I’m often at a loss for words when I meet a great chef. They are the artists, the pioneers, and the visionaries that roam the culinary world with a constant thirst to learn, inspire, and create. At the risk of sounding too poetic, great food is more than just taste, it’s an emotion all on its own.
I had the privilege of watching chef Reif Othman glide through his kitchen with the cool-headed confidence of a culinary James Bond – he is suave, charming, and effortless. I did this twice, once as a guest at The Experience, and once as an active participant in his kitchen. On both occasions, it was an honor to say the least, and watching him transition from gracious host to king of his kitchen with ease and fluidity is an impressive sight.
Born and raised in Singapore, Reif developed his “mediterrasian” culinary style while working in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, London, and Lyon. His six-year stint as Zuma’s executive chef catapulted him into the leagues of the finest chefs in the region, and one could easily argue, worldwide. In fact, it was during Reif’s chef training for Zuma, which took place in a loft-style apartment in New York City, that would leave a big impression on him and is what planted the seed for what would eventually become The Experience.
Located on the 37th floor of the H Hotel with breathtaking views of Old Dubai, The Experience was born out of Reif’s desire to build a test kitchen in an empty space one floor above Play Restaurant & Lounge, where he currently resides as executive chef.
Since the space was too big to build just a kitchen, Reif decided to take his concept a step further and create an apartment where guests can relax in an intimate setting – all while being wined and dined by the man himself! “Basically, this is like my apartment, my own villa. You feel cozy, you feel at home – it’s a chef’s dream! I have great investors and partners who give me the freedom to do what I love. I want to take this concept to the next level.”
As soon as you step off the lift, you enter the living room. There’s a full length mirror, coffee tables, and couches where you can sit and enjoy an aperitif – just like you would at a friend’s house – it is all very private and personal.
When the doors open to the main dining area, the real fun begins and twelve lucky guests are seated at a large, u-shaped table facing Reif’s open kitchen “playground.”
All personal touches have been curated by the chef himself. From wallpaper and curtains from France, to locally sourced furniture pieces, fine cutlery and porcelain from Spain, with some pieces handcrafted especially for Reif in Japan. If his mission is to make you feel at home and comfortable, then it’s mission accomplished.
Dinner includes ten courses and can go up to a jaw-dropping twenty-five. “From the eighth course, I will say ‘are you ok, or do you want to go on?’” says the chef with a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. “You can do twelve, you can do fourteen, you can do sixteen. It’s up to you.”
Rarely repeating the same dish at the Experience, Reif creates dishes that are based on what he feels and can tailor them to individual needs. “I don’t prep,” He says “I have my basic stocks. If you come in and say ‘I’m allergic to seafood,’ then I will create anything without seafood. That’s it.”
He sets the bar even higher with plans to open an Imax theater in a room at the back of the restaurant at the end of March 2017 – and we’re not talking reruns either. Reif’s Imax will be directly linked to Vox Cinemas, which means diners can watch movies that are new in theaters. “Whatever is new in the cinema will be linked to my Imax. Finish off your ten-course meal and you move to a movie. You’ll have homemade popcorn, cotton candy, you can even have your wine in there.”
On when he started cooking, he says, “I was 16. I think I got it from my mom. She used to have a small little store back home in Singapore, so I would help her with that. Even during my younger days, I’m the only one who would follow her to the market. All the moms would be with their daughters, and I would be the only boy!”
“So it’s in your blood?” I say to which he replies “A little bit.”
A mesmerizing journey was about to begin…
Once inside Reif’s kitchen, I start my apprenticeship by making an amuse-bouche of caviar and Reif’s “secret” mousse. This isn’t just any caviar – made by Sturia, France’s leading caviar producer – these little black jewels are especially made for him.
“With Reif caviar,” he says, “they clean the line, and pick the eggs. Anything irregular they put it aside.” He gave me the rundown on how the optimal maturation time for his caviar is 6 weeks to balance out the salt ratio. He is proud when he tells me about how his caviar contains a ratio of only 1.5% instead of the usual 3% found in most other varieties, and proceeded to tell me the conditions in which the sturgeon live. A milky pond, with freedom to swim freely in un-crowded conditions is what the fish need to thrive. Judging from the fine quality of the caviar, it is clear that Sturia raises happy sturgeon.
We piped the bottom of a little round box with the cream-coloured mousse. When I asked Reif what was in it, he shrugged his shoulders “I don’t know” he teased, “it wouldn’t be nice to tell you what’s in there!” With a tool that looked like a giant tweezer, we added caviar, followed by grated Sudachi zest (Japanese lime), and little pearls of crispy, puffed sushi rice.
