Wine Dinner at Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill - Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi

Wine dinners seem to be the next frontier for high end restaurants and are becoming more popular. Discerning guests familiar with a particular restaurant and have a certain loyalty to that restaurant are willing to pay a premium for an intimate evening of signature dishes and a well chosen wine maker whose wine will be showcased on the night. This is a growing trend. For this to work though, the venue is key. Thanks to key suppliers in the city, bringing in a wine maker that evokes interest is not the issue. Having an intimate space is paramount.

For Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill, not having wine dinners would be a cruel injustice. Its fine reputation as one of the top steakhouses in the city as well as a general acceptance that it offers a wine list that most restaurants cannot compete with. In fact, Wine Spectator has awarded the restaurant The Best of Award for Excellence, two wine glasses, for having an outstanding wine list. Context? It is one of only 883 such winners worldwide, and one of only two winners in the U.A.E. Therefore, you can appreciate my sense of anticipation, when I attended the second wine dinner of their current season. Having missed out on the Klein Constantia dinner celebrating one of South Africa's best winemakers, I was pleased not to pass on this one.

On arrival, I am shown to the terrace that is used by Chameleon, the bar/lounge at the Fairmont. I find myself standing outside on a warm but pleasant Autumn night, with a view of the canal, while sipping on a 2012 La Foret Bourgogne Blanc from the Joseph Drouhin Domaine - in Abu Dhabi. It is all surreal. Mainly citrus and later tropical fruits make this a perfect start to the evening. Bear in mind of course that the temperature is still around 29 degrees. The wine is fresh and crisp, easy to drink and uncomplicated. 

Sommelier turned Restaurant manager , Oskar Skoog (he also manages Frankie's at The Fairmont), moves around checking to see if everyone has arrived. The benefit of having a  small guest list is immediately driven home. Having checked, he announces that we are ready to go inside for the main event. By the time we move, I have already engaged with a few guests from fields as diverse as law and teaching English. Wine dinners that are intimate as this, lend themselves to this experience.

Surprising warm notes. 

Marco Pierre White is not your typical steakhouse, with none of the masculine cliches that are typical of steakhouses. The tan leather chairs are symbolic of this. On first impression, I find the restaurant warm and inviting. Yellows and oranges  emphasize that feeling. And of course there is the oft- written about back wall flame. It will do nicely, I think. Notwithstanding this though, we are shown to the private dining area. A quick count shows that including Jolana Novotna, the wine maker's Export Director, the restaurant manager and myself, we are a group of 12. In my opening, I alluded to an essential part of a  successful wine dinner - the venue - well his could not be more intimate. One table.

We are introduced to Jolana who gives us a bit of background to the wine. Her tone is informative,  conversational and anecdotal - a  real pleasure listening to her describing a 73 acre wine estate that has been operating since the late 1800s. You can read about Joseph Drouhin here:

Wine dinners walk a fine between sharing knowledge without overwhelming guests with academia. Not everyone who attends a wine dinner is an aficionado! Moreover, we are, after all, primarily sensual beasts, and in view of that, our first course, Seabass Carpaccio, is served. This is a dish that enthralls as much as it surprises. From the specially prepared menu I expect the chili and lime taste, but there are some wonderful flavours that bring a  smile to my face. Coriander and soy make it a delicious starter, but for me it is the shiso that really elevates it. Such a  simple dish that is packed with enough elements to assault the palate. Bravo!

Seabass carpaccio. 
With our pairing, we are spoiled. We are served both the 2007 and 2012 Rully Cote Challonnaise Villages. The perspective this affords me allows me to appreciate the virtues of each of these wines. The 2012 is a good young wine and should be enjoyed as such. It is creamy and surprisingly delicate; not heavy at all. The 2012, on the other hand, is predictably smoother, fresh and obviously more complex. It has aged quite well.
Quail & foie gras
Next up, the Quail & foie gras is brought. But this dish starts to work its culinary magic before it is placed in front of me -  I pick up three distinct aromas as it is presented. My interest is piqued. I find it rich and sensuous - a story, if you will,  of foie gras and '2 quails'. The leg and breast of the quail offer a contrast of the subtle and robust. The breast is a lot more delicately flavored while the leg is saltier and also differs texturally - it is crispier. The perfect foil for these is the foie gras on its bed of eggplant chutney. Apple and onion are also discernible. Finally, pistachio praline brings some more sweetness but also crunch. Exceptional.

