Mahonia is that rare thing in Bahrain, a newish restaurant that everyone’s heard of but no-one seems to have been to. Liz O’Reilly went to see what all the fuss is about.
To be fair, having launched just a year ago with a 16-course degustation menu, a tiny seven tables making 35 covers, a velvet rope and rumours of a three-month waiting list, it’s not entirely surprising that my impoverished journo chums have not exactly been beating a path to the door.
But things have changed, well, at least some of them. The surroundings and cuisine are still of the highest quality – of which more later – but the 16-course menu is, these days, only served by special order. Instead it’s been reduced to far more manageable five-, seven- and 10-course options, the smallest, but still hugely generous, of which works out at around BD55 per head, including some seriously good grape pairings – the cellar actually boasts a bottle of Petrus (look it up), but, no, we didn’t try it.
There’s also an à la carte option, which would probably be my choice for the future since there were a couple of things on the taster that I could happily eat probably far-too-large amounts of.
Another thing that came as a surprise is that there’s a rather nice lounge, complete with some stunning artwork, including a genuine Picasso! (Apparently there’s a Chagall too, but I missed that one.) You can call in here just to enjoy a drink and possibly some very sophisticated bar bites.
The main dining area is nothing short of stunning and it’s clear no expense has been spared, but good taste has also taken the upper hand. Banks of candles flicker in glass holders, their flames dancing across an eclectic collection of Lalique and Baccarat glass and crystal pieces. Seemingly fresh flowers are in blooming abundance, their placement providing privacy at the only two-person table.
We started with a home-baked bread basket, accompanied by house-made goats’ milk butter – I stuck to just a tiny portion of a parmesan-swirled creation of nutty delight.
The first course was the classic Spanish white soup, the less popular sister of gazpacho, Ajo Blanco. A thick and creamy joy, rich with the flavours of capers, white grapes, marinated almonds and black garlic coulis. Almost dessert-like in its consistency, this is strangely akin to comfort food, despite being cold.
The next dish was a complete revelation. Dehydrated watermelon carpaccio served with smoked macadamia nuts, feta cheese snow and sweet and sour dressing. I have to confess, I have never tried dehydrated watermelon before and was really surprised at the almost meaty texture achieved by the dehydration process. The fruit retains some of its sweetness which coupled with the smokiness of the nuts and the tart saltiness of the feta is an irresistible combination.
The Mediterranean fish with white asparagus risotto, king oyster mushroom, coconut and galangal sauce was, for me, the only disappointment. However, my dining companion pronounced the fish perfectly cooked and enjoyed it very much. But, to be honest, I found it somewhat bland despite the rich ingredients.
However, the Wagyu beef cheeks, which followed, more than made up for it. Accompanied by parsnips, pak choy, pickled celeriac, potato foam and galangal sauce, the flesh was so tender as to barely require chewing and the flavour almost gamey in its rich depth evoking childhood memories of cheaper cuts lovingly braised for hours to release every last grain of the deliciously earthy aroma and essence.
A pre-dessert sorbet arrived smoking with dry ice followed by date sponge with chocolate cream and to-die-for mascarpone ice cream.
To finish, tea or coffee with a selection of chocolates – served from an intriguing wooden box and all made in-house, playing with the theme of seven, the owner’s favourite number and featuring the seven spices that pay homage to Bahrain’s location on the crossroads between east and west – saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, tamarind, wasabi, chili and ginger.
I left feeling full and spoilt and wondering if, under the watchful eye of award-winning executive chef Herve Pronzato, himself a veteran of several Michelin-starred kitchens, Bahrain could be on course to get its own star in the not-too-distant future.