On the face of it, a partnership between an artist-chef and a controversial businessman seems an unlikely combination. Go past initial appearances and the reason why Reif Othman teamed with Flavio Briatore begins to make sense. At the end of an evening at Dubai’s Billionaire Club, however, I’m still not sure who has the better end of the bargain.
Last year, Othman closed the doors on The Experience, his dozen-seater celebrity hangout at the top of the H Hotel, sending hardened food fanatics and everything-on-expenses executives scurrying for new places where they could win business and influence people. Word at the time was he was regrouping to launch something bigger. Instead, he turned up on the other side of Shaikh Zayed Road, posting on Instagram recently that he’d joined former F1 team boss Briatore’s Billionaire Mansion to run the sushi bar Sumosan. The move prompted many dining scene regulars, myself included, to ask if he’d sold out. Had the dream become a nightmare?
“No, no, no, not at all,” the new Executive Chef and Business Partner at Sumosan Twiga says passionately. It’s a Wednesday night and he’s sitting next to me at a corner table in the Mansion’s high-ceilinged dining room, which serves Japanese and Italian fare, two restaurants in one so to speak, with diners able to order from either or both, as they please.
Following two years at the helm of The Experience and its sister act Play, which is part-lounge and part-restaurant, Othman confides that he had had enough, and that he needed something bigger, a springboard that lets him compete on international turf.
“After six years at Zuma, I wanted to create a homegrown concept — and we achieved that with Play. It was a trigger for me, culinary-wise and F&B-wise, but now it’s time to move on.”
The 40-year-old Singaporean’s job with the Billionaire group, then, is to revitalise the Sumosan brand across three of its four branches and ready it for expansion. Since he joined, he’s launched a new menu at Sumosan Dubai, which he takes to London over a week-long stint next month, and then on to a summer residency in Monte Carlo, where his wife and children will join him (Othman’s other reason for the move is to spend more time with his family). He isn’t involved with the original Moscow flagship for now, but will spearhead any new openings.
“I’m more an entrepreneur now, in terms of looking beyond the kitchen. I’ll be looking at how we can beef up the dining experience for Sumosan,” he says, explaining that he will be involved in front of house operations almost as much as overseeing menu development. “I’m an active partner now as opposed to being a silent partner earlier. Who would say no to that?”
Pillow beef and tempura maki
If his new menu at Sumosan Dubai is any indication, Briatore clearly made the right choice.
A starter of pillow beef with truffle mayonnaise impresses straight away. A light, crunchy wisp of charcoal pastry filled with heady truffle cream and topped with a slice of wagyu for a dense, savoury finish, it’s all I can do to stop myself from ordering — and inhaling — a dozen more.
Othman's new-wave maki rolls are unlike most available at other Japanese restaurants in the UAE. One, the fried otoro ten features gloriously fatty otoro or tuna belly paired with soy-marinated wasabi root and the merest smack of yuzu, another combines wagyu with truffle shavings and truffle cream, a third comes riceless — salmon and prawn rolled in tangy purple shiso and clean, refreshing cucumber and sprinkled with tempura crumbs.
Other dishes are equally impressive. A seared salmon sashimi is sublime — one bite of this velvety delight and my taste buds ring with tart, sweet, tangy and savoury flavours.
The secret is in the dressing — sudachi lime, soy, mustard and miso — and in the freshness of the fish, something that comes to the fore in the simple, but elegantly cut sushi platter.
The miso black cod takes me straight back to his Zuma days. I wrote at the time that Nobu Matsuhisa may have made the miso-marinated fish famous, but in Dubai, Zuma did it better. Sumosan beats them both out.
I almost feel I shouldn’t be eating this stunning food in a restaurant with live entertainment to distract from the flavours. Food this good needs a stage of its own — although thankfully unlike other lounge-restaurant concepts, Billionaire Mansion clearly delineates the club from the dining area.
With his food and his reputation, it’s easy to see why Briatore wanted Othman on board, and repeatedly asked him to join Billionaire. Batuhan Piatti Zeynioglu, the Billionaire Mansion Dubai’s Executive Chef who looks after the venue’s Italian kitchen, expects Othman’s presence to elevate the restaurant’s profile considerably.
