Outlet 360°: Akiba Dori
Front of house
Akiba Dori opened in Dubai Design District on May 1, 2018, bringing a slice of Japan’s Akihabara to the city. Aegis Hospitality founder Samer Hamadeh says he’s been obsessed with Japanese culture for a long time and wanted to create a Japanese casual dining experience.
He says: “I call it an experience because people want more than just food. Restaurants normally follow a theme, and people are always on their phone. I wanted to do the opposite of that. At Akiba Dori, you won’t feel the need to get your phone because there’s a lot going on around you. By design standards this is a faux pas!”
Hamadeh says he had to figure out how to “cram seven different things into one place without it being a food court”, and Akihabara subsequently became his inspiration. That cultural context was layered onto Dubai’s old storefronts in what is now colloquially referred to as ‘old Dubai’. Hamadeh says: “I thought, if I can bring Akihabara from Tokyo to Karama, what would it look like?” And so Akiba Dori was born.
Hamadeh worked on the concept; the design was created by Parolio Matos from Spain. Sub-contracting out the work himself, Akiba Dori opened within four months with seven sections: the arcade room (the machines are from the son of the Atari founder), Kashi Pan Bakery, Kawaii Café in partnership with Nespresso, AkiBar, Kiki’s Delivery, Chiyoda FM 84.3 (for the music), and Tokyopolitan, the pizzeria.
Music plays an important role in the ambience: during the day, it’s low-key jazz and hip-hop; at night, it's a complete change of direction, with DJ Kro from Tokyo’s weekly playlist featuring Japanese hip-hop and R&B.
The casual service culture also plays into the concept. With his experience running nightclubs (Republic and Stereo Arcade), he hired nightclub staff for efficiency, because “they are used to walking through 500 people for one item”.
On a typical weekday, Akiba Dori does 150 covers a day and 250-300 covers a day on weekends.He hopes to make ROI in 2.5 years.
Hamadeh is looking to expand (see pg4) and adds: “If I can’t add value to where I’m going I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to just open a franchise, I’m not interested in that. I want to do something that gives people here a unique experience.”
Back of house
Hamadeh says the menu is “robust but small”, and every month, menu engineering is on the cards, where low-selling items will be replaced. He notes: “We have been open a month-and-a-half and we will roll out 10 new items over the next six weeks.” He adds that the menu is “non-traditional” and does not compete with, but complements neighbouring Japanese concepts in D3 such as Yui.
Akiba Dori has two chefs: one in the back-of-house kitchen and the other is a pizzaiolo in the front-of-house Tokyopolitan. The idea was to bring Tokyo’s version of Neapolitan pizza to Dubai; and Hamadeh took this seriously. He sent his pizzaiolo, Luigi Mercogliano, to Tokyo to train with Tsubasa Tamaki, who runs Pizza Studio Tamaki in Tokyo (recently inducted into Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list). Tamaki had trained with the inventor of Tokyo Neapolitan pizza, Susumu Kakinuma, and passed his skills to Mercogliano.
Naples-born pizzaiolo Mercogliano previously worked at Dubai’s Rossovivo, has 10 years’ experience in Neapolitan pizza, and has worked in Naples, Florence, London, and Dubai. He says the idea of Tokyopolitan as a brand excited him and he was in as soon as he heard about it. He spent six months in Japan with “Tamaki-san” and says it was a “great experience”. The training was exacting. “I took two weeks to put one piece of wood in the oven. So with 10 years’ experience, he just let me put one piece of wood in the oven after two weeks. Imagine!” he says.
“It’s all about the salt and flour,” says Hamadeh, adding, “We bring our flour, salt, and a secret ingredient from Tokyo, with a new shipment every three months. We can cook the pizza under 60 seconds.”
Mercogliano says that Neapolitan pizza is made at 400°C, while Tokyo’s version is at 500°C. The other difference is the dough: the Japanese style is lighter (180g) than Neapolitan’s (300g). The pizzaiolo says: “It’s light, people can eat more than one. I have a delivery of mozzarella thrice per week so it’s very fresh. The flour, salt, the oven are all from Japan. But all the toppings are from Italy including the tomatoes and Kalamata olives.” He spreads salt in the oven as a base to ensure the flour doesn’t stick, resulting in a hinty of saltiness in the crust.
The margherita and diavola are the most popular menu items. Mercogliano also creates a ‘pizza of the month’ off the regular menu. Once, he recounts, he offered a ‘purple pizza’ with purple potato purée, beef spec, and mozzarella and black pepper. “I’m very happy to see guests eating and appreciating the food,” he adds.
Hamadeh adds that in terms of the street food menu, the chicken katsu curry, wagyu katsu sando, and the taiyaki are bestsellers.
Mercogliano concludes: “This restaurant is something new, you’d never find another place like this.”