La Carnita review: traditional Mexican plates for modern palates in Abu Dhabi

Not all dishes are oozing with cream and cheese — and that’s a good thing

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With more than a dozen restaurants and cafes now up and running at Yas Bay Waterfront, the area is expected to shine this winter.

Occupying pride of place along the winding, water-facing stretch of eateries is La Carnita, which opened its first outpost in the capital last November and, like its thumping Dubai outpost, serves modern Mexican cuisine in a vibrant setting.

Where to sit and what to expect

A table on the waterfront patio is a no-brainer during the cooler months. The space feels lush, fitted out with cushioned wicker armchairs and plenty of greenery. The potted plants theme also extends within, which has a more resto-lounge vibe complete with neon lighting, plush circular booths and funky wall art. The music can get a bit loud inside, but it’s all part of the fun-loving fiesta the restaurant aims to put on every day.

The menu

La Carnita serves traditional Mexican food adapted for regional tastes, rather than fast food-style Tex-Mex, which tends to be lavish in its use of cheese and cream. My dining companion and I begin our meal with a classic guacamole (Dh60), served with a plain and simple (and all the better for it) avocado mash. The dish stands out for the tortillas it is served with; contrary to the plain variety, the chef sprinkles the crispy corn tortillas with a tangy ancho chilli powder that pairs superbly with the hand-picked avocados. No lime needed.

Next, we sample a Mexican-style burrata (Dh90), in which the cheese is matched to great success with a chimichurri, chipotle and chilli and coriander oil base. The tanginess of the oil offsets the creaminess of the cheese to delectable effect.

Likewise, the sea bass ceviche (Dh60) is a piquant mix of jalapeno, cucumber, pumpkin seeds and blackened chilli in a citrus dressing. I only wish it were served over ice, or at least a touch colder than room temperature, for the citrusy freshness the fish is infused with to really shine through.

From the hot starters, we picked the eight-spice shrimp — a must for anyone ruing the lack of over-creamy options. I’m not sure what the octet of spices is meant to be, but you’ll never find me complaining about fresh shrimps doused in garlic cream and spicy brown butter.

Eight-spice shrimps. Photo: La Carnita

We overlook the “main” mains (a mix of meat and seafood dishes) for the chef’s taco platter (Dh189 for 10 pieces). Of the ones we choose, the pollo fritto trumps the achiote chicken, although lovers of grilled chicken and pineapple (salsa) should still opt for the latter. The frito comes with sinful fried chicken and a peanut-lime hot sauce.

If you’re not counting your calories at this meal, opt for the fried taco shells or tostadas, which are far superior than the soft, plain and slightly stale-tasting variety.

Standout dish

Mushroom tostada. Photo: La Carnita

Our third choice of taco, the vegetarian mushroom tostada, is the star of this Mexican meal. It is a crunchy feast all the way — from the tostada base and crisp mushrooms to the pea shoots, shallots and pickled chilli. These are all drizzled with fermented chilli crema, cotija cheese and a balsamic soy glaze. It’s messy to eat, but worth every lick.

A chat with the chef

Head chef Nilton Ceccarelli is half Brazilian, half Italian; studied to become a chef at Westminster College London; and has worked at Cafe Emm Soho and The Swan Covent Garden in the UK, and La Serre, Reform Social Grill and Lucky Voice in the UAE. He’s been in charge of La Carnita for the past three years.

Ceccarelli describes his cooking style as finding a balance and focusing on the basics. “My cardinal rule is to source good quality ingredients and then not ruin them," he says.

“It is important to follow the basics of cooking and I would also recommend having a taste as you cook — this ensures consistency, and that is one of my key attributes to success.”

The chef recommends mushroom tostada for vegetarians; carne asda for meat enthusiasts; and the sea bass fillet for seafood lovers. “Also, no meal at La Carnita is complete without our churros with cajeta caramel sauce,” he adds.

Price point and contact information

Cold starters range from Dh45 to Dh90; hot starters are from Dh35 to Dh65; and mains will set you back between Dh140 and Dh680 (for the 1.3-kilogram Tomahawk, called the Big Tommy Steak on the menu). Tacos can be ordered individually, and are priced at Dh22 a pop or Dh58 for a trio.

This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant

Updated: October 13, 2022, 7:11 AM