In a food-obsessed city, it’s entirely appropriate that Dubai Opera’s first birthday present to itself — and the city — is a sprawling new restaurant, complete with a celebrity chef attached.
Sean Connolly Dubai Opera opens on September 1, in perfect time for the Eid Al Adha holiday, and after a select preview last week, we advise ordering the roast lamb.
“My restaurants are not about formal dining or being avant-garde, I don’t want to serve just the one per cent. I’m a knockabout sort of a bloke and my food is simple and straight back and approachable.”Share on facebookTweet this
Connolly’s take on the traditional star attraction for the Feast of Sacrifice is a slow-cooked lamb shoulder with raspberry vinegar, star anise and redcurrant jelly for a result that, quite in keeping with the story behind the occasion, strikes a delicate balance between sweet and sour notes.
It’s also spoon-tender, buttery soft and a party in your mouth.
“I think it’s pretty awesome but I love my own cooking,” Connolly (not to be confused with a certain superspy-playing actor) told Gulf News tabloid! in an exclusive interview last week.
But we get ahead of ourselves.
The British-born celebrity chef helms the playhouse’s newest permanent show, an oceanic brasserie that sprawls 12,000 square feet across the top level of the dhow-shaped building and can accommodate up to 350 people.
Connolly promises an “all-singing, all-dancing floor,” with a relaxed steak-and-seafood menu that is simple, pared-back and produce driven, and set to a soundtrack of blues, disco and funk.
“Food is probably fourth on the list of priorities for me when opening a restaurant,” he shrugs, likening his role to that of a Broadway producer. His priorities vary in order from day to day. “Today, they’d be the light and sound, the music, the ambience, then food. It’s about a good time — if you’re having a good time, the food will follow.”
Jasper Hope, chief executive of Dubai Opera, described Connolly as a partner that completes the Downtown Dubai venue’s customer experience.
“In Sean, we have an outstanding chef who knows exactly how to create a fantastic atmosphere using the best quality and variety of ingredients, a sense of fun and contemporary style and, essential to complement Dubai Opera’s unique dhow shape, a consistent and proven delivery of incredible seafood,” he said in a statement.
Outside of Australia and New Zealand, where he runs five restaurants, the Yorkshire-born chef is best known for the TV series, My Family Feasts. In it, he explores the lives and culinary traditions of Australian migrant families, cooking everything from Congolese pumpkin leaves to English Uppey Pudding.
Connolly is a migrant himself — he began his career at Astral restaurant in Sydney’s Star Casino during a working holiday in 1988. With success on TV, he bet his livelihood on an independent career, launching The Grill in Auckland in 2010.
More TV and restaurants followed, but the Dubai Opera venue, his first international venture, materialised after years of refusing to expand into the UAE. “I discussed a lot of different opportunities, but nothing was really right. Nothing was a big enough risk,” the chef, who turns 50 this year, confides over an elegant sparkling beverage.
“I’ve got my family in Australia — it’s a long way to come. And I’ve already got five restaurants. So the next lesson would have to be something quite special for me too. I think a lot of the time it’s about putting a value to the amount of time you’re going away be away from your family. So it just has to be something quite special.”
It’s been a two-year journey since he signed onto the project, and he’s been back five times, he says, segueing into a set piece about how much he loves Dubai, and its architecture and how it’s home to some of the world’s best chefs.
“I don’t see myself in that league, but to be here in the same pond as these guys is something,” he says, the self-effacing Yorkshireman coming through.
The showcase setting, then, is a nod to the culinary maestro’s adopted home: “I wanted people to have a glimpse of my life and what interests me and I’ve spent 30 years of my life in the antipodes.” That’s come through in the interiors, he says. A fluted roof over the main dining area resembles the inside of an oyster shell, and he likens it to the sails of the Sydney Opera House.
A statement says Alexander & Co, the principal architects and interior designers, found inspiration in Connolly’s seafood, in the irregular shape of the building and in the classic 20th-century design.
Indeed, despite some strongly contemporary elements, the entire experience is a bit like floating around a mid-century salon that has somehow ended up underwater.
Muted aqua, coral and grey tones dominate, punctuated occasionally by pops of bright yellow, burnished brass or deep black, or by specially commissioned hanging sculptures.
Kitchen counters along both sides mark out distinct dining experiences. On the left sits the Raw Bar, with a display of Gillardeau and Belon oysters, and Alaskan king crab.
Turn right instead for a quickie at the Fire Bar, where a wood-fired oven disgorges skinny pizzas in under two minutes.
Catering to those looking to settle in for a more elaborate affair is the Pearl Bar in the centre, and an al fresco area at the far end that will no doubt spark the latest selfie trend — its curved roof frames the Burj Khalifa beautifully, almost as if one were looking up from the centre of a giant mollusc.
The options keep things accessible, Connolly says, mindful of the fact that this is an opera-house restaurant he’s talking about.
“Walk into my restaurants on a Saturday night, there’ll be a six-year-old having dinner with his mum and dad at one table, or a 95-year-old lady enjoying her birthday with her only son at the other table. My restaurants are not about formal dining or being avant-garde, I don’t want to serve just the one per cent,” he says.
“And I think Jasper does the same thing with the entertainment, with everything from musicals to opera to classical. I find that really exciting, it’s a bit like my food. I’m a knockabout sort of a bloke and my food is simple and straight back and approachable.”
SEAN CONOLLY DUBAI OPERA: THE FOOD
At different moments during the course of our conversation, Sean Connolly described himself as a self-confessed oyster freak and a meat man. The menu at his eponymous Dubai Opera restaurant, breaks neatly into surf and turf, with options for vegetarians and the gluten-intolerant. (And yes, there are burgers).
The menu is divided into small and large plates, grills and pizzas, but Connolly’s big play is seafood. There’s a wide selection of sashimi to caviar and naturally, oysters. (His patrons love them as much as he does — one of his Australian restaurants goes through 75,000 each month). Among the more unusual choices on the raw bar are sea urchin sashimi, and a remarkable scampi crudo, dressed in lime and coriander.
Besides the stellar lamb, there are some excellent steaks, both grass-fed and grain-fed, sourced from Australia and New Zealand. We loved the delicately hand-chopped, paprika-inflected steak tartare (it comes with lettuce boats for clean eating fiends), and a juicy, giant T-bone about the size of a continent.
The perfect side for nearly everything is a portion of his legendary duck fat chips (he caused a run on supplies when he promoted it on the telly in New Zealand). We won’t attempt to describe them, we’ll merely say he’s right when he says duck fat improves everything.
A salad of heirloom tomatoes paired with homemade labneh and a hint of liquorice riffed cleverly on the current trend for burrata, but vegetarians will want to order the unusual gnocchi, made from buffalo ricotta cheese.
And in keeping with his mantra for approachability, there are also burgers. And popcorn, which comes caramelised and wrapped around a vanilla semifreddo.
Just your average theatre meal, then.
What: Sean Connolly Dubai Opera
Timings: Noon to 2am
Where: Downtown Dubai
Valet Parking: Dubai Opera
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 04 362 7312.