Loy Kra Thong Festival at the picturesque Sontaya - The St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi

Sontaya has arguably one of the most exquisite locations for a restaurant in Abu Dhabi. Having dined here during the the day and at night, I have a perspective that I am sure others who have done the same will share. The natural elements really spring to mind - fire, earth, air and water.

On this night, we are all gathered to launch the Loy Kra Thong Festival, a festival famous in the south of Thailand. To ensure we experience a cultural journey, some performers from the south of Thailand capture guests with their energy and verve. 

 The significance of this evening's celebration is immense. The festival is rich with symbolism. Briefly, 'kra thong' relates to 'floating'. Just before dinner, we are all given floating flower baskets with a  candle. The latter is lit, and as we get ready to place them on the water, the latter that plays such an integral role in the restaurant's aesthetic appeal - we are encouraged to let go of all hate, resentments and anything that prevent us from having a  peace. I take it further by adding all my disappointments which are holding me back. It is a poignant moment for all participating. 

At nights like these, food is almost incidental, but with Chef de Cuisine Peter Peerapong's special set menu created for the occasion, I know nothing is incidental, and am keen, having recently tried some of his creations at Olea's fabulous Friday brunch.

During dinner, I experience three moments that remind me of the strength of Chef Peter and his interpretation of dishes, and why Sontaya is not simply any other restaurant with simply an idyllic location - the food surpasses the location. 

Firstly, the progressive plating on the first starter, The Full Moon Night, or Shredded prawn salad, is evidence of the restaurant's contemporary approach to south east Asian cuisine. Prawn dust around the plate, holding together all the ingredients from an organic egg to spicy caviar and of course the prawn salad - A starter that really opens my eyes to how different Sontaya is in the way it perceives and presents its dishes. 

Secondly, the Tantalizing Boat as it is called, consists of grilled octopus, crispy tofu skin and eryngii mushroom served in a small mutou boat, with tamarind sauce on the side. A simple dish, but one that ties in so easily with the theme on this night. 

Finally, the Poached cod fillet, clearly my dish of the night, allows me to understand so well what he is doing with his dishes. How does one tamper with classic dishes without alienating traditionalists? This is the tightrope walked by Chef when this dish is served. A bag on some stones in a bowl. Soon as a kettle is lowered, liquid meets dry ice leading to a surreal effect- call it fog, mist, smoke, but it rises.  The waitress explains that I should open the plastic bag in the bowl. I open it and flavours rush up to my nose. The cod is bathed in a tom yum goong bisque, with white fungus also in the bisque. Now, theatre is one thing, but there needs to be flavours too. That tom yum wins on two levels - the spiciness is quite mild, therefore not drowning, pun intended, the cod. Secondly, as it is a bisque, it has  a thicker consistency. 

So, a different take on a classic is illustrated right here. The flavours that you would want from a tom yum, but with a different presentation and texture. Then there is the white fungus, with its rubbery chewiness bringing wonderful texture to the dish, which only serves to highlight the cod that is all tender and deliciously flaky. 

Although this night was more about celebrating a slice of Thai culture, it was equally about the dishes, and while I enjoyed my entire set menu, it was the three dishes here that came to symbolise a Chef and the direction his restaurant heads - serving traditional classics that retain their essential qualities, namely flavors, but it is the rest that can be changed. 

After all, if we are ending up at the same destination, we can play around with the route, surely? Why shouldn't dining be a fun and engaging experience? This is not the domain only of the child. 

The Essentials

St Regis Saadiyat Island,
Abu Dhabi

Brandon Stoltenkamp