Outlet 360: Circo Abu Dhabi

InterContinental Abu Dhabi sees the launch of the Italian brand

The show: Seating area
The show: Seating area
Textured flavours: Burrata e Speck di Manzo.
Textured flavours: Burrata e Speck di Manzo.

Circo debuts at InterContinental Abu Dhabi with over four decades of gastronomic history, Maccioni commitment to tradition, and a vibrant theme

Front of House

A chaotically organised splash of colours greets you as soon as you enter Circo, one of three concepts from New York-based restaurant group Le Cirque International. Literally translating to circus, it encapsulates the entertainment with an earnest commitment to authentic Italian-Tuscan cuisine, as restaurant manager Gianluca Maglianella asserts.

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“Circo represents upscale Italian-Tuscan cuisine, with all our traditional recipes from Sirio Maccioni (founder) and his wife, Edigiana.” He insists that while most of the Italian eateries in town feature a pastoral vibe, bricks and low ceilings, Circo is vibrant.

The interior designers, Curiosity Interiors from the UK, chose colourful façades of monkeys decorating one wall, while the other features a monochrome drawing of an elephant show. There are quirky statements on the bar, paintings of a ring master on the wall, and vivid glass lamps hanging from the ceiling.

Another element on display that stands out is the china and silverware, sourced from Italian designer, Reni Ozoro, displayed over special cutlery mats, usually spotted in 3-star Michelin restaurants.

Circo can seat almost 240 people, and features a fine dining area, a patio, and an alfresco seating space. Average covers run up to 70-80 a night. The busiest night had 120, but it doesn’t worry Maglianella. He says: “It is statistically proven that if you are happy with a restaurant, you will tell one person. If you are unhappy, you will definitely tell 10 people. Our focus is quality over quantity.”

The joie de vivre shifts when it comes to the menu, which is committed to traditional Italian cuisine, and recipes passed down from generations.

Maglianella says 30% of the recipes are kept as they are, while others are tweaked to appeal to the regional palate. “We try to encourage people to try our dishes because the chef has established the recipe according to a concept. We do make small changes but nothing major.”

One of the prime focuses at Circo is customer experience. Maglianella says it was the restaurant’s welcoming vibe and warm ambiance that initially caught IHG’s attention when representatives first visited the property in New York. The same fervour of hospitality has been instilled in this location; he says: “Memories are created by people. It’s an Italian proverb that we go to restaurants for the company; if the food is good, it’s a bonus.”

The restaurant has been fully operational for over a month and Maglianella is full of ideas. From cotton candy machines to a live band, sommelier and mixologist, he has plans to introduce many new features in the upcoming weeks.

Back of House

Circo’s executive chef Luca Banfi has been with Le Cirque International before Circo was launched in the UAE. “When my contract was nearing the end in Casa de Campo, they mentioned that they have plans to open up a new project in Abu Dhabi, and having lived here in the mid-90s, I thought it would be nice to go back.

I started with Boccaccio, which was a great experience, and allowed me to understand the staff, market and the hotel better. I was able to make a more educated decision as far as the menu and the staff were concerned for Circo.”

While Circo’s recipes are revered in all Le Cirque kitchens, Banfi says he can still adjust to add his own special flavour.

“The beautiful thing about working with the Maccioni [group] is that they don’t come in with a set menu that you have to establish. They have some set dishes that are their classics. In New York, they were doing a dish called Tuna Crudo where they marinaded the fish with chilli oil and rosemary, and served it on a sesame twell, with avocado and olive tapenade.

A very nice and simple dish but what I found is that the local taste is not so much for raw fish, so I took the essence of the recipe, and tweaked the preparation a little bit. That’s what we have on the menu as Tuna Crudo, which is the image of the original dish but has been tweaked for the local palate here.”

The menu in place has been finalised by the chef and Sirio Maccioni. It is expected to be revamped with the change of the season.

“I already have a few ideas but I will wait until the change of season. Right now the menu reflects a lot of products that are inherently wintry for Italian menus. There are a lot of pumpkins, mushrooms, chestnuts — heavy, hearty things. My goal is that once we get to April, we will start tweaking the menu to be more about the end of spring and summer, so you will be seeing a lot more peppers, zucchini, tomatoes. A shift to lighter and fresher flavours,” Banfi reveals.

Currently, he’s happy to see burratta, sea bass and special pizzas moving the most, and has altered lasagne with polenta recently when it wasn’t doing very well.

When it comes to sourcing, Banfi isn’t particularly worried. “It’s about finding the right company and once you have found it, you will see that the availability of the products is fantastic.

“The challenge is that not much is produced here, so we have to understand the flow of products and how to source them,” he says.

Despite being a new restaurant, the kitchen staff at Circo is already synergised and have been cross-trained on multiple stations so that they can help each other if required. Serving staff, on the other hand, is still learning. Banfi believes that it is primarily because they are new to the cuisine and need to learn everything about it — and that needs some time.

“We are trying to push a little more upscale but I still want the food to be relatable, and for diners to see and understand what they are having,” Banfi concludes.

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