Dubai's foodies will have heard of chef Reif Othman, who sharpened his knife in Zuma Dubai, Play Restaurant and Billionaire Mansion. He is now at the helm of Reif Japanese Kushiyaki, a casual-dining concept in Jumeirah.
Having opened just two weeks before we head down to review, the pocket-sized eatery at Dar Wasl mall has already created quite the buzz – when we arrive, there is a queue of expectant diners – as you'd expect when you're set to get Zuma-quality food for wallet-friendly prices.
What to expect and where to sit
The first thing that strikes is just how compact the restaurant is. With an open kitchen at its heart, it has clean lines and minimalist decor, with a wooden colour palate. There is an Astro Boy manga painting on one wall, providing a pop of colour.
The 39-seat restaurant doesn't take reservations (apart from on Monday nights), so there is certainly an element of sitting where you're sat. However, a few spots stand out. The majority of tables have a view of the open kitchen, including a low-bar seating, but we're delighted to be seated by the pass, so we can see almost every dish that leaves the kitchen to be enjoyed by guests – essential if you're the kind of diner who picks what you're eating based on food-envy. Trying to avoid cliches as much as possible, the restaurant really does have the feel of tiny Japanese yakitori-yas. If you stop yourself looking out onto Al Wasl Road for the hour or so you're there, you could just about trick yourself into feeling like you're in Tokyo.
As the eatery's name implies, the focus here is on kushiyaki – Japanese grilled meat and poultry, held together on a kushi (skewer). Aside from the chicken and beef skewers, there are also clay pots, ramens, gunkan sushi, gyoza and raw dishes to be had. A Star Dishes section reads like chef Othman's greatest hits, with wings, angel hair pasta, steamed bun burgers and Wagyu "sandos".
My dining partner and I begin with the kimchi and melon, and daikon and yuzu pickles. The daikon radish has a cleansing citrus kick, thanks to the yuzu, but it's the kimchi and melon that stands out. Honestly, it's not something I would have ordered, but it came recommended by the chef. The kimchi transforms the texture of the melon, making it feel almost jelly-like, with a savoury taste.
Raw salmon with shiso soy and crispy rice, and a kale salad followed. The salmon melted on our tongue, while the kale stood out as a meal highlight – prepared three ways: as a tempura, blanched and raw, and served with fried avocado in a black sesame dressing. Somehow, a health food I usually dismiss as dull, overrated and chewy, had been transformed into a dish that was as dramatic as it was delicious.
We then devoured the beef gyoza under strict instruction from chef Othman to "eat it in one". The flavoursome dumplings came with a kick of wasabi, complemented by sweet soy and spring onion oil.
From the Star Dishes, we had the chilled angel hair pasta. A dish that will appeal to truffle-lovers, the chilled pasta dish is, packed full of mushrooms with a light truffle flavouring. Much like the gyoza, I could have eaten this delicious nest of noodles in one, but an attempt at manners stopped me from trying.
It was around here that we took a break to digest our food thus far, aware that we had only made our way down one column of the menu. Adopting a marathon, not a race, mindset, we diligently made room for the rock shrimp kushi katsu, followed by California and spicy salmon gunkan. "Not your typical maki roll," chef Othman says as he places the dishes on out table. "We're thinking outside the box."
Then came the kushi: Angus beef with truffle mayo, chicken wings with shichimi and breast in citrus dressing.
If you eat meat, the beef skewer is a succulent must-order. The wings were cooked to perfection, proving that the simplest of dishes can be standout favourites when done properly.
Our journey concluded with the Angus beef rice clay pot. Medium rare beef, with garlic soy and shisho leaf, in a pot of rice – it's certainly a dish to share, but as cooler nights start to roll in, it will leave you feeling warm and well fed.
Try your very best to leave room for dessert. We shared the molten cake with peanut butter praline and salted cashews, which was every bit as delicious as a hot, gooey Snickers, and the Instagrammable taiyaki mouth fish waffle with ice cream.
The fish-shaped waffle caught our attention as it was directed to other tables throughout our meal, and the delicious soft-serve ice cream, with mochi chopped throughoutdidn't let us down.
A chat with the chef
Chef Othman moved to Dubai from Singapore in 2007 to work at Burj Al Arab, followed by Zuma and Play among others. Of his latest venture, he says: "This concept was born out of the series of street-food collaborations I did with homegrown gems across Dubai. As everyone knows well, Dubai's restaurant scene is saturated, so I wanted to create a small low-risk unlicensed concept to test the market demand in the build up to 2020. I really didn't expect to have people queuing right from our pre-opening phase at the end of August."
The chef says his favourite dishes on the menu are the chilled angel hair pasta with duxel mushroom and pickled kombu; steamed bun burger with an Angus beef patty, Wagyu tartare with veal jam and pickled daikon; and the chicken meatball and onsen egg kushiyaki skewers.
The restaurant's twist on Singaporean chicken rice is another popular order.
There are three reasons that make Reif Japanese Kushiyaki stand out, he adds. "Firstly, it is owner-operated. Not only am I the owner, I am the chef, and I also look after the commercial operations and front-of-house. Secondly, I am the first to bring Japanese street food to Dubai, in particular the kushiyaki skewers – with my own twist. And thirdly, whilst the food is of high quality, the price point is affordable – based on three dishes each, it would be Dh150 per person."
Down the line, The Experience by Reif Othman will launch, which entails a set menu and chef's table experience that has you about as close to the kitchen as you can get without throwing on an apron and manning the grill. Bento-style breakfasts will also launch soon.
Value for money and contact information
The eatery maintains that it offers affordable high-quality Japanese food, and with dishes starting from Dh30 for the vegetable selection, and Dh35 for the chicken kushi, that is certainly true. The beef kushi costs Dh62 for two skewers.
The chilled angel hair pasta costs Dh45, while heartier mains are for Dh59 for the 18-hour ginger chicken ramen and Dh62 for the Reif chicken rice. On the more expensive end of the scale are the sanchoku Wagyu sando at Dh145 and the kagoshima ramen with Wagyu dashi, braised leeks and thinly sliced kagoshima Wagyu at Dh185.
Reif Japanese Kushiyaki is open from noon until 11pm from Saturday to Wednesday, and from noon until midnight on Thursday and Friday. It takes walk-ins only, except from 6.30pm on Monday, when you can reserve a table. Tables can be booked by calling 04 345 0761; more information is available from reifkushiyaki.com
This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant