May 3, 2016 / Leave a Comment
Having experienced the first incantation of Enigma, the seasonally changing fine dining concept at Palazzo Versace that welcomes a new chef’s vision each three months or so, I was eagerly counting down the days to experience the next chapter.
Chef Bjorn Frantzen, of the eponymous Stockholm restaurant currently voted no. 31 on the World’s Best Restaurants list, has been chosen as Dubai’s new gourmet golden boy. This has bestowed Dubai with it’s first taste of Nordic cuisine, the school of cooking that has been so championed in culinary circles in recent years. It’s my first taste of Nordic fine dining too – and as I’m heading off for four days of Scandinavia’s best very soon, I’m keen to get a taste of what it’s all about.
From the moment you step into Enigma’s foyer area, you can see and smell the change in the air, hints of where the inspiration for Chef Frantzen’s menu may have come from. Gone is the extreme minimalism of Vanguard and in is the lush, soft, calming effect of the Nordic forest. Moss, leaves and bark are dotted around the restaurant (I’d liked to have seen much more though) highlighted by bronze accents and much to my delight, white tablecloths are back. Hooray! On the balcony, video of the northern lights plays, continuing the calming theme of the decor – one that is in direct contrast to the soundtrack. Be prepared for a rollicking retro rock and roll spectacular, with a little ABBA thrown in (just because that’s what Scandinavians do). I know because I endured a train journey in Oslo next to someone blasting ABBA so loud through his headphones that the whole cabin could sing along if they wished. Thankfully they didn’t.
A key difference between the outgoing and incoming guard – while Enigma take one was all about trying to push secrecy and mystery, maybe because a lot of Dubaiians won’t be used to this style of dining, take two is the polar opposite. You receive very cool booklets while dining that contain beautiful scenic imagery, details of the dishes, their ingredients and history, and the sketches Chef Franzen used to bring his creations to life. To be honest, as a seasoned World’s 50 Best/Michelin Starred restaurant diner, yes surprises are fun and please keep coming up with new things to excite us, but a need to shroud the whole thing in ‘mystery’ isn’t necessary. I’m more interested in techniques, innovation, quality of food and service – and most of us will have done some form of research on the venue and the menu before forking out what adds up to thousands of dirhams on a meal. So for me, I preferred this self-assured approach that just got on with things without unnecessary hype.
Our ‘Journey of a Nordic Chef’ begins with a trio of starters – the one we are instructed to eat first is our inaugural introduction to lingonberry for the night – ‘Apple & lingonberry macaron with foie gras & chervil’, and goes down a treat. Next was the ‘Oyster 63.3 degrees with granita of seabuckthorn, juniper cream & sprouted walnut’ for my seafood eating companion, and for lil’-seafood-free me, a creation that apparently emulates the taste of the former. I figure if so, I’m not missing out on anything by not being able to eat oysters – this one missed the mark for both of us. Completing the trio was ‘Tomato water “Golden Tea” served with carrot sphere, lemon verbena & grain mustard’. Pretty, but I could barely get this one down due to the perfume like quality of the verbena, and it was again a miss for our table.
Every degustation is bound to have it’s dishes that challenge you or don’t resonate – I almost expect this as part of the experience. Thankfully, ours were now behind us and the next courses knocked it out of the park. I’ll take you through my favourites from what followed. One of my favourites was up next – the ‘White moss “sushi” with deer, frozen bird’s liver, burnt hay & chanterelles’. A sizeable ‘bite’, we were instructed to eat it in one which, while a bit of a challenge, gave a huge mouthful of flavour. It felt like a maturation of the intense, savoury, umami flavour we first encountered in the lingonberry macaron. The mix of textures, the smoothness of the deer and chanterelle emulsion vs the crunch of the deep fried moss was superb. I could have eaten an entire plate of these, they were perfection. But alas this ain’t no Dubai brunch and there’s no ordering seconds – so onwards we hungrily go.
