JW Steakhouse up there with the best in Abu Dhabi - Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi

As I walk up to JW, the signature steakhouse at Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi, I notice the work that has gone into making the outside area cosy and welcoming. It looks like the kind of place to have a drink before dinner. I continue walking and as I enter the restaurant, I hear Stevie Wonder's "I wish". I notice the lighting too - spot on, if you excuse the pun. I must say I like the fact the first thing I see is the open kitchen. JW is about food, after all. My guest and I are seated at the window, with views of the city offering a lovely contrast to the restaurant setting - outside looks so manic, as cars vie for spaces while lights dazzle in the night. I love the cosiness of the steakhouse, with wood and leather warmly ensconcing me. 

Having tried their gin trolley before, I have a glass of champagne to get the evening started. Champagne really is a versatile drink and one can get away having it with most dishes. As I have another sip of bubbly, Frank Wilson's "Do I love you?" plays. The music, 60s-70s soul/funk strikes a chord with me. Music is very difficult in a steakhouse, with a tendency to over-rely on jazz. The music chosen here reflects an identity that sets JW apart from the rest - something fresh in Abu Dhabi. 

 Now, I enjoy theatre in dining; showmanship. It adds that little extra to the evening. In a steakhouse, I have seen it all - the caesar salad done live; the beef tartar done tableside; the large steak cut in front of me. The thing is, it is enjoyable, isn't it. But when you do a  steakhouse roundup, you are on the look for something different, that stands out. During these musings, Chef Stephan comes to the table with a  grill and bread. I sit up. This looks interesting. Chef toasts the bread at our table while telling us about two types of salt and two types of butter. It is all about simplicity - taking the oft-underappreciated things like bread and elevating it ceremoniously. Very nice!

Once I have recovered from this wonderful innovation, the amuse bouche is served. A single Tsarskaya oyster, with a piece of big eye tuna, tomato sorbet and tomato dashi is sensuously presented on salt with a piece of seaweed on the side. Apart from the flavours inside, I like the thoughtful way this is put together - a celebration of the sea. John Masefield's Sea Fever comes to mind:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking

After that high of the amuse bouche, my starter is served - Smoked Loch Fyne salmon. There is a lot to like in the dish. The flat, carpaccio-like the way it is placed on the plate allows thinly sliced cucumber to stand upright and seemingly dwarf the salmon. Salmon roe, capers, onion and horseradish cream round out the dish, while for added texture, rustically broken brown brioche is also on the plate.  An undefinable sweetness in the cucumber balances out the rest of the dish very nicely, so I can understand why it is perched the way it is - it just allows me to enjoy the salmon even more. Contrast. 

The accompanying wine, a 2014 Two Vines Gewurtztraminer, a well-priced option and one of 19 by-the-glass options, complements the salmon dish rather nicely, especially against the salmon roe. Incidentally, a glass of wine starts at 30AED, perfect for this deflated market. 

With my eye now firmly on the main course, Al Green's "Let's Stay together" comes on and I allow myself a moment or two to sway to the rhythm. Looking again at the wine list, I spot a South African favourite. The Chocolate Block, a 2014 vintage. Restaurant Supervisor Sukhil shows the value of someone on the floor who understands wine. When he decants the wine, he affords it so much respect that I marvel as he does it. And it is nothing pretentious. As he decants, he explains everything. Theatre. Ceremony. But all relaxed. 

Just before the main is served, Chef Stephan visits our table serves salt crusted potatoes, one of those added value elements that are really taking the night to another level. Potatoes, so earthy, so inexpensive, and yet the manner in which he serves them shows the beauty of simple things. Similarly, he also serves leek at the table. The smokiness in the leek is just amazing. Chef Stephan goes to every table doing the bread service and is able to do either the potato or leek as well - or both. If all steak houses are serving pretty much similar meat (an oversimplification I know), how do we remember an experience? The little things. The interaction. The Chef at a table. 

After the unfolding drama of the potato and the leek, it is time for the main course - the Master Kobe MB9. I like the fact that they do a 150g cut, albeit a tenderloin, which allows guests to have a cut that on par offers of the highest marbling at a steakhouse in Abu Dhabi. Price wise, it comes in at half the price of the 300g, so all round a great inclusion on the menu. 

In the end, how is the steak? The picture below shows how gorgeous it is. It has the perfect texture. It is all about getting the temperature right. Overcooked a bit, and you start to lose the benefit of the marbling. Tonight, Chef has nailed it. Paired with the Chocolate Block, it is just a moment of joy at a table. In fairness, there are many wines that would go well with this meat, but tonight's wine undercuts any quality French Bordeaux wine in price, making it a very good choice. 

 Followers of my writing will know that I often say I am not a cheesecake person, but I make exceptions. The cheesecake at JW, based on the Grosvenor House London recipe, is one of those I love. On a side note, I also had it at the hotel's brunch at Kuzbarra where it is served full size. But tonight it is even more special. Chef adds to an evening of high drama by presenting it at the table but by adding a bit of a show. He starts out by placing an flat, arched crescent shaped glass tray / plate and puts berry coulis, raspberry sorbet, raspberry foam and real berries and strawberries on it. Then, he places the cheesecake. Wow! Enough said. 

As my evening ends, I have a bit of time to reflect on a night of many highs. The music. The presentation of dishes. The service, knowledgeable and relaxed. On a previous visit when JW had just opened, I asked Peppiina, the restaurant manager, what set JW apart from all other steakhouses, and I confidently shot down everything she said. That night I wrote: as a restaurant offering a 'contemporary take on a classic American steakhouse', I want to see more pizzaz, for want of a better word - it is the x-factor I mentioned in my opening remarks. It does everything solidly, but I need a stronger identity especially if you look at the competition.http://bit.ly/2qo8OVI

Tonight was special for me because I could see the growth of the restaurant. If she asked me that same question tonight, I would have said: You have placed people at the centre of the experience, and that sets you apart. From our waiter Jack, who asked my guest: What may I call you - in an attempt to include him by name in his conversation with me.  To Sukhil and his theatrical decanting of the wine and then, of course, Chef de Cuisine Stephan Benkendorff who took the simple and raised it up. He is real, not flamboyant and at no point does he allow himself to become bigger than the dish - JW has now moved into my top 3 steakhouses in the city because it has used its most valuable resource - people - to come up with a concept that needs no gimmicks. 

The Essentials

JW Steakhouse
Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi
+971 2 304 7777
JW Menu

My meal
Smoked Loch Fyne Salmon 85AED
Master Kobe MB9 150g beef 310AED

Brandon Stoltenkamp
Disclaimer: I was invited to try JW by the restaurant