It wasn't so much the news that a faux French brasserie had opened at Souk Al Bahar that got me excited about Margaux. Rather, it was the announcement that the executive chef at this new Dubai restaurant had spent considerable time training and working under the French "superchef" Alain Ducasse that quickened my heartbeat. For quite a while now, there have been whispers in the industry that a Ducasse opening in Dubai was imminent, yet none of the rumours have come to fruition.
Julian Mercier's time with Ducasse began as a trainee at Spoon in London, and took him to Monaco, Switzerland, Tunisia and Japan, where he was part of the opening team for Ducasse's Benoit restaurant in Tokyo. With a track record like that, Mercier has either been unable to settle in any one place, or he's been a trusted ambassador and custodian of the Ducasse philosophy and brand. Perhaps the food at Margaux would provide the answers?
We entered a fairly unremarkable recreation of a French brasserie made brighter by the addition of a few arty prints about the place. But as if to divert our attention from the ordinariness within, the beaming waitress immediately suggested that we take seats on the outdoor terrace, where we could gawp at the enormity of the Burj Dubai and witness a test run of the fountains below. A few brittle crostini were brought to the table with dips of ricotta cheese and olive oil, which were perhaps erroneously announced as an amuse bouche. A rather unimaginative amuse bouche, if I may say so. But the smooth, gallic charm of the waiters, all dressed up in bistro-style black waistcoats and impeccably white shirts, helped to gloss over that somewhat. Especially when they bought us some more bread.
As we waited for our starters to arrive, the fountains that had hitherto lain dormant at the foot of the world's tallest building began to spit and spurt before erupting into a storm of activity. A squadron of water jets leapt up into the air in all directions to provide an impressive distraction that will be even more momentous once the test run is complete. Margaux's test run was about to commence with a cold green pea soup. The veloute was certainly smooth and refreshing poured on to a hearty dollop of crème fraîche, yet the helping was too large and a little too bland to hold our interest until the last spoonful. The garden bruschetta on the side, littered with baby vegetables, was an interesting diversion, however. My mozzarella with tomato salad presented a stupendously soft and malleable ball of creamy Burrata cheese and a deliriously tangy collection of chopped tomatoes of every imaginable hue, next to yet more bread in the form of garlic toast.
The mains were delivered with much ceremony; my companion's traditional beef tartar was made at the table. It was fascinating to watch each ingredient go in the basin, from the egg yolk, Dijon mustard and olive oil mayonnaise base, to the ground beef, onions, capers, parsley and gherkins that followed. The result was a dish of acute freshness, where each ingredient shone through. The fat chips on the side were large, riddled with flavour and one of the highlights of the meal. My rare fish was expertly cooked, and elegantly served on a smidgen of Riviera condiment to remind us of the Ducasse connection.
As the fountains jolted into life once more, my dining partner chose two desserts: the raspberry tart was notable for its crumbly shortcrust pastry, and the chocolate mousse with hazelnut centre offered a variety of textures and chocolate hints to savour. I couldn't resist the grapefruit pizza, chiefly because it reminded me of a chocolate burger by Laurent Pillard that I'd happened upon recently. This sweet deception featured grapefruit in place of tomato, mascarpone instead of mozzarella and green pistachio where the basil leaves should be, rather haphazardly arranged on a sweet pastry pizza base drizzled with honey. It wasn't unpleasant, but I don't think it will give Pizza Hut too many headaches or sleepless nights.
Margaux had its moments, that is without doubt. Once out on the terrace, the setting was clearly something to behold. The service was exemplary throughout - not overly attentive and perfectly knowledgeable. And chef Mercier's food had flashes of accomplishment, despite its simplicity. His highlights were clearly inspired by Ducasse, and I wouldn't be surprised if Ducasse himself doesn't take very careful notice of Mercier's progress here.
Margaux, Souk Al Bahar, 04 439 7555, Old Town Island, Dubai. Average cost of a meal for two: Dh500-600.