Persian cuisine at Enigma - Palazzo Versace Hotel, Dubai

Persia. It is evocative, isn't it? Persia. What comes to mind when you read it or hear the word? There is something alluring about it for me, something mysterious. It is a culture that is several thousand years old, a land of exotic delights. It is appropriate that Enigma, the fine dining restaurant at Palazzo Versace Hotel In Dubai, would be the new home of Persian cuisine, a concept that will run for the foreseeable future. Is there not an enigmatic quality to the very sound of 'Persia'? Executive Chef Mansour Memarian's Iranian origin serves as the inspiration for the 'Taste of Persia'. A trip two years ago to Tehran was also fresh on my mind as I walked in to Enigma. 4 days in Tehran

The indoor setting is absolutely beautiful, with furnishings and decor hinting, more than anything, about a Persian experience. If the indoor setting is such, the the terrace in these cool evenings is on par - but how do you compare beauty? Tonight, my guest and I opt to sit on the terrace. It is relaxed as terraces often are and recommended if you feel a bit intimidated by 'fine' restaurants. Furthermore, if like me you are enchanted by the night lights of a city as the lights gleam of the pools at the hotel, then you have added reason to enjoy the outdoors. Besides, how much longer can we enjoy the wonderful weather? 'If Winter is come, can Spring be far behin' are the words of Shelley that ring in my mind as I opt for the terrace. 

It is easily noticeable how many staff per guests there are in the restaurant. And no, it is not because the restaurant is empty. On the contrary. Service is just something that is privileged at the hotel's marquis restaurant. It is not just the number of staff around but also their energy. I like the staff - a really eclectic mix of people. 

Both the food and drinks menus are presented. One word - simple. I believe that good restaurants do not need large menus; the few dishes chosen by a chef should speak for the restaurant. It is hard not to notice the pricing - the most expensive dish is 145AED. This is significant on a number of levels but what intrigues me other than the value for money element, is that guests who are not familiar with Persian cuisine can simply leave it to Chef to create an experience, a journey, a story, knowing that the bill at the end will not be a shocker. In fact, I recommend this. Who better to guide one than Chef Mansour? 

My guest and I start with a glass of house bubbly, the R de Ruinart NV, undoubtedly one of the best house champagnes arounds. However, the drinks menu does have some Persian- inspired cocktails and I make sure to chat to the restaurant's mixologist. 

Passion is one of those overused words in hospitality. Every chef is passionate. Every hotelier is passionate. The truth is , in Chef Mansour, that passion comes across so clearly,  like breathing, unequivocally. His eyes light up, much like a child when she/he opens a gift and it is what he wanted. I watch him moving from table to table, connecting with guests, serving them. When he comes to our table, I watch his hand gestures. I pay attention to his pupils as they dilate every time he gets lost in a moment describing a dish. The talking ends. 

The evening starts as the so-called Sabzi khordan  is brought to the table. 

Herbs, fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese and nuts are very part of an Iranian table. The word garden forces itself into my mind. As water is poured on dry ice to create theatre, I am able to understand the approach that Enigma has taken with Persian cuisine. It is not sexing it up to the extent that it is hardly recognisable as Persian cuisine. It is about staying true to the essence of these dishes. It is a delicate balance, isn't it? Put another way, it is about bringing the past into the present without trying to alter the past. IThe latter is what it is. 

We start off with a series of cold starters - sharing starters, something you are familiar with if you have lived in the Middle East, is a key element in the Persian experience. Because every dish is so well thought out, I am bold enough to say you could go with any on the menu. However, I would like to recommend the  Masto khiar wa naana, basically freshly grated cucumber and mint in yoghurt. Also, Zeytoon parwardeh which is marinated green olives! In the mix there are walnuts and pomegranate. As I write this, I am sure you can imagine the flavours.  However, two of my favourites and a must have on the table are a cold salad and a warm dish. Fresh bread is constantly changed, something I really appreciate. 

I choose to stop after a glass of bubbly and peruse the drinks menu. Mixologists are taking up an essential role in restaurants, with the word 'crafted' often used, rightly or wrongly. Adding gin and some tonic water to a glass is hardly crafting a drink, but when a mixologist takes a bit of time to create a drink for two people because precision is so crucial in making a drink that is a balanced -  if a mixologist comes to your table and explains that the drink you are about to have is an expression of an epic Iranian poem, - you know he is crafting a drink. Drinks in isolation are simply drinks. Drinks with a story allow you to taste culture with every sip. Jesse, the barman/mixologist at Enigma, is one of those who looks upon his creations as art. He is so down to earth and does not come across as the male version of a diva where the diva's personality overwhelms the drink. No, he is real. Real conversation. Everything real. Well spoken. Sincere. Leave yourself in his hands. let him craft an experience for you. Ask about the Shahnameh, a drink that is inspired by the epic 60 000 verse poem by Ferdowsi, Iran's most celebrated poet. 

