The finer touch
Immersing yourself in a world where the frantic rhythm of daily life slows down to a comfortable pace, even just for a few hours, is an absolute luxury. For those seeking escape, whether that’s for a special occasion or simply as a treat after a hard working week, fine dining restaurants rarely disappoint.
With so many options in the Middle East, competition is fierce and as a result, it’s not simply a case of choosing lunch or dinner anymore. The variety of options being offered by these establishments provides even more flexibility for the customer. But how is the fine dining segment developing and how important is it to the continued growth of the food and beverage industry in the Middle East?
One of the most common food and beverage trends across the region is the development of new fine dining offerings. Once upon a time, a fine dining restaurant would traditionally offer just dinner but today there are a plethora of choices including business lunches, tasting menus and customised menus.
For example, the award-winning Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, which is located at InterContinental Dubai Festival City, now offers a business lunch. Restaurant manager Dennis Tels explains that the business lunch option was introduced in order to make the restaurant more accessible as well as being a result of guest demand.
This trend is also seen in other parts of the region, as senior restaurants manager and former Il Teatro manager at Four Seasons in Doha, Maxime Regad, explains: “We were the first hotel restaurant to introduce the business lunch concept called the ‘Espresso Lunch’, the popularity of which led many of our competitors to follow. Doha is a business city, therefore demand is high.
“Recently we revamped our lunch offering to ‘Thyme for Lunch’ with a focus, not just on fresh ingredients, but on a quick fine dining experience that fits into the schedules of busy executives.”
Waruna Gunasekara, restaurant manager at La Mer, Ritz-Carlton Doha adds: “The ‘Tasting Menu’ is very popular. It is a five-course menu and every course is paired with a glass of wine. The menu changes on a monthly basis and that allows our guests to experience new menus and culinary creations.”
Menus: Complex or concise?
With so many types of menus now available, being able to communicate the chef’s hard work is crucial. There is a perception that traditional fine dining menus are laced with long, unpronounceable words, often in a different language.
However, the Mintel Report of 2011 on Consumer Attitudes to Fine Dining shows that four in 10 diners in the UK are put off certain dishes due to descriptions they don’t understand.
With this is mind, what menu trends are being seen in the Middle East?
Many establishments seem to be adopting a theme of simplicity, focusing on creating a restaurant brand that is more approachable, for example, Sultanah at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa in Oman.
“The menu is short and friendly for diners to easily understand what we are offering. Only the key components/ingredients of the dish are mentioned, with very minimal cooking descriptions. Gone is the era when the description of a dish is a story in itself.
When a guest would like to know more about a dish, our service colleagues are trained and knowledgeable to offer an explanation,” reports Jason Andrew Alcock, executive sous chef.
The hotel’s counterpart in Abu Dhabi follows a similar philosophy as Siegfried Masson, outlet manager of fine dining restaurant Bord Eau, adds: “Guests like to know what they will get without being experts.
Being straightforward with our menu is part of our responsibility in order to make our guests well informed and help them better appreciate the dishes on offer.”
However, not everyone agrees, as Reflets’ Tels explains: “That’s what makes my life so exciting. I give a menu to a guest — they read the menu and it reads like poetry!
“That’s my first contact with the guest [after they arrive.] I give them a basic explanation of how it works. I think that it adds up to the experience and where the whole journey starts. I get questions from guests and then the relationship starts between myself and the guest and I guide them through,” he adds.
Customer expectation is elevated when it comes to fine dining and continuous effort is required for restaurants to maintain high service standards.
Richard Wilson, executive chef at The Chedi in Oman, responsible for The Restaurant, explains their approach: “The key to keeping the standards high is recruiting the right staff members that are willing to go the extra mile and are passionate about the industry.”
Once the right candidate is in place, training is paramount.
“We make sure that all our servers are rigorously trained so that they are able to answer any and all questions customers may have about a menu, an item or a wine along with making menu recommendations, if asked,” explains Kunwardeep Singh, food and beverage manager at Six Senses Zighy Bay, Oman, who is responsible for the fine dining establishment Sense on the Edge.
Retaining staff is also an important, yet not easy part of the process. Tels attributes Reflets’ success to its high staff retention rate.
“I’m so happy that 70% of the pre-opening team is still working with us. We’re talking about key people and that makes our restaurant unique.”
There’s no doubt that the staff and their product knowledge can make or break a dining experience.
For many fine dining chefs, the origin of produce is a key focus, as The Chedi’s Richard Wilson explains: “We are very conscientious about the origin of the key products we use and stating the origin of the product is a feature in the description of the dish, for example, free-range poultry, farmed Tasmanian ocean trout or line-caught John Dory.”
