Brandon's Table at Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi - Scaling new heights

On the 26th of February I sat in Stratos, the under rated restaurant, grill and lounge that sits atop Le Royal Meridien Hotel in Abu Dhabi. Executive Jay Williams was hosting me and the agenda for the evening was to try new dishes and talk about the new menu. There was one moment that the idea of a Brandon's Table at the hotel was born. It was when I saw Chef's Seared scallops dish. It was not a  perfect dish by any means. I talked about the need to switch from the scallops they were using because it was stringy. Chef sat there, nodded his head and I could see he was in complete agreement. There was an honesty about his approach to the whole evening. But the dish itself had a wonderful concept. Between Chef and the dish, I knew we had to have a Table here. By the time the hotel General Manager, Ashraf El Siessy, joined us, the idea was clear. 

Four months later, Brandon's Table has come to Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi. 

On arrival at District by Amalfi, the hotel's revamped and hip feeling Italian restaurant where Italy meets New York, I notice some guests already there with a glass of Prosecco in hand for the next Brandon's Table. I am not sure, though, that they have all noticed something that will prove to be an iconic start to the evening and indeed reflects the theme that Chef has created - the edible garden evokes Alice in Wonderland's tea party. It promises to be an evening of delightful insanity. But what is a tea party with tea, right? After a welcome by Chef, Hendricks Gin tea cups are passed around while a gin infused drink that is part of the drinks menu at  Market Kitchen, is served. The garden itself is all about discovering - all about glancing through the garden and finding what you want to eat. It is fun. 

Conversation. Let's not forget that this was the motivating factor behind starting Brandon's Table 8 months ago. The Table is created to get guests to really engage in meaningful conversation. This is facilitated by capping the number of guests at 12 and they are not invited through social media - they are all known to me or through close friends. There is a genuine synergy this evening.

The evening marks a departure from previous Tables in that rather than have guests sit in one restaurant for the next 3-4 hours, we will be lead 'down the rabbit hole' - where we end up... one knows. Actually I do, but let's see. We are soon called by the rabbit to follow her and what happens next catches everyone by surprise - we are blindfolded for the next part of our journey, recalling the darkness Alice would have experienced as she fell down the rabbit hole. It is a moment that challenges quite a few guests. It calls for trust and takes them out of their comfort zones. Dining needs to do that sometimes, especially in a city not really known for risk taking when it comes to restaurants and concepts. 

We are lead to an elevator and what impresses me is the manner in which the hotel is on board with this event. Each guest is lead arm in arm by people including the GM, Executive Chef and respective outlet managers  from the outlets featuring tonight - Andrew Chauval from District by Amalfi, Andreea Mironescu from Stratos and Leoul Tesfaye Market Kitchen manager. This I am able to gather just before I am blindfolded, so as I write this I am aware that there were others involved. I have the pleasure of being guided by Mahesh Chinnasamy, the Executive Housekeeper. The journey takes us down the elevator to the basement, where we walk blindfolded through the parking area - certainly a first for guests at a dinner in the city. 

As guests make their way through the parking area, they are surprised with something on a spoon - the call for trust is sounded again as guests are given Mock tuna tartar - "Open your mouth please" is followed by a waitress serving the guest - at the risk of sounding like a teenager, it is very cool. It also causes guests to think about what they traditionally call a dish or a course. Does a course have to be served on a plate? Must it be at a table? Why is this not a course? Exciting questions I am hopeful that people ask themselves. Moments like these are what high end dining is missing: Elements of surprise. Up is Down. Black is white. Sunrise is sunset. 

With no broken ankles and everyone's sense of trust well met, we are seated in the main kitchen for the next course we have  a dish made live in the kitchen - surreal. A somewhat deconstructed Tomato Burrata, with heirloom tomatoes, is served - the basil sorbet completes a dish that shows this evening is about more than just concepts. I think it is so important that bells and whistles, good as they are, are not the only things that guests remember about an evening of dining. This dish ensures exactly that!

There is not much time to dwell and reflect as we are whisked off, wonderfully lead by our rabbit, Assel Nurymbayeva, Assistant manager in Stratos, to Market Kitchen, the hotel's Modern American restaurant that remains one of my ten favourite  restaurants in the city. We go to the wonderful lofted space in the restaurant that affords a stunning view of the main dining area. We enjoy cocktails and the 3-year old restaurant's classic dish among all classics - the Crispy sushi. However, it is done with a bit of a twist - Chef gives it the blowtorch treatment. Theatre. Drama. Added texture. There is a moment when I see guests lining up around the bar - quite moving seeing a concept realised to this extent. Those who arrived as strangers are on their way to forming friendships. Conversation. 

As we arrive on the 15th floor, there is the aroma of something that gets me hungry. Chef has used  an atomiser with a mixture of 7 herbs that is found in Market Kitchen as part of its new drinks experience. It works. This is surreally hypnotic. When last did you smell something cooking on the 15th floor of a hotel where there was no restaurant? While it might give us a an idea as to the protein that awaits us as we approach the hotel's Panorama Suite, it does not give us any insight to what really awaits us. 

