If you were to ask most Western expats, Dubai is the best place to go for a modern and delicious café meal. But with places like Café 302 popping up, it seems that Abu Dhabi's dining scene could be on the move. Café 302 is completely hidden in downtown Abu Dhabi in the Al Maha Arjaan (Rotana) hotel. You will need to park on the street, since there is not always a valet.
The café is just inside the main lobby and is filled with the much sought after, natural light. There are two parts to the café. On one side it is set up like a little coffee shop with small sofas for lounging with one of the many signature coffee offerings, and your book or laptop (or one of the array of magazines available for browsing). In fact, I would be there now, if I was not tied to my office. The other side of the Café has the dark wooden tables and comfortable leather chairs set up for dining. Both areas are clean, crisp and airy feeling. On my way to the dining area, it was really hard to pass the mouthwatering pastry counter. Croissants, puddings, tarts, cookies, granola bars, not to mention a few healthier items like fresh yogurt pots and cups of chopped kiwi mixed with green grapes, everything appealing to the eye.
Since I was there to try to lunch menu, I had to stay focused. The menu is a bit international, which usually gives me a red flag as I am never sure how well a restaurant can succeed with Asian, Italian, and Middle Eastern items on their menu. But, in a diverse city like Abu Dhabi, it seems to be par for the course. What I did like to learn was that the restaurant is lead by the very experienced Syrian head chef Maren Ibrahim. He is incredibly passionate about his food, very friendly, and wants all of his guests to enjoy themselves. I would let him cook for me any day.
To start, we went with the burrata and tomato salad. It was light and fresh, although needing a few more shakes of salt. The tomatoes are imported from Europe and the burrata is also from an outside provider. However, being the mild cow's milk burrata, I found it a little bland, and really best eaten with the soft warm focaccia bread that is served complementary to your table. The smooth creamy texture of the burrata and the crisp tomatoes, pair perfectly with the warm salty bread.
For mains dishes, there is huge variety from salads, to burgers and pizza, seafood and steak. While I can only vouch for a few items, all were enjoyable enough that I will need to return to try the others. The hot-smoked salmon salad was really fresh and light. The lettuce was perfectly crisp with no site of that dreadfully boring spring mix. Little gem, asparagus, warm chunks of smoked salmon and a zesty citrus dressing leave you feeling satisfied but not stuffed. The burger is 85% American Angus, with a secret ingredient of a little added kidney meat for extra flavor. (A recipe that Chef took much care to create on his own after rigorous testing.) It is served on a buttery, pillowy brioche bun with a small quinoa and beet side salad, and a large pot of crispy fries. You can choose to go wild and request your fries arrive doused in melted cheese and sprinkled with cherry peppers, but it really wasn't that decadent, and I recommend just sticking to the basic so that you can taste the potato and the salty crispiness of a well-made fry. The king prawns were pulled of the grill with just the right timing, served hot and juicy in their cracked open shells. The sides of white rice and salad are really nothing special, but served as just a little something extra. At 95aed the dish is pricey (especially with the new, now 20%, tax) so it seems to be a dish tailored more towards locals than expats.
While Café 302 makes a great lunch, their service still needs a little help. Our server hardly spoke English and did not know much about the dishes on offer. She also disappointingly gave us some incorrect information, although she was cheery and attentive. On the other hand, Café 302 does really specialize in their dessert and coffee. There is no better way to end a meal (or skip a meal) than with the banana pudding pot and a strong cup of the ice cold Kyoto brew coffee. Both of which the Café prides themselves on (as they should). This banana pudding is not overly sweet (like the well known concoction at Magnolia Bakery). It is made with custard, homemade caramel sauce, stiff vanilla whipped cream and freshly sliced bananas. Topped with crushed vanilla biscuits and a sprinkle of toasted macadamia nuts pieces (an addition that surprisingly works perfectly). As most places may eventually need to change and adapt their menus, this is one dish, they better never touch.