Do you ask a chef or server for their recommendations when dining out at a new restaurant? In the current foodscape of set and omakase menus – whereby what is put on your plate is left to the chef’s discretion – it is also common practice among discerning diners to ask for suggestions from in-the-know staff when faced with the a la carte menu of an unfamiliar eatery.
To that end, The National is launching its Taste Test series, in which we take you inside the latest restaurants just before they open their doors, and ask chefs what dishes they would recommend and what makes them special, for you to then order (or, indeed, avoid).
This guide should also serve well those foodies who want to tick or cross off the latest restaurants from their culinary bucket list, which can be a Herculean task in the UAE where no fewer than a dozen restaurants are unveiled month on month.
Inside Signor Sassi, Dubai
Italian restaurant Signor Sassi opens on Monday at the St Regis Gardens on Palm Jumeirah in Dubai.
A franchise of the original Signor Sassi in Knightsbridge, London (once famously visited by Rihanna), the UAE outpost comes courtesy of the Sunset Hospitality Group, which also oversees SushiSamba.
Signor Sassi Dubai is replete with ornate chandeliers, mirror-work, enormous vases and lashings of green, inspired as it is by the opulent gardens and villas found along Lake Como.
While chef Luca Rossi was not on hand on the afternoon we visited, general manager Damiano Ruggiero talked us through five of Signor Sassi’s most recommended dishes, each of which embodies the restaurant’s proudly "Made in Italy" motto.
Sea bass carpaccio
“Go to Sicily and nearly everything will come served with onions, including the carpaccio,” says Ruggiero. “For this dish, we’ve upheld this Sicilian tradition, but with a little twist – by caramelising the onion that serves as a garnish alongside avocado and almonds on top of the Mediterranean sea bass.”
Taste test: Rather than being cloying, the caramelised onions infuse the dish with just a hint of sweetness and give it a pleasing crunchy texture. The onions also balance the sourness from the lime, which is the base of most carpaccio dishes. More crunch comes by way of the silvered almonds, but the achingly fresh fish remains the star of this must-have appetiser.
Artichoke and Parmesan salad
“Vegetarians would do well to travel with us to Campania, which is where we source our artichokes from,” says Ruggiero. “The lemons used in the citronette dressing, meanwhile, come from Amalfi and are as big as melons!”
Taste test: Artichokes are chock-full of nutrients, and this generous salad is veritably packed with artichokes, more so than in any dish I’ve eaten in the Emirates. The salad perfectly illustrates the Italian culinary mantra of using the best-quality ingredients and putting them together using simple cooking techniques. The dressing, for example, is a simple mix of olive oil and lemons, but these are cherry-picked from Abruzzo and Amalfi respectively. The Parmesan gives the salad its saltiness and the rocket rounds off the flavour.
The famous spaghettini with lobster
Even if you're not familiar with Signor Sassi, one look at the name of this dish on the menu and you will know this is the brand’s signature dish. Ruggiero reveals the Knightsbridge outpost goes through 1,000 lobsters a week. “This is also the only dish where the main ingredient, the lobster, comes not from Italy, but from Canada,” he says.
“But everything else – from the San Marzano and Datterini tomatoes used to the home-made pasta – is made in Italy. The olive oil used in this dish, too, comes from Abruzzo rather than the standard Tuscan variety.”
Taste test: This dish is, in a word, buttery. And yet, I am assured there is no butter to be found here. Instead, the tomato paste is slow-cooked for 12 hours alongside a lobster bisque prepared fresh in-house. The spaghettini (a slimmer, more sophisticated version of its namesake pasta) goes down a dream, well coated as it is with a simple combination of salt, pepper and good-quality olive oil.
Mezze maniche carbonara and seasonal truffle
This dish is a classic from Ruggiero's home city of Rome and one he’s seemingly most passionate about. While it follows the same good ingredients-meet-simple cooking strategy of most Signor Sassi dishes, Ruggiero points out that pasta itself is becoming ever more divisive. “Most Italians will only have theirs al dente, but I admit it is not to everyone’s taste,” he says, with something of a sigh. “While we can accommodate people’s preferences, I would suggest never to overcook pasta. Instead, ask the chef to make it just a bit more than al dente.”
Taste test: The crunchy, slightly undercooked texture of the al dente pasta is elevated when slathered in the smooth and creamy sauce, a delectable mix of egg yolk and Pecorino cheese. The saltiness from the cooking water, crunchiness of the veal bacon bits and earthiness of the fresh truffle shavings make this a tasty and hearty main.
“If the lobster is a signature main, this is Signor Sassi’s signature dessert,” says Ruggiero. “Italy is known, above all, for its ice cream. We serve it here with home-made brioche, because Italians are known, above all, for their love of bread,” he adds with a laugh.
“The gelato is churned in-house from a machine specifically brought in from Italy. We put in actual pistachios to make a paste, then take the pasteurised ice cream, add milk and double cream, then put it through the circulation and refrigeration,” he explains.
Taste test: Signor Sassi serves its dessert only following rottolino, an Italian tradition from the 1920s, whereby a fresh tablecloth is laid over the table in order to cover any stains on the one before and – I would like to think – as a show of just how seriously Italians take their dolci.
As for the gelato-brioche combination itself, I love bread and I love ice cream, and could eat them both all day. However, I did find the creamy yet not overly sweet ice cream got a bit lost sandwiched between the thick, buttery bread. It’s best eaten as a half-sandwich or as separate components.
Pro tip: if you’re having the brioche – ice-cream-laden base only or the whole sweet sandwich – it’s best enjoyed with the hands.
Signor Sassi is open daily from 6pm-2am. For reservations, contact 04 278 4848