Mika review: Abu Dhabi restaurant offers Mediterranean high life at a ludicrously low cost

Sunset dinners and one of the city's best dishes for Dh40 make this Yas Marina venue a must

The Mediterranean beckons: Mika's European-style interiors lead onto a waterside terrace in Yas Marina. Photo: Mika
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Mika is my new favourite restaurant in Abu Dhabi. It’s like stepping into Saint-Tropez’s Vieux Port; except here I can live the French Riviera high life without a trust fund budget.

It recently opened in Yas Marina, replacing Aquarium restaurant, and is breathing life into one of the city’s best vistas.

Gone are the uncomfortable metal bar stools, garish fish tanks and barrel-sized portions, in is chef-patron Mario Loi and his love for Mediterranean simplicity.

Merely weeks after opening, Mika is building a word-of-mouth reputation for excellence and unparalleled sunset dinners. And I’m now part of the in-the-know crowd.

Where to sit and what to expect

The renovations are remarkable and they’re even more impressive considering the baptism of fire the venue was born in. “We opened two days before the Abu Dhabi Formula One,” Loi says. “Hectic is one way to describe it.”

The pressure to turn the restaurant interiors around, devise a menu, bring chefs and front-of-house teams up to speed on his vision and execute it laid the foundations for Mika’s growing success. “It was a weekend to remember, by the end it was absolutely worth it,” Loi says.

While the interiors are stunning – it's all French woods, Italian marble mosaic flooring, Spanish tapas bar-style counters to stand up and eat at, an open kitchen and cosy corners – it’s the outdoor terrace that screams la dolce vita.

It is made for UAE winters. Sitting here, it is a reminder of why we gasp our way through summers. Happiness unbridled.

It is different from similar venues, such as Dubai Harbour’s Bar du Port, as yachts bob metres away and when the rusty hues of sunset fade, Yas Marina Circuit and the lights of the glowing W Abu Dhabi – Yas Island gently twinkle in place.

The menu

Loi is from South Africa, but he lived and trained in the UK and has Italian heritage. His eclectic tastes extend to his sharing-style menus – which change frequently. On it are the likes of cod croquettes, pan-fried prawns, lamb and tuna tacos, octopus and calamari.

There’s a good-value business lunch of two courses for Dh95 and three for Dh125; a ladies' night; sundowner promotions; and a Saturday brunch.

Loi is also growing herbs and vegetables for his dishes in the chef’s garden next to the main restaurant, where private events, drinks tastings and quieter meals can be enjoyed.

He is guided by two principles. “I want everyone to feel welcome, people can roll in off a yacht with their dogs or plan a celebratory night out,” he tells me. “Secondly, I cook what I like to eat.”

And, after giddily accepting his offer to cook us his favourites, I'll only eat what he does from now on.

We start where all good meals on the Med should: bread and olive oil. Loi bakes Mika’s fresh onsite daily and serves big chunks of focaccia, rye and sourdough with a tomato sofrito and fiery pesto.

The bread course is a restaurant’s metaphorical handshake, it’s the first impression of whether we’ll get along like old friends or leave feeling limp and clammy. At Mika, it’s a shoulder-dislocating greeting that turns into a bear hug and the garlic in the pesto is proper back-of-the-throat heat that vibrates the eyebrows. It’s also a snip at Dh35.

Soon, out flows a wild bass carpaccio (Dh50) in a dressing straight from the streets of Hanoi. It hums with the pungent lemongrass grown merely metres away in Loi’s garden. An excellent burrata and roasted peach (Dh65) follows, as does a steak tartare (costing a ludicrous Dh65).

Loi lavishes his with seasoning and capers, places an egg yolk in the middle and finishes it off with his secret ingredient, gochujang, a fermented chilli paste from South Korea. It is served with a rye cracker.

The exceptional value plates continue with lamb skewers (Dh70) and fried feta. The latter is ooey, gooey saltiness encased in a crisp filo pastry that’s drizzled with honey – and the price is even sweeter at Dh40. For one of Abu Dhabi’s best dishes, in this setting, with this level of service, it’s a steal.

Mains, if they can be called mains as they’re still served to share, of mushroom truffle risotto and chicken Milanese (both Dh95) extend the notions of the Italian good life. The lamb tacos (also Dh95) are a nod to Loi's worldly touch in the kitchen and while you won't find chefs racing to add it to riviera menus, you'll find me storming back for more every Friday.

By the end, I can close my eyes, take a spoonful of the terrific tiramisu and wake up in the Venetian breeze. Only without the swarming tourists and sun-seeking Britons quaffing about Tory infighting.

Dinners in the presence of Loi have the charm of ones at Orfali Bros, again this year's Mena's 50 Best Restaurant winner, and its chef-patron Mohamed Orfali who often works the floor. Mika also offers a better place to eat waterside than 2022 winner 3Fils.

Loi's previous restaurant Oii earned a place on Michelin's Bib Gourmand list, and I expect Mika to waltz on to this year's. It’s the first restaurant I’d visit three times in one week. It’s that enjoyable.

Standout dish

The fried feta filo is a sharing-style nightmare. Between the crash of elbows and stampede to grab a forkful of a crunchy corner or a dunk of the honey sauce, it ends with a passive-aggressive dance-off of: “You have the last bit,” with the wife.

There’s no time for chivalry, so before the last bit of fake politeness rolls off her tongue, I swoop in. The easiest way to avoid it? Order one each and tuck in while they're piping.

Price point and contact information

Starters and small plates range from Dh30 to Dh70; bigger plates range from DhDh95 to Dh120; desserts from Dh40 to Dh65; specials change frequently.

Mika, at Yas Marina, is open noon-midnight from Sunday to Thursday and noon-1am on Friday and Saturday. For reservations, contact 056 433 1422.

This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant

Updated: February 23, 2024, 9:09 AM