The Sophisticated Spice of Life
My friend Danny lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. Before he moved from Abu Dhabi a few years ago, I remember an afternoon on a rooftop terrace with a glass of wine in hand and him telling me of a local delicacy (if I can use that term loosely) that consisted of a Cobra heart being put into a shot glass with some alcohol and then drinking it, supposedly while the heart was still beating.
Full disclosure? While I have always been up for new cuisines and beverages from around the world, especially those of the local specialties, this one is still on my list of menu items I’m not sure about. Truth be told I probably won’t have any definite answer for you as to whether or not I would drink it until the aforementioned shot glass is sitting in front of Danny and I, sometime in the future.
But cobra hearts aside, the culinary adventures of Southeast Asia are some of the best in the world. The spicy flair that is so much apart of each dish is what makes them standout as unique in my mind. Li Jiang at the Ritz-Carlton in Abu Dhabi has taken the culture, history, and flair of this area of the world and given it a modern twist of sophistication and elegance.
Vibrant & Tantalizing
As we entered Li Jiang on a Thursday evening, the restaurant was a flurry of activity. There were patrons at the bar enjoying lively conversation. The chefs behind the glass of the open kitchen shook and shuffled brightly colored vegetables in woks that hissed and steamed as the many flavors congealed together for the respective dishes. Diners at nearly every table were in some form of enjoyable conversation as the waitstaff hustled back and forth carrying plates and bowls of the night’s indulgences.
During the cooler months, I would highly recommend tucking yourself away on the terrace amongst the olive trees. The alfresco atmosphere coupled with the views of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque make for an evening to pamper all of your senses.
We, however, found a quiet table inside and started the long process of perusing through the menu. The succulent entrées of Southeast Asia often include a strong emphasis on lightly prepared dishes that have a powerful aromatic presence and feature flavors of citrus and herbs, and it appeared that Li Jiang specialized in all them all.
How Hot Is It?
As we tried to narrow down our selections, Chef
presented us with a small portion of Shrimp Crisps, a popular Southeast Asian snack hailing from Indonesia, with a side of dipable peanut sauce to help set the mood for the evening. With a subtle hint of shrimp flavor, they certainly got things off on the right foot.
Some careful considerations were made and we finally settled on the Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls in an effort to keep it light. Packed with chicken, shrimp and Asian herbs they were just the right amount of flavor-excitement to get things rolling. If you wanted to add a bit of heat, then the homemade chili fish sauce is all that you need. Balancing it out with some of the fried fare of Asia, we went with the Crispy Chicken Wantons that came with a creamy coconut and chili mango sauce.
Both were delightful and offered that tantalizing tingle on my tongue as things began to set ablaze. I do find that Southeast Asia cuisine is generally more enjoyable as substitutions such as soy sauce instead of fish sauce occur regularly. Cooking methods often, but not always, favor stir-frying, boiling and steaming instead of frying, which make for some interesting contrast in combinations of the light yet fiery morsels that you get to choose from.
Balancing Flavor and Fear
The way I measure spice is not on how hot my mouth becomes, but rather the fear that I have before taking that bite. There was no “red pepper” scale on the menu, so from this point on you have to know what you’re ordering.
Dinner was in full swing and I was certainly inclined to go out in a blaze of glory, or at least a mild smoldering of the taste buds. First up was the Wok Fried X.O. Scallops. Presented with baby asparagus, chili, carrot, onion, and beach mushrooms the delicate scallops were better than expected. I’m not sure what the ‘X.O.’ stood for, the only thing I could imagine is that a splash of cognac was added to the wok during preparation. Regardless, they will be a choice you won’t regret and although not terribly large in portion, are more than enough to make the night memorable.
Alongside the scallops was one of my personal favorites that I almost regrettably get every time; Wok Fried Spicy Chicken. Served in a very heavy ceramic bowl, this was probably the closest I’ve been to ordering actual ‘hot pot’. I know it’s cliché, but I can’t help myself when it comes to the sweet and spicy combination. Lemongrass, spring onion and turmeric all infused together for a splendid journey to the furthest regions of Central China. I guess it could have been in part due to the Shanghai Chilies that were also present, but I am not one to complain.
There were so many other items on the menu that we all wanted to try, it was almost to the point of making a reservation for the following night just to give it another go. Some of the other treats we didn’t get to were that of Szechuan origin or contained actual bamboo shoots and there were more than a few tantalizing Thai options.
It’s Hot and It’s Cold
To cap the night off we chose a dessert that has a lot of ambiguity of its origin; fried ice cream. While most tend to think that it almost certainly has to be an Asian creation, there are stories that it comes from places as far from Southeast Asia as you can get; in the Americas. In fact, in the 1960s food critic Cooper Adams refused to believe that it even existed until it was placed in front of him.
With this kind of unknown past, I think it was obvious that it needed to be the dessert of choice; we went with Raspberry ice cream instead of Vanilla. Sitting atop a more-than-generous pool of Tainori Valrhona chocolate sauce, it was the perfect finish. The chocolate, albeit smooth and melted, had a firm bite and velvety texture.
It was an evening of sultry spice, everybody was absolutely satisfied by the time we left the restaurant. Southeast Asia, the collection of countries between the Indian and Pacific Oceans that offer a smattering of related cultures but are also worlds apart come together seamlessly at Li Jiang; whetting the appetite for all things spicy, authentic and Oriental.
If you prefer a night where the stress of choosing dishes yourself is significantly reduced, then Li Jiang also has a specific Spring Roll night on Sunday, Dim Sum night on Monday, and Ladies Night on Tuesdays – be sure to wear red for free flow bubbly! For a little fun, I also suggest the No Mobile Challenge on Wednesdays, if you can lock your phone away for the duration of the meal, you’ll get 15% off your bill – how hard can that be?
Hours of Operation:
Daily from 6pm - Midnight
Ritz-Carlton, Abu Dhabi