Returning to the dishes, first of all, there is the Salad chupa, a salad I can see myself having on a Spring morning with a  glass of bubbly. Watermelon, cress, candied olives, walnuts and homemade Persian cheese come together to create one of the most exciting salads I have had in recent times. Ingredients with bold colours matched by equally piquant flavours, exquisitely presented, ask for you to get a taste of each element on the plate at once! Notwithstanding the appearance, this salad has a close connection to shepherds out in the Persian fields where they would simple ingredients and make a salad like this. Chef Mansour's touch is what elevates it to a fine-looking dish, but the different parts are really basic, much like the life of a shepherd. 

If you enjoy eggplant, the charcoal grilled eggplant is a must. Robust flavours but with that unmistakable eggplant texture and taste, and nicely textured with roasted onions and crispy mint, the Kashke bademjun turns out to be my guest's dish of the night. 

Finally, we have the Nargesi. It is a dish of many highlights. Potatoes are done three ways - no spolier for you. Order it and taste the potato! There is an egg in the middle of the dish surrounded by potatoes with such care given to presentation. The picture here does not convey the homeliness of this dish, but the spinach on which the eggs sits brings it right home; a generous amount of mildly flavoured spinach surprises me. Spinach. Our garden when I was a child. Happiness. School. My dead father. Images flash through my mind's eye. The thing is just because a dish looks beautiful and is well plated does not necerssairly take away its homeliness and heartiness. You sometimes need just one ingredient that resonates with a guest. For me, this dish is about the spinach!

For our main course, we have two kebabs, Kabab Kubide, a minced lamb skewer grilled on charcoal with a bit saffron and also the Kabab masti, Kabab Masti, beef marinated in yogurt with lime.  The former is my favourite of the two because the flavours are a bit more pronounced than that of the beef, but nothing dominant. Both kebabs are served with Mirza ghasemi, grilled eggplants with fresh tomatoes, roasted onions and garlic. make sure to have the yoghurts from your starters with the kebabas. They allow the yogurts we have on the table and of course the Mirza ghasemi, to provide the stronger favours to the kebab experience. The challenge for the kebabs, and this is beyond its powers, is to continue the showmanship evident among the starters, but looking at the menu, I see other dishes that will likely continue the drama experienced among the starters. Not every dish involves table side prep or dry ice, I remind myself.

To get a full experience and mainly because I was feeling  a bit cold, we move inside for dessert. I order the Fruit Platter. My guest, on the other hand, has the Baklavah. The menu description of the fruit platter is 'Experience a fruit platter like never before'. It is served, with dry ice again proving very dramatic. But that is not what makes this a memorable dessert.  Fruit is macerated in spice-infused liquid, ensuring that every bite of a piece of fruit has a tinge of spice to it. All the fruit sits atop a bed of watermelon granita! This is again a perfect illustration of taking something as essential to an Iranian table as fruit but presenting it in a way that is both modern and tantalising. As for the baklavah, well. The ice cream used...oh the ice cream!

After some tea marking the end of my dining experience, my thoughts fall into place. A 'Taste of Persia' at Enigma is not just about food. Well, it is about food in so far as food is the vehicle for something much greater. It is the doorway to thousands of years of civilization where the spirits of those days are present in every dish served. Time past and present intersect all the time, and 'Taste of Persia' is a real example of how this happens. Modern touches to dishes, some more than others, while staying firmly in touch with the past is why this concept is beautiful. Intelligent staff fill in the blank spaces, connecting dishes and drinks to Persian culture, ensuring this is not just a dinner, but an experience; a cultural culinary journey. Dishes are incredibly well priced,  a strong contrast to some concepts hosted by Enigma in the past and yet the experience remains fine, albeit very relaxed. 

Enigma is an experience where ingredients and the human heart interact to create something magical. We need these concepts. At a time when life is bereft of meaning and depth, and when poetry and words are becoming less significant, it is reassuring to see restaurants that inspire a love for the word once more. After all, in the beginning was the word. 

The Essentials

Palazzo Versace
+971 4 556 8888

Average cost per couple, excl drinks 400-600AED

Disclaimer: Brandon Stoltenkamp is a  hotel and restaurant writer based in Abu Dhabi. He was at the restaurant by invitation.