My standout dish of the night – this is an oh-my-god, ‘Top 10 dishes of all time’, ‘I’d go there just to eat that’, ‘Death row dinner’ dish. And it’s not even in the program as apparently they hadn’t decided on whether to include it! Seriously, I don’t want to live in an alternate universe where this dish wasn’t on the list. It arrives encased in the marble bowl that held my nemesis from the Vanguard residency – the foie gras-lychee creation that still haunts me. Hoping that this bowl now is going to deliver something as gorgeous as the vessel itself, we watch as the final touch is added at the table, the liquorice component.
The dish itself, a soup with three varying textures, is explained as onion, roasted almond and liquorice. Three of my favourite foods! It turns out onion + almond + licorice = perfection. Who knew? It’s this unassuming, quiet creativity that really shines in Nordic haute cuisine. It’s subtle, earthy and it’s brilliance just slowly sneaks up on you. This felt for me like a further development of the undescribable flavour note that I’d enjoyed in the macaron and deer sushi. It’s next level cooking – like how a comedian uses a recurring joke that develops through a set. I think this dish lies in the ‘Don’t try this at home’ category though, I have no idea how one would recreate this. And that’s what I look for when dining at this type of establishment – something I’d never be able to make myself. Which also breaks my heart though, as I want nothing more than to eat this dish over and over!
The knackebrod and butter that accompanied the stellar soup looked simple but tasted spectacular. A traditional Nordic crispbread baked twice a year, knackebrod was made with a hole in the middle so it could be stored hanging above the kitchen table. Unbelievably those two batches lasted a family all year! The butter was so good I was tempted to eat it by itself once I ran out of knackebrod, but restrained myself due to consideration for my elegant surrounds.
A highlight for meat lovers is the ‘”Hot-pot” – lamb served with cabbage, roasted cauliflower bouillon & truffles’. Seriously earthy and full of umami goodness, this is a rich yet delicate broth that lets the essence of each of the ingredients shine, but also combine in harmony. Delicious.
The dessert courses were a tale of two flavour cities – one I loved, one not so much. A highlight of the meal, the first dessert course was something truly spectacular that I devoured – ‘Sticky beetroot served with blackberries, frozen lingonberries, 100-year-old vinegar & liquorice mousse’. Our second visit to lingonberries and liquorice on our Nordic journey, this dish looked like a crime scene but truly tasted like heaven. The creamy whipped liquorice was almost like a sweet yoghurt base and the berries and beetroot worked together wonderfully.
The next dessert looked beautiful (no slasher aftermath here) but the taste just wasn’t for me. The ‘Smoked ice cream, roasted nuts, tar syrup & salted fudge with cloves’ was presented as a ‘melting sphere’ dessert that is so popular right now (I’ll really be happy when the world moves on from this one, it’s pretty overdone). This one however had a trick up it’s sleeve – the sphere contained smoke that escaped when the casing melted – just enough to set it apart from the masses. For me, smoke is just not a flavour I want in a dessert and it really was thoroughly soaked into this one. Add to it ‘tar syrup’ that did definitely have the consistency of tar, the unusual flavour of cloves, and the result was this was one that only had visual appeal for me.
We finished with a macaron just as we started the journey – this one being ‘Cloudberry & thyme with wild berries’, and it was just as delicious as the first. A nice bookend to Chef Frantzen’s Nordic storytelling and a great way to end the night. We weren’t altogether sure at this point whether the night had ended, as other tables had been served a sorbet dish frozen at the table – when we enquired after a good wait, we were told they had run out of liquid nitrogen and ours and another table would not receive this course. That was a little disappointing that we didn’t get to taste it, but also that we had to enquire as to why it never reached us.
So, should you pay upwards of 750dhs to experience Nordic haute cuisine in Dubai? I say yes. Enigma has matured with it’s second guest of honour and feels a lot more cohesive of an experience. It’s calmer, cooler, and has an air of rock’n’roll self asuredness. Unlike its predecessor, this line up has dishes that for me are unforgettable, and I’d love to eat again. That for me is the hallmark of a Michelin star worthy experience.