“Party hard. Eat well. Drink up. Say yes. Never grow up. Be extra. Be selfish. Be yourself. Be a panther. Or a peacock. Stay up late. Get up early. Live life. Do what you want. No guilt. No regrets. Fear nothing. Feel everything.” – Mama Zonia
A recent weekend lunch brought us to Dubai Marina’s Pier 7 and the newly opened Mama Zonia. Located on the second floor of the multi-level dining destination, the restaurant space which was formerly home to O Cacti has been completely transformed into a tropical lifestyle destination.
The lift doors open into a lush rainforest environment and a space that feels truly alive. Even during a lunchtime when the restaurants is not overly busy, Mama Zonia is overwhelming and kinetic. Vegetation springs from every nook and traverses the ceiling much like a canopy of jungle vines. Pass beneath the bows of a gnarled mango tree and discover a cocktail bar serving colourful libations from an area adorned in tiles of tribal design. It’s the intricacies of the decor which brings authenticity to proceedings and the cocktail bar feels like the discovery of a long forgotten jungle ruin.
A multi-faceted restaurant space, Mama Zonia’s walls are painted with bold murals depicting wildlife, while an ornate wooden bird cage houses a number of resident species. A dedicated raw bar lies waiting to be discovered within the depths of the forest (the back of the dining room) and an open grill-kitchen is used to showcase the various cookery methods that Mama Zonia promotes – sand pit, log fire, smoking wood oven and Amazonian coals.
Mama Zonia’s colourful and frivolous personality embodies the restaurant space with a sense of mystery and while the theme is executed with precision and stays on the right side of kitsch. The al fresco terrace with its Marina Views are where we would suggest you try and secure a spot. It may not be the meeting of the waters upon the Amazon River, but makes for a worthy substitute.
Menus emblazoned with flamboyant peacock feathers set the scene for the eclectic array of dishes on offer, all designed for sharing in a similar vein to Spanish tapas. Much of the food draws inspiration from Asia and the Caribbean with and a touch of Nikkei. From the raw menu our waitress recommends Octopus Wild Sushi (AED 43) with chalaca, pineapple, black topico and green yuzu and the Beef Tataki (AED 67) with its punchy combination of sesame, ginger and yuzu ponzo brings.
The guacamole (AED 48) with plantain chips should not be overlooked with its mix of avocado, chili and a touch of coriander. It may not be prepared table-side like many of Mama Zonia’s competitors, yet the offering is good and an excellent introduction to the bold flavours the restaurant so strongly promotes. A quartet of skewered tiger prawns (AED 65) embrace the char of the grilling process but it’s the sweet and unassuming salsa that really brings the dish together and presented upon banana leaves and glassware shaped liked leaves helps to accentuate the feeling of dining in a rainforest.
From the wok selection we’re disappointed by anaemic looking squid (AED 48) which despite being described as ‘crispy’ transpires to be chewy and is the only dish left untouched during our experience. The frogs legs (AED 87) make for a pleasant surprise for the more adventurous eater. Fried within a batter that really draws attention to the powers of seasoning, it’s a marked improvement on the last time we had frogs legs during a disappointing dinner at Pierre’s. Granted it does take a bit of work to remove the flesh from the minuscule bones, the effort is worth the reward when dipped within the creamy yellow curry made from coconut and lime.
Main courses impress thanks to varied flavours and the 14-hour slow cooked beef cheek coconut rendang (AED 155) is a definite highlight, the tender meat falling apart at the touch of the fork while balancing sweet and spicy adequately. The lamb cutlets (AED 165) from the wood fire come slathered in a spicy BBQ sauce which caramelises on the meat and we could’ve easily ordered an additional portion.
Despite the onslaught of food we manage to squeeze in the frankly wonderfully light caramel milk cheesecake (AED 52) and the far more decadent wild Amazon chocolate pots (AED 48) a pleasant desert where the richness of the chocolate is balanced by a layer of passionfruit jelly.
It’s difficult not to be impressed and despite a few minor service issues and a price to portion ratio which seems a little too skewed in the restaurants favour on a couple of dishes, Mama Zonia makes for a good addition to the dining landscape of Dubai Marina. Inevitable comparisons are likely to be drawn to the similarly themed Hotel Cartagena at the JW Marriott Marquis, but that’s no bad thing. The menus are very similar but does Mama Zonia do enough to differentiate? We think so, for the beverage selection and interior design are undeniably strong allowing the personality of Mama Zonia to shine through. We look forward to getting lost in the jungle again soon. Will you?
Out & About UAE were guests of the Mama Zonia. All views are our own and photographs are © Out & About UAE
The Verdict: Mama Zonia