Having had an odd experience at an Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant recently where their sliced menu allowed you to combine your Hawaiian pizza with California rolls, it was a blessed relief to find myself at the rather more purist Toki. The new Japanese restaurant at the Hilton Abu Dhabi opened to very little fanfare in mid-November, which is surprising, given that it offers a much-needed shot of 21st-century buzz to the hotel's currently jaded culinary offerings.
There is an easy familiarity in its softly lit dark-wood interior, which probably comes from it being the sister restaurant to Wasabi, the lively downtown venue, most famous for having its own karaoke bar and manga comic collection, at the Al Diar Mina Hotel. Such a well-kept secret is Toki, that we were the sole customers for a good portion of the evening - something that would have been just as well if we had been looking for privacy, since the paper-thin walls (a classic Japanese interior design quirk, I know) mean that even whispered conversations travel as if conducted by loudspeaker.
The restaurant has several of those little rooms, outside which you must deposit your shoes before awkwardly twisting yourself into the sunken table well, plus a bunch of regular tables for those who cannot be bothered with the illusion of seclusion that the paper walls afford. A sushi bar to the right of the entrance is tended by a conscientious-looking chef. Several exceedingly friendly waitresses are on hand to escort diners to their tables and offer them lemongrass-scented cloths. It is all, as you would expect from a Japanese restaurant, nicely functional, and rather Zen-like.
The menu, conversely, is less so. Pages and pages of options including cold and hot starters, entrées, meat, fish, noodles, soup, vegetables and goodness knows that else. It helps if you have a vague understanding of Asian food or have half an hour to pore over its contents. Cleverly, though, Toki does have a nice "Sushi for Beginners" section, aimed at people for whom raw fish is the height of culinary daring.
It is not ground-breaking stuff. But then Asian food, or at least the kind that has been transported abroad, is at its best when done simply. California rolls and sashimi were both fresh and tangy. Some quibbling over the portion size (sometimes six slices of sashimi and nine California rolls are too much for one person to take on as a starter - could they make it with any less?) was dealt with efficiently. "No, but would you like us to pack up the rest for your lunch?" she replied. Problem solved.
A dish of seared scallops in teriyaki sauce was a triumph: the shellfish sweet and nutty and glazed with a delicately accented sauce - so much so that you could forgive the few too many seconds they had spent on the grill. Our choices of black miso cod and yakimuki beef in yakimuki sauce, were also spot-on. Far from being overwhelmed by the portions, the small piece of perfectly cooked fish in its caramel-like miso sauce was just rich enough without being sickly, and was rounded off by some crunchy, well-seasoned vegetables. While the slivers of beef, mixed with zingy spring onions and tossed in a sweet and sour sauce, were, ifnot exactly challenging, perfectly tasty.
Like its racier sister, Wasabi, Toki has the same buzzer system, so service is swift and efficient. It even has a loyalty card, allowing you to get money off your next bill - which is just as well, since, with the beef main course clocking in at Dh92 (inexplicably, more than the miso cod) it isn't cheap. By this point, there were shoes scattered liberally across the restaurant. Clearly, word of this centrally located, reliable and pleasantly staffed venue is spreading. And rightly so. Good dining options are scarce in this part of town, and Toki fills that gap admirably.
Toki, Hilton Corniche, Abu Dhabi 02 681 1900. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh411. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.