Another chapter in the story that is Enigma - Palazzo Versace Hotel, Dubai

A mystery. Something unknown. Not easy to understand. An enigma. Demystifying. Demythologising. No longer an enigma. Or is it? Is the allure of the enigma not the fact that it remains shrouded in mystery? As I walk down a quiet corridor of Palazzo Versace Hotel in Dubai, pausing for  a moment to look at a Charlize Theron ball gown sketch by Donatella Versace, take a right turn on my way to Enigma, the fine dining restaurant at the hotel, I ponder that very question. Do I want tonight's chapter of Enigma stripped to be all revealing? Do I want to walk out still filled with a sense of the unknown? My thoughts are cast aside, though, as I am greeted by the hostess who leads my guest and me to our table. 

As I sit down, I appreciate the fine aspects of the restaurant. There is seating for around 50 people inside plus a terrace; ample space between tables ensures privacy, but it is not cavernous. There is still an intimacy about the restaurant. Turkish copper vases and jugs are the obvious Turkish iconography around the restaurant. 

My guest and I start off with a gin and tonic - Marmaris' tonic, named after the Mediterranean resort town along the Turkish Riviera and masterfully introduced by Andrii.  Grapefruit, red peppercorns and a sprig of rosemary perhaps serve as a reminder that based on this drink, this is not Turkish cuisine as I know it. 

Perhaps though, it is the spicy tomato dip and olives that make me keenly aware that this will be an extraordinary journey - the dip, drowned in olive oil, is served in a lopsided soup-like bowl. Very metaphorical indeed. When a restaurant promises  a different take on a cuisine, I expect consistency throughout, and between the Gin and tonic and mezze to start off with, I can feel it already. After all, Frost's Road not Taken is not about a selective or convenient choice of the unconventional, is it? 

The first dish is served. Ahtapot or  Octopus is place din front of us. The 78˚c - 8 cooked octopus is tender beyond words. You know how you have come to associate this protein with a rubbery texture? Well, you will not find it here. My first bite has that 'dissolve in your mouth' feel to it - you know the cliché. But as I am marvelling at the texture, there is a burst of citrus that bewitches. Also, the avocado that now reaches my palate does not escape the citrus taste as it too has an infusion of citrus, but not the point that it overpowers the avocado. I have another bite - I make sure to combine all three principle ingredients. What a stellar start to the evening. Truly. 

My choice of champagne for the night, meanwhile, is the Ruinart Rosé - a glorious champagne, incidentally the house champagne. It is a refined and elegant champagne with tiny bubbles. Berries, mainly strawberry, dominate the palate as a  fine mousse plays with the mouth. Its position as a house champagne says a lot about the hotel in terms of where it positions itself in a very competitive Dubai market. A superb choice!

Next, we have what I can only call an incredible dish. The Tutsulenmis Partlican Corbasi or Smoked eggplant soup is served. A bit of goat's cheese is in the centre along with fresh thyme, but not much - just enough to provide  a hint, in both cases. Many chefs will claim that the idea of bringing a  dome full of smoke to a  table is nothing new. Yes, but allow me.

Firstly, egg plant, which can be stringy is not an obvious ingredient when it comes to a soup like this. The result is unbelievably smooth! But the best part is that Chef is able to keep every spoonful consistently smokey. To have the first scoop and the last one fill me with the same intense smoked flavour is absolutely brilliant. Intense. Emotional. Joyful. That is the story in this dish. 

It does not take me long to realise that service here is on another level. Our waiter for the evening, Sam, is suave, well spoken, knowledgeable and carries himself in a manner that befits this restaurant. But at the same time, he is not unapproachable. He is simply able to read his two guests tonight very well and engages us accordingly. Slick service that belies a lot of heart. 

Next up, we have the Pancarli Cous Cous or  Beetroot Cous Cous. I immediately go back to my dad's vegetable garden and my mother's Sunday beetroot. No, her dishes  never came close to what is on my plate, but it is the ingredient of beetroot that has an emotional connection for me. Chef's plate, emotions aside, is bountiful - there is so much happiness on the plate. The risotto-like couscous, with its pink colour has plenty of texture. Duck confit, green and white asparagus and fresh herbs take the dish away from my childhood, but that does not matter - the emotional association has already been made, so when I try it, the happiness in my heart grows tenfold. Chef is very controlled in his flavours, with no intense tastes coming through. I think that is important because, after, the Smoked eggplant soup, this is exactly what my palate was yearning for. 

