Arriving at ONI on the second floor of the Shangri-La Hotel on the Sheikh Zayed Road, we’re immediately instilled with a sense of anticipation. A neon sign embellished with floral bouquets marks the entrance to Dubai’s newest Japanese restaurant that lies hidden away behind a set of double doors, as if guarding a culinary secret. The faint sound of pulsating bass travels through the walls as if trying to escape…
A rail of silk kimono lies off to one side and hung amongst the delicate garments are the restaurant menus which are selected and treated almost ceremoniously by the confident hostess. She pushes open the doors and leads us headfirst into the darkness, where we’re immediately struck by a sense of deja vu. Passing the open show kitchen our destination is the small sake bar situated beneath tree bows laden with cherry blossoms, it takes some time for our eyes to adjust before we realise that we have in fact been here before, under the restaurants previous guise, Junoon.
The restaurant space is the same in terms of design and remains compact and functional but has been given a distinctive makeover inspired by the ancient Japanese tradition of ‘golden repair’ or ‘Kintsugi.’ The result is a space that oozes a sultry charm though at times it does feel like dining in a nightclub due to the sheer volume of the music.
For a bar driven concept, ONI’s mixology is rather good and we thoroughly enjoy the ONI Old Fashioned, a beguiling blend of Nikka whisky and plum liqueur. We’re introduced to Suraya, our waitress for the evening who represents everything that is so often lacking when it comes to service in Dubai restaurants. Chatty, confident, affable and extremely well versed in the menu, she is like a light in the dark of this particular restaurant and easily builds a friendly rapport that puts is immediately and ease and instills us with confidence. We’d suggest asking for her should you ever find yourself dining at ONI.
We opt to sit in the main dining room which feels intimate and somewhat exclusive with a capacity for just 75 diners. There is a small privatized section one the fringes of the dining room which may add privacy to the dining experience, but to us felt more like dining in a cramped corridor.
As we watch the team of chefs preparing our food in the open show-kitchen we are intrigued by the menu and its selection of Izakaya sharing plates which focus on fresh ingredients sourced from the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan.
Our meal begins with a number of raw dishes from the ‘small bites’ section of the menu which encompasses choices such as wasabi tuna pizza, seafood Okonomiyaki and the always popular rock shrimp dynamite. We favour the home made crispy salmon taco (AED69) which utilizes a rice cracker shell generously stuffed with guacamole and a soy marinated salmon that provides a good balance of flavour. The yellowtail Hamachi Crudo (AED 70) is also a worthy choice presenting thin slices of amberjack within a wasabi compote and topped with a yuzu and ponzu foam that is slightly overpowering in its citrusy notes.
The strong point in ONI’s menu transpires to be the sushi with the Dragon Roll (AED 85) bringing a nice twist to the run of the mill California roll via the inclusion of unagi and an eel sauce that really helps to elevate these particular maki’s. It’s a shame then that the robata grill that is such an integral part of the Japanese street food concept fails to impress. Of the three kushiyaki skewers that we try (chicken breast, Angus tenderloin and Chilean seabass) all offer interesting flavours ( with the sweet chicken sasami being of particular note), yet all are slightly overcooked resulting in a rather tough texture. The problem also befalls our main course of Sake Shioyaki (AED 105) which is essentially teriyaki salmon on a bed of truffle butter parsnip puree.
Minor mishaps aside, the ramen which is such a trending food at the moment doesn’t disappoint. The signature ONI Ramen (AED 80) is a comforting bowl that contains a rich beef broth enhanced by the addition of bone marrow that provides a boost in terms of both flavour and texture. Ramen may be a simple dish in terms of ingredients, but remains a tricky one to execute and we’re suitably impressed by the work of the culinary team at ONI.
Three choices make for quite a concise dessert selection with an appealing sounding mochi and matcha fondant on offer. However, we select the ONI Milk Cake (AED 45) which arrives almost fluorescent in colour thanks to the matcha infused milk. The dessert is light and sweet and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream that is bound to please dessert aficionado. Milk cakes seem to have taken Dubai by storm in recent months and its smart to see ONI capitalising on yet another popular food trend in their menu curation.
ONI certainly looks to combine restaurant and nightclub into one slick multi-sensory destination. Boasting a concise food menu of firm favourites, excellent service and innovative mixology, ONI is to be applauded for its positioning in the marketplace and throws down the gauntlet as one to watch on the SZR nightlife scene.
Out & About UAE were guests of Oni. All views are our own and photographs are © Out & About UAE.