Chef Francisco's Tasting Menu: Catalan - Rosewood Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Dinner at Catalan. The new menu awaits. But I start the evening with pre-dinner drinks, at La Cava, the finest wine bar in the city, and a natural place to begin my journey this evening. I walk down the spiraling staircase. There is a connection between La Cava and Catalan that transcends the Spanish connection in their names. Elegance, sophistication, ambience and...people. I sit down in one of the plush leather seats and close my eyes. The cool music in the background inspires relaxation. The concept is simple - Before dinner at Catalan, stop by La Cava. This can be arranged in advance. I experience my first tapas created by new Chef De Cuisine Francisco - Lomo Iberico, dry cured pork loin,  and Jamon Iberico, the finest acorn-fed pure breed Iberian ham, and Pa amb tomaqet, a staple and simple Catalan tapa of  bread, tomato, olive oil, salt.

The stunning interior at La Cava
 Isael, the down to earth Sommelier hailing from Brazil, pairs it with a New Zealand Wild Rock Cupid's Arrow 2012 Pinot Noir. It is an understated but robust Pinot Noir that dazzles by its surprising intensity. The ham is outstanding, but that goes without saying. The  gives me a first hint into Chef Francisco's hand - the Pa amb tomaqet is very delicately salted. My interest is piqued. After 45 minutes or so, I am guided to Catalan. As I walk, I reflect on the concept: Pre-dinner drinks at the in-house bar works particualrly well here ebcause of the intangible connection between the two outlets. It flows as easily as the Ebro on the Iberian Peninsula. There is nothing discordant about moving from La Cava to Catalan. 

The ceiling in Catalan. 
As we approach, the door is opened and Krystina warmly welcomes me back as if I had never been away. Memories of my last visit come flooding back. Relive it with me here: As she guides me to my table, Pablo Neruda comes to mind: 

No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio 

o flecha de claveles que propagan el fuego: 

te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras, 

secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.

Te amo como la planta que no florece y lleva  

On this my third visit, there is something different in the air at Catalan. Is it the spirit of former Chef de Cuisine Antonio emanating from the walls of Catalan that creates  a special feeling? Or, could it be, for that matter, the presence of Chef  Francisco, a few meters away in the kitchen. maybe it is in me, knowing I am back at one of my two best loved restaurants in the city. Or could it be the familiar smiles of Lorena and Eric, two servers who are lodged in my heart...Of course it is all of these, but there is something else...Love is in the air. Yes, for the first time, I see Catalan as a romantic choice for a couple either beginning their journey of love, or celebrating its permanence. Tonight the lighting is softer, while the music has  a more romantic note, so to speak, to it. I am seated at the window, with he waxing crescent visible.

dentro de sí, escondida, la luz de aquellas flores, 
y gracias a tu amor vive oscuro en mi cuerpo 
el apretado aroma que ascendió de la tierra.
Te amo sin saber cómo, ni cuándo, ni de dónde, 

I decide on Chef's tasting Menu with wine pairing. My evening starts with a trio of tapas which is served soon after an offer of sparkling water. As is customary at Catalan, my tapas are  presented on a marble-like stone fashioned into a flat 'plate'. It has three elements. I start with a cream of vegetable croquette, bursting with subtle flavour. The next one is all about opposites. Marinated sardines on a sweet biscuit. Finally, I have a mini version of a Spanish omelet - the high moment being a tomato jelly sphere on the inside! Delightfully surprising when I bite into it.

It is paired with the Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava which is such a good choice because it pairs well with most dishes. It has vey delicate beading and on sipping, is creamy yet crisp. Romance; the feeling again pops into my head. And it is more than just the influence of the bubbles.

With Pablo Naruda still on my mind, my next course. The Steamed cockles is a cold tomato based soup.The first taste reveals a silky texture. The next taste is all about the flavours. Red pepper and garlic sweep through my mouth, while there is a very subtle watermelon taste that also comes through. Chef's two drops of mint oil transform this dish even more. The steamed monkfish, despite the flavour extravaganza around it, retains all its natural appeal. However, for me it is  about the Andalusian tomatoes in this dish.

te amo directamente sin problemas ni orgullo: 
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,
sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres,

While I await my next dish, I notice Eric's interaction with a guest. The broad smile is there of course, but there is a relaxed feeling about him. By chance he comes over and tops up my water. The pouring is self assured. His tone of voice is indicative of tremendous growth as  a waiter. I don't know if you have experienced this as  a guest where you met a  waiter and you were able, over time, to see how he develops. It is a thrill. He asks after my daughter and remarkably remembers her favourite drink from South Africa! It is a moment when as a guest I feel so humbled that I can be waited upon by someone like Eric. All human.

