The Michelin Guide revealed its debut selection of restaurants in Abu Dhabi in November, with three venues receiving a star.
The Abu Dhabi guide came a few months after the UAE received its first red city guide for Dubai.
In this series, called Star-grazing, The National visits the restaurants that won stars in the capital.
Located in the Four Seasons Hotel on Al Marayah Island, 99 Sushi Bar Abu Dhabi is our first stop.
The story behind 99 Sushi Bar Abu Dhabi
99 Sushi opened in the capital in 2017, marking its first location outside Spain. The Dubai outpost launched in 2020.
The restaurant specialises in “haute cuisine”, an expression that traditionally refers to high quality and meticulously prepared French fare, except it's exceptional Japanese food that's on offer here. Accordingly, the menu offers a strong selection of tartars and temaki plus three types of sushi, in addition to bluefin tuna, and Wagyu and Kobe dishes.
A combination of premium products and culinary prowess is responsible for 99 Sushi's Michelin star, explains a note on the Michelin Guide website. “There’s no shortage of finesse and precision in the well-constructed and beautifully presented dishes at this chic Japanese restaurant. Even the more contemporary touches are done with subtlety and care.”
South African head chef Thinus van der Westhuizen says the distinction confirms that 99 Sushi’s methodical yet vibrant approach is paying off.
“We didn't even know the Michelin guide was even coming to Abu Dhabi,” he tells me. “This is actually a blessing in disguise because we always focused on doing what we do.
“There is a certain standard that we must adhere to and the fact that we were awarded for delivering that makes it all the more satisfying.”
Inside the Four Seasons Abu Dhabi hotel, 99 Sushi is also accessible via a lift from the Al Maryah Island promenade. Within, low-key electronic music coos out of the speakers of a dimly lit dining hall, which has an open-plan kitchen, red velvet seats and intricate Spanish floor tiles.
A more intimate dining experience can be found on the waterfront terrace overlooking the promenade.
What's on the Michelin-starred menu?
“What we are doing, really, is going against some of the prevailing trends you can see when it comes to Japanese cooking, which tends to be over the top and more for show,” says van der Westhuizen.
“While we obviously use certain techniques to elevate the dishes, we never lose focus of the product being the star of each dish.”
With that in mind, my dining companion and I begin with the 99 Kobe sando (Dh360), a traditional Japanese sandwich filled with crispy cutlets of Kobe beef and tonkatsu sauce.
It’s a brilliant, melt-in-the-mouth starter. The Japanese milk toast bread is moist and thinly cut to pack in more of the meat. Made in house, the tonkatsu sauce provides peppery aromatics and has a tangy punch.
“The sauce provides the magic,” says van der Westhuizen. “It's a traditional Japanese barbecue sauce made from fermented vegetables. To this I add my own flair, which includes more crushed pepper and mustard, which is not normally within the scope of the traditional recipe.”
The 99 chawanmushi (Dh135) is another example of 99 Sushi’s twist on classic Japanese staples.
The traditional savoury egg custard dish is blended with crab consomme, strips of king crab and caviar, and has a distinctly umami flavour.
It is served lukewarm to appreciate the intricate textures at play. The umami comes courtesy of a frenzied flavour bomb of sweet, sour and salty profiles, while the silky consomme and crabmeat lend the dish a luxurious, sultry feel.
Next up is the okonomiyaki (Dh160) and it tastes as good as it looks.
A playful take on the Japanese pizza, the base is a flamed tortilla topped with elegant layers of toro (the rich and buttery belly cut of the bluefin tuna), jalapeno, onion, truffle and a liberal drizzle of mildly sweet tare sauce.
“This is one of those dishes that people love to share,” van der Westhuizen says. “It is a classic example of our philosophy, as we tend to make our set menus for two. We want people to enjoy these culinary moments together.”
The final main dish is 99 Sushi's statement piece.
Created from scratch for the Abu Dhabi outpost, 99 jewel is an eight-piece plate showcasing the restaurant's finest and most exclusive ingredients.
The sushi rolls are filled with the aforementioned toro and the decadently fatty flavour of akami tuna.
Laced with flecks of black truffle, each roll features a portion of Kaluga caviar (the more expensive beluga caviar is also available) and specks of 24k gold leaf.
Westhuizen describes the dish as the menu’s show-stopper: “We created it to show people we mean business, in that we have top-tier products such as caviar and toro tuna, and we know how to do it well.”
The Kaluga caviar is used for more than just show.
The glossy and firm pearls have a deep and nutty profile with a lingering aftertaste in the best of ways.
We round off the meal with a Japanese souffle (Dh70). The light and fluffy dessert is served with a salted caramel sauce.
It is an elegant send off from an award-winning kitchen that successfully shows how a rich and respected culinary tradition can remain relevant today.
99 Sushi Bar and Restaurant is open from noon to 3.30pm, and 7pm to 11.30pm. Reservations can be made by calling 02 672 3333.
This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant