The thing about Dai Pai Dong, one of Abu Dhabi's newest restaurants (owned by Rosewood Hotel), is that you need to understand the concept's origin. Historically, the word "dai pai dong" refers to a specially licensed traditional covered street food stall in Hong Kong. You sit on a little plastic chair at a little plastic table, usually eating from a plastic plate or bowl. Sweat is most likely dripping down your forehead as you slurp your noodles. People are yelling, cars and scooters are zooming past and you may catch a peek of a cockroach scuttering by. But, these markets give you Hong Kong on a plate. They satisfy your every craving with no-frills Chinese soul food, and while their existence is diminishing, they have an unrelenting following.
Here in Abu Dhabi, the Rosewood Hotel is recreating that concept. They have decided to bring the street food of Hong Kong to the international food lovers of Abu Dhabi in the way that Abu Dhabi knows best...with a flair for posh. Dai Pai Dong presents itself as elegant and calm, decorated with dark paneling and rustic seating. There is well curated Chinese decor, including vibrant paintings by a street artist from Hong Kong. However, it successfully builds this classy façade on the stakes that have upheld the traditional eateries for all of these years. It is relaxed, casual, and buzzing with talk and laughter as the clouds of steam rise from the open kitchen. The team of chefs, mostly whom moved here from China just for this purpose, are frying, sauteing, chopping and the flavors are powerful.
Some diners have moaned about the restaurant's location in the far end of Galleria Mall, but this is actually an ideal spot. It is just below the Rosewood Hotel (a more casual setting than actually being in the hotel), and by not being completely immersed in the center of the mall (next to the "see-and-be-seen" Godiva for example), we can again feel the connection to the traditional street markets. In Hong Kong, the dai pai dong are not set next to Hermes and Louis Vuitton, but they are very near. They are slightly hidden, in-between the streets and buildings, and only those that know will seek them out. On another note: it also allows the restaurant to more easily serve pork and alcohol without flaunting it. And, in fact, their tiny speakeasy, next door to the restaurant, is a great place for cocktails, warranting a separate review on its own.
Dai Pai Dong's menu presents variety while still keeping things simple. There are numerous vegetarian options, including three tofu dishes. And in addition to the expected chicken, noodles and dim sum, there is also pork, lobster and their signature roasted duck. Those last two are the most expensive items on the menu at roughly 200 AED each ($55 USD).
We started with a few simple dim sum, which are one of my favorite offerings here. They are perfectly chewy little pockets holding hot crunchy vegetables or tender meat or shrimp. While the selection of these could be a meal on their own, having just a few helps to whet your appetite for what is to come. To begin the meal, we ordered Crushed Cucumber Salad and a 1/2 portion of the signature Cantonese Roasted Duck. The duck was cooked to the honorable GBD (golden, brown, delicious) through a three day process of pre-boiling it, then marinating it in vinegar and honey. Just before it is ordered, the duck is quickly fried to create a crispy skin against a perfectly gamey rich meat. If you can hold off, take an extra thirty seconds to wrap it up in the steamed pancake with a few thin slices of spring onion, and some perfectly savory plum sauce. The salad, while not as "crushed" as I was expecting, provided a refreshing and bright equilibrium.
After seeing the chef stretch and pull his freshly made Chinese noodles, I could think of nothing else but my favorite meal during my last trip to Hong Kong: a small bowl of handmade noodles in homemade Chicken broth. This simple dish beat out so many extravagant dinners. With that memory we ordered the Cantonese Wonton Noodle with Shrimp Dumplings, and a few moments later our soup is delivered still steaming. It did not disappoint. The broth was almost golden and more viscous than your average broth, leaving you with the warm, soothing flavor of chicken and vegetables after each sip. The noodles were thin and chewy, while the generous dumplings were tender and springy. At only 40AED, this dish will leave you feeling satiated while not out of pocket.
As the main course we ordered the Spiny Lobster and the special vegetable of the day, which was Chinese broccoli, gai lan, cooked to a perfect balance between wilt and crunch. The steamed lobster was delivered cracked in half, doused in chicken butter, sprinkled with crushed ginger, chili, green onions and breadcrumbs. The lobster meat was tender and naturally buttery, balanced with the brightness of the onions and ginger. The meaty juices overflow onto the plate and are mopped up nicely by the base of delicate glass noodles. At the top end of the menu's price range, this dish is also one of the top performers.
To end the meal, we split the assorted desserts. My favorite was the traditional fried sesame pastry filled with bean paste. Hot, chewy and not overly sweet. B's favorite was the creme brulee infused with mint and topped with lychee. However, this twist on the traditional dessert was just a little too far from the time-honored classic I adore, for me to be won over.
The service was excellent, without any pretentiousness. We spoke to our young friendly Chinese server repeatedly, asking her how things were prepared. She knew the menu well and smiled often. Savoring simple, authentic Cantonese food in a relaxed and casual eatery, while still in air conditioning, and with the added benefit of 5-star hotel levels of hygiene and service is a pretty exciting option for Abu Dhabi diners.