Ever since the departure of Toro Toro, at the rear of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, there has been a pan-Latin shaped hole in Abu Dhabi’s dining scene.
But luckily, world-renowned restauranteur Richard Sandoval has saved the day by filling his former spot with VaKaVa, the latest edition to his Latin restaurant group Richard Sandoval Hospitality.
With 45 outlets under his belt, including branches in California, New York, Mexico, Dubai, Qatar, Serbia and Tokyo, his flavour-filled South American dishes and exciting venues are renowned across the world.
We grab the bull by the horns and ask the foodie why VaKaVa is set to be the new place to be in the capital.
What can we expect from VaKaVa?
Vacca means cow in Latin, and the restaurant is similar in style to Toro Toro. It’s like the twin sister: sassy, vibrant and young. The dining room is very tropical and warm, and I think people will enjoy it. It’s very representative of Latin America.
What kind of dishes are on the menu?
Like Toro Toro, the menu is also based on churrasco grill, and we have dishes such as ceviches, antichuchos, grills and tacos.
I always like to build menus that are very interactive and very sharable. It’s a lighter version of a steakhouse – not so heavy. People can come in and share appetisers or something from the grill. It’s a very approachable place.
Following today’s trends for healthy eating, we definitely have at least one vegetarian option in each category. I eat a lot more plant-driven foods than protein or meat now. As you get older you tend to eat more healthily and lighter.
The menu is very exciting with lots of things to choose from and I think people will enjoy the bold flavours. When you put that together with the great location and the venue, I think it’s a winning combination.
Do you have any favourites?
The sea bass ceviche is one of my favourites and from the entrées we have a new Chilean sea bass, which is served on a tray and then mixed with miso and Japanese rice until it’s all incorporated in together. That’s a new dish that I’m very excited about. There are a lot of new things that I’m trying out and haven’t been on my menus before.
Did you enjoy creating the menu?
For me creating menus is the most enjoyable part of my job. I still love getting into the kitchen. It’s the place I go to relax and pull all my thoughts together, and move some of them from my mind to my plate.
It’s always exciting to work with my chefs, and every year we have a test kitchen where we get together in one part of the world and create. It’s never boring.
All my dishes have been inspired by my travels. I used to be a professional tennis player and I travelled throughout the world, but food was always one of my passions. This menu is like a mix of different cultures and dishes that I’ve eaten on my travels through South America.
Which country have you enjoyed the most?
Obviously Mexico (because I’m from there), but I enjoyed the forests of Columbia a lot and I really liked Brazil. But the thing about Mexico is that the cuisine is so vibrant. There’s so much of it, there’s always new chillies to try and other things, which to me, as a chef, is very exciting.
Do you still travel a lot now?
I’m not travelling as much as I used to, but I still do South America at least once a year and also get down to Mexico to see what the chefs are doing. Mexico is now a melting pot of great chefs and it has really exploded in the last five years. So I try to go to there at least two or three times a year.
Which restaurant are you most proud of?
I opened Maya in New York 20 years ago and I’m very proud of that. It was my first foray into Latin cuisine in the US and I’m also very proud of Toro Toro in Dubai. When we opened it six years ago it was probably the first South American restaurant in the city and we introduced ceviches and other dishes. To be the benchmark for Latin cuisine is nice.
Tell us about opening VaKaVa.
Personally, I think the location is iconic, I love Etihad Towers and once the weather turns we have a beautiful deck outside that people can sit on. It’s so close to Dubai too and people have embraced my three restaurants there, so I think that having a restaurant in Abu Dhabi is a natural transition.
I think the city is a little quieter than Dubai, which I like. I’d say Dubai and Abu Dhabi are like New York and Washington, New York is a big city and everything is very fast, while Washington is still a big city but it’s quieter. Abu Dhabi kind of reminds me of that.
Open Mon-Sat 7pm-11.30pm. VaKaVa, Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, West Corniche (02 811 5666).