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REVIEW: Japanese pub food at Ikigai

Words by Rob Chilton

A new concept from star chef Reif Othman

“Is this the right place?” EDGAR’s dinner guest asked as our taxi pulled up outside the Millennium Place Marina Hotel in Dubai Marina. “Yep, pretty sure…” We crept inside and saw the jam-packed Masterchef bar and restaurant on the ground floor. “Ikigai?” we asked tentatively of the receptionist.

Street art interiors

The lift doors opened on the first floor and suddenly everything fell into place. The first five seconds of walking into Ikigai told us this was going to be a good night. It is ridiculously inviting, not in a soft and cosy way, but in a friendly and fun way. The lighting is amber and warm, the bottles stacked at the bar glow, the graffiti murals of sea waves, geisha girls and paper fans are colourful, while the overhead light fittings look like those melting bubbles of metal that come together to make the T-1000 villain in Terminator 2.

Tori karaage with teriyaki mayo

Upon advice of our excellent waiter Bren, we ordered eight dishes. That sounds like a lot but (a) we wanted to get a complete picture of the food from Reif Othman (previously of Zuma and Play) and head chef Minho Ted Shin (b) the dishes aren’t huge and are meant to be shared, and (c) we were absolutely ravenous.

Ikigai – which means ‘reason for being’ – is a Japanese pub serving street-style cuisine, which is a phrase that screams cool. Othman says his new restaurant is “contemporary and affordable” so you can run through the menu and not break the bank.

Whole baby chicken with barley miso

The food came quickly, thank goodness. Starters of two spicy tuna tacos (AED 26) and tori karaage with teriyaki mayo (AED 48), which is like a non-greasy Japanese fried chicken, gave us all the right signals for a successful dinner. A maki roll of salmon and avocado (AED 62) was lightened with a lemon mayo, while the kale and avocado salad (AED 48) came in a classically simple Japanese dressing of soy sauce, rice vinegar and oil.

After munching all that like a plague of locusts, we slowed down and enjoyed the atmosphere. But then the Ikigai burger of angus and wagyu beef with luxurious miso caramelised onions (AED 78) arrived and we attacked yet again. We coupled it with a whole baby chicken in a barley miso (AED 110) and fried rice (AED 55) that was probably one dish too far. Although it looked like a rather unfortunate splat, the chicken was gloriously sticky and flavourful. We made a feeble attempt at the rich and creamy yuzu cheesecake (AED 45) but by this stage we were flagging.

Head chef Minho Ted Shin with Ikigai creator Reif Othman

Japanese pub grub is a superb concept and not one that’s been done like this before in Dubai. With the talented Othman adding what he calls his “unconventional spin” to dishes, Ikigai is worth seeking out. Order lots, stay late and enjoy.

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