South East Asian at Sontaya - St. Regis, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi

The sea. The foam. The taste. The smell. The sheer power. Nature at its sensuous best. In Abu Dhabi we are not so lucky to experience the sea in all its glory, simply because of geography. However, on an island about 10 minutes from the city centre you will find the sea as perfect as it gets in this part of the world. Not quite Orff's 'Carmina Burana O Fortuna', but I will take it.

Sontaya can be approached from two sides on a wooden walkway, to the sound of rippling water. Water is a key symbol at this restaurant, notwithstanding the name Sontaya which means sunset.

The entrance of the restaurant
The restaurant  is minimalist and  modern. Rectangles and squares are evident, from the walkways, the restaurant itself, the tables, framing at the open kitchen, the horizontal beams on the ceiling, and more. All guests have views of water, be it the pools or the sea. There is harmony in the restaurant, hardly surprising since the elements of earth, wood, water, metal and fire (the sun in Sontaya) are all here in considerable amounts. Water is symbolic of so many things, but here it is about tranquillity, innocence, purity. Apart from the water that is visible from many points of the restaurant, there is also the powerful sea that can be best appreciated from the terrace. 

Even the open  kitchen conveys modern and contemporary.
You will love the symmetry in the inside dining area.
There is an undeniable charm and romance about Sontaya at night. As I sit down, a poem that floats into my mind. It is a childhood poem, "It is a beauteous evening" by Romantic William Wordsworth that forces its way into my consciousness. So appropriate. I share an excerpt here.

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun,
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in tranquility.

If ever words were meant for a moment, this is the moment.

With the sun setting, the sounds of water and the smell of the sea, I can't help feeling that Champagne is the most appropriate way to celebrate nature's majesty this night. In such a romantic setting it would be sacrilege not to indulge, but I chat to the bar man Dan and ask if him if he has something exciting to offer with bubbly, without ruining the South East Asian tone. He suggests a Mautika, a lemon grass inspired bubbly drink. Sounds exciting, and I go for it. Uluvka Vodka infused with saffron, lemongrass and  a bit of lemon all topped up with Louis Roederer Brut - and for sweetness, litchi on a  cocktail stick. Now I like my bubbly unspoiled, but my adventurous spirit on the night is rewarded. I like it. 
Dan and the theatre of bubbles. 
The Mautika, a perfect choice for Sontaya.
I start with a tasting platter of South East Asian favorites - Vietnamese seafood springroll, Prawn cake, Pandan fried chicken and Australian Wagyu beef satay. The fried chicken wrapped in pandan leaf is offered with a soy sauce reduction. The satay too gets another dimension as it is enjoyed with peanut sauce. Doubly tasty.

My final starter is the Cold seafood platter. It turns out to be one of my dishes of the night. Poached seafood including scallops, octopus and prawn on a bed of grilled aubergine, sweet basil cress, green curry mousse and basil dust. This dish, more than any other other, shows why Sontaya is different to most Southeast Asian restaurants in the city - there is an adventurous fusion approach to many of the dishes by Chef and his team. The sweet basil cress, by the way, is grown at St Regis. A definite recommendation. 
Cold seafood platter
This is my second visit to Sontaya, and as was the case the last time, the service is friendly, conversational and prompt. Mona, the waitress, has just the right balance between doing the basics and engaging. She has a good ability to anticipate needs. The problem with dining al fresco is that one is often forgotten and service usually slacks, but not here.

For my main course I consciously seek out two dishes with different voices. For someone like me, strong tastes and robust flavors have always been my comforts, but I guess that age as well as my love for Japanese cuisine have given me an appreciation for more subtlety. I explain to Mona what tastes I am looking for.

Stir fried seafood
While I wait, I look up at the sky and I actually see stars. Readers outside of the UAE might think this hardly warrants a mention, but unless you are in the desert, it is hard to see stars. My night just got better as I have another glass of Champagne, this time on its own. Mona brings my dishes, and they could not be more contrasting. First, there is the Stir fried seafood which is made up of stir fried tiger prawn, scallop and red snapper  with Thai sweet basil and chili paste. It is the last ingredient that defines this dish. It is certainly robust. 

 The second is a slight variation of  a menu item. I had requested something as natural as possible. My expectations are eclipsed. I am served the Steamed sea bass fillet with asparagus, carrots and Chinese cabbage. The lemon and chili dressing which is usually poured over the fish, is given on the side. I don't even touch it. The fish is so beautiful. Sea bass as you know is a mild flavored fish, but having it steamed and enjoyed with no dressing allows one to focus on every morsel of taste that is there. It is my dish of the evening. 

Nature celebrated.
For dessert I ask Mona to surprise me. And she does surprise me indeed. A plate with candy floss is brought to me (regular readers of my blog - do you remember where else this happened?). This is where drama takes over. Being  a drama queen myself, I am brimming with excitement to see what is underneath. With warm coconut milk in hand, she pours it over the candy floss. Trust me, the pic here does not come close to capturing the thrill of watching. As the candy floss melts away, all is revealed...Well that would spoil it for you, so I am not telling you. Suffices to say, it is a dessert that shows the vision of Sontaya to respect the past but to allow a chef's creative spirit to run wild. How did it taste? One of my top 5 desserts in Abu Dhabi. 

In the distance I can see feint light from the half moon reflecting from the sea. It is a scene made for introspection. Dinner was magical, but again it was more than the food. I realise that so many of the virtues we seek in life and expounded by the poets were with me this night. The passion shown by the Dan as he talked to me about my drink. The intensity of some of the flavors. The joy emitted from Mona. The tranquility from the surrounding water. 

And as I left Sontaya, I looked back over the ocean in the distance. This time it was Shelley who filled my mind. Here follows the first verse of 'Unfathomable Sea". 

Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality. 

It is the most amazing feeling when something as simple as a meal can evoke so much thought. That it can inspire so many reflections of beauty. That was my evening at Sontaya, not the sun setting, but the awakening of passion.

The low down

The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort,
Abu Dhabi
971 2 498 8888

Starters 25-145 Dhs
Mains 70-245 Dhs
Desserts 20-45 Dhs

A more detailed article which focuses on the Louis Roederer Brut I enjoyed this night will appear in next month's Glass of Bubbly magazine.

Pictures thanks to Nokia Creative Studio on my Nokia 1520

Brandon Stoltenkamp