New Japanese dining in Dubai

'Izayaka' concept, offering tapas-style food, is coming to the city

crab tempura
Soft-shell crab tempura
Baby abalone 
with mushrooms
Baby abalone with mushrooms
Foie gras with daikon radish
Foie gras with daikon radish
Scallop and tomato carpaccio
Scallop and tomato carpaccio
Executive chef 
James Kang
Executive chef James Kang
Yukari Imajoh
Sommelier Yukari Imajoh
Restaurant manager Yusuke Ota
Restaurant manager Yusuke Ota
Head chef 
Jun Nagano
Head chef Jun Nagano
Nobu’s zen 
Nobu’s zen garden

We do pretty well here in Dubai for Japanese restaurants. Our city is home to Miyako, at the Hyatt Regency in Deira – apparently the first Japanese restaurant to open in the UAE – as well as big-name international
imports such as Nobu and Zuma. The city is even in the landmark position to be exporting its own home-grown concepts, with a branch of Okku set to open in London.

Japanese cuisine is far more complex than it may appear. The nation’s restaurant dining concepts can be based around a single dish or style of cooking, and high-end and lowbrow venues are worlds apart in terms of atmosphere, food served and price. Despite the popularity of Japanese food worldwide, it’s extremely rare to see a fraction of these more varied concepts translated to venues outside of Japan, yet in Dubai, amid the many sushi buffets and chains, we actually have more complex Japanese eateries than the average city.

To further boost Dubai’s dining credentials, there are three new Japanese eateries in the pipeline, all due to open between now and November. Each will offer a new perspective on this cuisine: ultra-authentic TOMO at Raffles for high-end dining, freelancers’ workspace Sushi Counter on Sheikh Zayed Road for casual eats, and Yuraku at the Asiana Hotel in Deira, which brings us a modern take on a traditional concept.

Yuraku marks a real landmark in Dubai, offering the concept of ‘izakaya’: something which is rarely, if ever, seen outside Japan. Described to us by the team at Yuraku as ‘casual dining with bar food’, it’s essentially Japan’s answer to the British gastro-pub and the Spanish tapas bar, where food is all-important, but is eaten in a relaxed setting for a more food-oriented night out. Yuraku is scheduled to open at the beginning of October; crucially, an evening of eating can also be teamed with karaoke in the private rooms.

Asiana Hotel has brought in Japanese chef Jun Nagano (from the Japanese island of Kyushu) to head the kitchen. Having only been in Dubai for three months when we meet, Jun has spent his time devising and testing Yuraku’s menu with the help of the hotel’s executive chef, James Kang. Partly as a counterpoint to the purely Japanese menu being offered at Hanabi restaurant next door, the menu, they tell us, will be ‘total fusion’, bring together European influences, as well as ideas from across Asia.

Judging by some of the signature dishes, this fusion concept holds a lot of promise. Examples include scallop and tomato carpaccio topped with miso and avocado cream (a neat match of Italian and Japanese cooking); foie gras with daikon radish; baby abalone with Japanese mushrooms; and soft-shell crab tempura. While the abalone and soft-shell crab may not sound too alien, the use of typically Chinese seafood in a Japanese cooking context makes these unusual. Baby abalone, and the combination of foie gras with Japanese daikon, are both aspects of the menu that chef James believes are new to the UAE.

Also on offer is halibut usuzukuri, a rare fish dish similar to sashimi, but with a much thinner and more delicate cut. Creativity continues with the dessert list, which will offer light, simple, but imaginative dishes such as ginseng ice cream (a favourite Korean flavour).

Chef Jun has been specialising in izakaya kitchens for some time, and recently returned from working in an izakaya in the US. He explains that the ‘sharing’ style of ordering several dishes particularly appealed to the American audience, although he doesn’t seem 100 percent convinced about how well they adapted to the izakaya concept. Jun and the team at Yuraku appear to have more faith in the ability of Dubai diners to adapt, saying they will ‘easily understand’ this new Japanese gastro-bar concept – partly because the team will make sure they explain it.

‘Restaurants need to give diners more education and explanation about what Japanese food is, which doesn’t happen at many venues,’ says Yuraku restaurant manager Yusuke Ota. ‘Most Japanese restaurants in Dubai offer fusion, but people don’t really realise it is fusion. We’re going to offer fusion at Yuraku, but make it more accessible, in a more casual setting, so everyone can try it.’

