Roberto Rella may have left Roberto’s, but this phoenix has his biggest Dubai project up his sleeve. Penelope Walsh meets exclusively with the Italian restaurateur to find out about his latest venture, TRE by Roberto Rella.
Last week, Time Out Dubai met with famed Dubai restaurateur Roberto Rella; the Roberto behind Roberto’s in DIFC. We became the first press to see his new three-level concept in all its vast (and for now dusty) glory, and the first press to see his new menu for what will soon be TRE by Roberto Rella. Following his departure from Roberto’s in DIFC, he will be adding his name to a second Dubai venture, now due to open in the first week of April, spanning the 49th to 51st floors of the Radisson Royal Hotel Dubai on Sheikh Zayed Road.
Chef-driven restaurants are a norm. Concept-driven restaurateurs are a norm. We’d argue, however, that restaurants driven by former front of house managers (turned local celebrity), are relatively limited. But from the moment we met Roberto Rella, we realised we were dealing with a different sort of driving force. Meeting in a private lounge bar, a few flights down from the soon to open restaurant, our first experience of Roberto was the exuberant Italian who stepped in to find water, fill glasses and pass them around our party. Immediately. The very second the waiting staff had dawdled a little too long.
But then, this is the man who started his career in his early 20s, catching the eye of Elton John in a three Michelin star restaurant, for simply bringing him something to blow his nose on. Sounds simple enough, no? But in the heat of the moment, Roberto recalls, front of house staff at Milan restaurant Gualtiero Marchesi flummoxed over the choice of bringing Elton John either the very finest Egyptian linen, or toilet paper to wipe his nose on. While they debated, Roberto’s response was swift and simple: to race to his car and bring back the box of tissues in there. ‘Elton John said to me, “you’re a good young man, you saved my nose” because he was waiting ten minutes for a tissue, while they decided what to bring him,’ Roberto laughs. Hearing the man talk, seeing him in action; there is something refreshingly vintage in his attitude to restaurant customers, and it represents restaurant hospitality in a pure form.
Having worked in Dubai for 15 years, Roberto first arrived in the emirates to open and oversee BiCE Ristorante in Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Beach. Since then, he has supervised the launch of BiCE in Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Jeddah, Doha, Bahrain and Singapore. In 2012, Roberto Rella opened Roberto’s in DIFC. ‘TRE’, meaning ‘three’ in Italian, represents the new venue’s three floors. Three, he adds, is also a key number for him, since this will be the third restaurant he has opened in Dubai.
The first, or rather 49th, floor of TRE will be ‘more the foodie floor’ says Roberto, describing it as ‘social, casual, chic, flexible.’ The first floor of the venue to be near completion when we saw the site, the design here includes modernist-looking Murano glass chandeliers, and a black lava table top. On the 49th, you’ll find a small bar, the main dining area, a private dining room, and also a raw bar for Italian crudo dishes. Into the private lifts, and upstairs to the 50th floor, there is a lounge bar, with a DJ and menu of Mediterranean-style tapas. On the 51st floor is a sound-proofed cigar lounge, with live performances of jazz and easy listening music. ‘Even if they are three different concepts, the soul cannot be different. Each body is a different identity. But the soul, the spirit, of each of them cannot be different,’ says Roberto. And uniting each of these floors are also the impressive views over Dubai.
‘I don’t want to shock and surprise people, and my menu will not change in a surprising way,’ Roberto continues. ‘When people go to an Italian restaurant, they don’t expect molecular gastronomy, or too many fancy dishes. For example, what we are doing with the raw bar, is taking traditional dishes and presenting them in a more modern way. We have some innovative touches, but what you read on the menu, is what you eat. Ossobuco is ossobuco, but I need good quality veal, the right cut, and good quality rice.’ Ingredients used on the menu include a dozen varieties of olive oil ‘representing the best regions of Italy’; purple potatoes ‘grown between Peru and Bolivia’; organic Tasmanian salmon; Sicilian red shrimps ‘we use these in a very healthy salad called quinoa Med, mixed with different colours of quinoa’; and obsiblu prawns imported from New Caledonia – ‘very rare prawns, living in turquoise, impeccable, clear, clean water. The texture of the shrimp is perfect for crudo: sweet and tender.’
