A journal, inspired by my love for my daughter, that embraces quality food, service and experiences which make life worth living. In the words of Tennyson's Ulysses, " I cannot rest from travel. I will drink life to the lees." Seeking that incredible dining or hotel experience and writing about it. Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
At Chef's Table with Chef Kreaton Cutajar - 55&5th, The Grill at The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort
Having introduced my concept of At Chef's Table as guest writer for a local publication, you as readers of my blog will now benefit from it as I will be bringing it to you as well. From the end of April it will appear exclusively in my blog. The concept? Basically, sitting down with a chef who has fascinated me or a chef with an interesting story to tell, trying his dishes and having conversation. Yes, the old art of conversing.
55&5th, The Grill at St. Regis on Saadiyat
Island is quite an imposing restaurant. Since its opening, it has been garnered
with accolades. Widely regarded as the top steakhouse in the city, this
restaurant dazzles as much as its opulent chandeliers. The marvellously high
ceiling, rather than creating a sense of distance and lack of intimacy, speaks
of luxury. Tasteful luxury. On this occasion though, I find myself in one of
the private dining rooms, where I wait for the man who has been at the helm of a
restaurant that has blended its steakhouse heritage with fine dining – Chef
Chef, from British and Maltese parents, comes across as very
business-like and succinct when you first meet him. I recall the first time I encountered
him in August.He stopped by my table on
that occasion and wanted to hear my thoughts on what my starter would be. I requested a tasting platter of three
favorites. Chef, however, insisted on sending out three starters, one after the
other. His reasoning transcended, in retrospect, chef’s pride. He is an artist.
It would be the equivalent of asking Michelangelo if he could paint only half
the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Imagine that! Also, on that occasion he
expounded on the virtues of the sirloin cut of beef as opposed to the tenderloin.
There was a single mindedness in his manner and indeed his eyes. He made an
impression of note.
Tonight, notwithstanding the engagement that we had since the
last evening, I see that focus in his eyes. He enters his own world when he
talks about the menu.
To get things started, Chef serves Organic beetroot and goat cheese textures. What a way to get the
evening moving. It is an intensely colourful dish, with enough elements in it
to evoke memories. Beetroot is well represented on the plate, even in the form
of beetroot macaroon and jelly. Beetroot is such a sensuous vegetable, and
seeing it used so abundantly tantalizes and excites me, and reflects Chef’s
connection to experiences. There is a group of peoplewho associate beetroot with Sunday lunch. I
am one of them. So doing, Chef taps into the collective consciousness of his
guests, all through beetroot. Furthermore, the liquorice sorbet served with
this also brings out the beetroot flavours even more.
Next, Chef talks about growing up in a rough neighborhood
where survival was paramount. I jokingly tell him that he was the kind of child
my parents would have kept me away from. I think about Stephen Spender’s “My parents
kept me from children who were rough”. He was the student who had fun at
school; cool and fearless. We share a giggle. The tattoos underneath the crisp whites
he wears on duty might speak of that tough guy image, but Chef, as I discover,
is easily swayed by sentiment. His weakness…cats…kittens. It was not always
like this. He is really a dog person, but after a couple issues with brining
his dog over to the UAE, flirting with the idea of having another dog here
until the universe, througha series of
events, speaks to him – it is not meant to be. He reluctantly switched to a
cat, and as the cliché goes, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As Chef brings the Obsiblue
prawn, the second dish for the evening, I see an impressively plated dish. The
prawn is very lightly cooked, and this allows the uncharacteristic sweetness of
this particular type of prawn to come through. However, it is the liquid pea
ravioli that really arrests the taste buds. I put it in my mouth, and I taste
peas. Rich and intense. I have often labeled peas as fairly bland and tasteless
on several occasions. Tonight, for the second time in the past year now, I am
forced to revisit that point of view. Also, the homemade ricotta and garlic
pureé, flavorsome as they are, do not overwhelm the prawn. As I finish it, chef
contrasts his younger, maverick years as a chef when it was all about creative
energy, when he says that maturity brings a different perspective, and a s Chef
de Cuisine, it is more than just creating dishes.
