February 20, 2016 / 1 Comment
Enigma – a new seasonal restaurant concept at Palazzo Versace that will change chefs and menu every three months. The current chef is Quique Dacosta of the three Michelin starred restaurant of the same name in Denia, Spain. We got wind of this impending arrival late last year and had been thinking about booking since – the hope of legitimate innovative Michelin star style cuisine coming to Dubai had me rather excited! If you don’t want spoilers, feel free to stop here. If you want the a more in depth run down on the meal, then read on.
We arrived at Palazzo Versace after much chatter enroute about what we hoped the night will bring. While we waited on a guest still to arrive, we asked to be seated somewhere we could have a cocktail first, and were lead to an outdoor terrace overlooking the creek. A fun cocktail list greeted us and we enjoyed our drinks while speculating on where the restaurant dining room would be and what it would be like…our thoughts mainly revolved around, ‘dark’. When we were ready to be taken to our table, we were lead inside to be seated in a brightly lit room adjoining the terrace, with bare tables and just two diners in one corner. We were left a bit perplexed that this stark, bright room was infact the dining room?
We were soon delivered a very pretty ‘rose’ and a drink to accompany. Poised to dive in, more waiters then started swarming the table with an assault of dishes. In the end, the table was laden with four different dishes. Having all these dishes delivered at once didn’t really seem to make sense – the flavours didn’t complement each other, and in fact detracted from the tastes as they clashed going from dish to dish. I would have loved to have had the time to think about, taste and savour each course one by one so they could each shine individually.
So on to these first courses. The drink accompanying the rose was similar in flavour to the rose and very sweet, too sweet for me – a theme that certainly ran through the night, everything seemed to have an undercurrent of sweetness. The highlight dish out of the four was the twigs and leaves – mushroom (apparently) magically turned into something that tasted like and looked like pork crackling! This dish was playful and tasty. I left at least half of the other two dishes however which is so strange for me as I am normally trying to lick the plate clean.
Onwards we went on the journey – the gazpacho was presented beautifully, and the ‘egg’ dish with it’s accompanying ‘note’ was nice. Next came a dish that caused some debate at the table. This dish was introduced as being 15 years old, so clearly many have loved it over the years. Sadly our table was not among those, with only our resident Frenchie finishing it – all four other dishes were taken away 80% full. I could only manage a few bites, but I’ve heard others thought it was fabulous. It was certainly pretty! The dish featured (among many flavours) foie gras, lychee and mint. I had eaten foie gras four times in the preceding week in Shanghai, so certainly that is not an ingredient that makes me nervous – but this combination was just really not for me. But hey, it happens in degustation menus.
The ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ dish I had heard was a visual highlight, and was delivered by a waiter with the iconic ‘Bull head’ you have probably seen in photos. I did love that mask, very cool. It was at this course that the waiter explained that the dining room was actually supposed to be quite dark and not at all the very bright room that we were seated in, which made much more sense with what we were expecting. It seems an issue had occurred with the electrics that day and so the usual lighting setup was not working. If it was me, I probably would have rushed out and found every candle possible instead of turning on all the lights, so as to deliver as much of the intended atmosphere as possible. So for us the theatrics and mystery of this dish were somewhat missing.
Possibly my favourite dish was the ‘forest floor’. A very beautiful display of greenery and moss arrived with smoke flowing all around, very atmospheric. I would have loved for the centrepiece display to have had an edible element, but it was certainly fun and cool looking. The plated dish that accompanied was earthy and tasty – I loved that as you ‘fossicked’ through the dish you found little delicate surprises. This dish was a winner in my books.
Next the pigeon risotto – this ended up being the ‘main’ of the night, and a nice progression on the earthy theme. Everyone enjoyed this course, more substantial than the previous courses and smoky in flavour. On reflection however at the time we were awaiting something….really….meaty. The menu was very light on meat, I did feel at the time that I was waiting for a beautiful meat course or two, even though I absolutely love vegetarian dishes (there was a quite a bit of seafood though). It felt like we never got…there. My favourite part of a song is the bridge…and this meal, well it was missing a ‘bridge’. That interesting turn, that standout dish that just makes you go, ‘yes!’, I want more, I would come back to eat just that.
All too soon we were finished with the savoury experience, and were on to dessert. The dessert featured lychee again, and was nice, but not really my cup of ‘dessert’ tea. One more small dessert bite followed to complete the dinner.
We mentioned to the staff at the end of the night that we had anticipated a few more courses, and were informed that what we were served for the first course, was in fact the first four courses joined into one. The reasoning behind this was that some previous customers who were served the original extended experience had gotten up and left due to the meal taking too long (I mean, who does that?). The sad thing is that this change of experience from what the chef had presumably planned resulted in a less enjoyable experience than if these dishes had had their own moment to shine. At least we would have liked to have been given an option to experience the original menu format.
Certainly this was a meal that got us talking, and I suppose that is an achievement in itself. The hot topic of discussion was – is it possible to transplant a three michelin star concept into the market that is Dubai, with all of it’s unique challenges, and deliver that very elite level of experience (especially in a popup)? For a start, obviously pork and alcohol ingredients are off the menu. Add to that the management changing the format so quickly to deliver what they felt the Dubai market was looking for by shortening the experience, and maybe not looking for other solutions to ensure the dining ambience was consistent and in keeping with the concept of the restaurant (the bright lights!!). I feel we may have caught them on an awkward night, and not had the same experience as those that dined on opening night or the first week. For a lower price point, I may not have minded so much. But at top dollar, all these little things add up to delivering the full experience you expect, eagerly await and pay for. I look forward to hearing the announcement of the next chef and to see what he has in store for Dubai…good on Palazzo Versace for pushing the boundaries with something innovative. I will eagerly watch the maturation of the Dubai dining scene and I’d love to see Dubai restaurants mentioned in the World’s 50 Best in the years to come.