Renowned British-born, Australia-based chef Sean Connolly talks to Time Out about setting up shop in Dubai’s cultural landmark
It’s safe to say that I’m bringing my greatest hits. This is like my ‘Best Of’ album,” laughs Sean Connolly, as he tells us about his new restaurant opening, Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera. And judging by a menu packed with steaks, seafood and even pizzas, he’s not wrong.
The opening of Dubai Opera was among the most eagerly anticipated events of 2016, and this month, the venue is back to its much-talked about status, thanks to its exciting new restaurant, which sits at the top of the house.
“I’ve got a bit of stage fright,” admits the Yorkshire-born chef. “Every time you open a restaurant, you take a risk; you’re putting yourself out there in the public domain, you’re taking people’s money and, of course, you’re going to be critiqued.”
Connolly already has five restaurants in Australia, where he has lived for 30 years and is a household name, thanks to his award-winning cooking (he has picked up several “Chef Hats”, the region’s highest culinary accolade), and multiple television appearances.
Plans for his first UAE venture have been 18 months in the making. “It’s been an interesting journey, co-ordinating it all from Australia,” he says, ordering his second espresso. “There’s been a lot of fine-tuning, meeting suppliers, butchers, sorting uniforms. It’s not been quick. This is a big gig for me, I really want it to be a success.”
Connolly has already racked up the air miles from Australia, and will be in Dubai once a month for the first year of business, with the promise that he’s not going to be a “fly-in-fly-out chef”.
“When I heard about the Opera I had to go for it,” says Connolly, matter-of-factly. “It really doesn’t get any better as a landmark location.”
And it doesn’t, not with the modern design, prime spot in Downtown Dubai and wealth of world-class performers taking to its stage. The restaurant, which is based at the very top of the building, opened its doors on Friday September 1, and boasts stunning views across to The Dubai Fountain and Burj Khalifa.
Despite being hand-picked for the role by Emaar, Connolly had never been a regular visitor to the region, but says as soon as he arrived, he fell in love with the atmosphere.
“It’s very avant-garde. There’s so much style in Dubai,” he says. “It reminded me a lot of the east coast of Australia, the vibe and the people. And there are mad foodies over here.”
But with space for 350 diners, it’s a sizeable spot to fill day in, day out. Connolly is looking to cater for a broad market, as well as the obvious theatre-going crowd.
“There are a lot of different areas and a lot of different feels,” he says. “I want it to be relaxed – a place for good times.”
The brasserie-style restaurant boasts several sections including a main dining room, a more “express” area with a wood-fired pizza oven and an outdoor bar.
Pre-theatre is all about keeping the menu tight. Pizza is the ultimate fast food, according to Connolly, as it only takes around 90 seconds to cook, so expect to see that on the menu. Meanwhile, there’s also a more leisurely service at the rear of the eatery.
Connolly has had input into every area of the planning, not just the menu, and music is a key component in adding to that chilled-out, friendly vibe.
“All my restaurants have a particular style,” he says, talking of the playlist almost like a science. “I need to work out what this will be for this one. My restaurant The Grill is very much meat, so we have Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple playing. In Sean’s Kitchen it’s a lot more pop, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, nothing too daggy, you know.”
As with the music, Connolly is especially proud of the interiors. It’s a massive space, with high ceilings and plenty of light.
“This was a vanilla box and we got the chance to design it all ourselves,” he says. “I’m really serious about oysters, as you’ll see from the menu, and with the interiors we took the colours of the oyster from the shell to the inside; creams, greys, stony colours, pinks. It’s beautiful work, and really special.”
When it comes to food, it’s back to basics – as far as that’s possible with an award-winning chef. Connolly has simple tastes, he tells us, being a fan of a “nice roast chicken”.
He’ll be cooking here with a team of around 40 chefs, headed up by his executive chef from back home, Carl Maunder.
Connolly’s speciality, he says, is “really good food”, and the best way to achieve that is through the produce. Where possible, Connolly will be using local ingredients, but will also be sourcing from New Zealand, Spain and Scotland, among other countries, which has been a major part of the planning.
“The better the produce the less you have to do, it speaks for itself,” he says, firmly.
After all, this is a man who was dubbed “The Caviar Boy” on The QE2, where he worked as a 19-year-old, so he knows a thing or two about high-end goods.
“I worked in the Princess Grill, which was in the top ten most glamorous restaurants in the world,” he says. “I’d have to run down seven flights of stairs to the stores, which were locked. It was wall-to-wall caviar. At the time, a third of the world’s caviar was on that ship.”
Not that we don’t love a sprinkling of caviar or a dash of drama here in Dubai, but sometimes it’s refreshing to take things down a notch, and that’s what Connolly is doing. There’s no edible flowers, gold leaf or plumes of dry ice.
“A lot of chefs say they hide behind foam, bubbles and smoke. My cooking is super-simple, but that makes it more nerve-wracking, as it leaves you exposed,” he says.
Not that that’s always been the case. “My cooking used to have more moves than John Travolta,” he laughs. “I used to do molecular stuff or put 15 different things on a plate, but I think I’ve matured nicely, it’s straight up and down now.”
And it doesn’t need much explanation.
“A prawn cocktail is a prawn cocktail, chicken and chips is chicken and chips,” he says. “But it’s the best chicken, it’s the best duck fat chips, it’s the best prawns.
“You’ll never get nervous walking into one of my restaurants, it’s all stuff you’ll recognise.”
Dishes on the à la carte menu include fish and duck fat chips with crushed minted peas, steaks, and, of course, oysters. He has also taken influences from the region, with a lamb shoulder marinated in raspberry vinegar and star anise. There are plenty of fresh salads (think grilled peaches, buffalo mozzarella, pistachio pesto) and a dish from his main influence, “grandma’s carrots” (cooked within an inch of their lives, apparently).
“It’s very simple food and is more about the produce than me,” he says in his warm, down-to-earth manner. “It’s about unpretentious food and unpretentious service.”
Which is excellent news for Dubai diners, Opera-goers or not. Open daily noon-2am. Dubai Opera, Downtown Dubai (04 362 7312).