Clé

The tsunami wave of modern Arabic dining in Dubai continues with the opening of Clé in DIFC, with famous Australian-Lebanese chef and cookbook author Greg Malouf at the helm. This bar and restaurant looks undeniably stylish, swanky even. The long, rectangular space begins with a cosy little lounge-like lobby at the reservation desk, complete with an elegant and enticing display of chef Greg’s cookery books, as well as Malouf-branded food products. It continues, divided between a large bar area and a central dining space, as well as an additional rear bar, a large terrace and a private dining room. Decorated overwhelmingly in black, the darkness is offset with pockets of shine. There is plenty of detail in the design, from the Chanel-esque padded leather chairs through to the gilded Kalashnikovs used as lamp stands. However, the space is so dark that it actually takes some eagle-eyed observation to appreciate all this, and as a result the venue feels fabulous yet lacking in unique character. Fitting considering Clé’s infamously star studded launch party, on our last visit a private party was also being held in the restaurant for SATC star Sarah Jessica Parker. The rest of the venue was also reasonably lively for a weekday night, especially outside on the terrace. Staff here are just perfect. From the reception hostess who sweetly offered to open the display of cookbooks so we could browse through them, to the exceptionally cheery toilet attendant (who asked if we’d enjoyed dinner), everyone at Clé is on their very best behaviour. It feels natural and genuine, and that is aside from the exemplary service at the dining table. It ticks all the right boxes – polite, helpful and knowledgeable, but performed with a personable and unpretentious manner that is exactly how restaurant service should be. The menu is a confident and self-assured two pages of hot and cold sharing dishes. There are also some family-style banquet dishes for large groups listed separately. While the recipes are largely untraditional and original, presentation is neat and unfussy. For the hummus and ‘mama ghanoush’, three connected little bowls appeared, one of light, silkily-textured hummus, and another with a salad of buttery, garlic-enhanced spinach topped with a small mound of crisp fried onion rings. The third was chef Greg’s unique creation of labneh with cucumber seed. It was full of refreshing, summery flavour, creamy and light in equal measure. The vine leaves were served as a stack of elegantly rolled little fingers stuffed with rice and lamb that had a lovely balance of umami and sweetness. As for the falafel – made with hazelnut for a twist – crunch contrasted nicely with an unusually light and airy structure within. Greg’s riff on traditional kibbeh nayyeh was made with minced salmon and yet somehow mimicked the fatty, creamy quality that fans of the original will recognise. The buttery layers of roti served on the side were showstopping, as in fact was all of the bread sampled, including a quite off the cuff arrival of nearly translucent parchment-like saj, puffed out like a hot air balloon as it landed on the table. A bountiful bowl of sautéed, golden-coloured cauliflower was a pleasantly homely affair prepared as a nod to Greg’s mother’s recipe (so the waiter told us). But it was the tarator-style wild sea bass that stole the show. Sitting between two dramatic looking quills of paper-thin and fairly fiery-flavoured bread crisps, was a plump and meaty fillet of beautifully soft and moist flesh. It was coated with a colourful and flavour-loaded topping of coriander and walnut. The menu at Clé is Middle Eastern food, lovingly couched in tradition, and creatively shaken up with new twists. It’s high-end and high-quality, but confident without being intimidating. And there is a similar charm to the service; excellent but not out to prove that this is so. For us, it is only the space at Clé (lively and slinky as it may be) that doesn’t live up to the same sense of originality with self-assured charm. The bill (for two) 1x hummus Dhs65 1x vine leaves Dhs62 1x falafel Dhs48 1x salmon kibbeh Dhs85 1x cauliflower Dhs35 1x sea bass tarator Dhs180 1x lager water Dhs30 2x mocktail Dhs78 2x tea Dhs40 Total (excluding service, plus DIFC tax) Dhs685

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