Rococo: an experimental experience

It's not sure if it's French or Italian, but Rococo in Dubai is confident in its gastronomic explorations.

It started with a simple query about the mystery ingredient in an amuse-bouche, a nugget of guinea fowl wrapped in a tortelli and floating on a creamy soup. Before we knew it, Enzo Neri had appeared at our table, still in his chef's whites, brandishing a muddied root vegetable as he explained the nuances of the Jerusalem artichoke. Rococo, as you may have guessed, is no ordinary restaurant. It opened last December in Jumeirah Beach Residence at the same time as the Sofitel it is situated in. Tucked away some distance from The Walk's main stretch, this elegant establishment has yet to be discovered by the masses, which is a great pity.

The restaurant lives up to its name in sumptuous style with deep purple walls, giant silver-framed mirrors, a shimmering crystal curtain at the entrance and a ceiling made up of swirling white ribbons "to represent tagliatelle", according to the charming French manager, Stephanie Digeon. Is it French or Italian? It doesn't seem quite sure; the design and name are evocative of the chain's French overtones, but the chef and dishes are decidedly Italian.

For our antipasti, we opted for seared king scallops on wilted spinach with a passion fruit sauce and sea bream carpaccio in baby cress with sun-blush tomatoes and ginger "air". The scallops were perfectly cooked, complemented brilliantly by the spinach and a beetroot mash, though less so by the passion fruit, which was decidedly odd. The sea bream had a delicious tang, thanks to that "air", which turned out to be a frothy foam with a real kick.

On to the next course and my tomato ravioli with mozzarella, rocket cappuccino puréed to a sort of pesto and roasted pine kernels was simply perfect. I was a little surprised to find the al dente ravioli virtually empty, instead swimming in its delicious buttery sauce, but our Umbrian chef Neri explained, on one of his many forays out of the kitchen, that as a former biomechanical engineer he approaches food with a scientific head to see what works. Though steering clear of the wackiness of molecular gastronomy, most of his dishes are a chemistry experiment to find the perfect marriage of ingredients or to turn traditional expectations on their head - hence my ravioli was all about the sauce rather than the filling. His passion and enthusiasm were so infectious that we found ourselves forgiving the dishes that failed to impress because the winners were so wonderful.

There were a couple of misses: my companion's cold tomato and watermelon soup looked like gazpacho but lacked any punch. Just as disappointing was the signature seafood tagliolini, which came with a smattering of chewy, overcooked lobster. I fared better with Mediterranean-style skate, a nicely cooked slab of fish on a bed of potatoes with a delicate flavour that just stopped short of being overwhelmed by its caper and olive dressing.

Neri recovered his form with the desserts, which were superb. The tiramisu was so rich it coated our mouths and left us temporarily unable to speak - quite a rarity. A light coffee granita on the side undercut its sweetness. The curls of crisp cannoli burst with nutty creaminess from their hazelnut mousse filling, but we still managed to find room for the delicate petits fours. While not all the dishes are a hit, Rococo is an unmissable gourmet-lovers' experience with inventive, elaborate dishes and the possibility of the chef popping up at your table to animatedly share his passion for cooking.

Rococo, Sofitel, Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dubai, 04 432 8456. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh585 without beverages. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.