The ideal dining experience is sometimes a question of fate. The recipe of situation, circumstance, object and feeling coming together with time. It’s rare to get a near-perfect meal, but I had one last Sunday night. The situation was on the Palm Jumeirah – near it’s southern tip, in Vôi restaurant. The circumstance was a first-dinner-in-Dubai for my Melbourne neighbour (our object). A tremendous cook, a great friend, a new resident of the UAE. There was a desire to impress.
The feelings stemmed from my desire to take her somewhere special, but I also wanted to share that bubble of anticipation with her. It had to be a new experience for me too. It had to be the kind of cuisine I know she likes. It had to be beautiful, and after her terrible week of waiting in queues ending in tangles of the proverbial red tape, it had to show her she’d made the right decision to move to this country.
What I hadn’t factored in was pure luck – a restaurant that has slowly come of age as I’ve continued to ignore it’s presence. Almost as if it had been waiting for this exact moment to dish out it’s very best work.
Vôi initially opened under pressure – the build-up was substantial, and not purely for it’s own sake, but the rise of cuisine on trend. It was the only French-Vietnamese in Dubai at the time to shine in five-star modern lines as its dated and worn predecessors struggled to adapt their cuisine to fit the niche that cities like Chicago and London had dictated should be classed in this colonial vein, and ergo, fashionable.
Unfortunately, it didn’t really work. What should have been the flagship paled in comparison to Zabeel Saray’s other restaurants, and Vôi became a monochromatic shrinking violet both in the expanse of columns, arches, velvet and bling that is probably Dubai’s flashiest hotel. Time Out put it on the don’t-bother list, and they haven’t been back since. I myself attended a function there that left me with absolutely no reason to return.
But Vôi has been like a teenage girl, starting at 14 as a moody, spotty, know-it-all, full of promise but choked with angst. There was nothing to do but put up with her, hoping that one day she may just reach her potential without sending her parents broke. Then all of a sudden, she was 16. And the annoying, temperamental creature was replaced with something beautiful, possessing direction, purpose and reason. Baby grew up.
The food at Vôi is classed as Colonial French-Vietnamese. But I was instructed by the (Vietnamese) waiter that this should actually be Vietnamese-French. I laughed at the time, thinking he just wanted to put his own nation first. It dawned on me throughout the evening that this is not the case.
French-Vietnamese refers to the influence of the French colony on Vietnam, and in this case, particularly its food. When the French arrived in Saigon. The colonial demand for foods like baguette, patisserie and more brought out dishes like Bánh mì and Bánh La respectively. On the ships with the diplomats also came ingredients and recipes more commonly associated with french cuisine – pate, escargots and coffee.
Some of the dishes you would expect to find on a French-Vietnamese menu would include Banh Flan (crème caramel with coconut), bánh patê sô (Brittany-style meat – usually pork – pie with onion, mushrooms and sometimes noodles), bun oc (similar to Pho, but with bulot – sea snail), bánh mi (baguettes filled with piquant salad mixes) and bánh la (various pastries). Essentially, Vietnamese cooks, making their interpretation of French cuisine, with a regional fusion. French dishes prepared in a Vietnamese way.
But the dishes you will find at Vôi are a little more than this – Of course, you will find a fusing of the cultures, but the waiter was right – they are more accurately Vietnamese dishes prepared in a French way, rather than the other way around. Each dish has that decidedly Francais demeanour. The food is pretty, delicate, and would not be out of place in any Michelin star restaurant in Paris. Asian themed, or not. Perhaps this is the way Vôi is finding it’s niche.
The first taste was an amuse bouche. A palate surprise – tender tiny tentacles of baby octopus in a salad of piquant herbs and spice, and that characteristic Vietnamese sweet and sour with a big hit of umami-filled fish sauce.
Three entrees – Number one the tartare, was a tuna dish, it’s signature ingredient served three ways, but all in its succulent pink form – one simply chopped with delicate herbs and flavourings, and served in a lettuce cup like sang choi bau. Then, two towers of rice-paper filled raw tuna, again flavoured only gently to allow the fish to do its work of controlling the flavour. And last on the plate was a double-sashimi-sized segment lying on a hot stone, the kind you’d find in the middle of a bourgeois spa on a faux-tanned back, gently braising the fish at the table, leaving it pale pink on one side, and on the other, dripping with sweet salty soy.
The second entrée was quail, semi-boned and grilled, flavoured with five-spice and partnered with a fine julienne salad of fennel, carrot, slithers of chilli and crisp fried noodles. I haven’t had as good since the spiced quail at Binh Minh in little Saigon in Melbourne. But, on second thought, Vôi’s was better – charred, not charcoaled, sticky yet not greasy, and with a much more intricate garnish in that pretty little salad than Binh Minh’s perfunctory coriander sprig.
The third entrée was a snow crab salsa. Generous on the avocado (not so much on the snow crab), and something you could easily imagine a Parisian socialite picking at over a lunch in Place Vendome. Perhaps the least praiseworthy of our three choices, but still exacted carefully and beautifully.
Mains again took us three ways, with sticky cod, a duo of wagyu and the duck. The two former were perfect – presented with the finesse of the French, seasoned well and just edging on the orient. However, the third, with it’s combination of subtle cubes of radish cake, lumps of glistening foie gras and sticky tamarind dressing stole our hearts. The three of us fought over the last pieces, ditching manners, discussing its merits with our mouthfuls, and wondering if we could ever recreate it at home.
We thought we were full, but a glance at the dessert menu reminded us that women are built with two stomachs – one for savoury and one for sweet, so we proceeded to stuff our second one. We did this sharing, as with the other courses – a pear soup with strawberries, wafers and ginger icecream – the soup coloured iridescently (with pandan leaf, I suspect). Palate cleansing, light and yet just unctuous enough to satisfy. But the White chocolate blancmange with black sesame toffee crisps, dragon fruit and coconut, resurfaced the gluttonous monsters who had vanished with the removal of the empty duck plate.
It’s very likely the speciality in Vôi’s offering stems from their adherence to the traditional spiritual food rules of the five elements and a yin-yang balance. Five flavours (sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, salty), Five colours (Green, Red, Yellow, Black, white) and five nutrients (Carbohydrate, Fat, Protein, Minerals and Water) were present continuously. And even where they were not, it was possible to see the scales weighing the balance of each dish – warm and cool notes as prescribed by the doctrine being sought, but, high and low, rich and light also found in unison.
When I try food like this, I ask myself if the chef takes the philosophical importance to practice, or if it is simply an example of thoughtful and clever cooking? Does it matter? Probably not, to me anyway. All I care about is that It’s the best meal I’ve had in Dubai for a long time, verging on the best ever.
Pros: clever food, opulent atmosphere, swanky hotel location, nice wines.
Cons: terrace lighting not so romantic, staff too shy, quite expensive (but not over the top, I suppose for the venue), taxi costs a fortune to get to that side of the palm.
Address: Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, Palm Jumeirah West Crescent
Ph. +971 4 453 0444
*A guide to ratings: These take into account the price, quality, service and the facilities, and in effect are a value rating. A venue with mains at 30AED has just as much chance of getting a 10/10 as a fine dining establishment.
- 0-2/10 = exceptionally overpriced or tremendously awful. Avoid at all costs.
- 3-5/10 = overpriced in respect to quality. Lacklustre. Don’t eat there unless there are no other options.
- 6-7/10 = reasonable value. Check other options in the area just in case, but not a bad choice over-all.
- 8-9/10= worth seeking out. Tremendous food and ambience. One of if not the best restaurant in the area.
- 10/10 = As good as it gets. Stop what you’re doing, book a table now.