The dish that follows could not be more simply presented.  The Levrek or Sea Bass has a "Black sea findik' or  hazelnut crust, and is served with spinach and caramelised endive. This dish is all about levels of flavour. As I put a bit in my mouth, there is just a  hint of sweetness but as I bite into it and chew the seabass, the hint becomes more defined, while the texture from that hazelnut just takes over the mouth. The sea bass, by the way, is just perfectly cooked. It is so easy to mask a badly cooked protein by having all sorts of paraphernalia on the plate, but Chef allows that sea bass to stand on its own for so well he has cooked it. With 70-80% of the world's hazelnuts from Turkey and with a generous amount along the Black Sea coast, it is fitting that it features on the menu tonight, but it is the way Chef uses it that is pure genius. 

It is around this time that my thoughts are focused on Chef Yunus Aydin. Up to now, I have watched in awe as he has visited every table and introduced most of the dishes - operationally a tough task, ask any Chef. Energy and passion. He arrives at our table and explains the dish, or the story of the dish, and moves to the next table. Energy and passion. I watch him as he moves to a table and is engaged maybe much longer than he had planned to be, but he remains unphased. Soon, though, he moves on to the next table. Energy and passion. I am amazed by his devotion to his guests. In doing what I do, I am used to a chef coming around to my table and talking to me. But I have never seen a  chef move to all his guests the way Chef Yunus has. I am overwhelmed by his passion. There are times I cannot believe he is only 31 and I feel almost unworthy to have been part of this Enigma journey thus far. Energy and passion. 

As the evening winds down,  though, we have time for two more dishes. We have the 7 Baharatli Kuzu Gerdan or 7 Spices Lamb Neck which has been cooked for 36 hours at 68˚c. Needless to say, the lamb is sublime. When you cook lamb for that period of time at that temperature it does take a lot of skill and Chef has again produced a dish that has me spellbound. In adding varying degrees of sweetness and elements of sour, he has used fig compote, confit of cherries. However, it is the figs that bring that Turkish element to the dish that wows.

Chef's dishes, while being a  far cry from the typical Turkish dishes like Pide, Lahmacun, Kebabs and Pilav that one is likely to have had, the Turkishness in his tasting menu cannot be missed. I love the way he has infused each dish with what makes it Turkish, staying true to his roots. With a  very homely background, this is what I expected. It is appropriate that his final offering, the dessert, is so closely linked to his time as a young boy. He talked about apple trees being a part of his life up until now in his homeland. Therefore, when he serves Yesil Elma  or Apple Apple mousse, I feel a real connection to that dish myself. It is another dish that brims with elation and joy. Happiness. Apart from hello, apple must be one of the first words learned by children who speak English as  a foreign language, such is its universality. So, seeing it presented like this - well, I am beside myself. Almond and hazelnut balance the puffy almost cloud-like mousse and the vanilla-infused green apple. Finally, orange sauce and kaymak ice cream complete what is a truly magical dessert! 

When I look at my watch and notice it is 23h40 and I have been on my enigmatic journey since 19h30, I know it is time to leave. The evening comes back to me in flashes - the fine, timely and balanced service, dishes that mesmerised and a chef that showed that producing a fine dish is just part of the experience of dining and  that equally important, it is his voice, his narrative, his background that give the dishes a context. Chef Yunus, though his stories, has indeed unravelled some of the mystery around Turkish cuisine, but thankfully, much remains unknown. So, my fear that too much will be revealed has not materialised, ensuring that this restaurant and its daring concept in which a different cuisine is shared with guests roughly every 3 months or a different story is told, will remain as its namesake - an Enigma. What will the next chapter be? 

PS: All pics were taken by mobile. As a courtesy to other guests, no flash photography was used. 

The Essentials

Palazzo Versace
+971 4 556 8888

Chef's tasting menu is priced at 600AED

A la carte
Starters 45-120AED
Mains 150-550AED
Dessert 45-65AED

Disclaimer: I tried Enigma by invitation of the hotel. All views are my own. 
Brandon Stoltenkamp