Vanitas for Italian at a stylish address - Palazzo Versace, Dubai

It is impossible not to double check myself as I leave my hotel room, also making sure that I have put on the right fragrance. I then hop into an Uber car and head for dinner. I am off to an Italian dinner at a hotel, that while still in its soft opening, has created so much noise - it is, of course, Palazzo Versace. In a city like Dubai with its penchant for superlatives and opulent luxury, there could be no more appropriate location for this landmark hotel. After a twenty minute ride, I arrive at the hotel and make my way to Vanitas, the hotels' Italian restaurant. 

There is an understated elegance as I walk down the corridor and see the name 'Vanitas'. There is nothing ostentatious and over the top. The hostess, clad in  a Versace-designed one piece, greets me and without much fanfare and leads me to my table. The restaurant is exquisite. One word - classical. The restaurant sets out to resemble a room in a palace, I am taken in by the spaciousness of Vanitas, which accommodates around 70 guests. Signature Versace tableware catch the eye - how can it not? While I am taking it all in, filled with a  sense of wonder, I am immediately brought down to earth with a  friendly 'Good evening' as my waitress manages to take this elegant venue and demythologize it. Her banter will ensure that the night is indeed relaxed, and at some point, I will forget that I am in this fine establishment. 

A one-sided A3 sized menu is presented. I find it refreshing. No leather binding. No book. It is a succinct menu. It is also bold. It shows a chef who believes in his selection of dishes, to the point that he chooses to have a smaller selection than most eateries. 

My amuse bouche is quite interesting and immediately gives me an insight into Chef Andrea Gaia. I am given a spoon with eggplant purée and caramelised ricotta cheese. In a large bowl, I am given bianco mangiare cheese with gelatine of grapefruit. I am told to mix the two together. It is an amuse bouche that makes for natural engagement by staff as they are integral to the success of this dish - they guide me through how to have it. The result is a blend of different flavours and mildly varying textures, with the latter especially brought home by the gelatine grapefruit. It is simple but theatrical and allows me to wonder if Chef will walk a tightrope of tradition and innovation? 

The wine list, meanwhile, gets my attention immediately when I notice 20 by-the-glass options, including two champagnes one seldom sees as a by-the-glass option - well in Abu Dabi anyway - the Ruinart. This elegant boutique champagne is available as a Brut and Rosé . Kudos to the hotel sommelier and team for offering these choices to guests. With the champagne market still very immature in the UAE, although Dubai is more progressive than Abu Dhabi, people are used to maybe 6 or so champagnes that they have by-the- glass. This is refreshing and a statement of intent by Vanitas.

For my starter, I have the Green zucchini cream, a  visually striking dish with the carotene butter especially providing a sensuous deep yellow break in the green soup. Even though the zucchini cream is all about its own natural flavour,  a bit of zing is added by black pepper. Furthermore, the mild sweetness from the butter juxtaposes with what else is on the dish -  especially with the dark olive bread adding saltiness. But it is the marriage of textures that really arrest my mouth. Firstly, the soup is wonderfully smooth, in contrast to the chewy bread. Textures. Buono!

Chef Andrea, with an impressive body of work done in Michelin-starred restaurants, comes over to our table and talks about his philosophy. There is a single-mindedness as he talks about his dishes and a common thread is his respect for texture in a dish. Over and above all of this, though, is his down to earth nature as he espouses the virtues of a mother's kitchen and the memories it creates for a person. 

Next up, the Burrata almost passes underneath the radar after the intense soup I started with. It is not a  full portion as I would like to try quite a few of his dishes. Needless to say, the burrata is from the Puglia region, and Chef presents it as  a classic burrata dish, with sweet and salty elements again combining well. 

If the Burrata was functional and safe, my next dish is anything but. His Raw cuttlefish ravioli is intriguing on paper and its execution even better. He smartly plays on traditional ravioli as he creates his ravioli out of cuttle fish, filling it with red  prawn tartar. Te ravioli is bathed in  a lobster bisque sauce. Finally, puffed tapioca brings light crunch to the dish. Where to begin? Tomato, shallots and onion pack this dish with so much flavour, while the cuttle fish brings its unique texture to the dish, but Chef goes for even more obvious textural delight when he uses the puffed tapioca. Wow!

I almost need a moment after what can only be described as an exceptional dish, but there is no let up as I am served Chef's take on Gnocchi, a dish which incidentally will feature on the new menu launching August/September. The Pecorino romano gnocchi's saltiness is beautifully balanced by fava beans and a fava bean purée. The balance here is subtle, but still leaning towards the pecorino romano. That balance, however, is struck thanks to caramelised pear presented as clotted powder. A remarkable dish. I am torn though as to which I prefer, though - Chef's creativity or the taste of the dish. 

The service at Vanitas draws a lot of reflection on my part. It is conversational and casual - perfect for a homely, a mother-like Italian restaurant. Is it plausible, though? Is it like trying to fit a circle into a square? This is no ordinary hotel housing this restaurant. The service approach works on one level - it sets guests at ease and they can relax. However, there is a disconnect between the venue and the manner of service. Something to think about.

After these musings, I turn my thoughts to the wine list again; Champagne in particular. There is something elegant and charming about champagne, isn't there? My second glass for the night keeps me with the Ruinart house as I have the Ruinart Brut NV, also served by the glass. While lacking the finesse of the Rosé or Blanc de blancs, it is nonetheless a fine option. 

Finally, for my main, I have the Glacier 51 "Cartoccio" toothfish, known as Patagonian toothfish or more commonly,  Chilean seabass. The dish is served with puttanesca sauce and black ink spaghetti. I am thrilled with Chef's recommendation because I could not imagine a more fitting way to end dinner than with this dish that has me reaching for superlatives, as the cliché goes. The dish brings together some key aspects of Chef's philosophy when it comes to serving dishes. His uttermost regard for texture in a  dish comes to the fore once more, with the Glacier 51 sitting atop a type of potato lasagne, while the sauce brings moisture and flavour to the dish. As for the spaghetti'? I am not telling you. Go and have Chef surprise you. You will be amazed at how he has made it. Finally, the dish is about the Glacier 51 of course - it is simply cooked in olive oil. Nothing else. There is a purity about it. Highly recommended as a main dish. 

The curtain on a fine evening closes with the Affogato, Italian for 'drowned'. Vanilla sponge, a chocolate dome and vanilla ice cream are drowned by caramel of chocolate sauce. Yes, you have seen the pouring of chocolate sauce over sphere done to death, but here it actually makes sense. It is another delightful play on something traditional - the affogato. 

Vanitas sets out to give you an experience of fine luxury and it delivers. However, it is easy to be caught up in the name and venue and succumbing to the halo effect. It is easy for the restaurant to trade on its location too, but it does not. Neither do I succumb to the halo effect. The food is genuinely good here, with Chef Andrea doing a fabulous job in walking between yesterday and tomorrow. He does not shock, though, as his innovative dishes can fit effortlessly into a traditional menu. Neither does he take centre stage. For him, it is still about the food. 

So, dress up. Take a bit more time polishing those shoes. Or change the stockings with that hidden rip. Upgrade the perfume. It is worth it. We need occasions to be elegant and handsome. 

Vanitas awaits.

The Essentials

Palazzo Versace
+971 4 556 8888

Selected Prices

Green zucchini  cream   55 AED
Raw cuttlefish ravioli      95 AED
Glacier 51    220 AED
Affogato     55 AED

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 Vanitas courtesy of the hotel.
Brandon Stoltenkamp