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 Kreaton Cutajar.

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 people  who 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, through  a 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, a  time 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 a  fine 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 favourites.

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 become  a 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.

The Essentials

55&5th, The Grill
St Regis Saadiyat Island,
Abu Dhabi
02 4988888

Brandon Stoltenkamp