Nothing beats Christmas in Dubai. The heat, dodgy cover versions of Mariah Carey (or maybe it was her, no-one knows after she mangled her New Year’s Eve performance in Times Square), general lack of festivity and decorations that seem only to be strategically placed, rather than lovingly so, make for an interesting experience that made me yearn for London and home with Mumsie, where I had had visited a couple of weeks earlier. Here in Dubai, I’m more invested in things for the sake of festive brunches and dinners. We had to chose a special place to go for Christmas.
The Armani hotel is a piece of work; a place as slick and as ostentatious as they come, even for this city. Situated in the Burj Khalifa, it even has the address to end all addresses. We’ve been to the hotel’s signature restaurant, before, and it’s really, surprisingly rather good, and a perfect place for Christmas Dinner. It’s an Italian, which suits the European and I perfectly and is imaginatively called ‘Armani/Ristorante’, a name that causes issues when we tried to find it amongst the other outlets in the hotel, as I just walked around asking, in my very British access for “the restaurant“, confusing attendants and lobby hosts alike.
In all ways, seemingly except its name, Ristorante is as flashy as hell and first impressions were foreboding. If there’s one thing Dubai is good at doing, it’s delivering style over substance. Walk in to the dining room and you’re greeted with expansive ceilings, lights that hang down from the top, down to low, low over the tables, an open kitchen to your right and a sweeping view of the Dubai Fountain to the left. Everything is fabrics, carpets and leather, in fifty shades of gold. The tableware is largely gold-finished and almost certainly Armani. I was baulking at what could lie in wait.
All said, it’s a damn peaceful restaurant. Tables are far apart, and most are booths on the fountain-side (ask for one of them when you reserve, even if there’s only two of you) and you feel like you’re in your own little lost city of gold as you sink into them. The hanging light allows more privacy, and the open kitchen is actually closed, hermetically sealed behind glass so you see, but not hear, all of the action (on our Christmas visit, we enjoyed observing a heated, silent argument between the head chef, and one of his team). I have never been more impressed with the design of a restaurant in my life – and I’ve been to the big Burger King on Leicester Square.
It might be a little um…shit(?) of me to say but the ‘design’ of the staff there is also pretty impeccable. They’re dressed to the nines. Now I am no fashion expert as those of you who know me can vouch for, but they might have been dressed in Armani, seriously. I am a little better with checking out attentiveness and the team there hardly miss a beat. Or maybe they did, I was so busy being lost in their eyes and the cut of their uniform, as it flowed as gracefully as their sequence of service (feed me amuse-bouche and, in the case of our Christmas visit, complimentary Panettone, and I’m anyone’s). It was the European’s birthday, as well as Christmas, and I loved the white rose she was presented — a little different to a slice of cake and much more appropriate for her. I mean, we did get cake as well (more Panettone) but the European was non-plussed with that, so she cast it down to me.
Aside from Panettone galore, there are plenty more authentic Italian treats on the menu, of which you get a choice of à la carte or dégustation. Our first visit, a year ago, saw us eating off the former, and at Christmas we had the latter, and I am happy to say we couldn’t fault either. The dégustation was a festive special, but a similar menu runs all year anyway, and it’s a good (albeit not cheap) way to try most things the kitchen has to offer. Pasta here is superb, probably the best in Dubai. Foie gras agnolotti in chicken broth was served as pre-starter, so the mean-spirited chefs only gave us a single piece each, but it was perfect; rich, flavourful and fresh. We had a couple of larger pasta dishes here before, I cannot recall what they were but I remember then being very good as well. At Christmas, our beetroot, nasturtium and castelmagno risotto made us swoon, simply because the rice was well-cooked, a first for any risotto I have had in Dubai. A fish course of salted cod was incredible too — cooked and seasoned to point of us saying it was the best course… until the veal with pumpkin, port and amaretti arrived… and I died. Seriously, very good stuff. The veal was so tender you could have spread it on toast. Dessert was good too (the European elegantly managed to drive her spoon through the bottom of the glass of lemon-thyme semifreddo), and the final course, a chocolate-hazelnut ‘finger’ (much like a ganache) was lovely, though not very Italian. By the time the Panettone trolley arrived, we were stuffed beyond stuffing. We had ordered, with the risotto, a portion of burrata with walnut, off the à la carte menu, because, last time, it blew us away.
Beverages are suitably expensive and let’s just leave it at that. I was a little surprised to see that a self-titled ‘wine paring’ with the dégustation menu was actually more akin to a brunch, where you order as much as you liked off a set beverage menu. No biggie in the end, as the wines on offer were very good, and it made an otherwise expensive night out a little better value for money.
So, as we walked out of Armani — the European with her rose, me with my Panettone and both us giddy with food and wine — conducting our regular queue-jump for a taxi, we realised that was Christmas was almost over, aside from a pool day at the W Hotel the day after. I couldn’t be disappointed with the evening (and of course the company, but I have to say that). Ristorante is so slick, you’re not going to be tripping over crackers and tinsel when you walk in, but the staff are geared to the reason you are there, and the mix of happy diners (most of which were European, and therefore thankfully in a festive mood as well) made for a great atmosphere. For me Christmas isn’t Christmas without good food, and though I would take Mumsie’s turkey lunch over Ristorante any day, I have never ceased to be amazed by such a glitzy place actually delivering on expectations; it happens so rarely in town. So, if you’re into proper Italian food, served in a fine-dining scale in a finer setting then I suggest, no, I command you to go. And make sure you have some jam in your fridge for the Panettone the morning afterwards.
Armani ain’t cheap but hey, the occasional splurge is fine. The main menu is like a hundred and twenty dirhams for starters, the same for pasta and about two hundred Dirhams for main courses. None of this includes wine or other lovely things. The Christmas dégustation including alcohol, was twelve-hundred Dirhams per person.
Armani / Ristorante is on the ground floor of the Armani Hotel, located in the Burj Khalifa.
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Originally published 28th January 2017.