‘Alain Ducasse once said, “I prefer to have a fresh turbot than a genius in the kitchen”. I want a good chef, and I promise you, I have a good chef. But I don’t compromise on the ingredients,’ Roberto adds. In fact, he reveals he has three chefs lined up, each with interesting pedigrees. Chef Vinu, who worked for eight months at one of the world’s highest ranked restaurants, Mugaritz in Spain. ‘He knows all the secrets of how the Spanish maximise the josper grill.’ Chef Ernesto Tonetto, who previously worked at Cavalli Club for three years, and Chef Daniele Capobianco, winner of the 2014 Hotelier Middle East award for chef of the year.
‘15 years in Dubai is a big wedge of time. It’s not like in London. In London, in 15 years, many things happen, but in Dubai, you feel it even more. In 15 years, you can see Dubai getting closer to becoming a foodie city like Singapore or Istanbul. What I realise from working in Istanbul and Beirut is that Dubai has a similar mentality – watching the future, but keeping an eye on the past at the same time. The mentality among the jet set, the VIPs, is moving almost in the same way. It is different, from say France or Italy, where people might travel miles to a trattoria that has no atmosphere or music, but you go just for the good food. In Istanbul, in Beirut, in Dubai, it is a lot about atmosphere. The full package. The entertainment. But that does not mean the food is not important.
‘In BiCE, people would say to me, “it is not that I can’t get this penne Arrabbiata anywhere else from JBR to Sheikh Zayed Road. You don’t need a genius to give you bresaola. But, it is the attentive service, the fact that we feel at home, the ambience.” For me, it is a really small community of diners that are willing to go all the way from JBR to Deira just for the food. But, having said that, in 2004 JBR was in the middle of the desert,’ Roberto laughs. ‘The city is moving, now there are different hot spots. JBR has its crowd, and its traffic. And you
have the heart of Sheikh Zayed Road, which is where we are now. It is a busy area, and there is potential to draw in a crowd.’
Nevertheless, Sheikh Zayed Road is not yet an established ‘scene’ like DIFC, and with such a huge venue to fill, does Roberto have any concerns for TRE? ‘Concern, no, it is part of the challenge. We say DIFC works. But are all the venues in there working, busy, profitable? We have to be a bit cautious when we say “DIFC works”. In reality there are three venues there that are really working (Roberto’s, Zuma, La Petite Maison). Why are three succeeding, and the others not so much? The others are in DIFC, too. What is their secret? First of all, you have to establish your concept in a proper way. Not just put a name there. It is about concept, focus and absolute consistency.’
At TRE, Roberto explains the ‘concept is more about lifestyle. After 15 years in Dubai, I see the strength in certain places and the weakness in others. I have three floors, what can I do with that? I can create something that will make everyone happy, and keep everyone under the same roof, without, for example, imposing a lounge in a restaurant, when sometimes people want to talk during their dinner.
‘If I give you the example of BiCE, they had a fantastic piano player in there for 12 years, Jerry. When the piano is playing, there is a fantastic atmosphere in the restaurant. But at midnight, when the music finishes, everyone has to find somewhere else to go. On the other side, Roberto’s has this big, crowded bar. The lounge has become a big factor in restaurants now. But some people might feel a bit disturbed by the volume of the bar, if you want to have a late dinner, without too much noise. In Zuma, it was Dubai society that decided that the bar was the place to be, the place with the buzz. At TRE, we are giving people choice, they can decide.’
TRE by Roberto Rella is due to open in April 2015 at Radisson Royal Hotel Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 331 8367).