Something struck me when I first met chef Liam Breen. Maybe it was because I had heard his name whispered fast and furiously throughout the Dubai foodie circuit on too many occasions to mention. Or maybe it was the fact that at the age of twenty-five, he’s already an incredibly accomplished chef. For me, what really stood out during our first encounter was the word MISE (short for the French culinary term mise-en-place) boldly tattooed across his knuckles. Right off the bat, I had a strong feeling that this guy means business, with a dedication to his craft that stretches beyond the kitchen.
At of age of fourteen, a time when most boys are playing hockey in the streets (at least in Canada), Liam was hard at work at a local Italian restaurant chopping vegetables in the trenches of the kitchen. He hasn’t looked back since – paving his way through the culinary hierarchy with some hard-core on the job training and well-earned experience. Originally from Montreal, Liam proudly speaks of how his hometown embraces cultural diversity and injects it into its local cuisine. “It’s cooking from the soul” he says. Clearly, this is the driving force behind Liam’s passion in the kitchen.
Fast forward to the Maine Oyster Bar and Grill. Born out of the desire to bridge the gap between fine dining and casual eateries in Dubai, the Maine is Liam and his partner Joey Ghazal’s answer to the ultimate seaside Brasserie.
With a menu of oysters, tartares, and some serious seafood (just look at that octopus in the photo below), the Maine is tucked away in the Double Tree Hilton where a quirky but cool entrance from the garage welcomes you into the unexpected space. You know you’ve reached the right place when you get to the signage and the words “Shuck Me” (as in the oyster) is written in bold. Very cool indeed!
The restaurant itself is beautiful, raw, and unpretentious. Lofty, mile-high ceilings breathe airiness into the restaurant. Lined with cognac colored leather-bound stools, the bar is long, narrow with mammoth chandeliers suspended overhead.
Lamps in the dining room made to look like jellyfish, and a fully-stocked oyster bar add to the seaside vibe.
Even the walls have a story. “We had originally painted the walls green” says Liam “but it looked like crap, so we painted them black. That also looked like crap. So we sanded the walls down, and found some exposed concrete. We thought it looked good, so we kept it”.
It might be all those tattoos, but I thought that cooking with Liam would be intimidating, when in reality, nothing could be further than the truth. He welcomed me into his space with open arms and a desire to share his expertise, in this case, his version of a classic Salmon Tartare.
The dish is relatively simple, but Liam’s skill, finesse, and respect for the ingredients are what elevate this tartare.
We started by finely chopping red onion – no room for chunky onions here.
Chives, celery leaf, and capers came next while Liam gave me tips on how to keep from slicing off my fingers! “Careful not to overdo it with the capers,”he warns. A little goes a long way.
Using a dry curing method, we applied rock salt and sugar to the salmon to pull out excess moisture – “it’s osmosis” says Liam. After twenty minutes in the fridge, we gave it a quick rinse. How amazing that the color had changed from dull coral to bright orange! The skin was so plump, firm, and vibrant that I’m thinking of adding a salt & sugar cure to my skincare routine.
The salmon was sliced off the skin and cut into chunks. “A sharp knife is key for this. See this number right here?” says Liam, proudly pointing at a tiny script etched within his Shun chef’s knife “there are only 3000 of these in the world.”
We put the salmon in a bowl over ice, then poured olive oil infused with aromatics to flavor the tartare as we combined our ingredients.
A touch of horseradish, lemon zest, and a quick stir later, the tartare was ready for plating.
Served with a caper and horseradish mayonnaise alongside the finest homemade chips you’ve ever tasted, the tartare had a beautiful balance of delicate, rich, and decadent flavors. Perfect.
Somehow while making our tartare, Liam discovered that I hadn’t had an oyster in over twelve years. He clearly thought this was a travesty! After challenging me to a showdown, out came some wild oysters from the Irish coastal city of Galway.
In one foul swoop, he shucked the oyster across the top shell, unveiling a perfect little jewel nestled in its bed. After rinsing with mineral water, he carefully carved it out onto its presentation side.
Seasoned with a touch of sea salt, grated horseradish, and a squeeze of lemon, we clicked our shells together – “Cheers” – as we gulped our oyster shots in one go! That’s all it took to turn me into a born-again oyster lover.
With another venture awaiting him, I had the good fortune to work with Liam on his very last day as the Maine’s executive chef. Like a true gentleman, he is proud, confident, and humble when he talks about the culinary team entrusted to deliver the standard of excellence the Maine is known for. Affectionately referring to his chefs and sous-chefs as the “real stars” in the kitchen, “I’m leaving Maine in excellent hands” he says.
Yes, Liam, you are, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
To be continued…