DETAILS: Dhs150 (soft drinks), Dhs225 (house beverages), Dhs250 (bubbly). Thu 8pm-11pm. The Hub, The Mall at World Trade Center Abu Dhabi, Al Markaziyah (02 444 7752).
While there are numerous fancy places to brunch in the capital, not many can offer a whole three hours of quality Italian food, plus live music, for Dhs150.
But despite knowing this, we’re still suprised by how busy it is when we arrive at The Stage brunch at Jazz@PizzaExpress.
It means that the servers are rushed off their feet and there’s a bit of a wait for food, but all the staff work very hard throughout the night to ensure everyone is kept happy.
It’s also louder than we anticipated. The female-fronted band are certainly talented, but the volume is so high that we have to shout as we discuss which main we want (you can order unlimited starters).
The loud music makes the modern eatery feel more like a club than a restaurant, despite the many families and groups of young people dining around us. But soon the set finishes, we resume a normal level of conversation and our starters begin to arrive.
Sadly, the camembert bites aren’t anywhere near as delicious as they sound on paper.
The melted cheese is definitely tasty, but fried in breadcrumbs and served with the tiniest blob of pesto rosso, we find it quite dry. In contrast, the burrata and pomodoro bruschetta is totally brilliant. The wonderful creamy cheese goes perfectly with the sweet and juicy tomato. Placed on a thin slice of garlic-infused toast, it’s light enough not to be too filling and the perfect start to proceedings.
Of course when the doughballs appear we can’t help but demolish them all, despite our futile promises to ‘only have a few’. The soft dough is still wonderfully warm, and we shamelessly scrape garlic butter out of the dish. It’s a simple combination that really shouldn’t be as fantastic as it is. We can think of many more complicated starters that wouldn’t be anywhere near as satisfying.
We’re also big fans of the meatballs (although we don’t get through even half of the three plates presented to us). The sauce is hot and full of more fresh tomatoes and herbs, and the balls are chunky and hearty, if a little salty.
It’s so busy we seem to miss out on the final starter (potato dippers with arrabiata sauce), but we’re more than ready to move on to the mains and so it isn’t an issue.
In a controversial twist, we’ve gone for salad and pasta instead of a pizza, and thankfully it’s a risk that pays off enormously.
The halloumi and courgette salad is magnificant, with the sweet and finely sliced raw courgette complimenting the many chunks of salty halloumi and fresh rocket, radish and tomatoes. It’s all covered in a house dressing that isn’t too rich or creamy, while the red quinoa and lentils add more substance.
The penne pepperonata with mozzarella isn’t as spicy as we’d expected, but it’s another example of a simple dish done very well. It’s piping hot and filled with more sweet tomatoes and red peppers and topped with fresh basil and chunks of light cheese.
The singer returns to the stage as we eat, and this time the tunes are more chilled and suitable for the environment.
None of the dishes are too stodgy and greasy, and despite feeling like we need to avoid cheese for a month (we give it a day), we’re impressed by the value and variety of the inventive Italian dishes.
With a fun and lively atmosphere, it’s a perfect (and very unpretentious) night out.
WHAT IS IT...
Unlimited Italian starters followed by salads, pizzas and pastas
To request a song from the live band, and munch on as many doughballs as you can manage