With wide windows overlooking the beach and interior ponds of the Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel, Katsuya’s lunch seating sees a healthy number of predominantly local diners come and try a sampling of its very lengthy menu – while evening turns it into a cocktail destination. With friendly servers and a warm atmosphere that makes for a pleasant daytime haunt, the Starck-designed restaurant may have a good face, but over the course of the meal we saw signs telling of room for improvement.
With more than handful of locations across the globe, Katsuya’s décor is subtly referential to a sleek Japanese aesthetic – once you get inside. The current construction in the outdoor area that houses Katusya, along with Il Burro and Black Tap restaurants, is temporarily under construction and leaves the entrance of Katsuya a brief, but slightly unclear, walk away that unfortunately disguises an otherwise clearly branded façade. Greeted with a resounding “IRASSHAI!” from the entire staff upon entrance, it is a surprising, if novel, introduction into a circular-arranged restaurant flanked by an overly eclectic assortment of signature chairs and leather booths that does not quite attain the level of refinement found in other Starck-designed eateries. While the skeleton of the restaurant is clearly inspired by Shoji architecture, there is also a playful, if expected, assortment of decoration, such as Maneki-neko (the waving cats) that hint at some conceptual, or target audience, dissonance.
Our server Judith rightfully recommended dishes that played into the restaurant’s location – crunchy chicken salad (present on almost every table by 2.30pm), edamame hummus, their version of dynamite shrimp and later on, the molten lava chocolate cake – and testament to the power of helpful hints and the servers’ memories, many diners chose a number of the Chef’s Choice dishes. However, it begs the question of whether Katsuya is playing too heavily into local favourites by featuring dishes seen in multiple venues, or whether it is simply deeply considerate of local palettes. At our table, we opted for an assortment of plates hopefully more representative of the finesse of Japanese culinary arts – selecting octopus carpaccio, Katsuya ceviche, braised short rib Bop, miso marinated black cod, Hollywood and Sunset rolls, and for dessert, the Katsuya Napolean.
While the dishes were presented beautifully – the restaurant and chef deserve considerable kudos for the choice in ceramics and elegant plating skills. Everything else varied in consistency. Some dishes were larger (crunchy chicken salad and creamy rock shrimp), others begged for just another few bites – their octopus carpaccio and ceviche offered gloriously fresh, citrusy tastes that are worth ordering more of. The miso cod was by far the most aesthetically striking order as it arrived on a dark leaf with a well-balanced flavour profile oscillating between the broccolini, marinated cucumber and pleasant, although unnecessary, potato side. The Bop, rice and meat cooked in situ in a steaming hot rock bowl was a fun transgression from an otherwise subdued meal, and the flavours were rich – likely, as we found out later – because there is butter involved. Ultimately though, the further the dishes moved from seafood and a Japanese minimalist approach of focusing on delicate flavours, the stronger the digression into novelty.
Katsuya’s menu is no doubt a crowd-pleaser. The overwhelming number of dishes ensures everyone will find something they enjoy. However, it seems parts of the menu go a step further than needed, and could be elevated by simply focusing on the ingredients instead of unnecessarily obvious attempts at trying to make every dish a showstopper. Space for dessert is best taken up by more of that ceviche with crispy wontons, and it is important to note that all include dairy, one dietary restriction that the menu does not clearly outline. But the fresh seafood on order, the variety of catchy home “elixirs” like Burning Mandarin (consumed with the hot main dishes for flavour balance) and airy brightness indicates why the crowd still comes. However, it will remain to be seen if the inconsistencies are simply growing pains of a freshly opened restaurant, or symptoms of a displaced mall outlet.