Friday Brunch by Suzanne Husseini - Market Kitchen @ Le Royal Meridien, Abu Dhabi

Restaurants are often come up with ways to stay fresh and exciting in a highly competitive environment. I have seen restaurants abandon their ethos in the name of bringing in that freshness. When I read that Market Kitchen was offering an Arabic brunch, I was in two minds. What about Jean-Georges, I lamented quietly. Nonetheless, knowing it was a brunch that would be born of a collaboration between Suzanne Husseini and Market Kitchen's own Chef de Cuisine, Jordan Annabi, I was intrigued and psyched. While it is almost becoming clichéd to talk about a twist in Arabian dishes, the sentiment is a good one. How many times have you , for example, heard someone who has not grown up on Lebanese dishes say that they like it, but no more than 2 or 3 times a year. For me it was an exciting invitation because I was keen to see the extent of her 'twist'. 

 Suzanne  is charismatic, vibrant and bubbly, and as she walks around the brunch, you know this is not just a sales pitch. She genuinely believes in what she is doing. She respects her guests and she spends equal time with them, taking questions as they arise. Just before each course is served, she sits and chats to Chef Jordan. I love the way she wears her two hats  during brunch. 

It is clear, from the menu, that she and Chef Jordan work well as a team. A brief glance at the menu shows that. If you have been to the normal Market Kitchen brunch, you would notice how in sync today's menu format seems to be with the usual brunch - the concept is the same - a selection of starters, mains and desserts, all held together by the sharing concept.

Included in the bread basket that is brought at the beginning of brunch are some Arabic bread and zataar scones. Appropriately, the latter is the first thing I try. Could this be symbolic of the afternoon that lies ahead, I wonder. Remarkably, the scone tastes like...a scone. But you I can also taste the zataar. Everything that is good in a  scone is here - good texture, it keeps it shape without being too dense and then you also get the zataar flavour. It does not overwhelm at all. Balance. 

The starters are stand-out dishes. Crispy halloumi and Fresh pomegranate salad scream freshness. The halloumi is golden brown with a crispness and predictable chewy texture. The pomegranate salsa adds acidity to the flavours. Bathed in olive oil, the end result is  a pretty looking dish. 

Next up I try the Labneh, herb nut crust, tastefully presented next to Muhammara. Talk about contrasts - this dish brings it home. The soft silkiness of the labneh is foiled by the wild crunchiness of the pistachios.  I also love the presentation and the portions. This is part of the twist I believe. It is a portion that is easy on the eye and can easily be finished. As for the the spiciness in that muhammara -  just perfect. 

If I am feeling that I still need a more profound twist, it comes in the form of the next dish - Fresh tuna kibbeh. In her book, When Suzanne cooks, she asserts "Tartare is one of the ingenious dishes that makes precious meat go a little further. The Japanese have their sushi, the French have their steak tartare and the Arabs have their kibbeh nayye." For the average foreigner new to Arab cuisine, the aforementioned is a twist enough in that he/she is unlikely to encounter it first time around in a typical Lebanese restaurant. However, to have it made from yellow fin tuna is just brilliant. Not only does it surprise the guest but it also squarely connects to Market Kitchen - yellow fin is a loved ingredient on the normal menu as part of the 'Simply Raw' section.  

The key is the brughul and as I try some, it immediately makes me feel I am indeed having kibbeh. The dish is fresh, word of the day, and light. Amazing. 

Finally, a staple part of cold mezze, moutabel, is appropriately called Moutabel, smokey aubergine dip. It has a classic consistency for this eggplant dish but it is the level of smokiness that wows. Pine nuts and pomegranate recall the trademark of Lebanese cuisine - abundance. Watermelon and shankleesh salad is all about the juxtaposition of that cheesy saltiness and the fresh sweetness of the watermelon. I particularly like the chunky portions of the watermelon and the presence of fresh zataar. 

It is around this time that I would expect something like the Black Truffle and Fontina Pizza, a signature market Kitchen dish at their brunch. The connection between Chef Jordan and Suzanne continues as Suzanne brings in her own 'pizza' on to the menu - a Meatza. Lamb, mint, parsley and chilli - a must try. 

Just before the main courses are served, I reflect on Market Kitchen as a brunch. While Suzanne Husseini will present her brunch for the month of May, the restaurant has again showed what a foodie's destination its brunch is. Today has that component that makes a brunch cross over from being a lunch - it is vibey, I hear the sound of laughter and popping of bubbly. 

There are three main dishes: Pan seared sea bream with lentil tabouleh, citrus and tahini sauce, Braised lamb shank with fassoulia (butter beans)  and Orange honey Glazed Chicken with freekeh. Each dish has some outstanding aspects. The citrus and the tabouleh in the seabream - delicious. Next, the lamb is simply beautifully cooked. One usually talks about meat on the bone just falling off, highlighting how ell it ahs been cooked, and that is the case here. The delicately flavoured beans really push the lamb to the foreground. Finally, the chicken- a replacement for quail  due to unavailability - is moist and juicy with a delicious mild sweetness thanks to the honey glazing. Finally, the freekeh, a full grain food not unlike quinoa  initially or even risotto when it is cooked, lends a heartiness to the dish. 

To round off the afternoon, dessert. Chocolate date fondant with halawa ice cream and Spiced ricotta filled dates are the highlights. Dates, such a symbol of Arabian culture and indeed cuisine, are appropriately a key ingredient in both of these. If you did not see the menu, the date at the centre of the cake is a delightful surprise. Again, though, it is the portions that are spot on, and when I reflect on the wasting that goes on at most buffets in the city, I am thankful for a brunch concept that is the exact opposite. 

Suzanne Husseini is first and foremost a  family woman with very strong connections to her parents. Then she cooks. She is what she is, in the kitchen especially, thanks to that influence of her family. I have talked about how Suzanne fits effortlessly into the Market Kitchen philosophy. As I talk to her I can hear how she really privileges ingredients and indeed respects the components of her dishes. It is also the homeliness of her dishes that brings home that Arabian feel, over and above the dishes themselves. Having moved to Canada at an early age, it was really food that provided tremendous comfort for her in a culture that was so removed from what she had known. Now, as  a sophisticated and self assured individual, the element of comfort still predominates her dishes. She has shown again that  a memorable meal transcends the actual food - it is the memories it evokes, and as I finish this piece, the memory I have of that Friday brunch is likely to stay with me a long, long time. 

The lowdown

Suzanne Husseini @ Market Brunch,

Market Kitchen
Le Royal Meridien, Khalifa Street,
Abu Dhabi
02 674 2552

Soft Package 199 Dhs++
Cocktails and Wine 299 Dhs++
Champagne package 399 Dhs++

This brunch will run throughout the month of May

Brandon Stoltenkamp

Disclaimer: I consult at restaurants and hotels in an attempt to look at the entire product to take service levels to where they should be. I visited  Market Kitchen as  a guest of the hotel.