings.
For dessert I chose Japanese cheesecake (Dh32), which came covered in orange marmalade heavy with orange peel. Instead of a typical Graham-cracker crust, the cheesecake sits on a dense, spongy bread. It was delicious, refreshing and light as far as desserts go, but a little more sugar would do well to balance out the citrus.
A bright spot on the otherwise dull mall-restaurant scene, Atisuto offers a unique setting for authentic Japanese food that will fit most budgets. Totally worth going out of your way for.
• A meal for one at Atisuto, Galleria Mall on Al Wasl Road, Dubai, (excluding beverages) cost Dh185. Call 04 343 6303. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and conducted incognito