Italian fare at Circo - Intercontinental Hotel, Abu Dhabi
It is colourful. Reds, whites, blues and yellows make their way around the restaurant. But this is no kids party. Of course by now you have heard about the circus or carnival theme, but it is exquisitely tasteful. Floor to ceiling windows on one side allow natural light to filter into an already happy and cheerful restaurant. Again though, I need to emphasise how elegantly it is all put together. Notwithstanding the lively colours, there is nothing gaudy or ostentatious about Circo. There is nothing over the top about an atmosphere that strikes me as joyful. And that is before I have even looked at the menu.
We start off with an amuse bouche of Crudo di Tonno con Agrumi which is a tuna crudo (no, it is not sashimi) with so much else on the plate that I feel I am at a concert celebrating the arrival of Summer. It is only the amuse bouche and already I am taken in - fennel, radish are on their own quite challenging flavours for immature tongues, but kumquat marmalade brings a lovely sweetness to the fore. In addition, there is the tang of the grapefruit offset by the sweet of an orange. A potent start to the evening.
Regretfully, I have the Valdo Prosecco which does not rise to the occasion. My first choice was the excellent Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico, but I knew I also wanted the wine pairing option recommended by restaurant manager Gianlucca, so I opted for the latter. Next time . Thankfully, not long after, I am offered a 2014 Banfi Principessa Gavia Gavi, a fresh, dry and light wine offering balance. It is served with a variation of a menu item. Usually the Salmon all Piastra is served with stewed Brussel sprouts, roasted cauliflower and celery root purée. Instead, tonight it is scallops. I am elated! What a great dish. Firstly, it looks really rustic, confirming the homely influence on Circo brought by Egidiana Maccioni, the female force behind her husband and sons who brought Circo to the capital.
It is this dish for me that so early on in my course conveys the restaurant's ethos of hearty Italian food in a luxe setting. Delicately coated in vinaigrette, the salad is flavoured so that it does not usurp the scallops. Having said that, it is the salad that holds the dish together, or else the delicate sweetness of the grilled pepper, to a lesser extent the scallops and of course the more pronounced sweetness in the celery purée could create a one sided dish. Of course the texture of the cauliflower cannot be overlooked, nor could the perfectly cooked scallops. Circo 2 - My expectations 0!
There is no let up at this stage as Chef Matteo, ( Chef Luca is away at the moment) a Milanese native who at this point has surprised me with the balance and depth of his cooking, belying his youthfulness. At 25, he has an exciting future ahead. He presents the Cappellacci all' Astice con Foie Gras or the Lobster Tortelli with seared foie gras. The first thought that makes it way into my head is the heartiness of the meal. And so earthy too. Peas. What a beautiful choice to add a bit of colour. And the sauce - oh the sauce. I reach for a piece of bread and dip it in the sauce. Mmmmm. I still think it is one of the most under appreciated vegetables. Chef uses foie gras very delicately, with three tiny pieces on the plate. How easy it would have been to be excessive and use large pieces, especially in a dining culture where some restaurants still believe that more is more. Restraint in a mature chef is expected. In a young chef it is admirable.
For my my meat course, Chef ventures off the menu to serve up a classic - Veal cheek. It is served on a bed of spinach, while on the plate there is also vegetable caponata. but for this dish, I cannot look beyond the veal. All the clichés you have heard about veal come to my mind. It vies for dish of the day, along with the Scallops and Lobster tortelli.
Accompanying my dish is a 2013 Madonna del Dono Dolcetto D'Alba. This deep red Northern Italian wine is full and goes down really smoothly, almost velvet like. A good match for the veal.