Pearls by Michael Caines - Jumeirah Hotel at Etihad Towers.

It was quite a coup for Jumeirah at Etihad Towers when 2 star Michelin chef Michael Caines MBE decided to open his first restaurant outside of the UK at a hotel that already boasts one of the most impressive line up of restaurants, bars and lounges. Of course, Abu Dhabi is no stranger to the lure of the celebrity chef, and Michael Caines certainly packs a powerful punch. However, when the glamour of the arrival of a new chef wears off as the champagne corks are cleared away and the empty bottles are collected, it is about the food, isn't it? I recently visited Pearls with a few questions in my mind. Firstly, would the menu be too British and unable to connect with  a wider populace? Secondly, would the tag of '2 star Michelin chef' prove to deter an Abu Dhabi dining public becoming more and more disillusioned with finer dining? 

It is often a challenge when a restaurant takes over the space vacated by another. In this case, it was Scott's that made way. As I walk into the restaurant, I see no great need for a refurbishment. I would rather a restaurant spent that money on ingredients and training staff - the restaurant, it must be said, is still in fine condition. 

On being seated, I waste no time in looking at the very succinct menu. It makes frequent menu changes a more distinct possibility. It certainly gives the Chef more flexibility with the timing of those changes. The Signature Tasting menu seems a no brainer to me, especially coming in at 450AED - that is tremendous value. 

My guest and I start off with the Warm salad of lobster. Interesting, is my first impression, when I see the name of this dish. As it is served, I heave a sigh of relief, as it is more room temperature than warm; perfect for the Abu Dhabi climate, and a change from the usual cold lobster salads that one invariably gets in the capital. It is a dish that immediately evokes happiness; a dish that would be the harbinger of Spring. The highpoint is undoubtedly the beautifully poached lobster. Then, there is the equally appealing lobster jelly which adds a different texture to the lobster already on the plate. Also, mango with the cardamon vinaigrette seems a perfect complement to the dish, with cardamon so rooted in local flavours thanks to the influence of Indian cuisine. Cardamon is also of course used in many Middle Eastern dishes too. I like the inclusion of this vinaigrette - a simple ingredient like cardamon shows the respect with which Chef approaches the geography of his restaurant.

Next up we have the Pan Fried Foie Gras, but don't be fooled into thinking it is one of the standard interpretations you would have seen in my many brunch reviews. As the dish is placed in front of me, I am taken in by its boldness. It is such an eventful dish. The foie gras is seared in a way that it has a surface that defies the soft texture as I bite into it. I then add some of the caramelised walnuts and the textural liaison reaches its zenith. Sweetness? Over and above the bit of sweetness from the walnuts, there is more. Marinated raisins. Simply fantastic. Finally, a bit of sweet sour in the orange and of course a bit of more complexity thanks to the spiced jus. But the latter is not the only foil to sweetness on the plate. The braised chicory provides that. What a balanced dish. Readers of my posts will know how I much I enjoy foie gras, so they can appreciate this when I say this foie gras dish is by far the most complex and memorable I have ever eaten.

The plating on this dish has a homeliness about it, running counter to any suggestion that the restaurant is all about more fine dining.

Course 3 of 6 is served after the foie gras - a  tough ask to follow up that dish with something different, but with merit of its own. Pan fried red mullet is soon served. More than any of the dishes so far, this is a dish that arrests you even before it is put on the table. As the waiter brings my dish, the Thai purée, the aroma effortlessly makes its way to me. The first great part of this dish. The second is the crispy skin. Yum. Fennel, dill and lime bring to the dish other flavours, but it is still the Thai purée that stands tall. However, a decadent tomato fondue runs it close. Again, the plating endears me to the restaurant. It would have been so easy to rob the dish of a down-to-earthness in its presentation. Instead, Caines' vision of quality food in a laid back ambience is being realised. 

Despite light fixtures that still remind one of the sea, and despite the name Pearls, the restaurant really shows its respect to land and sea. The name Pearls goes beyond the usual sea connotations of pearl diving. It is embraces the name as it reflects so much about Emirati culture.

The main course is served. Braised beef cheek - it had to be beef. Spinach. It is, with respect to the beef cheek and tenderloin, the first thing that catches my eye. This is how you tone down a restaurant. It is not about using cheap ingredients to proclaim you are not a fine dining venue. It is by using ingredients that resonate with Everyman. Spinach, the humble spinach. I am ensnared. It is a wildly flavoursome dish with a lot of texture. In addition to the usual ingredient that one expects with a beef dish such as celeriac purée, it is shallots cooked two ways, both confit and roasted, that enhance the taste of the dish. However, the use of black fungus excites me as it lends an unexpected kind of texture to the dish. All of this is held together by a red wine sauce. Superb dish. 

The first dessert revolves around the apple. What can be more universal as a fruit than an apple. It is, other than hello, probably the most popular word that kids learn as they are exposed to a foreign language. The apple. Here Chef does it three ways. The Apple mousse is deceptively simple. His ode to the apple includes green apple jelly as well as sorbet, and not to mention the slice of apple that perches on the vanilla foam. The vanilla foam is fabulous. It is more between a mousse and a foam, giving more substance and body but giving that angelic sensation that comes from a foam. Mmmmm.

The final dessert is a really intelligent dish. It is another of his dishes that feature orange. I must make sure I ask Michael Caines next time he visits the Capital about his passion for orange as an ingredient. The Chocolate orange confit mousse is like having three oranges at different stages of ripeness, leaving one with a different level of sweetness and sourness. You know the feeling when in one bag of oranges, you manage to get three such oranges? This analogy lends itself perfectly to a dessert, where you would like different levels of sweetness. The confit, mousse and sorbet represent those three oranges. Really a clever play on the same ingredient. Then, of course, the discovery of pop rocks in the chocolate soil - the playfulness is inescapable - like a child finding something pleasurable in the back garden. 

At the end of dinner I was left to reflect on what was an excellent evening. There is still a bit of tweaking that needs to be done with, say, for example, the music, which needs to develop an identity that reflects the relaxed atmosphere that Michael Caines has set out to create. But this will come, sooner rather than later. I was encouraged by the pricing. The last thing Abu Dhabi needs now is another over-priced restaurant that will wow for a month of Sundays and then close its doors. Pricing is key in achieving longevity, and I think they have the pricing of the dishes spot on. As far as service goes, I interacted with two waiters who showed the benefits of training. It is never easy learning the ins and outs of a new menu in a short space of time, but there was enough evidence to suggest that they are heading in the right direction. 

Pearls by Michael Caines will confound guests' expectations as they grapple with the issue of possibly being overwhelmed by going to a Michael Caines restaurant, only to arrive in a restaurant that really is quite relaxed and chilled. I think this is important in view of the failure of  a number of finer dining restaurants in the city. With a  commitment to visit the restaurant 6 times a year, Michael Caines is highlighting the importance of this restaurant.I am already looking forward to the next menu!

The Essentials,

Pearls by Michael Caines
Jumeirah at Etihad Towers
Abu Dhabi
02 81115666

Signature Set Menu 450AED

Brandon Stoltenkamp

Disclaimer: I was invited by the hotel to try the new restaurant.