The wine, a 2011 Gevrey Chambertin Villages, is a classic Burgundy - good aromatic notes, deep rich ruby red colour - like a Pinot Noir, but better. A fine choice.

Meanwhile, the tone for the dinner continues to be set by Oskar, who in-keeping with a number of sommeliers I have had the pleasure of meeting in Abu Dhabi, is very humble and cares about people simply enjoying their wine. He chats with his guests in his dual role of manager and sommelier in a very direct and accessible manner. He shares with guests how his daughter's middle name reflects his favorite wine region! As a father who dotes on his own daughter, I value his approach to share his soul with his guests. Now, would this work if the restaurant were  to host a wine dinner for 50 or so people? No. The tone would be very different. 

Red wine poached Venison
The course that follows stirs excitement. Venison always does, with me anyway, because it is still unusual on local menus. While a good piece of tenderloin is more succulent and certainly more tender than the venison, venison, if cooked well, can make for a welcome departure. The Red Wine Poached Venison  is served, and as was the case with the Quail and Foie gras, the aroma has already made an impression. That impression lingers as I try it. The venison is soft and despite the obvious lack of fat, is flavousome. Mushrooms, carrots and a delicate sweetness from the onions, together with black truffles do something amazing to the jus that dominates the dish. Then, finally, the smoked potato pureĆ© softens it all with its colour and more subtle but sophisticated taste. A winner. 

Again, we are treated to two wines. The first is a 2008 Clos de Mouche Beaune Premier Cru. It too has a rich deep red colour with initial notes of cherry. This wine is quite full considering it is so young. I imagine in a few years from now it will be even more superior.  The second is  a 2008 Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru which is another gorgeous red colour, but deeper and more complex.  We are told it will age even better. It offers very solid tannins. This is my favourite wine of the night!

By the time dessert is served, I am torn as to whether or not have it. The aftertaste in my mouth of the exceptional Charmes Chambertin and that flavourful venison has me in two minds. The Millefeuille is placed in front of me and all vacillating is resolved - I will have it. It is paired with a 2009 Muscat De Riversaltes. For me there is a playful charm about this dessert. Banana, rum and raisin flavours and toasted nuts are underneath a crispy circle of pastry. I cannot help, like a child, to peer underneath while Oskar talks to all the guests. I smile. Again, the purpose of dining comes through - memories. Happy memories evoked. Meanwhile, the dessert wine chosen works immaculately because it is not too sweet. It is a lot more off dry than sweet, and balances the Millefeuille very well, to end the evening in a very unEliotian way, with a bang and not a whimper. 

The wine dinner was overwhelmingly successful. While brunches are the obvious vehicle to promoting all-day dining restaurants, wine dinners work so well for signature restaurants and exclusive restaurants. I am sure there must be a temptation and indeed a demand to move the wine dinner to the main restaurant, but then you lose something. To be in a  room with 11 other people where you have an opportunity to connect beyond the usual meaningless banter that marks meeting people at these functions; to be in a situation where you can pick the brain of the wine's agent or exporter and find out about trends in France, for example; to share that room with a  manager who has overseen the restaurant garner that enviable recognition from the Wine Spectator - that is a wine dinner that sets the standard. And because it is in one of the city's top restaurants, you know it will be a memorable experience. Indeed, it was exactly that.

The lowdown

Dinner at Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill,
The Fairmont at Bab Al Bahr,
Abu Dhabi
+ 971 2 654 3333 

Wines by Domaine Joseph Drouhin

Wine Dinner - vary, but tonight's 750 Dhs

Regular menu
Starters 85-130 Dhs
Mains 245-495 Dhs
Desserts 65-85 Dhs

Brandon Stoltenkamp