A refined Italian brunch - Cafe Milano, The Four Seasons Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Brunches in the capital, as I noted in my review of the top brunches in Abu Dhabi for 2016 (Top Brunches in Abu Dhabi 2016) tend to follow a formula. There is a handful of brunches that defy that and follow their own formula. Table brunches, with more sustainability and often greater quality, will become more popular with discerning brunchers, but within the table brunchelf concept its, there is much room to create an experience unique to each restaurant. Cafe Milano at The Four Seasons Hotel in Abu Dhabi has just launched its own table brunch. In this piece, I look to relive it. 

Love at first sight. It is hard not to fall in love with Cafe Milano as I walk in. It is bright and airy but not clinical. There is a lot of warmth. Art around the restaurant, tastefully displayed, creates that warmth I am referring to. A generously sized bar looks inviting, and I would like to see how this is used as a bar on its own. The terrace, despite the hotter days closing in, gives sumptuous views of the water. 

As I make my way to my table,  I pass the fresh pasta station, but I hate using the word 'station' because this is anything but a traditional brunch. Semantics aside, it is an important aspect not only of the brunch but also the restaurant. Just behind, I see a beautiful glass wine room - it is sexy as it is elegantly done. You see, we are so used to brunches being set in restaurants where our focus is the food and champagne. I find myself quite content to stop, stand and stare and watch as waiters and waitresses move smoothly from guest to guest. But I pull myself back from these preoccupations with the aesthetic appeal of the restaurant - I am here for brunch. I continue to my table.

My guest and I are seated and like clockwork, brunch is introduced. It is such a simple thing, but many restaurants fail to appreciate the significance of the first exchange. In the first 5 minutes, I have a sense of how well-trained staff is, the concept of brunch as well as the prices.  I love the table brunch concept, but I have also been wary of this because I do not want a brunch to feel like a lunch. However, to prevent this, a number of restaurants offer a part-buffet and part a la carte experience. But not here at Cafe Milano. I look at the menu and see a selection of cold and hot starters to be served at the table, followed by a  pasta course and then a meat or fish course - all at the table.

Brunch starts off with a Bellini, while I marvel at the gorgeous table setting. Make no mistake, it is stylish with fine touches, matched by only by one other brunch in the city in this regard. Fine and elegant. Why not? There is an oversupply of big brunches where functionality reigns over beauty. My thoughts are immediately whisked to my postgraduate years as a literature student and Oscar Wilde pops into my head: 

Beauty is a form of Genius--is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”

Again, my musings are brought to an end as the cold starters are smartly served in afternoon tea style three-tier stand that pays homage to breakfast with a selection of croissants serving both the sweet  and then the savoury palate. I like it. There is only  a handful of brunches that actually bridge the gap between breakfast and lunch by offering a few breakfast inspired treats. Also served, is a bold Tuna salad with nicely salted cannellini beans and onion. A Buffalo mozzarella salad with heirloom tomatoes and my salad of the day, the Quinoa salad are also on the table. The latter is so lightly seasoned that I am able to enjoy the individual ingredients. Wonderful. Finally, Dill marinated salmon balanced by orange is another good starter but surpassed by the Beetroot and goat cheese - superb. 

Cafe Milano, not surprisingly, serves a prosecco at its brunch. I am pleased that it is a Prosecco available nowhere else in the city. In fact, they serve two - the Bianca Vigna Extra Dry Prosecco and the Bianca Vigna Spumante Rosé. This has to be the best Prosecco I have had up to this point at a brunch in Abu Dhabi. Elegant and refined. Exclusive. I realise how much can be achieved when the men and women behind the scenes try to be a bit creative and find a drink that matches the brand of the restaurant. Finally, Cafe Milano also serves a red, white and rosé wine especially and exclusively bottled for them. All in all, a beautiful selection of wines, especially when you consider the price of brunch. 

Soon after, we have the hot starters. The Roasted scallops with bell pepper sauce, Stewed cuttlefish and Eggplant parmigiana continue the perfect portion size shown by the cold starters. As enjoyable and homely as the cuttlefish with peas is, it is the crispy and crunchy bread that makes it a great dish. In addition, we are given Potato omelettes and Focaccia with fresh rosemary. Finally, the Poached egg turns out to be my favourite hot starter. It is so good that I request another. A Decadently almost orange coloured runny yolk takes centre stage, nicely flavoured by the parmigiana sauce. Delicious. It is again, a  dish that is not served often enough at brunches. 

