If you’ve dined in either of the Zuma restaurants in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you’ve certainly had a taste of Reif Othman’s genius. He recently resigned from his role as regional executive chef of Zuma Restaurants and is now the Chef De Cuisine at Play - and that is all it took to get that restaurant onto my foodie radar!
Play Restaurant & Lounge, winner of Time Out Dubai's Best Newcomer Fine Dining award this year, is a completely new concept, home-grown in Dubai. Located on the 36th floor of The H Hotel, offering a “Mediterrasian” menu – a fusion of Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. There is an unmistakable glamour to this hotel tucked into the corner between the World Trade Centre roundabout and December 2nd Street. Breaking down the ceiling of the 36th floor gives Play Restaurant kaleidoscope canopies and spectacular skyline views from floor-to-ceiling windows. SO aesthetically pleasing and well designed by renowned firm, Gregory Gatserelia. It houses sharp cut brass walls, precious marble flooring, and signature Colossal Baroque sculptural chandeliers in gold and black Swarovski crystals and pearls. An interior with Art Deco influences, neutral hues and bonsai trees, that despite its size still manages to capture intimacy.
Not competing with Zuma's iconic menu (Thank God), but playing twists on classic dishes and testing the creative side of Reif. It is a menu that not only pays homage to Reif's home country of Singapore but which is also tinged with the international flavours experienced throughout his travels. A perfect example would be the Pita surprise, an idea that first sparked when he saw people eating carpaccio and tacos. Using that as inspiration, he then incorporated pita bread, one of the staples of the Gulf, to give the dish a Middle Eastern flair. The pita surprises, small pockets of bread packed with truffle butter mash and draped in rare wagyu, offering a microcosm of the entire dining experience: rich, luxuriant and faaabulous!
I won't lie, getting into Play was intimidating at first! A velvet rope to navigate you on the way to the elevator, which has no buttons. Service was a little cold initially too but it warmed up pretty fast, a visit from the manager, Jonathon, to each table was also a nice touch. Our waiter was pleasant, authoritative and more importantly had personality. But the menu at first glance is a little confusing with dishes divided into sections like ‘Partager’ (sharing), ‘Zesto’ (hot), ‘Binchotan’ (Japanese coal), ‘Mariscos’ (seafood), ‘Jardiner’ (from the garden), ‘Tierra’ (from the earth), and ‘Uramaki’ (Japanese inside-out makis). Most of the menu being small sharing plates that arrive at your table as soon as they're ready.
This "small plates" thing is still going strong isn't it? I don't remember a restaurant craze quite like it. The trend is obviously going to date, as all trends do, and one day it will seem as absurd as any other bygone fashion – the culinary equivalent of shoulder pads. For the moment, though, small plates are where it's at. There's no mystery about why the trade likes them - they're a great way of using seemingly low individual prices to run up a surprisingly big bill (having said that Play restaurant was a lot more reasonably priced than I thought it would be); but there's a lot to like about these small plates too. Yes, it's frustrating to order something nice only to finish it in two bites, but variety is a virtue, and you never get stuck with a huge main course with which you've fallen out of love halfway through. Part of what restaurants do is what you can't be bothered to do at home. I mean who would make eight dishes for two people, or 16 for four?
Anyway getting back to my epic meal at Play. First up were the duck gyozas, arriving beneath a canopy of wafer-thin pastry. Packed with soft, sweet duck meat and served with a tangy ponzu and chili dip - One of my favorites of the evening and a must-try in my opinion.
The Tuna Tataki was another favorite on the table, the yuzu dressing made for the perfect balance. The avocado pizza was just how I like it. Thin crust, no muss, no fuss, topped with thinly sliced, perfectly seasoned and lightly glazed avocado. Delish and wiped clean. The snails were an unexpected surprise by Jonathon, who sent it to our table suggesting we try it! I've had snails before and don't really mind them but I've never been a massive fan, they're kind of like a cross between chicken and lobster - if you can imagine that! They taste like the former and have the texture of the latter. These however, I couldn't stop nibbling it. Dowsed in a butter sauce and when dipped in the parmesan soil underneath (powdered Parmesan mixed with squid ink), were sublime.
Guys. That, right there... Was incredible! Those bad boys were braised for 76 hours and had the most amazing flavor profile of which I could definitely make out some ponzu, citrus, soy, and tahini. A very popular dish on their menu that they tend to run out of most nights. Highly recommended!
That Red Snapper might not look all that; but it was cooked to perfection with a beautiful smoky aftertaste due to the brown jus and veal bacon. Topped with crispy red quinoa, this dish was a winner. Cooked the French Laundry way - sous vide in a special plastic bag, sealing all the flavors inside, ensuring the fish absorbs all those aromas and cooks in it's own juices.
So everyone was raving about this Sneakers bar. A crunchy, nutty slab of chocolate and pistachio mousse with pistachio ice cream; and it was good, no doubt. but I have to say I enjoyed the peach and greek yogurt dessert a lot more. warm greek yogurt stuffed sponge with beautifully balanced peach sorbet, crumble and poached peaches. Absolutely refreshing and not too sweet on the palate.
After sampling all that, we were in an intense food coma. But there were still a few things we wished we were able to try! The twist on the black cod which I've heard is a game changer, I saw it as I peered onto others tables to see what they had ordered, and it included, what looked like the world’s greatest fish finger. Both the Mushroom and Rock Shrimp Risotto are also on my list for when I go back, the former finished off in a giant aged parmesan wheel and the latter seemed to be the most explicit example of East meets West. Roll the dice and join the game foodies, this playful restaurant is definitely here to stay.