Dubai’s aptitude for magnitude is known the world over, with its record-breaking feats ranging from the world’s tallest building to the world’s largest flower arrangement. Search hard enough, however, and a ‘less is more’ approach can be found in this city of the colossal.
Kohantei, sitting inconspicuously next to the Dubai Opera and in the shadow of Burj Khalifa, may be small, but it is very much perfectly formed.
After finding the unassuming entrance and removing shoes on arrival, the shōji (Japanese sliding doors) are carefully opened to reveal a tiny restaurant with just five tables. There is no question that this is the most visually authentic Japanese restaurant in the UAE; Downtown Dubai could just as easily be Downtown Kyoto.
Kohantei’s offering is Kaiseki cuisine, a Japanese multi-course menu that favours diminutive dishes. Five menu options are on offer, from the six-course ‘Sakura’ to the eight-course ‘Matsuri’. We settle in the middle at the seven-course ‘Aoi’ menu and begin our journey east.
The opening number is Nanohana (Japanese broccoli) cooked in vegetable and seafood stock, with flakes of bonito (dried, fermented and smoked tuna) providing a gentle undercurrent of umami. These are flavours that won’t smack you in the face – more tap you on the shoulder and politely introduce themselves. Kohantei is about elegance, not extravagance.
Continuing on that theme is the warm tuna and green beans with mirin and soy – complete with harmonious sweet and the salty notes – as well as the Wagyu meatballs, served in a broth with Japanese carrot, radish and herbs — the salt and fat from the beef providing some serious flavour. In these two courses, as in all the dishes, the presentation is understated, belying some captivating cooking.
The trio of sashimi, the Nanbanzuke (fried fish marinated in vinegar) with onion and bell pepper, and the miso soup with slow-cooked beef offers more of the same; subtlety of flavour is a constant. Make no mistake, this is still food that sings – it’s just a cappella, with no synthesizers or autotune in sight.
After several years of working in a 300-seater restaurant, executive chef Hisao Ueda is clearly enjoying a renewed focus on quality over quantity. The care and precision in every dish is obvious and such is his love of the ingredients, he insists we meet our beef before we eat it. It turns out to be the best cow story we’ve heard since Jack and the Beanstalk.
Our beef comes directly from the farm of Mr. Muneharu Ozaki, the only farmer in Japan to put his name to his meat. But this is not mass production on a Captain Birdseye or Bernard Matthews scale. Ozaki breeds just 100 cows per year, feeding them himself every morning and naming every one of them. (We didn’t ask our steak’s moniker, but let’s go with Daisy). It is rated A5 by the Japanese system, which is as good as it gets.