Dinner theatre is seemingly all the rage in Dubai at the moment. Over the past twelve months there has been a distinct trend in dinner theatrics, with everything from molecular gastronomy to live entertainment, making its mark and shaping the dining landscape of the Emirates.
Abu Dhabi has been a little late to the game when it comes to ‘dinner and a show’ but the climate is slowly shifting. For many, fine dining is more than white table clothes and impeccable service. For the money that you’re paying, diners expect a little more with their meal and with this in mind, we review the interactive dinner expereince that is Inakaya.
Located at Abu Dhabi’s Venetian Village, Inakaya is the Middle Eastern outpost of the upscale Japanese fine dining concept that fist opened in Tokyo in 1970. The brand has since spread out to include New York and offers the highest quality of Japanese food in a unique and interactive setting.
The ineteractivity of the ‘Inakaya expereince’ begins as soon as you enter the lively space. A Japanese greeting is chanted by every member of the team… and we mean everyone! From the bar staff, to the hostess and managers (a faint vocal could also be heard from all the way back in the kitchen) welcoming us to Inakaya.
As a restaurant, Inakaya is a relatively small space nicely divided into a number of unique dining areas. First and foremost is the robata grill, a bar area where food is slow cooked in front of diners. Then there is a small dining room with a ceiling made of hundreds of hanging glass bottles and finally the glass house. A conservatory-like space overlooking Abu Dhabi’s grand canal, where the doors can be opened up for al fresco dining (weather permitting).
We seated ourselves at the robata grill in front of the humble yakikata (grill-masters). A space that may not be good for larger groups (sitting in a long line is not the easiest way to partake in a conversation) but was perfect for our small party of two. Laid out in front of us were the usual assortments of chop sticks and soy sauce, alongside mountains of fresh produce. We soon learned that these ingredients were more than just show pieces. As the yakitata reached over for spices and vegetables to use in their grilling, on numerous occasions throughout our dining experience.
Now dining at Inakaya is an overwhelming experience, not just in terms of being an assault on the senses but also in the variety of foods available. Presented with the a la carte menu, a chefs specials menu and an additional lunch menu, we really struggled to make an informed selection. Thankfully, management noticed out conundrum and offered to prepare a number of the restaurants signature dishes in the hopes that we could try a little bit of everything. An idea that sounded good to us.
We began with mocktails which much like the staff uniforms, adopt the theme of geisha and samurai. Sakura Blossom (lychees marinated in strawberry puree and hazelnut syrup) was a beguiling blend that represented the epitome of Japanese flavours. While the Samurai Sour (green apple, lemon juice, mint) was a far more potent blend of soured citrus, uplifted by a hint of sweet vanilla. Our favorite though, had to be the Geisha Breeze which subtly muddled together strawberry, green apple and passion fruit.
With the grills heating up, we were captivated by the yakikata as they began their robatayaki (fireside) cooking. The process involves the skewering and slow cooking of small morsels of vegetables and seafood, with little intervention and no additional seasoning other than flaked sea salt. As each dish was prepared the staff would again chant in unison. Announcing the name of each dish in Japanese as they are presented to diners upon a 1.2m long wooden paddle.
This unique way of receiving your food certainly makes for a talking point amongst diners and it was pleasing to note that this ceremonial presentation of the food is more about centuries-old traditions than gimmick. Beginning with some simply presented vegetable dishes, the team at Inakaya showed us that quality ingredients go a long way and the ethos of ‘less is more’ prevails. Judging by dishes of asparagus, shiitake mushrooms and ginkgo nuts – straight from the robata – we are inclined to agree.
Moving away from the robata momentarily, we indulged in a dishes freshly prepared from the kitchen and what a delight they were. Beginning with Wagyu Beef Tataki, a traditional Japanese dish whose name directly translates as ‘hit to pieces.’ The beef is thinly sliced after being briefly seared in a pan and then soaked in a blend of vinegar and ginger. Similar in concept to an Italian carpaccio, the powerful flavors of the dish are undeniable and the marinade so delectable that we ate the garnish too!
The concept at Inakaya is one of small plates, as opposed to main courses and it’s advisable to order a number of dishes that cover the broad spectrum of Japanese cuisine. From the tataki we moved to the most popular of Japanese dishes – sushi. Upon recommendation from the manager, we gorged on the most intricate of maki, taking the form of the impeccable Shrimp Tempura Sushi.
The sushi was perfectly constructed with the shrimp tempura sitting alongside sliced cucumber and avocado. The proportion of rice was just right and the rolls weren’t at all dense. Instead providing a hit of inevitable freshness that was enhanced by the crunch of fried onion that provided an additional texture to the dish.
The arrival of a sashimi platter had a distinct wow factor. The delicacy of raw sliced fish sat within an inscribed wooden box, piled with ice and surrounded by natural elements of stone, foliage and wood. Taking us on a brief journey to the mountainsides of Mount Fiji, without having to leave the confines of Abu Dhabi. The trio of sashimi (sea bass, tuna and salmon) was thicker when compared to other restaurants in the capital, allowing diners to get a real feel for the fish and their flavors.
The very best ingredients are utilized for the sashimi at Inkaya. With the salmon hailing from the Atlantic seas of Norway and the the sea bass being flown in fresh from France. Sashimi at Inakaya is a revelation and without a doubt the best we have had during our four years in the Emirates.
We were wrong to assume things couldn’t get any better, as a plate of Octopus Tempura arrived to the table. Now octopus is certainly not a dish for everyone and we know many people who can’t get over the tentacles and will therefore never sample a dish like this. They are definitely missing out and this was a dish with a distinct aroma that hits you before the arrival of the plate. A textural marvel of ever so lightly battered chunks of delicate flesh that provided a mild sweet hit to the palette, without the inevitable chewiness that so often comes with these seafood dishes. Our dining partner wasn’t the biggest fan but for us, the mixture of tentacle chunks and sleek tendrils (complete with suckers) were another huge tick for Inakaya.
Surprisingly, the best dish was still to come and the arrival of the Black Miso Cod transpired to be a contender for best dish we’ve eaten this year! Being food bloggers, we are lucky enough to eat out regularly and sample so many iterations of the same dish. Inakaya’s miso cod, presented from the rabat grill, was so delicate that we couldn’t find any fault with the dish (other than the fact that we would’ve liked a bigger potion, not because it was small but because we loved it that much)! The caramelized exterior provides a hidden sweetness to this signature dish and it’s easy to see why it’s the most ordered item at the Inakaya.
Our meal at Inakaya ended with Mochi (traditional Japanese ice cream). The construct of the dish revolves around a pounded rice cake (the mochi), surrounding an ice cream and acting as a skin that prevents the interior from melting. Accompanied by a steaming pot of green tea, we admired the flavors of the mochi and the fact that it was a lighter dessert to end the meal with. The cheesecake flavored mochi was something that we’ve never tried before and contained just the right balance of sweetness, while the more traditional and earthy matcha (one of our favorite flavors) was just as good as expected.
Inakaya has been frequented by Hollywood celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz and offers traditional ember cooked dishes in a modern setting. If you’re lucky enough to visit for dinner, you may be asked to participate in the traditional rice pounding ceremony – which shouldn’t be missed.
Inakaya rewards diners with an outstanding meal and some of the finest Japanese food available in the capital. Granted the price point does reflect the upscale location but for the interactivity of the dining experience and the quality of what you’re getting, we can’t recommend Inakaya enough.
We were invited to dine at Inakaya. All views are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE