Our previous experience of dining at the Hilton Abu Dhabi was last seasons ‘brunch around the world‘, a somewhat mediocre brunch that involved three of the properties restaurants presenting a selection of international cuisine. The shining star of that brunch was without a doubt the Hilton’s Italian offering Bocca, whose crisp pizzas and rich veal ravioli made enough of an impact to warrant a return visit.
Almost a year later we return to Bocca on a Sunday evening. The restaurant space takes on an entirely different feeling as darkness settles, with the natural light that streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows during the day, replaced with an intimate and somewhat brooding atmosphere. The combination of white table linens, large mirrors, potted plants and an abundance of glass, provides the impression of dining on a cruise ship, albeit a slightly retro one. Pockets of warm orange light punctuate the darkness surrounding the tables, all of which offer appealing views of the open show kitchen where pizzas are flared and fresh pastas prepared.
In keeping with the lighting, an orange leather-bound menu offers a fairly concise offering of Italian favourites alongside a number of autumn specials, designed to coincide with the change of season. As is almost obligatory when dining Italian, a small bread basket soon appears with a trio of dips including a startlingly sweet beetroot choice (alongside pesto and white beans). Fresh bread is always welcomed, but the triangular slices presented at Bocca appeared to be the sawn-off corners of a far bigger loaf. This may be the presentation style but we couldn’t help but notice the bizarrere serving option.
For starters, we select the (you guessed it) Burratae Asparagi (AED 65). A beautiful burrata dish in which the creamy cheese sits inside a concave bowl stuffed with an asparagus salad, sweet cherry tomatoes and a hint of truffle oil. It’s a very good burrata dish made all the more pleasing forthe fact that the cheese is served at the ideal temperature as opposed to the UAE usual – ice cold! Skipping the expected fritto di mare, prosciutto e melone and bruschetta, we also ordered the Carpaccio di branzino con frutti di bosco (AED 55) from the autumn specials. A delightful plate of seabass carpaccio complemented by crunchy fennel, raspberry dressing and blueberry puree, in which the autumnal flavours from the sweet berries act in perfect contrast to the delicate nature of the fish.
Our pasta courses are selected by Bocca’s Chef Leonardo Passone himself and involve Risotto aifrutti di mare (AED 85), an acquerello risotto made with lobster bisque, shrimps, calamari and scallops. It’s a dish that gets the risotto consistency spot on, with a slightly wet mixture and marginally al dente risotto rice emanating those beautiful flavours associated with the sea. Unfortunately, the calamari element lets things down a bit, coming across slightly chewy and perhaps a little over-cooked.
It’s another dish from the autumn menu, the Tortelli al Porcini e pinoli su crema di zucca e pesto (AED 75) that wins the night for us. Handmade tortellini pasta is stuffed with Porcini mushrooms and pine nuts, before being served on a bed of pumpkin and drizzled with pesto. Offering a well-balanced plate of complementing flavours that hits all the right notesand should become a permanent fixure on Bocca’s menu (not just the specials).
The wood-fired pizzas were one of the strongest elements of the Hilton’s now defunct, brunch around the world and we were excited for our dining partner to try them on this occasion. Despite the pleasing dinner theatrics in which a visit to the open kitchen rewards diners with the opportunity to see the dough prepared before being manoeuvred into the traditional oven on a wooden paddle. The results were not the same! Granted the crisp, golden and almost seductive base was present and correct, yet the toppings were a little underwhelming and didn’t provide any of the enticing flavours we’d experienced previously. The cause may well have been the choice of pizza, but we found the Vegetariana (AED 65) slathered in tomato sauce and topped with broccoli, onion, capsicum and herbs to be severely lacking.
Prevalent flavours returned in the main courses, with our Scamone di manzo wagyu con cicoria al salto (AED 135) of particular note. Slow cooked Wagyu rump, vegetable and herb breadcrumbs and sautéed chicory, are served in a skillet and provide a hearty take on a meat course. The delightfully pink Wagyu was both tender and packed full of flavour, while the breadcrumbs brought a textural playfulness to the dish.
For the fish course, Chef Passone served the Filetto di Oratadel Mediterraneo, purea di patate al pesto salsa vanigliata al limone (AED 125). Another dish of good flavours, in which a pan-fried sea bream fillet is dressed with french beans, pesto mashed potato and a sweet lemon and vanilla sauce. Despite good flavours, we believe both dishes could benefit from a little more attention in the presentation department.
When it comes to Italian desserts there are usually two choices that spring to mind, gelato and tiramisu. In fact, Bocca’s tiramisu has gathered a little bit of a reputation for being one of the best (if not the best) in the capital, and we’re inclined to agree. Served in a teacup, the Il famoso tiramisu (AED 40) manages to provide the correct ratio of creamy layers, bitter coffee and a sweet chocolate that keeps things strictly traditional. Tiramisu is a dessert that divides people, so for those none tiramisu aficionados, we’d recommend the Tortino fondente (AED 35), a warm chocolate cake served with tropical fruit puree and vanilla ice cream that boasts the expected melt-factor.
Like their famous tiramisu, Bocca have gained quite a reputation for offering simple Italian food at very reasobale prices. Residents in the capital speak very highly of Bocca and Chef Leonardo Passone’s rustic and uncomplicated cookery style, that’s so clearly a passion project of recipes passed down through generations.
Being part of the long-standing Hilton property on Abu Dhabi’s corniche has garndered the restaurant much attention over the years, rewarding them with a clientele of regular diners and a ‘Highly Commended Best Italian’ title at the 2015 Time Out Abu Dhabi Restaurant Awards. Yet, in a similar fashion to our reviews of both Jazz Bar and Vasco’s, the Hilton remains a property that’s beggining to look a little tired (it’s one of the oldest hotels in the capital) and a cosmetic overhall is required to truly bring these restaurants in line the standards of their food.
With the word Bocca translating as ‘mouth’ in Italian, there’s seemingly no simpler way to sum up the restaurant, other than to say that we would happily devour many of these dishes again.
Location: Hilton Hotel, Al Khubeirah, Abu Dhabi
Social: Instagram / Facebook / Twitter
Hours: 7pm – 11pm (plus 12pm – 3:30pm weekdays too)
Phone: 02 692 4247
We were invited to dine at Bocca. All views are our own and photographs are © Out & About UAE, with one interior image used courtesy of Hilton Abu Dhabi.