Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: The seaside foodie kingdom
Ifirst went to Dubai’s Atlantis in 2008
Ifirst went to Dubai’s Atlantis in 2008. The hotel was about to open and because the date of the grand opening—complete with Shah Rukh Khan, Oprah Winfrey and fireworks — clashed with the opening day of the HT Summit, where I was moderating sessions, l had to leave for Delhi before the fireworks display.
Atlantis was billed as a grand water park with a hotel attached, which frankly, held no appeal for me. But it also had a collection of restaurants by some of the most famous chefs in the world. In those days, Dubai was not the restaurant-clone paradise it is today, where nearly every successful London restaurant has a branch.
So the idea of chefs who ran Michelin-starred restaurants in their home cities coming to open in Dubai seemed novel and exciting. Fine, I said to myself, I will steer clear of the Atlantis water park’s dolphins and stick to the chefs.
It was to prove to be a wise decision. Rarely have I had an opportunity to meet so many chefs at such length, in one place. I had dinner with Nobu at Nobu where he explained why he had backed out of a deal to open restaurants in India with the Leela group. I had lunch with Michel Rostang (who had many restaurants in France, one of which had two stars at the time) and we discussed the difference between a brasserie and bistro. Giorgio Locatelli, whose London restaurant (still going strong, still Michelin-starred) I often went to was opening a pizzeria, something he had never done before and he spent a long time explaining to me what he had discovered about the secrets of pizza-making.
The giant of the group, of course, was Santi Santamaria, a big bear of a man who was regarded as Spain’s greatest chef and whose flagship restaurant had three stars. Santi and chefs like him had begun to be overshadowed by the rise of Ferran Adria and the kind of cuisine he invented at El Bulli.
Santi was not pleased by the new trend and let me know that. This was more complicated than it sounds because Santi spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish. But we had a long rambunctious lunch with an Atlantis employee serving as interpreter. “I am a student of science,” Santi roared. “I respect technology. But food is from the earth. It is not from the lab.”
Whatever one thought of his views, his food at Ossiano, Atlantis’s fine dining restaurant (built around a giant fish tank), was spectacular. It was easy to see why his Spanish operation had three stars.
I came back to Delhi quite pleased by my gastronomic adventures. So pleased, in fact, that the following year I went back to Atlantis and shot a programme there for a show I then did on the TLC channel. There were more great meals and the crew shot the dolphins while I stuck to Santi’s porcini ravioli and Nobu’s new style sashimi.
I never went back to Atlantis. And Dubai changed. Suddenly, many of the world’s great chefs headed for the city. Dubai grew even richer. The restaurants got fancier and scores of new hotels, most with fancy dining places, opened. The idea of a Michelin-starred restaurant opening a Dubai outpost no longer seemed so novel.
Last fortnight, I finally went back to Atlantis, lured by the opportunity to eat the food of Gregoire Berger, who has taken over Ossiano, the restaurant that Santi started, and by the chance to meet Björn Frantzen, who was cooking a four-hands dinner with Gregoire.
Björn is currently one of the world’s hottest chefs. His main restaurant in Stockholm has three stars. So does Zen, which he runs in Singapore. It is very unusual for a single chef to run two three star restaurants simultaneously. Only a handful of other living chefs enjoy that distinction. Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller are the ones who come to mind.
I spent a gastronomic weekend at Atlantis, going into Dubai only once (to buy books at Kinokuniya). And I spoke at length to Björn Frantzén who turned out to be young, sharp and very far from the Nordic chef of caricature. While he is justly pleased with the success of his fine dining operations, he is conscious of how much effort it takes to keep the stars.
Each time the menu is due to change, he first thinks about the ingredients of the season. Then, he dreams up the dishes in the development kitchen. Each dish then goes to his chefs who test it and suggest tweaks and improvements. When that process is over, he perfects the final version of each dish. His chefs note down the recipe, measuring every ingredient to the last gram. The final recipe is precise and detailed.
For instance, if it requires balsamic vinegar, then he specifies which brand of balsamic vinegar is to be used so that there is no room for error. That exact recipe is followed by the chefs at Stockholm’s Frantzen and at Singapore’s Zen.
But Frantzen also likes larger, bustling restaurants. He has a successful brasserie in Stockholm and he is opening a huge (160 covers) restaurant at Harrods in London to be called Studio Frantzen. There is a less ambitious operation in Bangkok (Villa Frantzen) and though he did not confirm it to me during our conversation, I reckoned he was in the process of sealing a deal with Atlantis. I was right. A few days after we met, Atlantis confirmed that he would open a large-format restaurant and smaller fine dining operation.
The revelation though was Gregoire Berger, a French chef who is married to a Moroccan and sees himself as being open to global influences. (He loves Indian food.) His cuisine, everyone in Dubai agrees, is magical and he was widely expected to get two stars for Ossiano when Michelin launched its first guide to Dubai. In the event, Ossiano got one. I imagine it will get two in the next edition; anything less would be an injustice.
Atlantis still sees itself as a gourmet destination but ownership and management changes have ensured that it now has a clearer focus than it did when it opened. The model is clearly the big Las Vegas hotels which sell themselves on the basis of gourmet food plus gambling. Atlantis sells itself on the basis of gourmet food plus water park. I reckon it is only a matter of time before Dubai allows casinos, in which case, Atlantis will become a full-fledged Las Vegas-style operation.
The change in focus has led to a rise in service standards which are much higher than I remember them being in the past. It is hard to offer warm, personalised service in a hotel that has 1,500 rooms but Atlantis manages it. My own butler Mario (originally from Indonesia), was far better than most butlers I have had at Indian hotels recently.
The restaurants have been reshuffled. Rostang’s brasserie has gone. Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen has taken its place. I doubt very much that Ramsay has much time for the restaurant, but I had a really good meal there. Hakkasan has moved to Atlantis from a central Dubai location and flourished. It has a Michelin star and Andrew, the chef, has stamped his own personality on the menu.
Nobu is still there and appears set to grow. This Nobu will close and Atlantis will open the world’s largest Nobu on the 22nd floor where the Bridge Suite used to be. There is a new addition to Atlantis called Royal Atlantis coming early next year with more gourmet restaurants by such chefs as Heston Blumenthal and Nobu will also run a beach club there. (The current Nobu space will go to Frantzen.)
Not everything is perfect: front office is a problem and the Indian food was terrible. But if you want a gourmet holiday in a luxury hotel that is not too far from India, then Atlantis seems ideal.
And there is still Royal Atlantis to come.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, December 3, 2022
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