One of the key elements that makes a brunch a brunch and not a lunch, so to speak, is music. The first part of brunch features a fairly eclectic selection of music, with anything from Italian pop to bosa nova to Italian pop. Midway, though, the music becomes funky with Sia and Daft Punk really changing the tone of the brunch from relaxed to even more relaxed. I am pleased that the playlist is being extended to avoid repetition of songs I get today. 

Thanks to well thought out portion sizes, by the time the pasta course arrives I am more than ready, but as I look around, seeing people on different courses, I learn that thanks to a 4 hour afternoon, the guest is able to pace his or hear brunch accordingly. The pasta course, served table side by Executive Chef Franco Sangiacomo, is a highlight. A veal and vegetarian Cannelloni and Handmade Pici pasta covered in lovely crumbs of bread and garlic make their way onto our table. The manner in which they are served reflects the chilled atmosphere at brunch, despite the fine feel to the restaurant. There is something remarkably down to earth and homely about Chef as he serves the pasta. This is key in the experience at brunch - that typical Italian hospitality balances the aesthetic appeal of Cafe Milano. 

The truth is that service makes or breaks a brunch for me. It does not matter which ingredients are flown in and how a chef prepares the dishes - if the people on the floor get it wrong, a  restaurant fails. Cafe Milano is strong on service. The restaurant manager, Andrea Mana, recently moved from Crust, is perfect. I think an Italian restaurant needs a manager who has lived, who has stories to tell and Andrea is just that man. Passion is what drives staff in hospitality and he epitomises that, and this filters through to his staff. I have the pleasure of interacting with several servers and I am heartened by the way they conduct themselves. A couple of staff members are still a work in progress, but the rest are already close to where they should be. Our waitress for the better part of the day, Albena, is spot on with her drink top ups, plate clearing and ability to chat with guests. Finally, I must mention Domino who, young and full of Joie de vive, excels role in his rols as supervisor. 

The main courses turn out to be an event in itself.  There is a choice of three courses, but I am curious to try all three, so my guest and I share them. The Seabass fillet is something to behold. The saffron yellow is as visually striking as it is on the palate but in no way overpowers the seabass as I bite into. Then, the Grilled lamb - it is really nicely cooked and goes really well with an indulgent garlic purée. Finally, we also try the Roast chicken breast and while I find it a bit over cooked but I must add, though, that the lemon sauce served with the chicken makes up for my experience of the chicken. However, my guest reckons the chicken is perfectly cooked for him. 

To end off brunch, the dessert trolley is brought around. It is, however, a course that shows me again the beauty of people. Chef Lazzaro, visiting from Sienna, has been providing support and guidance to some staff in the kitchen, and we are all lucky that he is serving us today. Through an interpreter, I come to learn so much in the five minutes that he is with us. Real. Simple. All heart. What an experience. 

In summary, this is only the second time I have called a brunch An Eexperience in Abu Dhabi. For it is indeed that. Brunch at Cafe Milano transcends ingredients, well-chosen wine, china, silver and the view to create something that I believe guests will love. The thread that holds everything together is humanity. People. Hands. Cafe Milano brings to Abu Dhabi a brunch that takes a fine restaurant and creates a very relaxed afternoon while maintaining very high standards of food and near faultless service. It shows that people need not be intimidated by a  restaurant so rich in style and design. This is backed up by the price which is a very special introductory offer of 250AED++. While the latter may change, I suspect it will still be immense value for money. 

So, who says that brunches are all about over eating and drinking? This is probably the first brunch that I associate the word 'soul' with. It has a lot and I have no doubt that it will develop a big following as people learn that style, grace and elegance can be found at a brunch in Abu Dhabi. 


Cafe Milano at Four Seasons Hotel,
Al Maryah Island,
Abu Dhabi
+971 2 3332600
12-4pm on Saturdays

AED250++ Prosseco package
AED190++ Soft drinks
AED60++ Kids

Brandon Stoltenkamp
Disclaimer: I was invited to try Cafe Milano's brunch courtesy of the hotel.