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Monday, June 5, 2023

Showtime in the sands: Highlights from Desert X AlUla

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JEDDAH: Tokyo’s funky neon-lit side streets have long been a cultural inspiration around the world. Now, the electric Eighties vibe has hit Jeddah, with the recent opening of the concept restaurant Akiba Dori.

With a menu based on Japanese street food, and with funky Eighties music blasting throughout the high-ceilinged venue and its neon stations, the restaurant serves everything from hearty salads and soft wagyu sando to Neapolitan pizza and an assortment of sushi.

As a fan of authentic Japanese street food — a love inspired by a trip to Tokyo and Osaka a few years ago — I can confirm that Akiba Dori brings an authentic ambience right to the doorstep of its industrial-style interior. The friendly and enthusiastic staff only add to the atmosphere — as does the disco ball. If you’re not a fan of retro Eighties vibes, though, this might not be the place for you.

The pizza’s are served straight from the oven with the cheese still bubbling atop the thin crispy crust. (Supplied)

My companion and I were famished, and ready to sample the huge list of starters: Salads, sushi, “surprise,” and pizza.

The crispy shrimp salad — a starter big enough to feed three people — had a satisfying mix of greens with slices of orange that added a tangy kick to the light zesty dressing. The ratio of salad to panko fried shrimp (breadcrumb coated) was a little disappointing though; we’d have liked more shrimp. But this was still a solid start to our meal.

The rock shrimp maki, served alongside the salad, was fresh and tasty. A simple but satisfying dish. The Akiba rock shrimp, however, was the low point of our meal. Still working on our starters, we left the dish aside for a few minutes, which proved to be a mistake. The breadcrumb coating quickly turned soft and was falling off by the time we got around to tasting it. The spicy mayo sauce didn’t help — it resembled the hugely overrated dynamite shrimp sauce that has become inexplicably popular on the Gulf food scene in recent years. This was one part of our meal that could definitely have been better executed and failed to live up to the standards expected of Japanese street food.

This is the restaurant’s hero spread. (Supplied)

For our mains, we opted for some of Akiba Dori’s most-popular dishes; the wagyu tacos and medium-rare wagyu sando. The Japanese-Mexican fusion certainly seemed appealing and the flavorsome beef strips were a pleasure. But the guacamole and toppings made the fried taco slightly soggy — a soft taco may have worked better with the juicy meat strips.

The wagyu sando arrived with a side of French fries and an assortment of delicious condiments. The medium-rare (as ordered) beef was genuinely succulent and clearly high-grade but the honey katsu sauce was a little bland. However, what the dish lacked in punch was compensated for in tenderness and quality.

The large open brick oven that you can see as soon as you enter Akiba Dori had had us craving pizza since our arrival. We selected a truffle strata pizza and a Neapolitan pizza, and they did not disappoint — served straight from the oven with the cheese still bubbling atop the thin crispy crust. This was the highlight of our experience at the restaurant.

The restaurant offers wagyu truffle maki. (Supplied)

Fortunately, we still had some room left for dessert and we simply had to try the highly recommended lotus cheesecake. It did not disappoint. In fact, the soft cheesecake topped with gooey caramel lotus sauce might just be the best version of this popular dish in town. The flavors were subtle and perfectly balanced, and the texture was just right.

The staff were all super-attentive, and the restaurant’s chill atmosphere is great for those looking for a relaxed Japanese culinary experience with a group of friends at the weekends. We particularly enjoyed the music — a rare thing to say about a restaurant.

Despite a couple of dishes not meeting our expectations, we’d definitely come back. And as the cooler weather hits Jeddah, we’d expect Akiba Dori’s outside seating area overlooking Abdul Maksoud Khoja Street in the heart of the city to become one of springtime’s hot spots.


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