It was almost too pretty to eat! Reif closed the lid of the box before ushering me to my seat in the dining room – it was time to taste. When my spoon slid onto the caviar through the silky puree, I knew that something special was about to hit my lips. I was right – it was unlike anything I had ever tried. When I guessed the secret ingredient (cauliflower, shhh, don’t tell anyone), Reif gave me a high five before his assistant topped up my champagne. We were off to a great start!
Next on Reif’s agenda was Tuna belly tartare (otoro) prepared in two different ways. In the first, tuna was delicately scraped with the back of the spoon and served on deep fried nori.
The second was the same tuna belly, this time diced into fine cubes, and tossed with wasabi mayo. Served on what looked like a simple crispy rice cracker, was actually cooked sushi rice that was blitzed with squid ink, and dried before being fried until crisp. When I asked Reif if he could make me the same thing tomorrow, he replied with a smile “You wouldn’t have anything you had today – except for the caviar!”
When it was time for our third course, thinly sliced, scored, and cured Japanese snapper was laid out onto a plate and cascaded with a broth of Umeboshi (Japanese sour plum) and fish stock. Reif was keen on educating me about the snapper we were using and pulled out a book on Japanese fish.
A touch of Mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), crispy kale and spring onion oil finished the dish. Reif says it’s simple. I say it’s meticulous, crafted, and perfect.
Paper-thin Japanese Wagyu Sirloin was served over broth infused noodles, and topped Myoga – young Japanese ginger.
It was at this point I noticed that our dishes were transitioning from light to slightly heavier. Note to self, next time wear yoga pants. Reif pulled out a fresh Yuzu and held it up to my nose – powerful and insanely aromatic! I thought he plucked it off the tree in the living room entrance. “Nah”, he laughed, “that tree isn’t real! It’s just for show!”
A man after my own heart, he grated fresh black truffle over the dish, then added hot beef consommé to “cook” the meat. While the liquid gushed over the dish, an amazing scent permeated the air. It was more divine than it sounds.
“I don’t boil with water, I only use vegetable stocks,” says Reif, while preparing course number five. “Water is very dull and flat. Even at Play, we always have a pot of boiling vegetable stock just for our pastas.” Plunging an individual “ravioli” into the hot liquid, I asked him what was stuffed inside the pasta. He gave me his ‘you’ll-have-to-wait-and-see’ look that I was growing accustomed to.
The lone ravioli was laid on a sauce made out of fresh cream, milk, and parmesan. It turned out that I had to eat it in one bite – no chewing allowed! Reif was clear with his instructions “Say Hakaaa! And eat the whole thing at once.” What happened next was somewhat of a revelation as the ravioli exploded in my mouth, oozing with a burst of liquid truffle-infused butter. It was rich, decadent, and as unexpected as the rest of my day. I’m completely convinced that Reif goes to sleep dreaming of what to cook and how to surprise his guests.
Just when I thought it was time for dessert, Reif pulled out grade ‘A’ Wagyu sirloin strips in preparation for his rendition of a classic Korean bibimbap. The sirloin strips – marinated with apple and soy sauce – were lightly seared unilaterally in a hot, cast iron skillet lined with Wagyu fat.
A pot dressed with sesame oil was filled with Japanese rice, and topped with soy dressing and vegetable-infused bok choy. Homemade Kimchi, our quick-seared Wagyu strips, and the ultimate runny egg (slowly cooked to perfection in a sous-vide) crowned our dish.
Reif led me to the table to taste. I watched him break through the soft cooked egg yolk while it slithered throughout the dish, meticulously tossing all ingredients together. This was comfort food redefined!
As I was polishing off the last of my Bibimbap, Reif popped out of the kitchen with a box of lush-red strawberries. “From Japan!” He proclaimed. They tasted as good as they looked – even the packaging was perfect! It was time for dessert.
Plated on what looked like a porcelain log, nearly each component of the dessert had an element of strawberry to it. A strawberry filled vanilla sphere coated with white chocolate sat atop raspberry pop rock (bringing back childhood memories). Strawberry Swiss rolls made out of sponge cake, strawberry jam, and white chocolate soil, scattered across the plate. A brilliant finale to a spectacular meal!
The Experience certainly does live up to its name and much much more! Thank you, Reif, for giving me a glimpse into your kitchen – you are the ultimate host and a force to be reckoned with. Here’s to more Hakaaa’s soon!
Double-O-seven would be proud!
Shot on location at the Experience in the H Hotel, Dubai
Photos by Tara Atkinson Photography
Dress by Roland Mouret
Jewelry by Nadine Kanso for Bilarabi
Hair by Mustafa at Polished Salon