Certain to take Japanese dining to another level - 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant, Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi

The sensuous entrance that evokes tranquility has a decided Japanese quality to it. There is nothing fake here in this almost zen-like entrance. A few steps inside and I see a bar, with sunlight creating an almost surreal vision. It is cosy and intimate. I walk through the dining area, pass the private dining room and head towards the terrace. Stylish. Classy. Elegant. These are some of the words that run through my mind. Intimate, the word again creeps into my mind -  99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant accommodates 99 guests. 

I look around and listen to staff and I see an eclectic mix of waiters and waitresses. I am seated and afforded a  view of the water that separates Al Maryah Island from the Abu Dhabi mainland. Today I am here to try a restaurant that has just walked off with the Timeout Abu Dhabi Best Newcomer award. Of course, I have already heard so much about  a restaurant that dares to charge above premium prices for something as basic sushi. Basic right? After all, sushi is just rice, seaweed and a couple other ingredients. Right?

A first glance at the menu reveals a succinct menu, which is very guest friendly. In high end restaurants, it is particularly important to have menus that are brief because it shows a faith in what the restaurant is offering. Any restaurant can mask bad dishes by adding some good ones here and there, resulting in a menu with way too many options. There is no such issue with that here. 

On the surface, 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant is not cheap. And just from the menu, I can see there is nothing like it in the city. In fact, no where in the city do we see the words 'haute cuisine' as the subtext of any restaurant. This Spanish concept restaurant has come to Abu Dhabi to really make people question the importance of ingredients in Japanese cuisine. As we know, to the Japanese, ingredients are everything. So, with this the context, one can appreciate why their tuna based dishes are more expensive than most places - they source only Bluefin Tuna, which is to fish what Krug is to champagne. It is not cheap at wholesale, but the restaurant has managed to keep the prices fairly low considering. 

I start off with the Eel Tempura cocktail - a dish adapted to the local market. In Madrid, they serve it with sea urchin instead of eel. Other than the texture I want in tempura, it is the shiso leaf that excites my palate. It is heartening to see this leaf actually used for a purpose other than being a palate cleanser when serving sashimi. 

In quick succession, I have a tasting portion of the Tiger prawn tempura which  is dressed in a  deliciously balanced sauce, and the Spicy tuna tartare, served with shoestring chips , in a  kimuchi sauce. Notwithstanding the other ingredients on the plate, I can still taste the tuna, as the sauce especially, does not overpower the tuna. 

For my drink, I have the Pongracz,  a sparkling wine from South Africa. It is a good by the glass option for a not so bad sparkling wine. My perennial favourite non champagne, Nino Franco Rustico, is also available at 70AED per glass, but the Pongracz beats it handsomely in terms of price and overall value for money. It would be lovely if they had the Rosé as well. 

Just before the main course, I have the Yellowtail carpaccio with ponzu and soy sauce. I love the attention detail in the way the hamachi is sliced. I am impressed by the thickness  of each carpaccio. I also indulge the amazing Grilled foie with raspberry - a must have. With my well documented love for foie gras, this is a very enthralling dish, accentuated by a sweet sour raspberry. 

There are those dishes that you have that you will never forget. You will remember the moment you had it, the context, the day, etc. As I am served the Lobster maki, I have no idea how significant this dish would prove. As I bite into it, I have to close my eyes. In shutting my eyes, I close myself to all distractions because I want to savour every bite and subsequent chewing action. The Atlantic lobster could not have been better cooked - it is light, tender and moist, while the subtle flavour of the cucumber, sea weed and yuzu play their part in making this dish soar. It suddenly falls into place and I am reminded that sushi is not simply sushi. My thoughts drift to the rice, sourced, like many of the ingredients, from Japan. 

My thoughts go further,  to Japan and the importance they place on rice. I recall how in my previous visits to japanI would make outlandish statements like Japanese rice is the food of the gods. Japanese rice, I believe, is a meal in its own right. It is no coincidence that the Japanese use the word gohan, to mean rice or meal. Furthermore, to emphasise the value they place on rice, the Japanese name all three meals to include the word gohan - for instance, asagohan means breakfast. Rice, oh rice - 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant comprehends the value of well cooked rice and it is noticeable in the sushi. 

After what I can only describe as a very intense moment with that Lobster maki, my main course is presented - the 99 Black cod. There are two very interesting things about this dish. Firsty, when it is served, our waiter, José, a  Spanish native, uses a spoon to test whether the cod is well cooked - he assures me it is ready. It is all about how he reads the flakiness of the cod. I am told that if he is not happy with, he will bring out another. Secondly, the cod is basically glazed twice with miso. This results in a  a richly flavoured piece of cod and which sets it apart from the cod served at competitors. 

To end the afternoon, I have a selection of mochi ice cream - again, even something as simple as mochi ice, shows the extent to which 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant tries to get the best suppliers. When you try their mochi, you will notice that it is different from most restaurants serving it - the glutinous rice is not overly chewy. Make sure you try the ginger mochi. 

The biggest challenge facing  99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant is educating people who have become spoilt on eat as much you want sushi for 99AED! It will not be an easy sell, but locals willing to pay for anything that is the best, I am hopeful. Of course the restaurant is more than sushi and beef lovers for instance, will be pleased with a grade 9 wagyu on the menu. The first thing you will hear people say about 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant is that it is expensive. That is rather unfortunate for while it can be expensive, it does not have to be. Nusr-Et, for example, is also expensive and yet many people go in there and order the burger and a glass of wine. It is up to you. When people ask me about 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant I will say their commitment to fine ingredients is remarkable and commendable. What Japanese restaurants forget is that Japanese food is based on tremendous respect for ingredients. When people ask me about 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant I will say that the restaurant is challenging prevailing norms where sushi as a dish has been taken away from its essence, leading to outrageous combinations and watering down of ingredients.

In conclusion, in much the same way as the water, symbolising purity,  cascading as you walk into the restaurant, 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant wants to take diners to a  purer Japanese experience. And that can come at a price of course. But backed by a  concept that has proven successful in Spain and focusing on a product, sushi, much loved by locals, I see 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant playing its role in reviving fine dining in the city.

99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant, (next to Cafe Milano, but this is not a  Four Seasons restaurant)
Al Maryah Island, 
Abu Dhabi
 +971 2 672 3333
99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant

Meal for 2 incl a glass of wine 600-800AED

Brandon Stoltenkamp

Disclaimer: I was invited by 99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant to try some dishes.