The more poetic elements of the world’s tabloid press may be using a range of inventive, though less-than-appealing metaphors to describe the decor at Atlantis, but if the cavernous Ronda Locatelli is anything to go by, those descriptions don’t apply to the megahotel’s eateries.
Whatever you make of Nakheel’s overstuffed Palm Jumeirah, the hotel’s ‘cold sore’ colour paint job (that’s the UK’s Sun talking) or the ethics of bottling thousands of marine creatures because they make for nice wall coverings, Giorgio Locatelli’s laid-back, family-friendly Italian is the epitome of good taste. Even if, as I heard one diner remark, ‘there’s a lot of denim in here for a Locatelli.’
I’m being given a guided tour by the charming Signor Locatelli himself. Arguably the most dignified of London’s ever-expanding troupe of celebrity chefs, he’s famed predominantly for the high standard of the Italian cooking at signature eatery Locanda Locatelli: you’re unlikely to catch him advertising a supermarket, launching a range of instant soups, or tarting around on a scooter. He’s all about what’s on the inside, you see, and his eyes sparkle as brightly as his two Michelin stars when he’s talking about ingredients: ‘We had to totally re-think the cupboard for Dubai,’ he reveals, gesticulating wildly, ‘as there are some things which you just can’t get here, or you can’t get them fresh enough. I would rather just leave them out than settle for second best, you see?’ I see.
I also see a giant mushroom. In keeping with the hallucinogenic vibe that characterises the whole of Atlantis, Rondo’s 200-odd covers are arranged around an enormous fungus with brightly coloured windows. Huddled beneath it, the gaggle of chefs could be Smurfs, in their whites and hats. There’s a logical explanation, though: ‘This is a four-furnace pizza oven. Pizza is central to this restaurant. Locanda Locatelli is my haute couture. Ronda is the prêt-a-porter line.’
We start the preview with a selection of fried favourites: calamari and sardine set on a bed of quietly tasty, zucchini strips, which melt before they reach tonsil territory. The pizzas – ‘Bufala’ with luminous fresh tomato, buffalo mozzarella and basil, and the signature ‘Ronda’ pebble-dashed with hunks of spiced chicken – are as good as any I’ve had in Italy, despite the challenge presented by Dubai’s wildly fluctuating levels of humidity: ‘We’ve been experimenting with the crust for weeks, and I think we’ve finally got it right,’ says Locatelli.
Main courses seem to be pared down versions of dishes from the London flagship: my lobster linguini with chilli, garlic, tomato and white wine is the very definition of al dente. There’s no pork for now, but Locatelli assures me that swine will be added to the menu in a couple of months, ‘once we’ve set up the designated kitchen’. A neat little side of pasta-filled aubergines with tomato, mozzarella and basil rounds off my savoury experience with panache.
Desserts are spectacular in their simplicity – an impossibly light apple tart with vanilla ice cream, purest panna cotta with dense, powdery cocoa ice cream, and zucotto, a beautifully tubby hazelnut trifle containing chocolate chip ice cream. Well, it would be rude not to sample all three.
Likewise, Atlantis was never going to be satisfied with just one celebrity chef. Fish restaurant Ossiano, which occupies a wall of the shark-infested central Lagoon, is helmed by three-starred chef Santi Santamaria. Michel Rostang’s Parisian brasserie is just round the corner. And, of course, Nobu Matsuhisa has brought his black cod show to the resort, in an elegant, shadowy enclave with awnings which resemble the sails of a giant ship. Good luck getting a reservation – they’re fully booked well into November.
To tour even the resort’s restaurant wing is visually exhausting. There’s simply too much to take in, particularly after a couple of hours in the sympathetically lit Ronda. Atlantis is, of course, one giant water-cooler moment, and everywhere you look there are huddles of excited gawpers. They look uncannily like fish. But our first culinary journey to Atlantis indicates that there’s plenty of substance amid the spectacle. Our meal was great, but we got the VIP treatment. When we do the review we’ll be anonymous as always, so wish us luck with the waiting list.