Outlet 360: Katsuya by Starck

Katsuya by Starck is back with a brand new venue at Jumeirah Al Naseem

Screen time: Artwork showing the dark side of the geisha is displayed in the bar areas.
Screen time: Artwork showing the dark side of the geisha is displayed in the bar areas.
Plating precision: Ruvira leads by example on the pass.
Plating precision: Ruvira leads by example on the pass.

Front-of-house

Though this branch of Katsuya by Starck, set in Jumeirah Group’s latest luxury hotel property, is new,  this is the LA-based brand’s second stab at the Dubai market having previously opened (and closed) a venue in Dubai Mall. Whereas the previous venue attracted more families and had a strong Emirati following, this venue is more in-keeping with what you might expect from the host brand — a space where people go to socialise, see and be seen.

This can be largely attributed to the fact that this 227-cover venue is licensed. According to general manager Carlos Weng: “When guests dine at a Japanese restaurant, they expect to have alcohol, and from the host brand itself, the sake and wine sales are pretty good.” Though alcohol is definitely a driver,  and both bar areas have been busy, the food and the service have also been a big draw. “I would say 95% of the people come to dine and have an experience. We haven’t had many people just coming for a drink; we thought maybe some people from the hotel would come, have a drink and then go out but we have surprisingly seen that people are coming for a drink and then staying for dinner.”

With a name like Katsuya by Starck, it’s safe to say that dining and design are given equal importance. The brand’s signature slick, angular interiors in warm earth tones are accented with hot pink and red accessories. A minimalist Japanese aesthetic dominates the venue from the table settings, to the shape of the rooms. Apparently Philip Starck designed the space so that if you were to remove the roof and look down, you would see what resembles the different compartments of a bento box.

Another signature of the brand is its approachable service style. Weng says that when they were hiring front-of-house staff, they valued out-going personalities over experience, being of the view that skills can be taught.

Expansion is on the cards for the brand. Another licensed venue will follow at Riverland at Dubai Parks and Resorts later this year and the Katsuya by Starck will also return to its Dubai Mall roots. Weng explains: “The Dubai Mall venue coming back which will be great for our Emirati following. We did consider that, since we have a strong local clientele, we should open another unlicensed venue.”

Back-of-house

Though 90% of the menu is copy/pasted from the original restaurant in LA, a few local adaptations have been made. Executive chef Gerard Ruvira explains: “Going from LA to this market, we actually did change some of the ingredients and recipes and we added new menu items. The edamame hummus; it’s the Middle East so we thought why not. We made our own version of it and it’s selling pretty well.” Another item created especially for the Dubai branch was the non-alcoholic version of the Burning Mandarin.

The chef, who has been with the brand for nine years says that these adaptations were made partly to suit local tastes but also due to the fact that ingredients they use are sourced differently here. “I come from California so a lot of the produce is grown locally and is easy to source whereas here we try to get things that are local but we need to outsource.”

Admittedly, the local supply chain took a little getting used to. “At first it was a bit of a challenge because we’d ask for a certain ingredient and they’d send it but not to our spec so we’d have to send it back. Eventually we’d sit down with suppliers and say this is how we want it. Thankfully they’ve been able to help us out from when we opened in Dubai Mall to this opening,” says the chef, who favours working with several specialist suppliers over a one-stop-shop.

In the four years that Ruvira has been in Dubai, he’s seen the dining scene evolve, describing it as, “Pretty innovative. There’s always something new. New restaurants, new ideas, people trying to raise the bar. It’s not boring, that’s for sure. You also have that in other cities but I feel like here people are constantly seeing what else they can do.”

Ruvira says he doesn’t feel pressured to follow trends but knows that it’s important to keep the local market in mind saying, “We try to keep the concept what it is but at the same time, we’re willing to look at what people want to eat. We try to adapt to the market we’re entering. Coming to the Middle East, we noticed that spices were stronger. Even our chilli paste was a bit spicier. When we started to do R&D for our recipes we found that we needed to change a lot of it.”

When it comes to categorising what they do at Katsuya, the LA-native calls it ‘social dining’ which echoes the brand’s motto of ‘have fun and make friends’. Talking about the food, Ruvira says: “We try to shoot for the quality of fine dining and we try to give the best presentation we can. The most important thing I can do is give good food and make sure people have a good time. We just try to give people a good experience.”

And why has Katsuya struck a chord in the region? “What I really like about Katsuya is that you have your Japanese ingredients, you have your Japanese dishes, but it’s a little bit friendlier when it comes to raw fish or introducing people to Japanese cuisine,” concludes Ruvira.

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