Sometimes a restaurant just doesn't live up to expectations. When this happens, I am left feeling at best a little sad, and at worst quite angry, depending on the prices that are being charged.
This week, it struck me that Rouge at the Rocco Forte in Abu Dhabi is rather setting itself up for a fall. Doing a bit of research before the visit, I read that according to the hotel's website, this was "the best Chinese and Japanese restaurant in Abu Dhabi". A grandiose claim which, having dined there, I do not feel is substantiated by the food.
The layout of the restaurant is quite bizarre. Tables run around the edge of the room, while the middle is cut out completely, meaning that you can look straight up at the high ceiling or down into another restaurant below. It's all very open and thanks also to the sparse decor – large, steel lamps bearing red lights hover overhead, but that's about it – it feels vaguely reminiscent of a futuristic airport lounge.
Service was polite but vacant at best (our waitress couldn't tell me what the amuse bouche was and didn't once check back to see if we were happy with our food) and non-existent at worst. And to qualify that, I'll explain that by the end of the meal, we (the only customers) were left alone in the room, as two waitresses and a waiter gathered in the corridor outside the restaurant to chat and check their mobile phones.
An amuse bouche of marinated tofu wrapped in a light puff of crisp tempura batter trickled with truffle oil got the meal off to a good start. Unfortunately, things went steadily downhill from there. Bar the appetiser, a tuna tartare tower presented verrine style (layered in a glass) was the best dish of the night; the fish was fresh and silky, the salsa of diced avocado and tomato had a background wasabi kick to it and slivers of crispy wanton were crunchy.
Our other starter – yuan yang duck roll with shredded duck salad and hoisin vinaigrette – fell short on a number of counts. The pancake/pastry casing was too thick and floury, making for a chewy, doughy mouthful, the strips of duck meat inside were dry and again too thick and any respite or freshness that the salad could have brought to the table was cancelled out by the cloyingly sweet dressing.
I enjoyed the main element of my main course. The miso-marinated salmon was full of flavour, the blackened skin was properly crisp and the fish was moist enough to flake into pieces when prodded with a knife. The sparsity of the accompanying sauce and garnish was laughable, though. Vegetables consisted of a single, barely warm boiled baby carrot, spear of asparagus and piece of corn all sliced in half lengthways and served the wrong side of al dente (borderline raw is the best description), without any sauce, seasoning or dressing. Then there was a tiny smudge of sticky yuzu sauce, which clung to the bottom of the plate and quickly disappeared.
In terms of vegetable accompaniment, my friend fared even worse than I. A small mound of frisée lettuce perched on top of her mound of sliced duck breast was the only additional item on the plate, bar a jug of clear, syrupy plum sauce. The thinly sliced meat was enjoyable enough: flavoursome with just crisp enough skin and not too much fat. But that was it; despite the fact the meat was competently cooked and the sauce was sweet and fruity, there's little more I can say.
Dessert saw the meal ricochet from the not very good to the memorably bad. Of the four desserts on the menu - yes, just four - two were unavailable, leaving us with little choice but to order the tofu cream cheesecake and the green tea crème brûlée. Both were hugely disappointing.
Crème brûlée is characterised by a layer of crisp, caramelised sugar that should shatter when tapped with a spoon, to reveal soft, cooked cream underneath. Ours had a strangely spongy texture with grains of sugar scattered over the top. The green tea flavour was undetectable and we gave up after a couple of mouthfuls.
Unfortunately, the tofu cheesecake was no better. We struggled to differentiate between the texture, or indeed flavour, of the soggy, biscuit base and the filling. Both did, however, taste old and left a vaguely plasticky film in the mouth. The two desserts were served with exactly the same garnish – sliced strawberries and raspberries – which irks me. If an ingredient or item is on the plate then it should be there to serve a purpose – to temper, complement or provide a contrast to the main element.
A meal for two at Rouge, Rocco Forte hotel, Abu Dhabi costs Dh539 including service charge. For reservations call 02 617 0000. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito