Last Friday, I was invited to a menu tasting at Nara Pan Asian in JLT. We arrived in the quiet hour between afternoon brunch and evening brunch, so there were only a couple of other diners in the restaurant in the beginning. Though as the evening progressed, Nara was slowly invaded by happy Dubai brunchers in party-mode.
The owner is a vegetarian and it shows in the menu, which has a good selection of meatless dishes. Here is what we had (we skipped the mains as we were too full and jumped directly to dessert after the starters):
From Nobu to P.F. Chang’s, dynamite prawns are here to stay. The Nara version of this modern classic was more spicy than average, and I liked the hint of tomato (ketchup?) that reminded me of the prawn cocktail sauce we have in Denmark.
I did not like the bao with pulled chicken. It had this sweet seasoning (cinnamon?) that is used a lot in this region and that I’m not a fan of. The halloumi bao was delicious, and one of my favorite menu items that evening. The waiter told us that the bao and the dim sum, which we got to try later, were all made in-house.
A nice version of Japanese-style fried chicken. The chicken was marinated in soy and sake, and the meat was tender and juicy, wrapped in a crispy shell of light batter. One of Poul’s favorite dishes that evening.
Thai Papaya Salad
The papaya salad was nice with a good balance between sweet, sour and salty. Though I wish they would consider adding a handful of chewy dried baby shrimp, so you would get closer to the authentic Thai version of the salad. That would make it perfect.
We had Nara’s signature dumplings with a filling of mashed edamame served in a light truffle broth. The mashed edamame had a sweet flavor and a texture that reminded me of the bean paste you find in many Asian desserts. The bean paste/truffle combo is not for everyone, and Poul did not like it at all, but I think it was a nice and innovative dish. We also had a serving of prawn shumai, which was too salty for my taste, but which Poul thought was delicious.
Hmm. If I were to make a list of maki-fillings that I hate, crab sticks would be at the very top of it. Are you even allowed to call crab sticks crab sticks, considering they have nothing to do with crab? The vegetable rolls had too little cream cheese and a hint of bitterness, that I did not like. If they want to do nice veggie rolls, maybe they could use Korean kimbap as a good starting point and work their way from there.
Overall, the maki rolls were too big to be bite-sized and looked rather clumsy, but the rice was nice and not overcooked, so with another kind of filling, they would probably have been ok.
Mango sticky rice
I was really surprised by this dessert incorporates some really interesting elements. The coconut snow on top melted after a while (nice detail!) and what I first thought was seaweed wrapping was actually charcoaled coconut. The rice was overcooked and should have had more texture, and the super sweet flavor came off a bit one-dimensional, without the salty note that this classic dessert usually have in Thailand. Furthermore, I think a little crunch from either dried mung beans (typical in Thailand) or roasted peanuts (easier to find in Dubai) would have been in place, but thumbs up for daring to think out of the box and playing around.
Jasmine & Lilly – Blooming tea
We were served a beautiful blooming tea with the mango sticky rice. Poul had never seen that kind of tea before, so he was all eyes when the spherical thing at the bottom of his glass slowly unfolded and turned into a beautiful flower. Now when I think about it, I am surprised that you do not see blooming tea everywhere, as it is such a beautiful way to serve tea.
We had a great evening Nara (kudos to the nice guy taking care of our table), and in general the food surpassed any expectations I might have had. I am always happy to see places, where the level of ambition goes beyond just feeding the hungry brunch crowd and no doubt Nara has potential for a lot more than serving mediocre maki rolls at a Friday buffet. I hope Nara will continue their kitchen experiments, especially within the plant-based galaxy, as this is where they have the opportunity to truly shine.