The bar setting is all-important to the traditional izakaya concept, so the beverage offering at Yuraku also plays a huge role. Step forward Yukari Imajoh, the izakaya’s sommelier for Japanese rice-based beverages. It was here in Dubai that Yukari first began specialising in the beverage side of Japanese dining, when her training at the Sheraton Dubai Creek brought her into contact with a European expert. Yukari was surprised by the complexity and variety. She has specialised in Japanese beverages since 2008, working previously as a sommelier at Armani/Hashi.

The venue will offer several Japanese-inspired mixed drinks, but Yukari is most interested in the rice beverage selection, which she has personally sourced and hand-picked. ‘There are so many categories,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to bring some local, special varieties for which there is usually no import and export, varieties that are very difficult to get.’ Among the specialities Yukari has selected a sparkling variety, which she hopes to offer before a meal instead of bubbly, and a ‘fruity and elegant’ rose-coloured option, made with black rice, (known as ‘caro’ in Japan), which she sourced from the Shimane prefecture.

From the food, to the beverages, to the concept itself, Yuraku promises several firsts for Dubai, and we look forward to seeing how they will come together. Itadakimasu!
Yuraku is set to open in late October. Asiana Hotel, Salahuddin Road, Deira, (04 238 7777).

The other side of the yen…

Fancy a change from sushi? Here’s a taster of a few more options from Japan’s diverse culinary spectrum

‘Kaiseki’: the tasting menu
The kaiseki style of dining is akin to a degustation or ‘tasting’ menu: in fact. some consider the Japanese art form to be a precursor to similar European fine-dining precepts. It involves several courses of elegant, refined taster dishes. Originally from Kyoto, it is often served to guests at ‘ryokans’ (Japanese inns), as well as at the beginning of the traditional tea ceremony. Here in Dubai, Miyako serves a nine-course kaiseki menu, and even has a tatami room for an authentic experience.
Miyako, Hyatt Regency Dubai, Deira (04 317 2222).

‘Shabu shabu’: the hot pot
Hot pot can be seen in varying guises in the different cuisines across Asia. The Japanese are particularly well known for sukiyaki, where the ingredients are cooked in a soup broth at the table. Shabu shabu is a similar dish, less well-known outside of Japan, and generally considered to be less sweet than sukiyaki. It was invented by a restaurant in Osaka called Suehiro, which later patented the phrase ‘shabu shabu’ – it means ‘swish swish’, describing the sizzling sound of the meat cooking. It’s traditionally a winter dish, so not ideal for our climate, but if you’re curious, you can try shabu shabu (as well as sukiyaki) in Dubai at Sakura restaurant.
Sakura, Crowne Plaza Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 331 1111).

‘Yakiniku’: the grill
Yakiniku means ‘grilled meat’ and is one of several Japanese styles of cooking on an iron hot plate (others include teppanyaki and robatayaki). This particular style is essentially a Japanese interpretation of Korean barbecue that is thought to have originated post-war, and has now become a Japanese genre in its own right. It is served in a similar style to the Korean method, with plates of prepared and marinated raw meat brought to the table, which guests then cook on an iron griddle and dip in the accompanying sauces. To try cooking (and eating) this for yourself, head to Sumibiya, a fun and popular yakiniku restaurant in Deira. For other ‘yaki’ hot plate styles, try international chain Benihana, where the teppanyaki chefs will do the honours for you (in between showing off their knife-juggling/flame-throwing skills); for robatayaki, try Armani/Hashi.
Sumibiya, Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek, Deira (04 205 7333); Benihana, Amwaj Rotana, The Walk at JBR (04 428 3089); Armani/Hashi, Armani Hotel Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Downtown Dubai (04 888 3444).

Also try…

This internationally renowned restaurant is known for its fusion menu (with many a European influence), but it is also heavily inspired by traditional Peruvian cooking, with dishes such as tiradito, ceviche and antichuchos on the menu. Aside from the cooking concept, Nobu in Dubai also offers an unusual space in which to dine: the outdoor garden incorporates Japanese zen design principles with vegetable and herb gardens, where Japanese ingredients are grown and used in several of the restaurant’s dishes.
Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 2626).

Coming soon!

After the closure of Raffles venues Noble House and Red Lounge Terrace, the space has been sequestered for the opening of new Japanese venue TOMO. Due to open in November, TOMO aims to promote authentic, traditional Japanese food culture.
Raffles Dubai, Oud Metha (04 324 8888).

Sushi Counter
This new Media City sushi stop is getting ready to open its second branch, on Sheikh Zayed Road, with an entirely different concept. Set on two levels, the upper floor will be a communal workspace with Wi-Fi and a library. It’s due to open at the end of September.

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