The pinnacle of the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai’s Business Bay has recently become home to Hotel Cartagena (a hotel within a hotel if you will), a frivolous and fun concept that takes over the space previously occupied by Middle Eastern venture Morah, an unfortunate casualty of Dubai’s cutthroat restaurant scene that remained open for less than a year.
Hotel Cartagena makes quite the first impression, replacing the cruise-ship stylings of the venues previous guise with an eclectic jungle theme. Things begin with a red neon sign indicating the entrance to the fictitious hotel of the restaurants namesake, guiding the way into an elevator emblazoned with the image of a black jaguar. Once inside, the split level restaurant is full of quirky artefacts such as plastic flamingoes, parrots and an abundance of foliage, quite literally hanging from the ceiling.
It’s a dazzling display of interior design that reminds us of London’s Rainforest Cafe. Hotel Cartagena feels let gimmicky, with the decor working to complement rather than detract from the impressive Burj Khalifa views, which only become heightened in the 360 degree circular space as the city transforms from day to night.
Hotel Cartagena utilizes a fictional character to anchor the concept, similar to the recent approach taken by Little Miss India. The hotel themed restaurant provides diners with an enchanting and bohemian space inhabited by protagonist Mrs. Buendia who has collected trinkets and letters (the menus) left behind by guests since she inherited the property in the 1950s.
The approach is certainly a novel one and the idea of making the restaurant space part of the interplay with diners is a clever move that pays dividends for the team at Hotel Cartagena and their jungle paradise situated 72 floors about Dubai.
Named after the coastal city of Cartagena in Columbia, the menu is expectedly South American, drawing inspiration from the continent and beyond. Hints of the Caribbean islands are evident, alongside an interesting Korean slant from Chef Peppe whose passion for Latin American food has brought him to Hotel Cartagena from Abu Dhabi’s Asia De Cuba. The menu which is still an on-going development is described as ‘Latin America without borders’ which adds a fusion element and playfulness to the cuisine.
We’re seated by the wonderful Akeelah who is just one member of a competent team that have clearly been selected for Hotel Cartagena due to an intense passion for hospitality and an ease at building rapport with guests. In a similar vein to Weslodge below, the menu knowledge and general empathy towards guests is astounding.
Our Latin American journey begins with chili prawn nachos (AED 65), offering coloured corn chips amongst sour cream, black beans and guacamole for dipping. The chilli prawns make for a nice additional topping and a pre-cursor in expectations for the bold cuisine of Hotel Cartagena.
We bypass the tacos in favour of Ropa Vieja (AED 65) a generously stuffed beef cheek empanada in which the meat is rich and tender and contains a hint of chipotle. Yet it’s the flaky golden pastry of the empanada ‘shell’ that works wonders and brings an additional texture to the street food favourite.
Street food makes up a large portion of the appetisers and it’s the chicharones which account for our favourite dish of the day. While chicharones are normally made from the cooking of pork within its own fat, Hotel Cartagena have spun the idea to encompass shrimp, octopus, chicken and corn. We enjoy the latter option (AED 48) with the corn utilizing smoked paprika, manchego cheese (a favourite of ours) and an addictive lime cream. There’s no easy way to eat the dish, other than with hands, but the sweet and spicy reward is worth the mess and the corn chicarones are a dish we would certainly return for.
We can’t dine Latin American style without ceviche and the Picanteria Ceviche (AED 96) makes for another generous portion. Blending together shrimp, seabass, scallops, rocoto peppers and Asian pears it’s a beguiling dish served amongst smoky theatrics that’s representative of the dishes Peruvian namesake and packs quite the fiery punch.
While Hotel Cartagena offers diners an impressive selection of seafood (coconut lobster curry, grilled scallops and seafood paella) we’re immediately drawn to the octopus a la papilla (AED 175) served with purple Andean potatoes. We will always order the grilled mollusk if it appears on the menu, and despite the tentacle we’re served being seductivley tender, the flavours on the plate are lacking and it’s the only dish we leave mostly untouched.
Thankfully, it’s near impossible to find fault with the Korean inspired Lamb Shank Asado (AED 120), bringing us a BBQ styling to the meat but with a Korean spice marinade that lives up the to Latin American without borders concept. Similarly, the jerk chicken (AED 145) has been a staple of our household for as long as we can remember and in keeping with the other meat options at Hotel Cartagena the quality is evident (we would love to know how they ensure the tenderness of the meat). Having such an affinity to jerk chicken we really appreciate the smoky flavour, but would suggest the kitchen team dial the spice level up a notch and increase the amount of caramelized plantain to further elevate the dish,
With little room for desserts we’re swayed into trying some of the signatures. The concise menu of just four dishes is presented inside an envelope sealed by a kiss from Mrs. Buendia herself.
While the churros (AED 48) are served with a duo of glorious dipping sauces — a passionfruit curd and South American Guanjana chocolate — the dough could be a little more even. For the crispness of the exterior permeates the interior where the structure should be altogether softer.
The cocoloco (AED 52) however, makes for a 100% vegan alternative. A light and refreshing end to the meal, presenting a chocolate husk filled with coconut snow and adorned with a tropical fruit salsa that encapsulates the very essence of Hotel Cartagena in one final dish.
Hotel Cartagena remains an evolving process, with both the menu and decor still undergoing some final touches. Our initial expectations involved the venue segueing into a bar/nightclub as the evening progressed, but we’re actually pleased that this is not the case and Hotel Cartagena stands strong as a restaurant. There may be unobtrusive entertainment taking the form of drumming and staff breaking into dance, but these are not premeditated gimmicks, rather, a sense of getting caught in the moment and embracing the fervour of the Latin passion.
Dining at Hotel Cartagena makes for a satisfying dining experience that rewards the adventurous diner (we tried Yucca for the first time). Featuring bold flavours, generous portions and a sharing concept that finally presents the selections in even numbers (meaning two people can actually share). Boasting an impressive vibe that immediately grabs guests from the moment they enter, Hotel Cartagena makes for the prefect complement to Weslodge below.
We’re excited to see how the venue progresses in the coming months and if the menu is embraced by Dubai’s diners. One thing’s for certain – we’ll be back soon.
Out & About UAE were guests of Hotel Cartagena. All views are our own and photographs are © Out & About UAE.