The Serb and my soon-to-be-replaced proofreader claim this is my least entertaining review to date. Read on at your own risk.
I heard a new restaurant called Roux was opening in City Walk – and in my quest to be the most cutting edge, up-to-date restaurant critic in Dubai, I dragged The Serb along to try them out.
We arrived early – several days early, it appears. Despite promising to be open on that day, they certainly were not, and a Plan B was needed. City Walk is no place to be with a hungry Serb and despite being a long weekend, there was no telling when they might open their doors. I couldn’t take the risk – not with so many children around.
So, my apologies, but this is not a hot off the press, FoodSheikh exclusive. However, it is a review of Cocoa Kitchen, a restaurant that has only been open a few months and is equally deserving of your attention.
The Cocoa Kitchen, (not to be confused with the Cocoa Room) is a steampunk, rough luxe restaurant with brick walls and chandeliers, faux copper pipes, ropes and pulleys, an open kitchen, tall green ferns and a slightly misplaced container door wall. Overall, it’s an attractive room – furnished with booths and banquet tables, with accents of browns and chocolate tones.
The restaurant suffers from two entrances and only one hostess – we chose the unattended entrance and snuck into the restaurant unnoticed. Which isn’t as cool as it sounds, as we had to wait to be seated anyway.
Our table was wobbly, but I soon fixed that with some MacGyver/Bear Grylls skills and a strip of their (rather good quality) paper napkins. You’re welcome, Cocoa Kitchen.
Our server gave us a quick cliff note on the concept – everything is with cocoa, no, not everything is sweet, yes, we have other things than chocolate, No, I have never heard that joke before, yes you are the funniest guest we’ve had, etc.
The Cocoa Kitchen is a self-proclaimed concept restaurant which means it needs to be unique, experiential and boutique. A good example of a concept store in Dubai is Intersect by Lexus at DIFC where Chef Tomas regularly changes up the menu to keep things fresh. I am not sure how often Cocoa Kitchen will change their menu, but it should be quite frequently if they are staying true to concept.
However, because you always have to keep things fresh, new and bespoke, concept stores are difficult to get right. Cocoa Kitchen makes it even harder by limiting themselves to building the menu off one ingredient – the Cocoa seed – an ingredient whose versatility has perhaps been over-estimated.
However, at first glance, the self-imposed monogamy to the cocoa seed hasn’t compromised the range of items on the menu. Salmon, Tenderloin, satay, lamb, chicken – all the staples are there, and it reads like a sample menu from a theoretical module at advanced culinary college.
We ordered the burrata, the ravioli, the garden box and some fries. All with Cocoa.
For me, having to create multiple dishes using the same one ingredient is a bit like a poet having to include the same one word in every poem. And the one word is orange. It seems like an unnecessary restriction to creativity.
The burrata arrived at the table under a glass dome of smoke, revealing itself like some sexy contestant on a talent show, ready to perform for the judges. However, it performed like every other burrata I’ve eaten in Dubai.
If the burrata was an audition song, it would be “I dreamed a dream,” from Les Misérables. Hundreds of eager contestants try it out every season, but if you’re not the Susan Boyle of burratas, then you’re not going to the live shows.
Perhaps “Let it Go” from Frozen would have been a better choice.
The server delivered the garden box to our table, saw my reaction and almost apologetically informed me that a spoon was on its way. It is a dish served in a long wooden box, made to look like your grandfather’s weekend allotment garden. The topsoil was crumbled cocoa, with raw and pickled baby vegetables “growing” upwards. Candied jelly were the earthworms, and labneh cheese was the terra firma. Heston has of course done something similar in the past at The Fat Duck.
I dug my spoon into the soft soil, unearthing the bright white cheese underneath, and shoveled a few cubic centimeters of land onto my plate. However, the spoon ripped the plastic wrap that lined the box, and consequently a baby sweetcorn fell onto the table, taking a jelly earthworm and a few mushrooms with it in some horrific miniature landslide. All in all, a bit of a disaster, although I did save the earthworm by popping it into the safety of my mouth. PETA would be proud. My grandfather not so much.
If you stripped down the dish to its essence, it was effectively a vegetable crudité with a labneh dip, a whole lot of drama and a 95 dhs price tag. The somewhat fleeting visual gratification I received was quickly surpassed by the need for some substance and taste.
We also ordered the butternut squash ravioli. The dish contains three cocoa ravioli discs that tasted handmade and of good quality. They were generously filled with a butternut squash puree separated by melted parmesan cheese crisps and a ricotta sauce. It showed some decent flavour manipulation, with a good mouthfeel understanding of texture contrasts. It was the best choice we made.
Ingredient-driven trends are difficult to sustain – people now, for their dining dollars, want an experience, and although there are some fun elements in some of the dishes, it does seem a little like style over substance. Perhaps if they took off the cocoa handcuffs and allowed the menu some real expression and thought, the concept might shine a little brighter.
Overall, Cocoa Kitchen is an interesting idea, and the effort to bring something new and different to Dubai is appreciated – proven by the many guests they serve on a daily basis. Because ultimately that is the sign of a successful restaurant – the number of guests that return – not some restaurant critic with his singular opinion, and certainly not a restaurant critic that compares a burrata to Susan Boyle.
As always, I pay my own way through these reviews, and I have started posting the receipts to bring some credibility and transparency to this wonderful medium. #noreceiptnoreview