Richard Sandoval is an old hand in the UAE. The chef and restaurateur opened Maya Mexican Kitchen almost a decade ago followed by Toro Toro, both in Dubai. The latter pan-Latin restaurant opened its doors on the Abu Dhabi Corniche, as a free-standing property behind the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers hotel, in September 2017 – only to temporarily shut shop a year later. Vakava is basically Toro Toro renamed – it has the same menu and venue, but managed by the Jumeirah group this time around.
What to expect and where to sit
The two-level restaurant serves dinner on the lower floor, and has a bar area offering nibbles and tunes by a live Cuban band on the first level. The vibrant dining area is peppered with patterned cushions, colourful chandeliers and fighting bull motifs, which appear in the form of wall hangings, lamp bases and determine the shape in which the serviettes are arranged on plates; even the entrance is dominated by two life-size specimens.
As Vladimir, our super-friendly server, puts it: “Couples can sit on the plush chairs or smaller couch chairs near the windows overlooking the water; larger family tables are placed in the centre; and our corporate guests are sat at the larger tables on the outer periphery.” The restaurant boasts plenty of natural light thanks to the floor-to-ceiling glass panes in the daytime, but by night Vakava is dimly lit with pinpoint yellow lights, candles on each table and a red wraparound pipe light in the ceiling. My only complaint is the overpowering decibel level of the music, which seems louder at times than the band overhead, so avoid sitting directly under a speaker if you want to converse with your dining companions.
Who’s eating there
On the Saturday evening that my dining partner and I visit, we are joined by a handful of local and older expat couples and two groups of young girlfriends. Given the sprawling dining area and dim lighting, the restaurant feels intimate or empty, depending on how you look at it.
Get the degustacion platter. Ceviche and tiraditos are what Vakava does best, we are told, and the Dh295 sharing-style dish offers six of its best bites and is, as starters go, enough for two. If you’d rather do a few individual dishes, I would recommend the ceviche huachinango (Dh75 by itself) over the more famous tuna Nikkei (Dh80). The former benefits from the varying flavours of ice-fresh sea bass, crunchy dried corn, tender sweet potato, tart red onions and the citrusy spicy Peruvian sauce known as leche de tigre (or tiger’s milk). The tuna, with its soy and sesame oil, has more Asian flavours – something we enjoyed better in the chicken anticuchos (Dh60) with miso and pickled cucumber.
For an added hit of spice, get the amberjack tiradito (Dh100). Vakava sources the fish from Fukoka in Japan and cures it in-house; it’s then combined with citrus skin and beetroot, kumquat powder, rocoto chilli paste and a basil-infused leche de tigre. Again, I prefer this to the equally spicy prawn aguachile (Dh80), a Mexican tiradito, the sauce of which tasted more like an Indian chutney owing to its combination of green chillies, green tomato and coriander.
The final two dishes on the platter include a creamy swordfish dip, which is quite delicious if you can get past the fishy smell and, for those craving a hit of meat by this point, the juicy US Prime beef tiradito (Dh100), which is my favourite by far thanks to the truffle-garlic-mushroom accompaniments.
Appetites whetted, my dining partner and I take Vladimir’s recommendation and order the Chilean sea bass (Dh170) and slow-cooked beef cheeks (Dh150). The fish takes about 25 minutes to prepare fresh, so order accordingly. It comes marinated with miso and sake, and is served on a bed of risotto made from Japanese sushi rice with mascarpone cheese and pecan nuts. The server smushes it all together table-side, so each bite is a mouthful of flavours. The most overpowering among these is the texture of the pecans, which I could have done without, but my partner enjoyed crunching into.
Pan-Latin as a cuisine specialises in raw fish, yet it was the meat dishes at Vakava that resonated most with this seafood lover. The beef tiradito and beef anticuchos stood out among the array of appetisers, while the beef cheeks were the star of the main show.
Cooked for eight hours with chicha morada, a traditional Peruvian drink made from purple corn, fruits and red wine, the tender meat is served atop creamy polenta with Parmesan, shimoji mushrooms, coriander oil and dried leeks. What’s not to love?
Vakava also has an extensive drinks menu, courtesy of its in-house mixologist; raspberry and rosemary mocktail is a flavourful palate cleaner.
A chat with the chef
While top dog Richard Sandoval will be in Abu Dhabi next month to declare the Vakava terrace area officially open, sous chef Alberto Lopez is on the floor the evening I visit and was part of the restaurant’s launch team since June. Mexican Lopez has worked at Tortuga in Dubai, and says Latin American cuisine is his specialty.
He says the smoked guacamole is a best-seller, and notes the chicken and beef anticuchos – Peru’s quintessential street food – are his personal favourite. Besides the two mains we sampled, the chef recommends the salmon (Dh125) with chipotle, and La Bomba chocolate sphere (Dh90) for dessert.
Value for money and contact information
The mains range from Dh125 to Dh170, a worthy price tag given the hearty portions and fine-dining flair. Comparatively, the signature ceviches and other starters cost between Dh75 and Dh100 for much smaller portions, which makes the degustacion platter worth Dh300 for six dishes. Vakava is currently open for dinner and tables can be booked by calling 02 811 5666.
This review was conducted at the restaurant’s invitation