It was the smell that hit us first: a sort of pungent charcoal aroma of charred wood which invaded our nostrils and refused to evaporate. One question ran through our minds as our noses twitched: had there been a fire in the kitchen? Apparently not - further investigation and sniffing of everything on the table revealed it was the orange-leather-bound menus, which, the waiter told us, had just come back from the printers three days earlier with the new improved offerings.
We decided that the whiffy menus at Maya in Le Royal Meridien on Jumeirah Beach were forgivable if the food was up to scratch, and settled into making our selections. One of a chain of 12 - and the only one outside the US - this restaurant bears the name of the Mexico City-born Richard Sandoval, who has been pioneering gourmet Mexican cuisine since 1997. His Dubai outlet is approached via a pleasant meander through winding paths strewn with fairy lights, which end in a beautifully lit terrace, packed with tables and exuding a convivial air of bonhomie.
Unfortunately the outdoor dining section was booked for the night and we were instead shown to an inside table. We could have been in a different restaurant. With only a couple of tables filled, the interior was sombre and hushed, despite the cheery Latin American tunes being piped in the background. The menu, though, promised to pack a punch with flavoursome, fiery dishes such as huachinango a la veracruzana (pink snapper fillet with capers, bell pepper and onions in a spicy tomato broth) and enchiladas de pollo (corn tortillas with free-range chicken, Oaxaca cheese, chile guajilo sauce and sautéed vegetables).
Our palates were stimulated by the green tomato salsa that accompanied the perfectly crisp corn tortilla appetisers. Unfortunately, though, it had a slightly odd aftertaste. Unable to choose between starters, we chose a sharing platter made up of any three dishes. The ceviche de camaron was tantalisingly tangy with juicy, plump seafood infused with a delicious viscous concoction of lime juice and habanero chilli, contrasting wonderfully with creamy, generous chunks of avocado.
The ceviche de hammour came a close second, the two hits masking the disappointment of a bland third option, quesadillas tradicionales, which were crispy corn masa, or dried corn dough, stuffed with squash, courgettes, Oaxaca cheese and poblano chilli on a bed of black bean purée with salsa. Although very prettily presented, the three parcels were tasteless, the filling lumpy and the beans oversalted.
Undeterred and encouraged by the freshness of the seafood, I opted for a main course of mariscada, a veritable mêlée of shrimps, calamari, scallops and octopus served on a bed of coriander-scented rice with achiote and coconut sauce, while my companion went for the more traditional beef fajitas. My mariscada arrived on a reassuring mountain of rice and the chef had not skimped on seafood - there were far from measly helpings of octopus and scallops. Unfortunately the latter had been scorched within an inch of their culinary lives, rendering them chewy and tough, while the shrimps, octopus and rice tasted of nothing.
However, I can only assume it was an off day for the chef. When I returned a week later for a seafood platter lunch, it was cooked to perfection. The scallops were delicate morsels coated in a zingy barbecue sauce, plump lobster tails came with a little pot of melted butter (and a large helping of guilt) and the paella-style rice they were served on was a meal in itself. Consistency is essential in the restaurant business, though, and my first experience of the Dh155 mariscada had left me feeling cheated - and hungry.
My companion fared better with the fajitas de carne, a sizzling platter of aromatic, tender strips of rib-eye steak laden with bell peppers and onions, with generous portions of trimmings, including a heap of warm tortillas and bowls of guacamole and salsa. The portions were equally ample on the desserts, the tres leches, three dairy-based desserts on a platter, and the chocoflan, a caramel and chocolate tart with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
While the battered custard-like log in the tres leches combo was not pretty, the blueberry compote was delicious - not too tart with the sweetness of the fruit undercut by a creamy mousse. The zingy cinnamon ice cream was the best thing about this choice and, sadly, the chocoflan failed to impress. Maya is an ambitious restaurant that attempts to combine bold flavours with dazzling presentation. Stick to an outside table and the freshly barbecued meat and seafood options and you stand a better chance of enjoying that viviente atmosphere.
Maya, Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa, Dubai, 04 399 5555. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh530. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.