Before visiting KOI, the contemporary Japanese restaurant at The Collection in the St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, I’d already heard plenty about it. Most notably: the service is poor and it has the best food I’ll ever taste. My verdict? Neither is true.
It’s possible that service is flawed during busier times, but we saw no sign of that on the crowd-free Saturday night we turned up. Our team of waiters was efficient, knowledgeable and unobtrusive. It’s a chic, upscale restaurant – just stepping through its doors instantly ups your cool factor. But, though many will appreciate KOI’s dimly lit, moody vibe, I found the lack of light, black floor and dark decor inconvenient at best. An employee had to point out the too-dark-to-see slope at the restaurant’s entrance and another on the way to the bathroom. Even after the alert, I still misstepped. Additionally, the only usable light at the tables comes from small, mushroom-shaped lamps (which, we found out later, cost Dh1,300 each).
We started with the lobster avocado salad (priced at a shocking Dh154). The generous lobster tail and claw came with crispy shiitake mushrooms, fresh, dainty spinach leaves, a mound of crushed avocado and a tofu-lime dressing. While it was an impressive array of textures and flavours, it lacked basic seasoning. We would have added salt had it been on the table. It needed it and for Dh154, this was a glaring omission. When we tried KOI’s famous crispy rice, it arrived in a state that was definitely crispy but also, unfortunately, slightly burnt. The soft mass of tuna tartare did pair nicely with the crunchy rice, but the burnt taste left me wishing I’d chosen something else entirely. We were not off to a great start.
Fortunately, KOI redeemed itself with my grilled sea bass. Coated in a honey balsamic glaze, set atop a smooth shiso-pea coulis, this is the kind of food I expect at a fine-dining restaurant. The mild fish was flaky and tender and the sweet and salty pea coulis was an interesting accompaniment (I ran my finger across the plate to get every last drop of this deliciously creamy sauce). My husband’s miso-glazed cod was torched, resulting in a sugary-sweet, yet savoury skin that was pleasantly chewy – not crispy. The only complaint about either of these worthy mains was the two small bones my husband found in his fish. Both main courses (as well as the starters and desserts) were beautifully plated and added to KOI’s modish vibe.
The vanilla-and-chocolate crème brûlée we devoured at the end of the meal was one of the best-executed crunch-to-custard ratios we’ve seen in this classic dessert. The shallow bowl of ultra-smooth custard was in perfect proportion, allowing the brittle, caramelised sugar to serve as the star. The tofu sesame and mint chocolate mousse we ordered didn’t impress quite as much. It was too bitter and the consistency far too thick for our liking.
We left full, more content than happy. While the restaurant certainly deserves praise, it lacks a wow factor. It takes more than a couple of well-executed dishes to stand out among the capital’s crowd of fine-dining restaurants. I’ll try KOI again if I’m already on Saadiyat Island, but I won’t go out of my way to return – not until they lower the prices or fine-tune the experience.
• A meal for two at KOI at The Collection, St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi, costs Dh750. For more information, call 02 678 3334. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and conducted incognito