The Michelin Guide revealed its debut selection of restaurants in Dubai in June, with nine venues receiving one Michelin star and two honoured with two stars.
In this series, called Star-grazing, The National visits a few of the spots that won stars or were included in the Bib Gourmand category, which is “not quite a star, but most definitely not a consolation prize”, according to the guide.
Armani Ristorante, the seventh venue in our series, is located at the base of Burj Khalifa in Downtown Dubai and received one star.
The story behind Armani Ristorante
Armani Ristorante opened at the same time as the Armani Hotel, in April 2010. At the time, Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani — who has a strong bond with the UAE — was quoted as saying: “I am thrilled to invite guests to experience my world."
Given its prestigious postcode, the restaurant not only makes the most of its location by looking directly over the Dubai Fountain but also rather delightfully takes the shape of the base of the storied building it’s housed in.
An open kitchen stands at the centre of the nearly circular space, which can seat 90 guests. From the operatic music and Narumi porcelain to the white linen tables and plush, muted gold seating, understated chic is the name of the game here — akin to Giorgio Armani’s fashion oeuvre.
And yet, there’s a twist, both to the venue and the menu. The former comes by way of a massive light installation at the back of the restaurant, which is shaped to resemble an illuminated salt wall, rendering the space hip and hypnotic.
The menu, meanwhile, is the brainchild of chef Giovanni Papi, who has been with the restaurant for four years and is originally from Sardinia, Italy. Seventeen hours before my dining companion and I make our way to the restaurant, chef Papi posts a heart-warming photo on Instagram, posing with his nonna on a “family-focused trip” back home in Italy.
“Both my grandmothers were great, great cooks. They instilled the passion in me, such that becoming a chef was the only career I considered. The kitchen chose me,” says Papi, who describes his cooking style as “emotional”.
The chef says he’s constantly looking for new combinations of ingredients and flavours. “It is only when you cook with feeling that can guests feel the emotion attached to each dish. Food is the most important method to pass on a message of positive sentiment.”
What’s on the Michelin-starred menu
After winning the Michelin star, the chef put together an eight-course Exclusive Journey set menu, priced at Dh949 ($258).
Before the first course is brought out, we are served an amuse-bouche of lobster tartare with prawn chips and lobster cappuccino — an indication of the premium fare that’s about to follow — as well as some Italian grissini breadsticks.
I love dips, as a result, I am slightly disappointed there are none to go alongside the grissini; that is until I bite into one of the slim, foot-long sticks, which is buttery and crunchy, and requires no embellishment whatsoever.
A word to the wise: go easy on the bread. This is easier said than done given the contents of the bread basket, which is brought over ever so often or upon request and is served alongside two types of olive oil: one from Centumbrie mill in Umbria, Italy, and the other, with a distinct lemon flavour, from Italian brand Terre Bormane.
The focaccia with sun-dried tomatoes goes superbly with citrino, which is obtained by pressing ripe olives at the same time as fresh lemons, while the one with Parmigiana cheese can be eaten as is, at all times.
With our appetite suitable whetted, my partner and I dig into the first course: pan-seared Hokkaido scallops, served with a cauliflower emulsion, tiny colourful slivers of heirloom cauliflower, and garnished with Calvisius caviar and salmon roe. Given Papi’s penchant for not overcooking his food, the scallop meat is flaky and tender, and pairs nicely with the chewy cauliflower.
“The secret to cooking scallops is using a very hot pan and a touch of olive oil. Then reduce the flame to sear the scallop skin and cook it just long enough so the outside is crispy, but the inside stays very soft and is not chewy, so a maximum of one minute,” reveals Papi.
The Green Planet risotto with Sicilian red prawns is another delicious example of Papi’s skilful touch and a dish that symbolises his desire to reduce food waste.
“We use all parts of the prawns,” says the chef. “We dehydrate and powder the head and use it to season the dish instead of salt, and from the carapace, we make the broth in which the risotto is cooked.”
The rice, in turn, is infused with chlorophyll extracted from various aromatic herbs, including tarragon, spinach, dill, sage, celery, parsley, rocket and basil.
The herbaceous but creamy bright green rice is unputdownable, even as we relish the crunchy, almost raw texture of the prawns. This, the chef reveals, is down to simply letting the steam from the risotto “very kindly” infuse the citrus-marinated prawns with warmth, rather than cooking them separately beforehand.
Meat lovers should save room for the bottoni ripieni and costolette di wagyu. The first is button-shaped ravioli served with two parts of lamb: shoulder for the ragu and leg for the filling. The chef completes the dish tableside by pouring over a cheese fondue made with 36-month-aged Parmesano Reggiano, which balances the meatiness of the stuffing.
More heartiness follows with the wagyu short ribs, which are braised for 48 hours in 100°C heat, served with green mash made from local potatoes with a touch of spinach chlorophyll. “The wagyu is braised for two days because I believe in relaxed cooking. Results are not always achieved in a rush,” says Papi.
Other dishes and desserts on the menu include: butter-poached blue lobster with purple carrots, compressed cucumbers and a crustaceans’ reduction; foie gras terrine with orange compote, figs, endives and spiced brioche bread; forest berries confit with rose semifreddo, mixed berries and crystalised rose petals; and the Insta-worthy La Sfera, a dome filled with seasonal treats.
“La Sfera has been on the menu at Armani Ristorante for the last 10 years,” says Papi. “We only change the ingredients depending on the time of year.” On the evening of our visit, for example, the gold leaf-encrusted dome is cracked open to reveal a coulis of mango and pineapple, coconut foam and desiccated coconut, a salad of dragonfruit, mango, papaya and pineapple; and a crumble of lemon for a flavourful end to the evening.
Look out for Michelin-lauded restaurant Hakkasan, coming up next in The National's Star-grazing series