Entering Li Jiang is rather like walking into another world: a place of rich colours, exotic scents and insistent rhythms.
Confirming our reservation at the door with a slim, smiling hostess, we pass between the glassy green-lit walls of the wine cellar, which then melt into the low lighting and warm Oriental tones of the restaurant.
It’s a busy night and the tables are packed; the buzz of diners’ chatter accompanied by pervasive background beats from the resident DJ. In the centre of the dining area floats a champagne-like concoction of a chandelier, with glass ‘bubbles’ suspended from wires as if fizzing up to the ceiling.
On a feature wall at the end of the room, layers of folded materials in different red hues climb upwards as if stacked, giving the impression of a rosily decadent laundry.
Here, in this vibrant room with its uninterrupted views of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, high design is king. That’s because this outlet, one of the ‘signature concepts’ at The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi was created by award-winning Japanese interior design firm Super Potato.
The myriad touches of clever décor – from light installations formed of numerous cocktail glasses to strategically places panels, dividing up the space and lending a sense of privacy – combine natural and neutral materials, such as glass, wood and locally-sourced mud plaster. This palette acts as the perfect foil for the vibrant colours captured in the soft furnishings.
However our attention is swiftly drawn from décor to the open kitchen, where bustling chefs are busy creating, and delicious smells waft from woks and vats.
My dining companion and I decide to set the tone with couple of Li Jiang’s Asian cocktails. ‘Emperor’s Song’ is a flute of champagne transformed into into a sweet, herbaceous concoction, courtesy of jasmine-infused vodka, lychee syrup and lemon juice; whilst in the Yuzukosho Sour, Glenlivet 12 is (rightly or wrongly, depending on your whiskey preferences) enlivened with Aperol, yuzu juice, pineapple juice, Sencha green tea syrup and a red chilli garnish.
Perusing the menu is a delightfully tough task. The appetisers and dim sum are wide-ranging and inventive, including creations in vegetable, chicken, tom yam and even foie gras.
We sample the mint dumpling, bringing together crab, prawn snow pea and sugar snap; along with the lobster dumpling, with snow pea and enoki mushroom. Both options are hot, sweet and succulent, bursting with freshly wrapped fillings and singing with delicate flavours of the sea.
Our subsequent appetisers are similarly successful: the wasabi prawns luscious and lightly crisped, topped with a heat-filled green mango relish; the soft shell crab well-seasoned and crisp, the salty exterior off-set by a sweet and spicy accompanying sauce.
Choosing main courses is a similarly slow process, but we eventually settle on the classic crispy duck and chicken noodles. The duck is shredded deftly at the table by one of our discreet yet efficient servers, and proves to be beautifully cooked, a flavoursome combination of roasted meat and crisped fat.
The pancakes are less successful, apparently made with eggs in the manner of crepes rather than the traditional rice flour wrapper. Whilst the latter provides a blank canvas to showcase the duck, with crisp slices of cucumber, spring onion and sticky Hoisin sauce doing all the talking, these crepe-like circles are rather too sweet and cakey; in our opinion, an unnecessary addition to the flavour spectrum.
The noodles, chock-full of chicken and vegetables, are thin, light and delicious, showcasing their freshly flung provenance. Indeed, turn towards the open kitchen and you may well see your batch being hand-pulled. Reason enough to place an order.
Throughout the evening, staff are attentive and well informed, making the dining experience flow without incident, despite the busy restaurant. Eventually it gets late, and we sway from the cosy interiors back down the glass corridor of bottles, out into the bright lights of the hotel – and it feels a bit like waking from some intoxicating, sumptuous restaurant reverie.
Happily, this is one dream that’s easily revisited.
THE IMPORTANT BIT