He’s a household name in Australia and New Zealand, but will Sean Connolly earn himself top billing at Dubai Opera?
It might be the architectural grand dame of Downtown, but Dubai Opera’s new eatery isn’t holding itself up to any highfalutin ideals. “I believe my menu is what I call ‘popularist’, if that’s even a word,” laughs Sean Connolly, the man putting his name to the venue’s rooftop restaurant. “It’s a collection of very easy to understand and approachable dishes. That’s how I like to roll, nothing too tricky or complicated. It’s just good, honest food that’s produce driven and classically cooked.” It’s an unexpected mission statement from a kitchen in such a prominent position. After all, Dubai is not exactly known for its restraint. But while the menu might be simple, the space itself ensures that eating there will always feel very much like an occasion – the cavernous, vaulted restaurant could have felt austere, but clever use of pearlescent touches and hints of coral and rose gold add warmth to the stylish grey and white space, the tiled ceiling is particularly special, and there’s no question the roof garden will shortly come into its own. We’re impressed. The good vibes continue when the coherent and well-crafted menu appears, divided simply into raw bar offerings, starters, mains and grills. Simple. We started with a platter of sashimi and, unsurprisingly, given Connolly is known for his work with seafood, it’s very, very good, each piece of fresh-as-can-be salmon, tuna, seabass and hamachi simply melting in the mouth. A second appetiser of watermelon, strawberry, tomato, torn mint and whipped feta proves more divisive, being rather sweet for a starter, but there’s no question of its freshness, and the addition of pomegranate adds a knowing touch of regionality. For mains, we share a plate of pillow-soft buffalo ricotta gnocchi with a creamy ragu of peas and sugar snaps. It’s delicate, light and delicious, a vegetarian dish that quietens even us carnivores. Not quite as much as the giant 21-day dry-aged sirloin we share does though. Cooked perfectly medium rare and served with a bitey peppercorn sauce, a portion of perfectly crisp duck fat chips (apologies to our belts) and a bowl of ‘Grandma’s’ buttered carrots, it is, as main courses go, like a great big meaty hug. Desserts are fun – a frankly obligatory opera cake comes in a puddle of salted caramel, while a caramel semi-fredo is buried under a mound of popcorn. It’s cute, but not out there enough to frighten the horses, which pretty much sums up the kitchen’s whole approach. “Popularist” indeed, Mr Connolly. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Dubai Opera, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai, Dubai, daily noon to 3.30pm and 5.30pm to midnight. Tel: (04) 3627312. Metro: Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall. seanconnollydubai.com
DOING SOME GOOD
Sean Connolly talks us through his restaurant ethos
How would you describe the restaurant?
It’s a steak and seafood brasserie with everything in between, very easy to understand and approachable dishes.
Has sourcing in Dubai been challenging?
It’s been a really fun experience to be honest. There’s great quality produce coming from all over the world. Living in Australia, I admit a slight bias towards Australian and New Zealand beef, lamb and seafood, but the produce coming in from Europe is seriously off the hook. We’re also really excited about starting to buy locally-sourced organic vegetables in the cooler months. It’s so important to source locally and be as ethical as possible in the modern progressive food culture, and it’s almost expected now, with our guests’ knowledge of food and the amazing food culture here in Dubai.
Your work with a programme in Australia that educates children about food. How did you get involved?
Charity Bounce reaches out to indigenous children in the Aboriginal communities of Australia through basketball. Whilst I’m the least sporting bloke on the planet, the charity’s founder thought I could help with food education, which really inspired me. I have fun with the kids and it’s so fulfilling working and meeting the children face to face rather than simply funding a faceless charity. I seriously love being a part of it.
You became interested in food as a child. What can parents do to encourage kitchen curiousity in their own children?
I think that as parents in the 21st century we know so much more our parents did. If I have one thing to say, it’s give your children lots of encouragement and give them confidence in the kitchen. Help them follow recipes but then start to freestyle. There’s no such thing as a bad dish if it was cooked with love and enthusiasm. Food is a vehicle for bringing people together but it’s not the be all and end all… Family is.