Everything you need to know about Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera
Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera is a pragmatic, straight-to-the-point name for the latest addition to the city’s dining scene, a restaurant that occupies a broad, atrium-like steel-and-glass sweep atop the still-new opera house. As such, it’s rather like the man who is piloting it, a 50-year-old Yorkshireman who retains a refreshingly matter-of-fact approach to his art despite occupying and later owning some of the best kitchens around the world since starting out as a 12-year-old in Huddersfield.
To him, a restaurant is a place for people to come and enjoy well-made food, not an exam that has to be passed before the bill is presented. Despite the slightly grandiose space, the food in his new venture is an eclectic blend of the simple and the stylish, with a pizza corner, a sushi counter and an á la carte menu of interesting, enticing plates with enough sophistication and innovation to suit the contemporary interior. “I don’t want pretentious,” he says, his eyes crinkling at the corners as a schoolboy-ish smile spreads across his face. “Come when you like and eat what you want.”
So, where did cooking for you come from? How old were you when you first took an interest?
It all began with my grandmother, really. She was a super warm woman and a great raconteur; she’d tell these great stories about cooking in the war, making meals through adversity. Like many kids from my generation, my parents were out working so in the afternoon we were round my grandmother’s house, in the kitchen learning. I got into it from there.
And from there, your father sent you off to learn from the pros?
Yeah, into the kitchen in a local hotel on a Friday and Saturday night. I must have only been 12 or 13. That actually worked against me a little bit because by the time I went to catering college as a 16-year-old, I thought I knew it all, I was pretty cocky! So, I left and went and got a full-time job back at the hotel, learning all about classic French cooking.
The big break was a job onboard the QE2, the mammoth ocean liner. How important was that experience for you?
Massive, really. I started working with people from the Dorchester and The Ritz, these incredible restaurants in London. That’s when I realised just how much discipline, organisation and sheer hard work it would take to be a real chef. I still have very close friends from those days, we’re all still cooking and we’ve created these lifelong bonds.
Must be a bit like a trainee on a football team: growing together, making mistakes, getting shouted at, but taking it all in…
Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about it like that. But it was a family, you’re living and breathing the job and it’s a very intense education. It’s a cliché but it really was the school of hard knocks; if you hadn’t been chased around the kitchen that was a good day! But you were inspired to cook and I gained mentors and real heroes in that kitchen.
Then you landed in Australia, when you opened The Morrison Bar & Oyster Room in Sydney and Sean’s Kitchen in Adelaide, among others. What’s your style, then?
When you walk into a Sean Connolly restaurant, you feel good about the place. It’s easy, it’s relaxed. You don’t feel nervous. But you feel there’s an eye for quality, an understanding of good ingredients; someone who is well-heeled and well-travelled will understand the food.
For me now, it’s what you don’t do to a dish rather than what you do to it. I’ve pulled back from the smoke, the bubbles and the foam and just want to put really clean, beautiful food on a plate. There’s nowhere to hide with that approach. If it’s not cooked well and doesn’t taste great, it won’t work.
So how would you describe Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera? It’s certainly a grand space…
It’s a steak and seafood restaurant: a coastal brasserie is what we’re calling it. But it’s got different elements to it. It’s really an amalgamation of my greatest hits and it’s certainly my most eclectic range of dishes, from oysters to sashimi, to a pizza bar, to steak… There’s a lot going on!
Do you have a signature dish?
I do a buffalo ricotta gnocchi that is off the hook, it’s what I’d use as a competition dish – even though I get pulled up by Italian mamas about my pasta all the time. “That’s not how we make it!” It’s good to get a telling off now and again, isn’t it?
The cooking scene in Australia is amazing now. What has the country given you in terms of style or ingredients over the years?
Oh, everything. You’re inspired by your surroundings and you pick up influences all the time. So Asian flavours are big in my food. You should never stop learning.
What was your last discovery?
Cecina, a cured beef from Italy. Obviously with the local sensibilities here in the UAE, we have to adapt certain things, and I like to do things saltimbocca style, so this product has been something I’ve been learning a lot about.
What do you know about Middle Eastern cooking?
I did a TV show in Australia called My Family Feast about the cuisine of Sydney, and one of the shows was with an Iraqi family. I’m already thinking about some Middle Eastern-inspired ingredients and checking out the local markets for produce. But you have to be respectful. You can’t muck about with baba ghanouj, can you?
The décor is very slick here. Does that inform the food in any way?
It does. Because of the glass and the steel and the curves, you can’t create a menu that’s too homely. There isn’t a straight line in here! You need to tell a story when you walk into a restaurant.
And you’ll be around the place?
Yeah, that’s important to me. I’ll be back every month for at least the first year. I want to get to know the city and my customers.
What has survived from your days alongside your grandmother?
Honesty and cooking with love. There was a lot of love and laughter in my grandmother’s kitchen and I want to take that with me.
Scampi crudo with coriander and lime
Delicate strips of shrimp served with tangy lime juice and chilli flakes.
Scallop ceviche with avocado and olive oil
A soft circle of tender white scallop slices sitting beneath a heap of cubed avocado.
Sean’s steak tartare
Smoky, tangy steak tartare that you scoop up with curling folds of lettuce for carb-free flavour.
Gnocchi al funghi
A medley of different mushroom textures served with a creamy gnocchi.
T-Bone (for two or more)
A huge slab of meat cooked to medium, with a delicious char hiding the beautiful pink interior.
Lamb shoulder (for two or more)
Slow cooked and served in a sumptuous raspberry vinegar and star anise gravy.
Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera
Where: Dubai Opera
Contact: +9714 362 7312