Having built a following consulting and with Zuma, Play and The Experience, Singaporean chef Reif Othman takes to the streets with his homegrown concept Reif Japanese Kushiyaki
The world is hungry for Thai cuisine, and the brand that has a new bistro concept in Dubai is here to satisfy that craving
Eduan R. Maggo
When Mango Tree turned off the lights in Souk Al Bahar, many assumed it had fallen prey to the Dubai’s gastronomic curse: A new restaurant opens, finds a following, maybe even wins an award or two, and then its patrons move on to the next shiny new opening and the establishment shutters, banished to the “do you remember when” folder of our memories we access only infrequently.
Not in this case, however.
“It wasn’t a decision that we actively made,” says Trevor MacKenzie, Managing Partner of parent company Asian Cuisine & Hospitality. “It was more of a landlord decision, which everybody in town knows because I’m very polite about it but never shy to comment about us performing so well there but then being asked to leave.”
Adding insult to injury, he says the concepts that have replaced them haven’t succeeded. But that’s all in the past. The group has returned to Dubai with a new tweak on the popular restaurant brand which is set to open its 50th outlet globally by the end of the year.
“Coming back this time, I reassessed the market and I saw there’d been a big shift. When I came here originally in 2007, everything had to be high end — the top of your game, the top of your gain.
“Now we’ve had to come back and bring concepts that are more widely approachable. You have to appeal to a wider market,” he explains.
“I keep hearing everyone say, ‘Fine dining is dead.’ I don’t believe it’s dead. It’s just going through a slowdown. The reality is, it will always be there but it will take on a different form.”
The Canadian says the trend, in mature markets, is for casual takes on fine dining. Gone are the white table cloths and bow-tied waiters, but the aspirational quality persists.
Mango Tree Thai Bistro opened in JBR earlier this year, where it’s received a warm welcome. “People like our concepts and the quality of food,” MacKenzie says. “But the best thing about it is that it doesn’t feel like a typical Thai restaurant. We try to bring a little bit of Thailand in a different way, a retro take.”
MacKenzie says the market also drives concepts to innovate. “Nowadays, customers are looking for something different all the time. Dubai is a fairly mature market with people coming from all around the world and from mature restaurant markets. They’ve been eating Thai food for a long time. That’s why Thai cuisine, even since we arrived in 2008, has been doing extremely well.
“I think that when we do it in a different way, they feel great. They feel like the restaurant understands them, or is trying to be outside the box. And who are the people that get noticed in life? The ones that are outside the box.”
Mango Tree has diversified its offering into five different categories, from fine dining to casual to grab-and-go. “The Bistro concept is all about fun,” he says, explaining how the Thai staple grapow — a dish with minced meat, basil and chillies — got a makeover presented as a pizza, now one of their bestsellers.
“It’s also an example of the evolution of Thai cuisine. Just because something doesn’t fit the traditional idea of Thai food, doesn’t mean it’s not Thai food.”
And he has a lot to play with. “Most people don’t know Thai food has in the region of 600 dishes; most people know 20 or 30.”
This diversity has helped sustain the brand in difficult markets, such as London, where Mango Tree has had a presence for almost 19 years, and Tokyo, where it’s still going strong after 16 years.
The brand recently scored its first Michelin Plate, for its outlet in Guangzhou. MacKenzie says they’re also buoyed by L’Orchidée becoming the first Thai restaurant in France with a Michelin Star. “There’s a palpable buzz in the market, a hunger for Thai cuisine,” he says.
“That’s where Michelin stars have given us a new opportunity now. I can make fancy Thai food again.”
And some of that might be heading our way — the group is in talks to open a second Mango Tree outlet here in the near future.
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