Once top quality produce is sourced, it must be respected, says chef Giancarlo Di Francesco from Four Seasons Doha.
“The more an ingredient stays true to its natural state, the finer the overall dining experience,” he explains.
Seasonality and locality are also key considerations when it comes to the produce and how it is communicated and sold to guests.
Head chef Nick Alvis at Verre, Hilton Dubai Creek says: “Seasonality has and always will be a major part of most menus worldwide, fine dining or not. Although there was a period where chefs were cooking with bright coloured, exotic ingredients, I believe that most chefs now want to use and promote what is on their doorstep and be proud and appreciative of what they have at their fingertips if they are lucky enough.”
Product versus profit
The aptitude and flair of the culinary team combined with a smooth front-of-house operation to create a unique dining experience for the customer is what most establishments strive for.
While positive guest feedback is a huge motivator, recognition, whether that’s through industry awards or the multitude of social media feedback options, is always welcome.
With more emphasis being placed on restaurant guides, reviews and awards, the Mintel Report shows around a fifth of consumers tend to be influenced by comments and reviews posted online. In the Middle East, do industry experts see a similar trend?
The eight awards won by Bord Eau at Shangri-La Abu Dhabi have made a significant impact, says Masson.
“Bord Eau is enjoying good business from such excellent recognition. You can’t therefore deny the importance of media.”
However, this is not the case for all markets, as The Chedi’s Wilson reports: “No, I don’t agree at all. I feel that in a relatively small environment such as Muscat, word of mouth is probably one of the most important aspects of how customers scrutinise our restaurants.
Establishing consistency among our regular client base is fundamental and remaining loyal to our regular clients is essential in our long-term goals.”
Maintaining a balance of meeting the high expectations of guests and being financially sustainable is not easy to achieve and with value for money even higher on the agenda of potential customers, fine dining restaurateurs face the challenge of keeping both the customer and the accountant happy.
“The biggest costs are ingredients and labour. Consistency, covers, retention and training of employees are equally important and are the keys to any profitable dining establishment,” explains Alcock at Shangri-la Bar Al Jissah.
From a produce-versus-profit perspective, Verre’s executive chef Scott Price explains: “As far as profit is concerned, I strongly believe that if you respect your produce and ingredients, then you will have minimal wastage and maximum usage.”
Over recent years, all segments of the Middle East restaurant business have swelled, especially in the mid-range and casual dining markets keen to capitalise on the after-effects of the downturn and tightened purse strings.
Now, as many markets are experiencing recovery, new fine dining establishments are expected to emerge — and this will help drive the entire F&B industry forward.
“The burgeoning fine dining scene in the Middle East will have a profound effect on raising the levels of service and product quality at a broader level as the market becomes more competitive and palates become more sophisticated. Fine dining sets the bar for the rest of the food and beverage industry,” observes Four Seasons’ Regad.
The fine dining scene is looking extremely positive for Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular. “The great thing is, in Dubai, there are more and more restaurants coming which means there are more and more products becoming available,” reasons Dennis Tels.
Siegfried Masson agrees stating: “Fine dining outlets definitely have potential business as Abu Dhabi continues to flourish into a world-class destination.”
While there is a lot of work behind running a world-class fine dining establishment, the rewards for those who do it well are there for the reaping. While economic climate and customer palates dictate trends at a fast-pace, the secret to a successful fine dining restaurant seems to be adapting to customer preference.
And a few awards picked up along the way are a great addition to any trophy case.
How restaurateurs are adapting their concepts to guest demand
Hotel: Fairmont, Dubai
Restaurant: The Exchange Grill
Offering: As well as offering a light and speedy business lunch, The Exchange Grill has adapted its offering to make it more approachable.
How: Re-positioned as a high-end steak house, yet still offering the same standards and quality of fine dining. Changes include simplifying the menu, introducing new menu options such as the ‘Progression of Beef’ menu for AED 350 (US $95), the customised menu where the guest can request a dish of their choice, and chef interaction — with the chef coming out of the kitchen to the restaurant to mingle with guests.
Results: The Business Lunch menu has driven approximately an additional 10% in covers between 2010 and 2011.
Comments: “We still follow the same standards and quality of fine dining but we’re more approachable now. Before, the menu was five pages. Now we’re very simple — one menu, one board. We don’t call it foie gras, we call it duck liver. It is dishes that everybody knows,” reports Fabio Pineda, chef de cuisine.