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VaKaVa, the new Pan-Latin restaurant concept that replaces Toro Toro at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, comes to us from the same celebrity chef, Richard Sandoval. Set apart from the hotel in a separate building that juts out into the ocean like the bow of a ship, guests are greeted by two white bulls butting heads in front of an ornate turquoise coloured door. FACT’s David Tapley walks through…

VaKaVa’s interiors immediately capture the attention thanks to a visual assault of colours and textures! Similar in spirit to Coya, VaKaVa’s design offers vibrant textiles and elaborate chandeliers. We traverse a long corridor punctuated with skulls and a glass case housing an open fire, where all of the meat is prepared and cuts of succulent picanha twist above the open fire. Video screens shoot flames up the walls, pre-empting the frivolity and Latin flare of the evening ahead.

We have some concerns, considering this very space has previously been home to three restaurant concepts (including one from celebrity Chef Michael Caines) in as many years. Call it opening hype, a strong marketing campaign, or sheer word of mouth but VaKaVa was very busy during our dinner on a Monday evening. This in itself is refreshing for Abu Dhabi, where it’s not uncommon to dine in a near-empty restaurant unless it’s a brunch.

It takes some time to settle on a cocktail we like, as we plough our way through smoking theatrics and a roaming Caipirinha trolley (don’t miss the passion fruit version of the popular Brazilian cocktail). We find our groove with the exemplary Brazilian Breeze. a cocktail combining three kinds of rum and a cherry liqueur that’s set alight at the table. It should be noted that many of VaKaVa’s cocktails pack a punch when it comes to strength and ultimately add to the fun vibe of the space, complemented by the atmospheric soundtrack.

The food menu follows suits and we do appreciate a concise offering that’s easily broken down into small sections. We begin with the sea bass coconut ceviche (AED75) a dish that we thoroughly enjoyed during the venues opening party a number of weeks earlier. Offering a fine blend of coriander, coconut milk and chilli, the flavour balance between sweet and heat is inspired. As a staple of Peruvian cuisine, ceviche is always a good measure of the quality of a South American restaurant and despite lacking a variation in texture, the flavours are certainly pleasing.

The smoked guacamole (AED60) is another dish that shouldn’t be missed, despite the significant price increase from the Toro Toro menu. The mashed Mexican avocado smoked inside an elaborate bell jar is quite frankly the stuff of dreams.

Our favourite dish from its predecessor, the short rib coca flatbread (AED80) also makes it onto this menu and presents shredded short rib beef on top of crispy flatbread and topped with a manchego cheese sour cream. The contrasting flavours are rich and would be our recommended order when paired with the thinly sliced beef tiradito (AED100) served with truffle tartare, chipotle ponzu sauce and shimeji mushroom.

Fully embracing the sharing concept of the menu (it just works so well with these small plates and allows diners to try a little bit of everything) we share the Wagyu Grade 8-9 Ribeye (AED375). A reasonably priced cut of meat that is an absolute pleasure to eat. Tender, full of flavour and served with cinnamon sprinkled sweet potato fries.

The Peruvian style grilled octopus (AED145) is just as good and balances the protein against a hard to pin sweetness that left us wanting more. Never ones to miss dessert, we enjoyed both the chocolate fondant (AED55) complete with glorious ooze and the churros (AED55). Having been subjected to some rather poor churros over the years, VaKaVa’s are arguably one of the best in the city. Offering a dough that is crisp on the outside but almost fluffy within and served with a dulce de leche sauce. The only misstep is a goats cheese ice cream which just didn’t work for us, but we’re sure others may beg to differ.

With an overwhelming positivity towards the food, we’re ecstatic to note that the service has been vastly improved since its former food persona, even though some of the team members remain the same. Staff are now fully versed in the menu and display a friendliness towards guests which was missing before.

The launch of VaKaVa is a welcome return for Pan-Latin food at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers and a triumphant return for Richard Sandoval to the capital. It’s a shame that with many of the items on the menu remaining unchanged, there has still been a significant price increase across the board – however, the quality is at its peak. With the recent closure of South American concept BU! it will be interesting to see how Abu Dhabi’s appetite for Pan-Latin cuisine stacks up in the coming months…

GO: Call (0)2 811 5666 for reservations and more information.

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