“The presence of chef Reif in our team will definitely be an extra gear for Sumosan and with his creativity and knowledge I’m sure we will be located in a stronger position in the restaurant business in Dubai,” he told Gulf News tabloid! via email.
That sentiment has cropped repeatedly over the past few months across the city, as more and more restaurants open their doors, with first-time entrepreneurs sinking their life’s savings into new ventures, and seasoned players launching all-out celebrity attractions to bring diners through the door.
In the run up to Expo 2020 Dubai, the city will welcome restaurants from Heston Blumenthal, Masaharu Morimoto and Massimo Bottura, among others. Othman is among several in the trade who believe our appetite for new concepts is greater than our capacity to sustain them all, never mind being able to try each one.
“The thing is, with all these big boys coming in, they don’t study the market. They don’t see how Dubai responds to this kind of food and don’t attempt to create something for us,” he says.
For the investors, a marquee name is a tourist magnet, but as Othman points out, a year-round business can’t survive on seasonal tourism.
Dubai’s comfort food zone
Later that evening, when he’s checked on the orders and sent out a copious amount of food, we return to the topic of the upcoming celebrity-driven concepts again.
“Dubai diners want to eat their comfort zone food. In Play, for example, I didn’t have burrata on the menu, but the minute I put it on, it’s flying out of the kitchen and everybody starts to order it,” he says. “Unlike in London or New York, nobody wants to eat rabbit or venison or sweetbreads, because they don’t know these foods. So you put lamb chops or prawns on the menu because you know they’ll sell.”
The city has long been a trend-driven market, where new restaurants report heavy footfall in the first three months or so before the beautiful people move on to the next place to see and be seen. Those with deep pockets and unique products survive. The problem, Othman says, is there aren’t enough distinctive venues. He points to the launch of Coya, following which Peruvian restaurants exploded. “Now where are [all the others]?”
In November, the analyst KPMG reported that nearly half of restaurants polled in a recent survey expected a considerable decline in sales over the following 12-18 months. “There are nearly 9,700 restaurants in Dubai,” Othman says, quoting a recent F&B conference, “and there are several more on the horizon. There isn’t enough room for everybody.”
In such a scenario, he says, great food is a given, but restaurants that also offer entertainment or a celebrity cachet of some sort will be the ones that thrive. As he gets up to head back behind the sushi counter, I comment on how 80 per cent of the tables are occupied. “This is what Dubai wants,” he smiles. Oh well — bring it on.
Pop-up goes The Experience
Don’t write off The Experience just yet. Reif Othman, the award-winning chef who ran the successful but short-lived Dubai hotspot, says the concept will return in pop-up format over the next couple of years, even as he juggles duties overseeing Sumosan Twiga for former F1 team owner Flavio Briatore.
Having got a taste for pop-ups in Cannes last year, where he took Play for the summer, Othman will be bringing his food to unusual venues around the nation over the next couple of years before he makes a decision on whether to re-open the restaurant.
“The closure is temporary, and I’m looking forward to do pop-ups,” he says, adding that these could be in Dubai or elsewhere. He recently collaborated with fellow chefs John Buenaventura and Luis Ezqueta Figueroa on a global tapas menu at Cuisinero Uno restaurant.
He says he wants to see the brand revamp through at Sumosan before he decides on his next step. “I could decide to reopen The Experience in a couple of years’ time,” he says. “But maybe not in Dubai.”
Where then, I ask? The backstreets of Tokyo, he smiles — or Galway, in Ireland.
Recipe: Otoro Ten Maki
10g Sushi rice
½ sheet, Nori seaweed
2 Shiso leaves
50g Toro (tuna belly)
3g Kizami wasabi
3g Chives, chopped
Yuzu maccha salt, a pinch
Tempura flour, for frying
Tempura batter, for frying
Oil, for frying
1. Place the sushi rice onto the middle of the seaweed sheet
2. Add the Shiso leaf, Toro, Kizami wasabi, chopped chives and salt.
3. Wrap neatly into a roll, checking to see the sides and top are neatly tucked in. Refrigerate until ready to use.
4. Before eating, roll in tempura flour, batter and fry quickly.
5. Cut into six pieces, sprinkle with Yuzu Machha salt and serve.