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Fri 1 Sep 2006 04:00 AM

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Latino passion

Wanting to offer a taste of true South American cuisine, menu changes and educating diners have been pinnacle to the success of Latino House, as Caterer Middle East discovered

|~|latino2.jpg|~|Chef Issam and Subramanian have a 19-strong team|~|The Latino House at Al Murooj Rotana Hotel & Suites Dubai is not a typical South American restaurant serving up jimichangas and fajitas. Wanting to create a true taste of Latin cuisine, Venezuelan chef Issam Koteich serves up a menu consisting of scallops pina colada, langostinos con miel y cayena and venado y foie gras.

“The idea was to have a Latin style restaurant with a blend of South American food, but with the elegance of European cuisine,” comments chef Issam, head chef, Latino House.

But educating diners about Latin cuisine was one of the first obstacles faced by chef Issam and Subramanian, restaurant manager, Latino House, and as such, they constantly reassess the menu and work closely together on both front and back of house operations.

“I am involved in the service and Subramanian is involved in the kitchen; it works well. We spend a lot of time together; in fact, we were considering getting married because we see so much of each other!” jokes chef Issam.

But working together has helped the restaurant define its menu, as well as increase service levels. Taking time out to visit each diner, chef Issam and Subramanian have been able to see what is working and which dishes are popular, leading to the creation of the second menu.

“We kept around five or six best selling dishes, and some old favourites like chilli con carne. Unfortunately for me, some people still order items like tacos, as they are unaware of other South American cuisine, but it is changing,” comments chef Issam.

“Also, I now have more knowledge of the market, so this has helped me to expand the menu. It is like when you are painting, the first one may not be perfect, but you learn from your mistakes and you know what to do to make it more refined,” he adds.

However, altering the menu was not a case of getting rid of dishes and replacing them with others, after six months of operation, the restaurant team decided to reassess the layout of the menu, and the composition of the food items.

“The first menu was a launch pad for us to see what the reaction of the diners would be. For example, the Chilean sea bass is a very famous dish here, it is done beautifully and is extremely popular, however, certain people preferred a different sauce, or wanted it to be presented differently,” says Subramanian.

One major change was in the way the food was presented. Originally, each dish had a variety of side dishes and sauces that overcrowded the table. As such, when designing the new menu, the dish composition became more concise.

“The new menu is very precise, there are not as many pages and it is sectioned into hot and cold appetizers, soups, fish, meat, the grill and old time favourites; it is working great,” he adds.

However, a key factor when creating the menu was sourcing ingredients, as over 80% of food items are from South America. Using Fresh Express as its key supplier, as well as European Food and Fine Foods, the majority of fish is sourced from Chilli and Argentina, with yams from Costa Rica and chillies from Mexico.

“We produce a special kind of bread made from yams and corn, which is a traditional bread in South America. The bread also comes with guacamole and a Peruvian sweet chilli sauce, so you can really taste the difference,” says chef Issam.||**|||~||~||~|Although wanting to source the majority of ingredients from the Latino region, there have been some difficulties due to Dubai Municipality regulations.

“On the menu we offer Argentinean beef tenderloin as a main course, however, the Municipality has banned Argentinean beef so we have to source it from elsewhere,” comments Subramanian.

“Because the menu had already been printed we had to inform guests that it is not Argentinean beef. Not everyone understands why this happens, but what can we do?” he adds.

Although there is a small quantity of food shipped into the UAE solely for Latino House, the majority of ingredients are already being used in the market. As such, the outlet has managed to cut down its food cost percentage, and currently runs at 31%; a far cry from what it was when the outlet first opened.

“At the beginning the food cost was a lot higher. We made a lot of mistakes but we were able to correct this and bring the cost down. When we first opened we didn’t know how much we needed but it is a lot more streamlined now. We know what sells, what we need to push, and how much to order,” comments chef Issam.

Complementing the food with the right beverage was also another key component for Latino House. Due to the style of food on offer, the outlet sells more red wine than white, and carries a recommendation list in its wine menu.

With around 65% of the menu consisting of New World wines, the menu contains Brazilian, Argentinean and Chilean wines, in order to match the food on offer. Although working closely with MMI, the wine menu was created in house, and has some wines only on offer at Latino House.

“When we redesigned the latest menu we looked at the wine list to make sure that they complemented each other. We have very progressive wines to match the food, taking into consideration the flavours, stock levels, and what is popular,” comments Subramanian.

As well as offering an extensive wine list, Latino House also has a cocktail menu reflecting the South American region. Using rum as a main component, the bar has over 15 different varieties from aged to dark rum, with the most popular cocktail called the ‘Blackbird’; a mixture of ‘drunk’ berries and rum.

With seating for 82 diners, the 19-strong team undertook three months of preliminary training before opening, as well as currently undergoing three days of training a week.

“We have training sessions for both the front as well as back of house. It is important that they know about the ingredients, so we get them to feel and smell the products and understand why we use them,” says chef Issam.

“Also, we make food notes for each team member and get the team to try the dishes so they have a better understanding of what they are serving. If there is something they don’t understand, then we explain it to them,” he adds.

However, still in its first year of operation, the outlet has already won The Best Latin American Restaurant Award from Time Out Dubai, and has a loyal customer base.

Also hoping to increase the profile of the outlet further, Subramanian and chef Issam are organising a Latin night in Pergolas Restaurant, the hotel’s all day dining outlet. They are also keen to introduce a live Latino band, and promotions for next year include a cigar rolling night and a Brazilian Carnival.

“We are always looking ahead and are currently working on a set menu for Christmas. It is about offering our guests something different, but still with that authentic South American feel,” adds chef Issam.||**||

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