Abu Dhabi is often overlooked for the bright lights of Dubai, but when it comes to the dining scene, the emirate has undergone rapid transformation in recent years, much to the joy of the capital's foodies.
Culinary establishments such as Roberto’s, La Petite Maison, Coya and Buddha Bar, among others, have elevated the offering considerably, giving the region’s diners more reason to visit for an evening or weekend.
Big-name chefs including Tuscan four Michelin-starred chef Enrico Bartolini have become regular visitors to the emirate, but the recent arrival of another Michelin legend is perhaps the best indication yet that Abu Dhabi is plating up excellence and continues to attract high-calibre global interest.
British chef Tom Aikens, who is perhaps best known for being the youngest ever to have been awarded a Michelin star (he was 26 when he received his first) and who has appeared on television shows such as Iron Chef UK, has teamed up with luxury hotel group Edition to curate the menus for three signature restaurants at The Abu Dhabi Edition property, which officially opened its doors in Al Bateen last month.
Aikens's latest venture takes him out of Dubai, where he opened Pots, Pans and Boards – his first foray into the region – four years ago. "I think the food scene here is very strong," says the 48-year-old chef when asked why Abu Dhabi for his latest project. "It's obviously not in the same vein as Dubai, definitely not, but I still think the restaurants you have, particularly in the hotels, are very good."
Aikens says that talks with Edition began four years ago, and while he admits "it's been a long road", he is incredibly excited by the result. "We obviously did quite a bit of research in terms of what was here and in terms of creating something that is very special and unique for Abu Dhabi. We wanted to make sure that the restaurants we had were very different from what everyone else was doing with regard to service, price point, food, everything."
The result is a diverse collection of quality eateries – the all-day dining health-focused spot Market at Edition; the Oak Room steakhouse; and the Mediterranean-inspired Alba Terrace. Aikens rates Market at Edition as perhaps his biggest challenge this time around. "I don't think there is anything in Abu Dhabi like this yet," he says. "I said to myself, test yourself and see if you can actually create a menu without using a single piece of butter or a single piece of cream, and I did. I was even surprised at myself."
Aikens grew up in Norwich, England, and spent summers in France with family, which awakened an appetite for French gastronomy at an early age. He graduated from Norwich City College Hotel School in 1989, and went on to work at Michelin-starred London establishments including Cavalier's, as well as The Capital Hotel.
The chef had spent five weeks in Abu Dhabi prior to The Abu Dhabi Edition's official opening, spending as much time hand-picking senior kitchen staff as fine-tuning the menus. On the day we meet he's just finished cooking and plating up close to 300 dishes to be photographed, and although spent there is still a glint in his eye as he talks me through the evolution of Tom Aikens from a kid in the kitchen with his family to celebrity chef.
"As a chef you're always evolving, and I think coming to places like the Middle East and the Far East where you can be quite diverse in your cooking, the whole research and new concepts is really what makes you tick.
"Some chefs just do their one thing. That's fine, but I like to do a whole host of different cuisines and tastes and experimentation. It's nice and also it just shows I can do from fine-dining to casual eating … what I have in London, Tom's Kitchen and this, it just shows that I can be quite adaptable in what I choose to do as well."
It’s admirable that after 32 years in the business Aikens’s passion for food is still burning.
"The thing is, whether it's a burger or a fine-dining meal, for me it's just all about the ingredients and you put as much effort into creating an amazing burger as you would a three-star meal."
The increase in popularity of photographing food for social media must also have an impact on a chef of Aikens's calibre. So how important are looks to him when planning his menus? "Very important, more so in the Middle East than anywhere," he says. "I think in terms of a chef, and your own style and creativity, you want to give people a purpose as well, you know, take a picture and tag and share and whatever.
"It's very much in my head when I'm creating a dish, if I can make it a little bit different or a bit quirky where people go it'd be great if I could get a picture of that, definitely."
While he is best known for his prowess in the kitchen and rates himself "a simple kind of a guy" whose favourite dish across the three restaurants is the short rib with mozzarella cheese at Oak Room, when the father of two girls of ages seven and four isn't in a restaurant kitchen he can usually be found in the one at home.
“I am literally flat out all the time, whether away or at home in the UK, but I try and have weekends free with my family. I try to cook with my daughters, they get involved and make a complete mess,” he says with a laugh.
Aikens's Abu Dhabi ventures are now moving full steam ahead, with plenty of interest being generated by what he has contributed to the capital's food scene. And he says new projects are already in the pipeline. "I've been looking at doing a fine-dining restaurant again in London … and then I have another possibility of doing something outside of London and then maybe something else in this region."
But for now, it's all eyes on Abu Dhabi and making us sit up and see that some of the brightest eateries in the region are now in the capital.