Italian at Amici - Yas Viceroy Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Amici fits effortlessly into the The Viceroy's positioning as a modern, and chic hotel that stands out in Abu Dhabi, housed in an architectural icon. There is perhaps one other hotel that is able to garner the same amount of stares in wonder for its design. Amici, on first impression, has nothing in its design to suggest it is a traditional Italian restaurant. However, Italian food deserves respect and the dishes work well, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel, if you will. I am intrigued to see how the restaurant interprets the dishes.

Amici is well lit, with natural light abundant in the day time thanks to ceiling to floor windows. Glass and stainless steel dominate key areas, and none more so than the gorgeous wine rack. Amici feels open and spacious. They could easily cram a few more tables in there, but I am pleased they have not. The privacy that the space affords one is priceless in a dining culture in the city where many restaurants try and squeeze in as many guests as possible, robbing them of that ability to have a bit of that privacy.  

I look at the menu, and  I breathe a sigh of relief. Notwithstanding the contemporary feel of the restaurant, the dishes are classic Italian. I feel there are certain cuisines that you simply have to create faithful to the original. Italian is one of them. However, I meet Chef Stefano Conti and nonetheless, I would be forgiven for expecting an ever so slight variation on a couple dishes - Chef has a vibrancy and single mindedness about him that excites. 

The evening could not possibly be started better than with the exceptional Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Franciacorta Brut. Thanks to the method used in the making of this wine, you are basically having the deep and complex experince of Champagne. It really is a wonderful sparkling wine with very elegant and persistent bubbles, and elevates the evening a notch or two!
 For my dinner this evening, Chef recommends tasting portions of a few dishes. I like this. As a diner I feel I get so much more out of an experience when a menu is tailored in this way. Three small starters as opposed to one large starter. It is about personalising the dinner. The Burrata pugliese, pomodori e olive, Tartara di tonno, finocchi, rucola e lemon and Gamberi all' aglio, olio e peperoncini are brought out. 

The Burrata is classic. Tomatoes and rucola and off course the decadently creamy burrata simply presented but full of such enjoyment. It is the simplicity of this dish that makes it special. I lap up the extra olive oil on my burrata. A winner. Next, I have the tuna tartar and it is again the simplicity of the dish that wows. Chef is not trying to do anything that betrays the dish. His touch, though, cannot be missed. Instead of mere lemon juice, he uses lemon pulp to add not only that lemon taste but also texture. His generous use of fennel adds something special, but at no point do the lemon and fennel detract from the tuna. Furthermore, capers are finely chopped, again ensuring that none of these wonderful side players do not overpower the tuna tartar. 

Finally, the jumbo shrimp with peperoncini is another fine starter. Despite the latter, I can still taste the shrimp, which is succulent and moist. 

I find it such a pleasure when I encounter a waiter who is not the head waiter but exudes all the qualities of one. Nash, my waiter for the evening, embodies just this. There is an honesty about him as he confesses that when it comes to wine, he is still learning but is at least able to offer the guest some guidance. Refreshing honesty and self awareness. Confident and engaging. 

As I wait for my main course, I continue to try some tasting portions of some items on the menu. He serves me a tasting portion of the Uovo in camicia con parmigiano basket. It is fabulously creative offering in which a parmesan basket holds porcini mushroom puree  and poached duck egg. On top, Chef places a decadent Parmesan foam. But that is not all. The absolute high point for me in a dish of many highlights, it must be said, is the black summer truffle - definitely a dish I could have as an entree.

I also try a variation on the Tortelloni di melanzane. Chef serves ravioli instead. As the dish is brought tome. the aroma of basil makes its way to me, and I laud Chef's abundant use of basil. The rest of the dish, perfect, cooked al dente. The tomatoes have not been cooked too long, so have retained quite a bit of acidity, making the tomato a wonderful component here. 

For my main course, I opt for the Branzino in crosta di polenta, piselli e finocchi allo zafferano, or for lay people like myself, the sea bass. It is a dish that arrests the visual senses the moment it is served. The red of the tomato contrasting with the green of the pea puree, an obvious and clichéd contrast, but still a lovely one. The puree is creamy, smooth and hearty. There are so many flavours on the plate. The big surprise for me is the mildly caramelised artichokes, which adds  a hint of sweetness, just a hint, to the dish. The outstanding element in the dish, though, is the seabass. With that encrusting, the surface is quite firm and even crispy, but underneath, there is moisture. 

I have written often about being in two minds about having dessert after an evening of one memorable dish after another - I want to savour the memory of those dishes by dwelling on the taste. However, when Chef assures me the dessert option will feature a tasting platter of small portions, I  try it. It is the cheesecake that really stands out for me. Of course the tiramisu id very good, but the texture of the cheese cake makes it worthy of a strong recommendation!

I love Italian food. When I order burrata, I expect the burrata. When I try a tuna tartar, I expect the flavours to be there but not to overwhelm the tartar. I expect ingredients like basil to be prominent and freshness to be integral in the menu. I expected all of these despite the ultra modern setting that is Amici. And Amici delivered just that. It is indeed traditional Italian cuisine, but I also loved Chef's maturity despite his youthful spirit - he acknowledges what his guests want and obliges accordingly while at the same time nurturing his creative spirit through subtle playfulness. Overall, an Italian restaurant that has it all, and with the cooler months approaching, will have even more - a terrace! 

The low down

Yas Viceroy Hotel,
t: +971 2 656 0600

Anti-pasti 42-80AED
Pastas 78-110AED
Mains 130-180AED
Dessert 45 AED

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 Amici courtesy of the hotel.