In Danny Boyle’s The Beach (2000), a fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio collapses on the shoreline of a hidden cove and grins in disbelief.
Paradise island unfurls before him: sugar-white sands, piercing blue waters and gentle, tree-lined cliffs. Boyle also overlays the ethereal sounds of Porcelain by Moby to nudge our subconscious towards the path to nirvana.
However, this is not the afterlife; the footage of the beach is real and it was shot at Maya Bay, Thailand. Much to the irony of the film's storyline, the serene location became one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world.
Elsewhere, the name lives on as a different MayaBay, which has been wowing visitors hungry for a taste of Thailand since 2008 — albeit as a luxurious restaurant 9,000 kilometres away in Monte Carlo, Monaco.
In May, the restobar, which also focuses on Japanese classics, landed in Dubai, at Jumeirah Al Naseem. The National paid a visit to see if diners leave with smiles bigger than Leo's.
Where to sit, what to expect
For a restaurant born among the glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo, its location in Jumeirah Al Naseem is fitting. The swanky resort in Jumeirah is becoming one of the best corners for eating out in Dubai. It is already home to Beefbar Dubai, Flamingo Room by tashas and Il Borro — whose owners Orange Hospitality are also behind MayaBay.
Inside, the interior is a mix of deep-red lighting, twinkling chandeliers, dark-wooden panels, cosy lowdown tables and sprawling ones fit for a banquet, as well as an enormous open kitchen. There is a small army of cooks spread across hot stations, cold counters, a sushi-slicing stand and service benches.
We sit in the middle of it all and soak in the buzz of a Saturday evening in full swing, below the mezzanine where a DJ plays music that could slot seamlessly into Boyle's soundtrack for The Beach.
When a menu comes with page numbers, alarm bells usually start ringing to warn of a kitchen fighting to please every palate. At 105, MayaBay’s menu, nay novel, is just seven pages shy of George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm and a quarter of Alex Garland’s 1996 classic that inspired Boyle’s feature. It’s a catalogue of Japanese sushi, Thai curries, tempura, dim sum, salads, soups, specials, steak, sides and desserts. Then, it’s all repeated in picture form.
It’s overwhelming — and no doubt a conversation killer in groups of four and above, as noses bury into the book. Thankfully, the tiptop staff, who dish out impeccable service, are on hand and we put our faith in our waitress’s recommendations. And, even better, the troops in the kitchen are evidently ready for battle.
Within minutes, dishes charge out of the blocks and we arm ourselves with chopsticks in preparation. Out flows three plates of sushi: the uramaki California roll (Dh95), tuna sashimi (Dh105) and salmon sashimi (Dh55). The presentation is excellent and the precision is exquisite. The premium ingredients have been given a zing of ponzu, a light smokiness from soy and a punch from spice.
It’s a terrific start and before we can even think about resting, the kitchen is firing out food once again. The yam ped tap tim, that’s duck salad to the uninitiated (Dh120), is followed by beef gyoza (Dh45) and vegetable crystal dumplings (Dh35).
The gyoza balances beef and kimchi delightfully, while still cramming oodles of flavour into the delicate parcels. The dumplings use high-quality mushrooms for a rich and earthy flavour. However, what really takes this round of dishes to greater heights, quite literally, is the divine duck salad. More on that later.
Mains of crying tiger sirloin steak (Dh220) and Chilean sea bass in a spicy miso sauce (Dh210) are complemented with sides of aubergine (Dh45) and pineapple fried rice (Dh55).
“Crying tiger” comes from the chillies used in the Thai marinade, which are said to be so hot they can, well, make the big cats wail. My dining partner and I adore spicy food; for us, hotter equals better. Thankfully, for those who prefer to eat without a fire extinguisher on standby, chefs temper the heat with sweetness and aromatic seasoning. There's no weeping here, just a gentle purr of “mmms”.
The fish, too, is a revelation. Forget opting for the miso black cod revered at almost every high-end Japanese restaurant; the sea bass is meatier and diligently soaks in the marinade, allowing for oh-so lovely caramalisation over the robata-style charcoal grill. A true highlight.
Desserts arrive in the shape of an intricate chocolate sphere (Dh65), which is finished at the table by our waitress who pours over a hot, velvety sauce as the 3D casing melts, and a hearty slice of pandan milk cake (Dh65). The latter is light in texture, yet dense in body — while the crunch of nuts rounds it off supremely.
The aforementioned duck salad is a towering addition on the excellent menu. It takes a fine chef to make its complexity look and feel so simple. The sweet grapes, sharp celery and apple are coated with plum and sesame dressings. There are pops of pomegranate throughout, while the star of the show, the duck, is beautifully seasoned and crispy.
It’s one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, with good reason.
A chat with the chef
Chef Shane MacNeill has been working in Michelin-lauded kitchens for 25 years — 11 of which were spent as part of the Nobu group, meaning refined Asian dining is his speciality. His experience sings on the plate, while his passion for passing on the torch to young cooks is clear from his abundant team.
“The 11 years with Nobu were a giant learning curve, as I worked closely with Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa himself on some of the openings,” he tells The National.
“Now, with Orange Hospitality, we want to inspire the next generation of chefs,” he adds, saying he always champions buying the best ingredients.
As a result, he chooses the truffle and mushroom dumplings, which contain no fewer than 25 ingredients, as a must for vegetarians. Carnivores will enjoy the high marbling of the Wagyu beef, which the chef describes as “incomparable”. One of the finest shellfish options is reserved for his seafood course, as he cooks the king crab leg in a simple yet elegant style. And, though he’s not a sweet tooth, he recommends the classic Japanese mochi for those seeking “one of the most interesting dishes in the world”.
What’s clear is that, at 105 pages, the chef’s menu is a never-ending fairy tale of star characters and it has audiences mesmerised.
Price point and contact information
The huge menu varies between prices, with starters, salads, soups and sides comfortably between Dh35 and Dh110, mains and specials are about Dh120 to Dh230, while desserts are between Dh55 and Dh95.
MayaBay is open daily from noon to 3pm, 7pm to 3am, at Turtle Lagoon, Jumeirah Al Naseem, Dubai. Reservations can be made by contacting 04 275 2500 or visiting www.mayabayrestaurant.com/dubai
This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant