Le Bistro by Salmontini review: Five dishes to try in new Abu Dhabi restaurant

le bistro by salmontini review: five dishes to try in new abu dhabi restaurant

In The National’s Taste Test series, our writers take you inside the latest restaurants just before they open, and ask chefs what dishes they would recommend and what makes them special, for you to then order (or, indeed, avoid).

Here, we get a preview of the menu at Le Bistro by Salmontini, which opens in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.

Inside Le Bistro by Salmontini

From Switzerland to Lebanon, Scotland to the UAE, restaurateur Hussni Ajlani has been on an exciting salmon journey. Not the miraculous one the species is renowned for, but just as instinctive, just as adventurous and more exciting.

And he seems to know exactly where he is going.

The Swiss native’s Salmontini concept has established itself as a success in Dubai since opening in 2005, following the launch of the first branch in Beirut four years earlier. Now Ajlani is hatching a plan for Riyadh to further expand his brand, but the next stop is Abu Dhabi, where a 90-seat French-style bistro opens this weekend at the five-star Le Royal Meridien.

le bistro by salmontini review: five dishes to try in new abu dhabi restaurant

The Abu Dhabi outpost has a glass-fronted terrace and an open kitchen. Photo: Le Bistro by Salmontini

Twenty-five years have passed since Ajlani came up with the idea to open a salmon-themed restaurant, after a chance discovery on his first visit to Lebanon in 1999. He fell in love with the country, its people, its hospitality and, bizarrely, Scottish smoked salmon.

In the Lebanese mountains, he came across a man smoking salmon for personal consumption and had his first bite. Instantly hooked, Ajlani began his Salmontini journey. He made trips to salmon suppliers in Scotland and took the plunge with the opening of the Beirut restaurant in 2001. His family are still there, but the business has come on leaps and bounds.

He says the success of his flagship restaurant in the heart of Dubai’s financial district, the DIFC, is not down to the food alone. The story behind it and the warmth of the hospitality on offer are equally important.

Customers used to come as couples, now they come with their children

Hussni Ajlani, restaurateur

That much is obvious the moment I step into Le Bistro by Salmontini ahead of its official opening. The ground-floor venue in the heart of the city’s downtown district has hues of green and blue, a stunning glass-fronted terrace and an open kitchen. Ajlani’s greeting is as warm as the hospitality that transpires.

Many customers at the Dubai branch have been coming for years, he explains. “They used to come as couples, now they come with their children,” says Ajlani, who hopes to create something similar and equally long-lasting in the capital.

Loyalty extends to his staff, most of whom have been with him for years. Every hour each of them starts clapping along merrily to instrumental dance beats, creating an upbeat and happy vibe. When it is full, Le Bistro by Salmontini will be buzzing.

But I’m here to try the food. Ajlani explains the concept is “upper mid-range”, and he is comfortable with that. The idea is not to “reinvent the wheel”, but to do classic dishes very well and with a twist. Salmon, of course, is the speciality, but there are other mouthwatering options.

Head chef Jon Gaboric, an American who spent some of his career in East Asia and Europe before moving to Dubai, has now been in the role at Salmontini for eight months. “I really enjoy working with Hussni and the creative freedom he has given me,” he says. “There are a lot of exciting things happening, including this launch in Abu Dhabi and our plans for Saudi Arabia.

“We are putting our own spin on classic dishes and we have focused on the plating and presentation too. The small details are important, they really make a difference.”

He recommends first-time diners sample the following four dishes.

Salmontini Benedict

“This is our breakfast signature, featuring three types of the maison’s home-smoked Scottish salmon,” says the chef. “It’s a generous three-egg Benedict to kickstart the morning. We have poached eggs Florentine with wood-smoked, light-smoked and roasted salmon, plus creamy spinach, shaved fennel and mustard hollandaise.”

Taste test: The smoked salmon needs to be sampled on its own to fully appreciate the three subtle differences in flavour. Combined in one mouthful, the fish, spinach and egg are melt-in-the-mouth fantastic, and the sauce has a bit of a kick too, proving a nice contrast.

Tuna Nicoise salad

le bistro by salmontini review: five dishes to try in new abu dhabi restaurant

Runny eggs are recommended over medium ones. Photo: Le Bistro by Salmontini

“It’s a timeless classic, with tuna, olives, green beans, baby potatoes and soft egg. With this dish, I started out with tuna confit and then added seared tuna to offer a different texture. I think that’s playful,” says Gaboric. “We give guests the option of a four-minute or six-minute egg.”

Taste test: The contrast in textures between the poached and seared tuna on the same plate is more than playful. It’s fall-off-the-fork perfection. I go for runny egg – and it is a wise choice. The highlight, though, is the light lemon dressing. It is a delight, adding a tangy twist to the palate.

Seabass en papillote

le bistro by salmontini review: five dishes to try in new abu dhabi restaurant

This dish is a good example of the venue’s seafood expertise. Photo: Le Bistro by Salmontini

“Served with fresh vegetables, herb butter, asparagus and olive oil, the finesse of this dish comes from the style of cooking in a papillote,” explains the chef. “It steams the sea bass to perfection, locking in all the flavours of the vegetables and herbs for a healthy and delicious plate.”

Taste test: Steamed fish is difficult to perfect at home, but these guys know how to do it. Beautifully presented, the sea bass is soft, moist and flaky with a delicate taste that is nicely complemented by the herbs and veg.

Entrecote St Germain des pres

le bistro by salmontini review: five dishes to try in new abu dhabi restaurant

The sauce stands out in this delectable dish. Phil Johnson / The National

“This has been a signature dish for Salmontini since 2005,” notes the chef. “Our entrecote is Australian Wagyu beef tenderloin, served with pommes frites and our secret French sauce. We can’t give anything away, but customers always rave about it.”

Taste test: The boneless rib-eye steak is melt-in-the-mouth tender and the shaved pommes frites are nice and crispy, but let’s get straight to the secret sauce. I detect mustard, while my dining partner thinks there is a hint of wasabi. Perhaps. They have kept it a secret since 2005 and are not giving away anything now. I don’t blame them. We ask for bread to mop it all up. Magnifique.

Pastry parfait selection

le bistro by salmontini review: five dishes to try in new abu dhabi restaurant

Pastry comes courtesy of Yamanote cafe. Photo: Le Bistro by Salmontini

“This comes with a rosy raspberry parfait and a salted caramel and chocolate parfait,” says Gaboric. “Both are made in collaboration with award-winning home-grown pastry brand Yamanote, which really needs no introduction in the UAE. We know they make fantastic pastry, so it is a perfect fit. We do our own plating with their desserts.”

Taste test: Yamanote is known across the UAE for its appreciation of Japanese flavours and baking methods. The two options before us don’t disappoint. The presentation is so beautiful we are almost reluctant to spoil it. But the hesitation lasts seconds and we devour the lot. Of the two, I prefer the raspberry version and, like everything else we have sampled, both are delightful.

Daily, 8am to midnight; Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa Street; 02 674 2020

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