The Carabinero Tartare is brought. As it is presented, I feel a  sensitivity in Chef that nearly overwhelms me. Yes, all from this dish. This is where writing fails at times to translate a chef's work in a way that reflects the skills in those hands and the mind that created it. However, one tries. While this dish is all about the prawn, I hope that chef will forgive me for praising the whole dish wirh some elements that simply make you gasp. Tomatoes. In different shades of red and yellow, catch the eye immediately. Onion is there, but not too much to take the attention away from the prawn. Macadamia nuts can be found  as crunchy pieces and also as  fine shavings. Finally, beetroot. Yes, beetroot, served as a mayonnaise. The genius of this dish is that when I try the prawn, I still get the prawn unadulterated and unspoilt by the other glorious parts of this dish. Then, in keeping with romance and love that is on the brain, there is a sprinkling of rose petals. A dish that you simply must have.

I have a glass of Sumarocca Gewürztraminer 2012, a wine from Catalunya itself, made from 100% gewürztraminer. It is light, fruity and fresh. A smooth finish.

The Comte & Zucchini Ravioli follows. Cream of zucchini wrapped in lightly roasted zucchini is accompanied by a comte cheese cracker. Delicious. When I say cream, I mean a lot. As I poke the Zucchini, the cream just seeps out. I cannot resist but to take some bread and scoop up some of that goodness. Not that it lacked it, but a piece of Iberian ham brings that final touch of completion to the dish. 

Comte & Zucchini Ravioli
I enjoy The Fenomenal 2013 from the Rueda region in Spain which  is uncomplicated, easy to drink with some citrus on the tongue. As I finish the course, I look out the window and focus on a fountain in the Rosewood garden, with the lights of Abu Dhabi's growing skyline in the background. The water in the fountain trickles. Nothing frenetic about it. The symbolism for this moment is clear. Tranquil. Romance. Love at Catalan.

Mar i Muntanya

tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía, 
tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño.

In preparation for the following course, I see a Riesling being readied. I am excited. Could it be foie gras, I wonder? One of the pleasures of  tasting menu is that one often gets a dish that is a variation of a menu item. It allows a chef's creative energy to run wild. This is my feeling as the Mar i Muntanya is presented. Translated, it means 'Sea and mountain'. There is a reason that the sea and mountain are so different geographically, so when I see a chef combining the land and the sea, I am always wary, but Chef Francisco dazzles with this dish. A rich bed of turnip cream finds itself as the creation that will hold together the sea and the mountain; a bridge if you will, connecting pan seared Palamos prawns, mushrooms and of course steak of foie gras. Impresionante!The roasted mushrooms are a beautiful counter foil for the natural tasting prawns, with the foie gras complemented by a Riesling, a Torres Waltraud Riesling 2012. What a dish.

Oven roasted seabass
I am quite content to move to dessert because I wanted to end on a high. However, the evening has to run its course if you excuse the pun. 

The Oven roasted seabass is served. On a side note, I think I will always associate seabass with Abu Dhabi because I have had a couple of outstanding dishes here. I had no idea that trend would continue. Lorena describes the dish as she places it in front of me. It is served on pistonat pasta and vegetable concassé. It really is pretty with the vegetable cubes perfectly complemented in presentation by the pasta. 

The seabass is cooked immaculately, and the added flavour and aroma from the ginger in the vegetable concassé drives the seabass. The dish confounds in an unimaginable way, for as I try the pasta and vegetable 'mix', I end up tasting mainly the vegetables which are crunchy. But you see the brain expects to taste the pasta. It is like dissonance between the brain and the taste buds. The same happens with the oyster leaf, which actually tastes like an oyster. Because the seabass is pan seared after being oven roasted, there is a beautiful texture to the skin, which belies the soft underneath. A memorable dish.

I drink a 2011 Bodegas Emilio Moro Ribero del Duero Finca Resalso. It is a bold choice that reflects the cutting edge approach to everything at Catalan. As a medium bodied red it actually goes superbly with the seabass. No more boring whites with fish. Cherries and black pepper make their way onto my palate. Smooth. 

I know, of course, that at some point, red meat will have to make its way on to my plate. Before that though, I have a chance to reflect on Lorena, a waitress who dazzled my 8 year old as much as she dazzled me with her down to earth and honest manner on the floor last time we were here. Her kind of honesty speaks volumes for her developing character and if she does not know the answer to a question, rather than try and hoodwink the guest, she goes to find out. And not knowing an answer is rare. It is a credit to her and the other waiting staff who learned the new menu so quickly.  

Red deer and daikon
Marinaded red deer is soon brought to the table. Exciting. Venison, as I pointed out in an unrelated blog, is not common on the menu in Abu Dhabi, but I would like to see more of it, especially if is is cooked the way Chef Francisco has done it. All evening I felt a subtle approach to quite a number of dishes with less salt than I would have expected and where the natural flavours of the ingredients were allowed to find their own voice. This dish confirms that Asian influence I felt. Red deer, marinaded in a sauce that ensures it is tender,  is plated with daikon ravioli. Also on the plate is some raspberry compote that brings a very mild sweetness; ever so slightly. I am happy to see that he has infused his dishes with some Asian touches. This was also the case with the ginger flavour that permeated the vegetables in the Oven Roasted seabass

The wine is, a Pas Curtei 2011 is, appropriately, the peace de resistance of all the pairings. It has  a deep red colour. It is a gorgeous blend of Merlot, Cabernet and Carinena. So, it is not surprising that it is intense and full, despite its youth. 

The beauty of the tasting menu is that the portions could not be more perfect, and when dessert comes, I do not feel bloated. For dessert, I have the Berry Melody and Crema Catalana

The Berry melody
Paired with the Berry melody.
The Berry melody is simplicity itself with  strawberry and rose ice cream and mascarpone mousse. Then blueberry and lemon soup is poured on to the plate, but it is done so well that it does not create turmoil with the presentation. Three words for you - rose ice cream. Trust me, all the elements come together as they should, but the rose ice cream is just silently delicious. In the midst of all the scintilating dishes, I am thrust back into the theme of Love. Rose ice cream. Roses. Clichéd. But that is the rose - a symbol of passion.

Crema Catalana
Accompanied my final dessert
The final dessert, a Catalan interpretation of a creme brûlée, is adventurous and of course, sweet. The top of the dessert gives a lovely crackle as I tap it, and a crunch as I try it. Chef balances the sweet and sour so deftly.  Fresh strawberries enhance that balance. Moreover, cinnamon brings a homeliness to the dish - memories of my mother's home-made puddings push themselves into my consciousness.The ultimate ingredient is the strawberry sphere that goes Pop! as I bite into it. Delicious tanginess bursts forth. 

Thus ended a night that ranks as my finest dining experience in Abu Dhabi. It was as if Catalan, through something simple like music and lighting, went from fine dining to romantic fine dining.  The service, with the waiting staff from a previous visit standing side by side, each unique and with different strengths, but oh so complementary to each other. However, it was the dishes that were infused with a vigour and youth that made the menu fun and exciting. 

Then of course, there was the Asian infusion that I perceived in some of the dishes. Such was the mood this night that Pablo Naruda kept creeping into my head. What Catalan showed me this night, apart from an inspired chef who will not dwell in the larger than life shadow of the wonderful Chef Antonio, but will win guests over with his own personality and plates, is that it is very much a place where romance can be celebrated. It is a romantic restaurant. At the end of  my evening, this sonnet by Naruda seemed a fitting way to close my thoughts:

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose or topaz
or arrow of carnations the fire shoots off:
I love you as certain dark things are loved,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant never blooms but carries
hidden within itself the light of those flowers,
and thanks to your love, darkly in my body
lives the dense fragrance that rises from the dark earth.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you simply, without problems or pride:
I love you in this way because I don't know any other way of loving
but this, in which there is no I or you,
so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand,
so intimate that when I fall asleep, it is your eyes that close. 

Imagine that special dinner here, cooked by Chef Francisco and you are waited on by Lorena and Eric; the lights perfectly dimmed with romantic Spanish songs in the background; a Cava's fine bubbles intoxicating you as you look at the glass; then you read this Naruda poem to her, go down on one knee, and with the eyes of 38 other guests on you and her, you ask her. She says yes.

The lowdown

Rosewood Abu Dhabi
02 813 5573


Chef Francisco's Tasting Menu 495 Dhs

Wine Pairing 275/375 Dhs

                                                                        Pictures thanks to Nokia Creative Studio on my Nokia 1520
Brandon Stoltenkamp