Spice Market at Market Kitchen - Le Royal Meridien, Abu Dhabi

To understand the Spice Market Promotion running at Market Kitchen from February to mid-March, one needs to appreciate the impact that travelling in south East Asia had on Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the inspiration behind Market Kitchen.  Knowing too that Spice Market, part of a respected and exclusive chain and inspired by Jean George himself under that brand, is about the piquancy of south East Asian spices and emphasis on casual dining where sharing is a big part of the experience. So, when walking in  to Market Kitchen and seeing a tasting menu with some dishes from Spice Market London, under Head Chef Peter Lloyd, one should not be surprised. The spices and their inspiration have travelled to be at Market Kitchen here in Abu Dhabi. 

It is Thursday night, and while I missed out Peter Lloyd's visit where he spent quite a bit of time  at Market Kitchen from 16-19 February,  I am glad to be here. There is a buzz in the restaurant. The evening starts off with a glass of NV Veuve Cliquot Brut - still one of my favourite NV champagnes in the city. 

The sharing concept tonight is one that is not only in name here. The concept of 4 starters followed by a selection of mains brings this home very clearly. The appetisers are served. The first element of south east Asian food is immediately evident - it is colourful and aromatic; the latter even more so because of the spicy component. I try each in turn. 

The Shaved yellowfin tuna recalls the tuna that is served on Market Kitchen's own menu, but that is where the comparison ends. Tonight's dish has that hint of spice brought to the dish by chili tapioca pearls does not overwhelm the tuna. Jicama, often referred to as Mexican yam, is cut up into small pieces. Finally, the coconut lime broth adds a bit of tang to the dish, bringing together the chili and mild sweetness of the jicama. The yellow fin, amazingly, still tastes like yellow fin!

The Chili rubbed beef satay is a winner. Simple in presentation, but rich in flavour, this skewer, made from 100% tenderloin is beautifully cooked. This dish brings together the streets of south east Asia and Market Kitchen's emphasis on using the best ingredients available, perfectly.  My skewer is moist and still beefy. The dip sauce, a gorgeous green coloured lime and basil mix, balances that chili just right. 

Next up, the Mango salad is both sweet, sour and spicy. With mangoes of varying ripeness providing the sweet sour elements and further delicate sweetness coming from the candied tamarind, another marvellous rendering of a variation of a dish I would have had on the streets of Bangkok.

The final appetiser, Black Pepper shrimps,  is my favourite on the night. Being more accustomed to having had black pepper on my steaks in my earlier years, it is a delight to find it on the shrimps. It is a  happy food association for me. It is quite peppery, but my mantra for the appetisers, a celebration of balance, rears its head again. This time jicama again and sun dried pineapple. Because the latter is sundried, there is not the usual acidity - just sweetness. Nice. On the service front, it is an interactive start to the dinner, as highlighted by the restaurant's assistant manager guiding my guest and I to the recommended way of enjoying some of the dishes even more. In this case it is biting into the shrimp and following it with the pineapple. 

Meanwhile, my wine for the evening, specially chosen to counter the spiciness of my dishes, is the Trimbach Riesling which is dry and marginally sweet. A good choice. 

I am excited about the two main dishes. The Roasted Cod Fish in Malaysian Chili Sauce, tis my first let down this evening though. The issue of desired temperature is always a tough one because you are trying to satisfy so many preferences, but for me the essential quality of the cod is how almost-diagonally layered it is and should break apart effortlessly, revealing a natural creaminess. It is over cooked, but the sauce is simply fantastic. It is another association for me. The Guilin sauce takes me back to my time in China! The shallots ensure that the sauce is not overpoweringly spicy. 

While the cod disappoints, the Char-Grilled Chicken surprises. I seldom have chicken in a restaurant because chicken is, well, chicken. Not tonight. The breast, not my preferred part of the chicken, is grilled to perfection, with that gorgeous grill colour on the plate, but it is when I bite into it that I pause, have another bite, pause and ...So it goes. How the chef grilled it so well while maintaining the juiciness inside astounds. 
How do you serve dessert after such a fantastic menu, so rich in spiciness? It seems sad to rob the palate of those spices, but another element of south East Asian markets and street food are the simple, fun and happy desserts. The first, Thai jewels and fruit, could have been made by a child. It is free of the complexity and over thinking that plagues the adult world. As I try the dessert, Wordsworth's 'Table Turned" comes to mind. I recall in particular, 'Our meddling intellect/ Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things'. This dessert is playful and care free because it is so innocent and pure, so natural. Summer on the streets of Bangkok in  a bowl.  Cut pieces of fruit, tapioka and  a delightfully crunchy chestnut greet me as I have my first spoonful. Yum. But then with my second, a wave of joy washes over me - my second spoonful has ice! Not an ice cub - broken ice. Anyone who has been to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur  or Ho Chi Minh City will know what I am talking about. So, this is how you follow up  a great menu that elevates spices!

While the Thai jewels are free and expressive, the Ovaltine kulfi and caramelised banana served with spiced milk chocolate sauce brings more control and sophistication to the table. It is a texturally arresting dessert. The chocolate is silky smooth, offset by the lightly crunchy caramelised banana. However, it is the sugared fennel seeds that bring both texture but also balance to the sweet of the chocolate. Finally, popcorn. Yes popcorn. Executive Chef Justin Galea's belief in the power of food to evoke memories of childhood is shown once again. It is so satisfying to see his vision running consistently in the outlets I have tried at Le Royal Meridien. 

The night marked an interesting an exciting shift for me in the possibilities that exist for Market Kitchen. Its collaboration with its sister restaurant, Spice Market, in bringing its dishes to Abu Dhabi points to further such promotions down the road, and why not? The Market Kitchen menu, itself quite fluid already depending on produce available, has now gained even more motion and malleability thanks to what I can only describe as a successful marriage of concepts. Is it too idealistic to imagine a collaboration of this kind with JG Tokyo? Possibilities. I now only hope we do not have to wait another year when the next Gourmet Abu Dhabi comes to town to have things spiced up in this way. 
The lowdown

Market Kitchen
Le Royal Meridien, Khalifa Street,
Abu Dhabi
02 674 2552
Spice Market runs until 16 March 2015 with the 5 course tasting menu starting from AED 265.

Brandon Stoltenkamp