Having opened 16 restaurants around the world since 2010 – with number 17 slated to open this month in the Philippines – British chef Jason Atherton is on a culinary roll. Marina Social, his only restaurant in the Middle East, has become a popular spot since opening last year, and once you step inside you’ll understand why.
The restaurant is part of Atherton’s Social dining concept, which he describes as deformalised fine dining. Set in the InterContinental Dubai Marina, Marina Social comes with a view best enjoyed on the large terrace outside. Inside, it has a modern New York vibe with sleek, dark-wood interiors. There is not a tablecloth in sight, no classical music, no stuffy service. It’s casual chic with an edge.
There are three set menus with four (Dh450), six (Dh550) or eight courses (Dh650) if you prefer to leave your meal in the chefs’ hands. You won’t know what you’re getting – that’s part of the fun. For the less adventurous, good luck narrowing down your choices from this inspired menu. Smaller bites include goat’s cheese churros, puffed squid and rice crackers, and the Social Dog – a duck and foie gras hot dog. There are pizzas – including a pulled lamb pizza with basil pesto, chargrilled courgette and buffalo ricotta – and heartier mains such as whole smoked lobster (more on that later), quail pie, Victoria lamb loin with barbecue belly, duck leg agnolotti and potato gnocchi with veal short ribs, prawn and tarragon bisque.
We couldn’t resist the dog or the restaurant’s signature tomato and burrata for starters. The duck and foie gras sausage comes atop a brioche bun piled with a smattering of onions. The rich duck meat is so tasty, it makes me rethink my stance on hot dogs. Using duck simply takes dogs to a level I didn’t think they could go. The tomato and burrata sounds simple, but it’s anything but. It is simply presented as one whole Italian beef tomato, but it’s injected with a mass of burrata and tomato salsa – a meaty mess of texture and flavour. It comes with salt that’s been mixed with dehydrated tomato – smartly served on the side so the plated tomato isn’t served in a pool of water. An extra layer of flavour comes from the stunning 25-year-old aged balsamic vinegar from Sicily. When we took our last bite, I almost ordered another one.
The smoked lobster wins on presentation. It’s served in a treasure box, and as the waiter opens the drawer to reveal the lobster, smoke billows out – it’s an Instagrammable moment. The lobster is perfectly tender, a tad sweet and heavily smoked. I love the deep, smoky flavour, but not everyone at the table does. The chargrilled veal rib-eye is succulent and rich, but it’s hidden under a mound of green salad. Points lost on presentation, but the taste makes up for it.
We try the hot smoked salmon, too, which is not as heavily smoked as the lobster. The flaky salmon is cooked well – someone in the kitchen is clearly paying attention to cooking times. The two massive mounds of cauliflower and cheese that come with the salmon is a tasty, playful touch.
The only dish that disappoints is the steamed sea bass. It’s cooked as it should be, but this one-note dish simply lacks depth of flavour. The portion is noticeably smaller compared to other dishes we order – it’s not enough for a main.
The two desserts are worth it. The guilt-inducing caramelised apple tarte Tatin – with a sweet, silky smooth caramel sauce – is decadent. And the sinfully sweet, rich chocolate and peanut bar served with cookie crumbles and banana ice cream is reminiscent of a classic New Orleans bananas foster (without the flambé). I loved it.
There were only a handful of people in the restaurant on the night we visited (a Tuesday), but the music, ambience, staff and the open kitchen keep the place vibrant and lively.
It opens nightly at 6pm to catch the after-work crowd – if you live nearby, I envy you. If you’re further afield, trust me when I say that Marina Social is worth the trip.
• Our meal for two at Marina Social cost Dh860. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and conducted incognito