Outlet 360: Smoking Doll

The Thai concept reveals its design and menu ethos
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Smoking Doll
Smoking Doll
Bespoke china: Plate and cup exclusively designed for Smoking Doll.
Bespoke china: Plate and cup exclusively designed for Smoking Doll.

Front of house

Smoking Doll is an Asian dining concept, and the brainchild of UAE-based Star Corporation. The brand recently opened its second outlet at Abu Dhabi’s Nation Towers at the Corniche, with its first branch located at Boutik Mall, Al Reem Island.

Intrigued by the name, we ask Star Corporation corporate executive chef and partner Andrew Morrow the story behind it.

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“We wanted a name that was quite catchy, and also a little bit conversational. The actual name is derived from a group of stage actresses from Siam [now Thailand] in the early 1800s. We did a lot of research about The Dolls, and we really liked the fact that after they finished acting, they went into hospitality. Moreover, we also liked it because it was a little bit sexy, a little bit controversial, and we wanted people to talk about it.”

Unlike many mid-range Asian restaurants, Smoking Doll has nothing to do with fusion. Morrow says: “Our tagline is ‘Asia fused’, but we are not a fusion restaurant. None of our dishes are a fusion of western and Asian cuisine. We fuse Southeast Asian culinary concepts into one, so our Thai food is very traditional, and so are our Vietnamese and Singaporean dishes.”

The interiors are spacious yet cosy, with a dark palette and quintessential Asian accents. “We wanted it to feel like an Asian restaurant, without screaming out clichés. We didn’t want garden elephants, a Buddha, ferns, calligraphy on the walls, etc. We wanted you to walk in and see that it is an Asian restaurant, but not really be able to understand why.

“The interiors were done by LW Design, and it was very important to us to choose the right company because we wanted a design where, if we picked it up from here and placed in a lobby of a five-star hotel, it would still feel at home.”

He continues: “The fans were a very prominent feature of the actresses back in the day. So we recreated that as the wooden room dividers. Then the umbrellas were recreated for our lights. Then we took a screen shot of a scrunchy material, exploded it and what you get is this kind of intricate pattern, with consistency and proportions. And that became our walls.”

The attention to detail is extended beyond interiors. Despite being mid-range, there was an uncompromising focus on the quality of plates, glassware, ingredients, and service standards. “We wanted to create a high-end hotel-like dining experience in a non-hotel, street-side environment,” he adds.

Morrow also says both outlets are located in the UAE’s capital because the partners lived in Abu Dhabi at the time, and “launching a brand in Abu Dhabi, in some ways, is easier than launching a brand in Dubai”, along with the ability to get recognised in the market faster.

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Back of house

It is interesting to note that front-of-house and back-of-house at Smoking Doll are intricately linked, and work as one big team. Morrow is also the corporate chef for the restaurant, and says: “Our kitchen works on loyalty. All our chefs are Thai and have a very strong bond. Despite being the corporate chef, I don’t put my nose in the kitchen very often. Although we have shift timings and a proper roster, we often find all 11 chefs coming in together in the morning and leaving together at night.”

As the restaurant insists on being authentic, it imports all of its ingredients from Thailand. “All of our ingredients are imported, simply because we are very adamant on using exclusively Thai ingredients. For example, for our pomelo salad, we need Thai pomelo as they are juicier and the grains separate better. Same goes for the papaya salad. If we can’t get the right ingredient, we remove the dish from the menu.”

Moreover, the restaurant uses nothing frozen or pre-prepared. All the curry pastes, stir fry sauces, dumplings and satays are made in-house. “We are not an American Asian brand, and we don’t use generic sauces. We allow our chefs to cook as they would at home. The only element we control, purely because of the market place, is the level of spice.”

Imported ingredients equal to higher food costs — so how does Smoking Doll manage its profitability? Morrow explains: “We allow ourselves to have a higher food cost instead of lowering our quality. It is something we have always believed in as a company, and we want people to know that we are high quality brand in the mid-range market.”

In addition, heavy reliance on imports poses a challenge of consistency over the time, and Morrow says that the team overcomes the challenge by ensuring a strong training programme is in place. Every staff member undergoes an eight-day training programme, followed by daily refreshers.

The menu at Smoking Doll is extensive, and Morrow says that it was changed thrice in the first six months to accommodate customer feedback and preferences. In the last six months however, it hasn’t been altered at all, and the reason is primarily the clientele. “We can maybe reduce our menu by 30% and probably do the same numbers, but then we will be maintaining numbers by attracting new clientele than regular customers. We have many regular customers, whom we know by name, and there are things that they love. We don’t want to replace the items that they like.”

Going forward, Smoking Doll plans to host pre-brunch events, with non-alcoholic cocktails.

Also, the brand’s first Dubai outlet is slated to open in 2016. “We have already got a site leased in Dubai — it’s on the new Pointe development on The Palm, overlooking Atlantis. It is going to be an amazing site and is scheduled to open in the third quarter of 2016. Star Corporation will be growing aggressively, and all of our brands will potentially roll out in the UAE and then hopefully across the GCC,” concluded Morrow.

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