As the doors to the suite open, gasps of, "Oh my gosh" and even bolder, "Oh my God" exclamations are let out while 90s hip hop genre-busting 'Insane in the Brain' by Cypress Hills blares through the speakers. Why this and not something classical to suit the occasion? This is the land of Alice where nothing is what it seems. It is where for our main course is Wagyu knuckle carpaccio with root vegetables and a beef/dashi broth and are served by waiters wearing black gloves.  The meeting room has been transformed into Alice's dining room, with toadstools and clocks of all shapes and dimensions littered around the room. On the screen is the original film version of Alice in Wonderland with the sound muted. 

Part of the dining experience is undoubtedly talking points the next day, what Seinfeld calls the 'water cooler' factor - things you will talk about the next day with your friends and colleagues as you meet at the water cooler. As guests we break into deconstructing already, still awe struck by what has happened to the room. On another but equally satisfying plane is the sustainable nature of the evening - everything we see in the room has been found in the hotel, so no added expenses, from the ornate candelabra to the super funky clocks, 

And finally... as if our frail hearts can take any more excitement, we are lead to the final venue for the evening. In many ways it is where it all began, so there is something poetic about it as we arrive at Stratos. To meet us is resident DJ Lola Nova, playing some old school R&B as we walk in. A candy floss machine takes a prominent space at the bar, seriously messing with our heads and indeed our expectations of what is normal. Alice in Wonderland-like iconography around the bar keeps this up with vases with mock  candy floss touch to them and as we are seated, we see playing cards in some of the vases on our tables. I love a creative concept but I love it even more when it is sustained throughout, something that Chef Jay Williams and the whole Le Royal Meridien team have pulled off with aplomb. 

For our drink, we are served a Candy floss margarita that bridges the gap between our childhood and where we find ourselves now. Lime candy floss is topped with  a margarita drink, all at the table. Each of us gets to pour it over the candy floss, evoking joy and laughter. Our drinks are accompanied by a traditional English afternoon tea stand with some petit fours all tastefully done, with edible Eat me messages. 

However, this is not all. Our dessert is indeed a showstopper. The mango sorbet with fresh berries is served in, wait for it...hand sculptured ice cups. There is of course the visual spectacle of dry ice meeting water as well as blue light that lights up the drink soon as the dry ice takes  effect. Seen in natural light in Stratos, it really is quite breathtaking. 

Stratos turns out to be  a brilliant venue then to end the evening. As a treat, all guests are given  postcard size a card made by one of the guests - check details at the bottom - each card's illustration carries an element of the evening's dinner. These may not mean anything to readers per se, but the twelve guests will know the significance of each. A conversation piece. A water cooler moment. Again, it is about creating an experience that brings together everything - creativity, dishes, drinks, service, conversation. 

Reluctantly, the evening draws to a close but with a with a glass of bubbly. A more appropriate way to end it I cannot conceive and as I look at the dimming lights on the Abu Dhabi skyline from the revolving restaurant, a most satisfying washes over me. 

At around 1am, the last guests left, no doubt like me, emotionally exhausted because an evening like this will do that. But happily exhausted.

Concepts start with an idea. It can be inspired by a song, a memory, a flavour, a new menu experience. But you need people to carry it out and see it through. Tonight, Executive Chef Jay Williams demythologised the notion that Executive Chefs, through no choice of their own, move into an office and are overwhelmed by budgets, meetings, purchases, recruiting and signatures, taking them further and further away from why they became chefs in the first place. It does help when your GM is a progressive leader, as is Mr Ashraf El Siessy. One night, about just the time we decided to forge ahead with Brandon's Table, I called Chef at around 11pm and asked if him there was any way we could use another venue in addition to Stratos because I wanted something different. Movement. Well, tonight he took the word 'different' and truly came up with something that will always conjure up  a smile on the faces of the people who were part of it. Executive Chefs still possess so much creativity as Chef has shown. Hotels must just realise that and remember that Executive chefs' creative spirit should be nurtured and afforded chances to step outside of the metaphorical line that has been drawn in the sand. 

There are those nights you know will never forget. Those moments you believe will forever be etched in your memory. There are those situations you find yourself in and you want to remind yourself right there and then to pay extra attention to everything because you will look back on it one day and say to yourself, "That was the moment". Tonight, here at Le Royal Meridien in Abu Dhabi, was such a  moment. I should have known it would be like this. The Table was fully booked a month in advance and in the run up, we had only one cancellation,  a place quickly filled. There was even a waiting list for this one. On the night, we had our most high profile guest list we have ever had and yet, title nor rank mattered as food, drink staff, hospitality  and of course Alice were the great levelers. It is often said that death is the great leveler, something I find too dark. In this life, it is gathering at a table with food made and served from the heart and sharing our happy stories, rolling up our heart sleeves and revealing our scars that have either healed or remain fresh that is the great equaliser for me. Henry David Thoreau wrote about his need to live a life that was deep and meaningful. He sought it in the woods.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

We city folk do not have that luxury of the woods. We have to live life deeply every day, surrounded by glass and steel. Tonight was one of those nights where we connected with ourselves and more importantly, other people. Nowness, complete life in the moment, is a way to sum up this evening. Where do you find your nowness?

Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi,
Khalifa Street,
Abu Dhabi
Hotel Website


All images are the intellectual the property of Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi Greeting cards courtesy of Avi Hernandez @1441street

Brandon Stoltenkamp