Chef Kreaton is very much a chef who eschews facades and
pretensions when he engages guests. So refreshing. He relates some tales from
his recent Summer visit to Thailand. He regales me with a colorful account of
his meeting with a taxi driver and subsequent visit to his home where ended up
cooking for the family. As I listen, I am beaming. It is an experience some of us
have been lucky to have had, while others have only read about it in Conde
Nast. Being the former, I can relate to his account.
While it is beetroot that takes me home, it is artichokes
that transports him back to Malta. When he was a 5 year old helping out his grandmother
in the kitchen, artichokes were already a feature in his life, so when he
features it, there is always that connection to his formative years, atime that he says made him fall in love with
the kitchen. The Duo of Organic Lamb.
served next, and as the name suggests, gives us lamb cooked two ways. The loin,
the most tender part of the lamb, contrasts with the crispy belly of the lamb, and
that he has prepared to perfection. Discovering the smoked aubergine is so
exciting because it was so unexpected. Artichokes, dried olives and autumn
truffles all contribute to making this an exceptional dish.
How do you eclipse that? It involves a pigeon. The Wood pigeon sees Chef using one of his
favourite ingredients, quinoa. The texture and crunch it brings to the dish is
not lost on me at all. It brings back the memory of my last visit when he used
quinoa as a counterfoil to foie gras. You would be forgiven for thinking you
were having game, such is the intense colour of the pigeon. Moreover, it has
the same meatiness that one associates with game. It is lightly seasoned with
chamomile. Finally, bits of foie gras and caramelized onion bring another
dimension to the dish, especially with the hint of sweetness from the onions
balancing out the sour cabbage. Stellar stuff.
55&5th is a primarily a steakhouse with
afine dining sensibility, so the the Wagyu is a fitting way to round out the
savoury part of dinner. Having had the pleasure of trying Chef’s favourite cut
of beef on a previous occasion, the outstanding Wagyu beef striploin, Tajima Full Blood with a grade 9+ score, I am
curious about the tenderloin. Not to be scoffed at, this Wagyu tenderloin, Mayura station full blood, also boasts a grade 9+
score. Lower in fat and not as beefy as the strip, but oh so tender, I bite
into it. All the clichés about a beautifully
cooked medium rare piece of beef force their way into my mind. Finally, Périgord
truffle, burnt onion pureé and potato espuma are side highlights that round out
a dish that is really a fitting tribute to Chef.
Like most chefs. Chef Kreaton prefers to stay home when it
is his time off. He believes in healthy living and is fanatical about the gym.
It is a space that provides him a chance to switch off to the world and distress as he listens to the Foo
Fighters. If he is home, he also enjoys wiling away the little time he has,
following TV series, with ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Following’ some of his recent
To bring the evening to a close, Chef really surprises me
with his dessert. With a reputation for making one of the best chocolate soufflés
in Abu Dhabi, this time he chooses to do something less obvious. His Herbal Sensation is just a delight. The
mint granité, sage geleé and herb sorbet infuse this dessert with a garden
freshness, something you do not usually associate with a dessert in the UAE. This
is further enhanced by his use of tarragon and fennel. The end result is
something that is tasty, fresh, aromatic and yes, very imaginative.
Thus dinner ended with a bang and not a whimper, and left me
with a lot to reflect on. Chef Kreaton’s view that if you are a young person
hoping to becomea chef, you need to
accept that the schedule is tough, and you end up being married to your kitchen,
fills my thoughts. But I recall the dishes he has presented on the night and I
cannot help thinking about the satisfaction he must bask in when he sees his
guests close their eyes as they taste that piece of fine beef. Julia Child’s
words come to mind at this point: ‘Some people like to paint pictures, or do
gardening, or build a boat in the basement. Other people get a tremendous
pleasure out of the kitchen, because cooking is just as creative and
imaginative an activity as drawing, or wood carving or music.’ Chef certainly
shows that pleasure, but does so in his inimitable almost unassuming, down to
earth manner. Chef Kreaton, a people’s chef.