I've considered myself a foodie for a while now: my weekends are planned around breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner; my library has more cookbooks than it does Shakespeare, I'm afraid to say; and Bon Appetit is second only to InStyle on my magazine shopping list. But well-read (and fed) as I might consider myself, last week I went back to school.
I was lucky enough to sit down for an intimate dinner hosted by legendary Japanese chef Matsuhisa Nobu at the Dubai outpost of his Nobu chain of restaurants. But think beyond the menu of miso-marinated black cod and new-style sashimi, because this was a masterclass in umami, and it's available to everyone until Saturday.
Ten diners, all Nobu fans curious for food knowledge, sat around the circular table as Nobu explained what the seven-course tasting menu was all about: the fabled "fifth taste", known as umami, identified in the early part of the last century by a Japanese professor who wanted to know why his wife's soup tasted so delicious.
Presenting us with two china cups, he invited us to discover that umami is a rich, savoury flavour found in everything from dried mushrooms to meat to tomato. The cups each contained a cool stock, unsalted, the first made from konbu and dried skipjack tuna flakes — the classic Japanese base called dashi — and the second made with tomato and scallop. The umami element should be identifiable in each, we were instructed by Nobu, although I have to confess I couldn't quite make it out yet. It took me back to my 6th grade math class, where everybody seemed to understand the algebra, and I would nod along, secretly completely confused.
Just to make it even more educational, Nobu was joined by Ailbhe Fallon, a food scientist and spokesperson for the Umami Information Centre in Europe, who shared her knowledge — and love — of umami, making the experience a true lesson in high-level eating. Lessons included understanding the key umami compounds, — glutamates — and how there are receptors on the tongue that respond to only these compounds (the other receptors respond to sweet, salty, bitter and sour, of course).
Dream come true
Thankfully, the seven courses that followed were easy for me to understand, as they were possibly some of the most delicious dishes I've ever eaten. It's possible that the whole experience — teacher, master (and a Japanese-speaking sake expert who chimed in every once in a while) — compounded to make it much more than the sum of its parts, but I have to say this was a foodie's dream come true.
The first plate got us started slowly, with dishes that would be familiar to fans of Nobu: whitefish sashimi with uni, or sea urchin; yellowtail tartare with wasabi and caviar, and the most "umami" of the plate, a phenomenal roll of salmon and kelp (both salmon and kelp, or konbu, are rich in those umami compounds).
The next dish might not sound like much, but it was the most memorable for me — tender, moist inch-thick slices of lobster under a mound of baby spinach (plenty of umami in that, apparently) coated with an outrageously good dressing of parmesan and dried miso and topped with generous shavings of white truffle. I licked the plate. Nobu called this dish the "most umami", and said when he set out to create the menu, it was like a mathematical formula, putting together umami-filled foods which somehow work together in harmony. But he was not clinical about it: "First of all, it's food," he told me.
Seabass, marinated in umami-loaded dashi, followed, roasted in a wood oven and topped with paper thin red onion and a mint salsa — so refreshing after the rich salad. Then onto a open leg of king crab, the meat succulent and topped with more truffles, and served with an earthy buckwheat risotto.
I could go on but the final dish sums up what Nobu was aiming for when he created the dishes: a plate of sushi with clear dashi soup, those seaweed and seafood notes of sweetness and savoury combining to bring out that fifth flavour.
"Simple is best," said Nobu, smiling as we all tucked in.
- Where: Atlantis, The PalmCall 04-4262626
- Total bill: Dh1,500 for seven courses.