Somewhere over the bridge to Bluewaters Island, my dining partner and I joke to ourselves that we took a wrong turn and ended up in Positano.
Such is Alici’s resemblance to a chic Italian trattoria located on the Amalfi Coast that it’s easy to forget you’re still in Dubai. Alici opened on Bluewaters amid much fanfare, and it’s in good company with The London Project as a neighbour. Considering it’s also helmed by the same team as Jumeirah’s widely loved Il Borro Tuscan Bistro, it’s fair to say that expectations were high.
What to expect and where to sit
From the get-go, Alici – which means anchovies in Italian – is an immersive experience. Once you set foot inside the doors, you're met with whitewashed walls framed by blue accessories and plenty of well-thought-out touches: fish paintings are peppered around the restaurant, and much of the art and pottery has been hand-painted (quite fittingly) by Italy's "Anchovy Man", well-known for his artworks on marine life. The restaurant is split into two storeys: a restaurant and raw bar area downstairs, but the piece-de-resistance is the second floor with its sweeping views over the waters of Dubai Marina, plus a bar area and open-plan kitchen.
Given that the second level is where the prime views are, looking back out over the beaches of JBR and the Marina skyline, you’re going to want to find yourself a table here – and in cooler months, head straight for the terrace. For now, though, the full-length windows showcase the panorama nicely.
Alici is touted as a seafood restaurant, and it really does what it says on the tin – the menu is bursting with basically anything and everything that thrives underwater. We take our server's recommendations and order everything he puts forward, starting with the ricciola – a raw dish of sliced amberjack, pomegranate and apple drizzled with a tart lemon dressing (Dh65), as well as the fried selection of calamari, prawns, purple potato and zucchini that make up the fritto misto (Dh95). Both are relatively simple dishes, with minimal seasoning to allow the seafood to take centre stage. The amberjack is fresh and crisp, and the fried seafood isn't of your calamari-rings-at-a-pub variety – these are crunchy, tempura-esque bites of goodness.
Because we're in Italy now and you can't go straight to mains without stopping by at pasta, our next order is the highly recommended spaghetti alici e mollica (Dh80), featuring anchovies, capers, black olives and toasted breadcrumbs, and the more adventurous spaghetti alla "chitarra" con ricci e ricciola (Dh105), with sea urchin and more amberjack. Though the latter has a pleasantly surprising punch of flavours, we prefer the crunchiness and saltiness of the former – although our sodium levels probably took a hit.
As far as mains go, so long as you've come armed with hungry companions, don't go past the oldie but goodie branzino el sale (Dh395), otherwise known as the salt-crusted sea bass. Not only will you also get a side of entertainment as your server skilfully fillets the fish tableside, but the resulting fish is moist and flaky, and needs no accompaniment (other than perhaps a side of grilled asparagus).
I'm not a very good faux Italian because I don't like pasta all that much (lower the pitchforks, people), but I've since found myself reminiscing over the spaghetti alici e mollica. The anchovies, olives and capers added a healthy dose of salt to an otherwise creamy dish, and the toasted breadcrumbs brought the texture to an unexpected crunch not typical of your standard spaghetti.
Who’s eating there
To be honest, at our time of arrival – no one. But that's more of a reflection of my incessant need to eat before 7pm, in this case showing up as restaurant staff are still setting tables. But a steady trickle of diners stream in as the night goes on, and soon the restaurant is abuzz with dozens of seafood fans. It's mostly a more mature crowd, with a couple of younger groups dotted around.
A chat with the chef
Head chef Domenico Santagada is an Italian native has been working as a chef since he was 15 years old. He built his career in kitchens across Italy, Spain, the UK and the UAE, where he has worked at a number of Meraas concepts and other restaurants.
Feathers in his cap include L’Anima London, working alongside celebrated Italian chef Francesco Mazzei, a post at the now-closed Marco Pierre White Grill Dubai, and later opening Antonio Marras Ristorante in City Walk (which has also since shut its doors).
Recommendations at Alici seem to filter down right from the top, as Santagada’s recommendations chime with that of our waiter’s: the Alici crudo di mare, the fritto misto, the spaghetti alici e mollica and the taglioni caviar are the chef’s must-haves.
Value for money and contact information
This isn't necessarily a sharing plate-style concept, so if you want to try a few different dishes the price might rack up fairly quickly. However, there's such a range that you can be the master of your own price point depending on how tactful you're feeling. Dishes range from Dh40 to Dh175 for the smaller plates, and between Dh100 and Dh500 for mains. Considering the calibre of food you're getting, and the prime real estate, the prices seem about right.
Alici is open daily from noon to 3.30pm and 7pm to midnight on Bluewaters Island. Call 04 275 2577.
This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant.