John Stone Dinner at Stratos - Le Royal Meridien, Abu Dhabi

It has been a a phenomenal 6 months for the relaunched Le Royal Meridien. The changes that have taken place go deeper than the airy lobby and  the refurbished rooms. There is an energy about the hotel, and this is felt intensely in their F&B outlets where their restaurants continue to challenge the old order. It is never easy, no matter how good your marketing department, to convince people that they are not offering the same approach to dining as the hotel's pre-relaunch days. It takes time, but they are winning. It is not fair to single out any one person, but Executive Chef Justin Galea has infused the restaurants with a passion for the best of everything - one has to admire this.
The decadent setting that is Stratos
Having had the pleasure of dining with Chef Justin at Amalfi shortly after its reopening, I could see that passion. That night he talked with fervor about some of the exciting ingredients and products on the menus. One of the things he was very lyrical about was Irish grass fed beef. Then already, I found it interesting because we were in a restaurant culture where American and Australian beef are the default choices. That was the 26th of May. 

Allan Morriss, MD of John Stone. 
Chef Justin, a blowtorch and a coffee maker.
This night is a special night for the hotel as Stratos*, the hotel's ultra chic revolving Lounge Bar&Grill,  hosts the Managing Director of John Stone, Alan Morriss. John Stone is a name that has been inextricably linked to fine grass fed and dry aged Irish beef for more than four decades. It is not a night for vegetarians and as I look at the menu, I see four courses of beef!

John Stone Steak American
We start off with the John Stone Steak American, which is basically beef tartare. But with Chef Justin in attendance, I know I can expect a  twist or two. One of the key elements in a  good tartare is that it should keep its shape nicely, and the dish that sits in front of me does exactly that. The choice of tenderloin ensures that the end result is firm and not mushy. The tartare finds itself on a bed of red pepper pureé with other delightful ingredients there to bring about that complexity. As I try it, the first word that comes to mind is intense. The red peeper pureé gives the tabasco a rounder taste, so it is not simply spicy. This allows me to appreciate the beef without it being overpowered by the tabasco. Finally, the poached quail egg brings a different texture to bear on the dish. A fantastic starter!
Creating the sauce for the slow cooked sirloin
Slow cooked John Stone Sirloin
Now, four courses of beef could be a challenge for even the hardiest of meat eaters, but the next dish scuppers that fear because it is sirloin with an Asian take. This is a dish that really showcases Chef Justin's creative and passionate energy - Slow cooked John Stone Sirloin. Were I to go into detail, this piece would need another 400 words. Suffice to say in this dish we watch as Chef uses an old style Kona coffee maker to create a sauce that while rich in tastes, is still so subtle in the end, allowing us to still taste and appreciate the Sirloin.

In the sauce, Chef has sliced truffle as well as added white truffle pureé, quail egg, langoustine, XO sauce and dashi stock amongst others. A highlight for me is Chef's use of wood sorrel, something akin to cress I guess that brings  a lemony taste. This is a very Asian dish, notwithstanding the many ingredients. It remains subtle with nothing overpowering. This is illustrated by the fact that he does not use salt in the dish. Instead, he uses dehydrated olives to bring a hint of saltiness to bear on the dish. As for the beef, well, sirloin has a denseness I have come to enjoy. It has a tight texture and much beefier taste than the tenderloin. The delicate flavours on the plate really accentuate the beef.

The wine for the evening, A Norton Collecion Varietales Mabec 2013 does not quite meet the level of the supreme John Stone beef. Of course, restaurants are also about balancing books, but I cannot help thinking a Bordeaux wine would be an excellent accompaniment. I find this Malbec not full enough and also too young. Memories of a South African wine I had  a week ago come flooding back to me: the Meerlust Rubicon. Or even a Pomerol would really have done the  beef justice.
Next time, I hope.

As I wait for my next course, I have a chat with Allan Morriss who sees the education of diners as the key to getting more restaurants to try Irish grass fed beef. It is after all,  a more sustainable option, something relevant in today's world. Abu Dhabi has some excellent steakhouses, but a look at their menus will reveal a one dimensional focus. I think chefs know how good Irish beef is, but your average guest does not. Therein lies the issue. With the climate that Ireland has, allowing the ideal place for grass to grow, you have cows with no shortage of grazing possibilities. There is something obviously natural about cows feeding on, wait for it, grass!

Our musings are cut short with the presentation of the 3rd course, the John Stone Rossini - Beef Rossini, a dish that was apparently created by French master chef Marc-Antoine Careme for music composer Gioachino Rossini. Chef Julian could have been tempted to really put his mark on a dish like this by outrageously changing it, but he does not. Sometimes tradition is good, and a dish is well left alone. This is my dish of the night. The Anna potato could not have been cooked better. The gently sauteéd spinach too, while soft, has not lost its flavour through over sautéing - brilliant. As for the foie gras sitting atop the gorgeously pink coloured beef, it too is just right. The beef? Exceptional -  Slow cooked for 3 1/2 hours and then  lightly seared, giving it a dynamic colour contrast and texture of course.  Finally, a generous and flavorful sea of  truffle jus (What else?) is what holds all these seemingly incongruous elements together. Magnifique!

Beef Rossini
Going for the 4th course is going to be challenging after that memorable Rossini. The Roasted John Stone Rib of beef is served. There is no plating this time. Chef ends his beef courses on a homely note. Chef Justin believes in evoking memories when he cooks, and this dish does lives up to that.  Sundays at home, 3500 miles from here in Johannesburg. My mother. Hence, no plating. Keeping it real and smile. I like it. What I enjoy most about the beef is how it plays a trick with my brain. I see this pink coloured piece of meat and when I try it, I get that charcoal taste my brain associates with meat well done on the BBQ grill. Again, I like it. The side dishes, it must be added, are very good, with the Shitake Mushrooms and Spinach salad with Roquefort in particular, standing out.

This evening was as much about John Stone as it was about Chef Justin. Allan Morriss would agree that as good as his beef was, it was the chef that really brought it to life on the plate. It was an evening in which the relationship between a product and the chef was really driven home. It takes only a few seconds for a chef to take a fine sirloin and ruin it. That was not the case tonight. Perfectly cooked. A very personalized dining experience full of drama and theatre. Images of Chef with his blow torch and coffee make will stay with me a long time. As beef eaters in the capital are encouraged and taught to open themselves to the obvious strengths of Irish grass fed beef, I look forward to walking into a steakhouse and being given a genuine choice of beef, not just the ubiquitous American and Australian brands. The Irish cows are coming, and you are going to love them.

The low down


Le Royal Meridien,
800 101 101
John Stone:

Watch this space for a full review of Stratos*. 

Brandon Stoltenkamp