When it comes to restaurant options in Abu Dhabi, the world is your oyster. Or your oyster mushroom, if you really aren’t feeling the seafood.
Such variety can sometimes leave your belly empty and mind full of indecision as you chew over what to have for dinner. Mexican? Italian? Something more regional? The medley of menus can be tricky to navigate, but Graphos Social Kitchen at Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island aims to provide diners with a map that begins at the door and leads through a maze of cooking stations where dishes from around the world are prepared.
What to expect and where to sit
The vast indoor dining space is divided into about a dozen sections, creating the feeling that the restaurant is still a cosy place to eat. As I am led through the double doors, there are small tables on the right, with wooden chairs and longer tables with cushioned seating, all arranged under low-hanging colourful lanterns. There is also a curtained area where diners can eat in privacy.
Outdoor seating is available near the hotel pool, and seems to be a popular spot on the evening I visit. But I am led to a table near the middle of the restaurant that offers a view of a fountain outside, and a clear run at the maze of cooking stations.
Graphos operates as a buffet-style restaurant during its breakfast and dinner services – lunch is a la carte – with dishes prepared in small kitchens dotted around the centre of the space. They are separated by geography, with eastern and western cuisine meeting at the salad bar.
Given the variety of food on offer it is advisable to take a gastronomic gambol through the buffet maze to help map out your personal menu. My first steps take me past an East Asian station with vegetarian sushi and tuna sashimi on display, opposite the delightfully colourful salad spot.
Ahead of me lies a selection of house beverages, priced up and arranged on a central table, and an area devoted to all manner of breads. There is also a “children’s section”, complete with cupcakes, doughnuts, jars of marshmallows and sprinkles, and a chocolate fountain.
Restaurant manager Shemeer is on duty and introduces himself with a playful quip that all guests are free to use the fountain, because “there is no age limit here”. He steers me towards the eastern half of the restaurant, where I find hot mezze, such as crispy kibbeh, and mains including Arabic mixed grill, lamb curry and pad Thai, with chefs ready to serve me a plate.
Meanwhile, my dining partner’s culinary compass points west towards a station where the component parts of a classic roast dinner are being prepared – the lamb and chicken are cut and plated by the chef on duty – as well as two pasta dishes. Slices of aubergine are cooking away on a grill, creating a delightful sizzle and reminding you the dishes are made fresh.
At the western frontier of the buffet space is a large assortment of desserts. All are arranged on a variety of small stages – from wooden boxes to a bird cage cake stand – and vie for the spotlight as diners pass by. The raspberry almond slices are among the more delectable options at first glance. Clear glass panels separate the sweets from guests, preventing me from snatching a couple to sample as I make my way back to my table.
An issue with buffet-eating is that food is often plated by the guest, preventing chefs from assembling dishes that are a feast for your eyes, as well as your Instagram followers. At Graphos, staff fill the plates for you, but portion sizes are still much at the whim of the customer. There is also a strong temptation to mix and match dishes as you pass by – you can combine potato harra and pasta in tomato sauce simply to save yourself a second trip.
That may place a greater burden on the restaurant to deliver on taste, but it hits the mark with some well-prepared offerings. The freekeh with roast chicken was pleasantly flavourful – and the portion of meat was generous – but I found myself returning for another helping of dal palak that, while understated, was packed with flavour and went down a treat.
The lemon mint avocado shooter from the salad station also deserves a mention. It provides a light, refreshing start to a meal and is served in a shot glass, making it fun to drink and allowing you either to sip it or gulp it down before heading back to choose a main.
A chat with the chef
John Buenaventura, executive chef at Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island, has worked mostly in the UAE, including almost two years at the hotel in Yas Bay. Originally from the Philippines, he follows the culinary tenets that food should be “simple, straightforward and nostalgic”. He describes the Graphos menu as “familiar” and says the restaurant’s east-meets-west concept is designed to give guests a “homey feeling when dining”.
Value for money and contact information
Graphos charges Dh120 ($30) a person for the breakfast buffet; Dh145 for lunch, and Dh190 for dinner. That may leave your wallet feeling lighter, but the sheer variety of dishes and potential for several helpings mean you probably won’t.
Graphos Social Kitchen is open from 6.30am to 11pm. For reservations, call 02 208 6900.
This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant