And now for something a little bit different: I love sushi, adore scallops and am a serious fan of carpaccio - thin slices of raw meat or fish. But until dinner the other night at Al Fanar, the quaintly old-fashioned - by Abu Dhabi standards - revolving French restaurant at the top of the Royal Meridien, I'd never come across scallops carpaccio. It is, apparently, not uncommon at trendy eateries in the sort of European countries where they serve truffles for afternoon snacks and sniff disdainfully at the mention of fish and chips or steak and kidney pie, but it was new to me and I was intrigued when I spotted it among the appetisers on Al Fanar's recently revamped menu.
"Tell me more," I asked our principal server - they seem to have a cast of thousands catering to your every need at Al Fanar, all friendly, polished and highly professional. "It's just been added to our menu," he said, "and it's a specialty of our new chef. Everyone loves it," he assured me. A few minutes later, I was confronted with an enticing little mound of thinly sliced, almost opaque scallops, glistening in what was advertised as lime vinaigrette and garnished with sprigs of dill.
It was, my companion and I agreed, quite sensational. There was barely a hint of lime in the simple vinaigrette, and the same could be said of the "chef's secret spices" also touted on the menu. Just as well, they would almost certainly have overpowered the delicate flavour of the scallops, and of the many things I admire in French cuisine simplicity and respect for primary flavours come joint first.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Even before the appetisers, we were presented with a complimentary amuse-bouche, consisting of a morsel of delicate salmon mousse, a tiny cup of barely warm potato soup and - the hands-down winner - a tempura shrimp. The salmon was pleasant while the soup was bland and of no real interest, but if a solitary shrimp can be described as memorable, this one surely was. It tasted as though it had been plucked from the ocean bed about 30 seconds earlier, the batter was perfection, crisp and light with not even a hint of oil, and if they had been on the menu I'd have cheerfully ordered a dozen of them as a main course.
Back to the appetisers. My companion ordered roasted green asparagus in its own juice with parmesan cheese and summer truffles. The asparagus tasted as though it had been steamed, and steamed a few minutes too long, the cheese and the smidgins of summer truffles added little to the mix, and, at Dh120, it would have been expensive at half the price. For main courses, we settled on the duck a l'orange with sesame seeds accompanied by potatoes spume, and the baked souli with citrus jus and shellfish, at Dh120 the cheapest of Al Fanar's seafood offerings.
The souli was described in brackets as a "small-tooth emperor" and, I was assured, it was a local fish, and had been a big hit since its recent debut on the menu. I'm not surprised. My two plump fillets were exceptionally good, cooked to juicy perfection and robust in flavour, which was just as well because the zesty citrus jus in which they were swimming would have been too much for a delicate species but worked perfectly with the souli. Highly recommended.
My companion's duck was also fine. It was served medium to medium rare, and while it could have been a mite more tender and would have benefited from a little seasoning, it was juicy, packed with basic duck flavour and the tried and trusted orange sauce complemented it nicely. The potatoes spume that accompanied the duck was, well, somewhat off the beaten track, and not altogether successfully so, unless you're partial to a large martini glass filled to the brim with a thin potato soup… in fact, it was highly reminiscent, in both taste and texture, of the lukewarm soup in the amuse-bouche.
Dessert was even more strange. I took a pass, but my companion, who had fond memories of a strawberry soup from his distant past, couldn't resist when he spotted it on the menu. What arrived wasn't a soup at all, rather a few thin slices of strawberry, accompanied by some quite good rice pudding and a couple of healthy scoops of pepper ice cream - another first for me. I'm still not quite sure if I actually liked it, but this was an ice cream that just about bit you back; the novel mix of flavours was almost hypnotic, and neither of us could stop eating it until it was all gone. It was an interesting end to an interesting evening, all complemented by some dazzling views of Abu Dhabi as the restaurant revolved at what I have to say was a fair old speed. From this height, even the lights of the gridlocked traffic looked good, particularly as we seemed to be moving faster than it was.
* Pete Burns Al Fanar at Le Royal Meridien, Sheikh Khalifa St, Abu Dhabi, 02 674 2020. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh614.80 without beverages. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National. Pete Burns is a nom de plume.