Keane is the design company behind a new Nikkei-Style restaurant and bar that opened at Club Vista Mare on the Palm.
Fusing Japanese and Peruvian cuisines, Nikkei-style restaurants are making their mark worldwide. Ají, Retail & Beyond’s latest F&B concept, brings a vibrant blend of Oriental and Latin American spirit to Dubai.
It is also one of the seven venues that recently opened at Club Vista Mare, Nakheel’s beachfront dining and leisure complex on the Palm.
“This is such a unique dining destination in the region. A line up of stand-alone, shore side restaurants that are licensed without being part of a hotel,” says Yana Kalwani, Retail & Beyond’s vice-chairperson.
Following successful collaboration on designing interiors for Pantry Café, another home-grown brand launched by Retail & Beyond, Keane’s Dubai office was appointed to craft Ají’s space.
The client brief to the design team was that the interiors should reflect the countries represented, but without obvious references.
“We see a seamless blend of old meets new; two cultures intertwined – which is what our food is about,” says Kalwani. “We also have a flippant mix of furniture that allows for a casual, relaxed feel, while still maintaining the upscale look of the place.”
Moving away from the usual industrial style to a softer and more refined look, the design concept was built upon the idea of an ancient manor house that has been discovered and regenerated.
Helen El Mettouri, regional director at Keane, explains that the references to both cultures are seen through subtle hints, mainly through textures and patterns.
“I believe that the industrial look had its moment. Now, schemes are created and curated to provide different layers of interest and focus. This scheme is very eclectic with a blend of quite traditional patterns, textures and worn-in finishes,” she says.
Alongside the spacious terrace with external bar, the 940m2 restaurant comprises separate bar and lounge, and main dining area with an open-plan ceviche and sushi counter and private dining room.
One of the main, and definitely the most “Instagrammable”, features in the restaurant is a colourful mural in the bar area portraying a Peruvian woman. There is a second similar mural in the main dining area, which acts as a statement piece seen from a private dining room. Both graphics were painted by a local street artist, called Rami Elzaguawy.
John Rowley, head of projects at Keane, tells Commercial Interior Design they discovered Elzaguawy’s work through Instagram.
“Rami worked with a number of hotels here and we really liked his style. We wanted to tie the graphic elements into an overall scheme, and his murals were the last finishing pieces we added. As the installation was growing over the wall, you could see people walking by and curiously looking at it, so it became a talking point before we even opened the venue,” comments Rowley.
For Rowley and the team, the lighting was equally important in setting the right tone and creating a relaxed and more intimate ambience, especially during the evening.
“The main features are three custom-made glass chandeliers in the middle of the bar. We also tried to extend the space vertically and to reinforce the height by dropping the lower furniture in the centre and higher booths on the sides,” he says.
El Mettouri adds that most of the low-seating furniture was custom-made in the UK.
“The upholstery has the feel of being warn and reclaimed, but it isn’t,” she says. “We tried to mix and match FF&E in here, adding different levels of textures, such as metallic leathers and heavily patterned upholstery.”
The walls were concrete skimmed with an Aztec stencil applied as part of the design.
“We developed a series of graphics to be applied to the walls, giving it a little bit of depth. When the light goes down, these graphics almost give a 3D quality to the space.”
Throughout the restaurant, the design team combined timber flooring with simple Japanese engravings. The main floor tiles throughout the restaurant have an elaborate pattern inspired by Latin America and were manufactured locally, in Dubai’s Al Quoz industrial area.
The lounge is situated between the bar and the main restaurant, connecting the two spaces.
Rowley adds: “It’s about creating different points of view all the time. Whether you are seating in the main or the private dining area, we wanted to ensure there are no dead corners and there is always some activity going on.”
Ají is also fitted put with a glass-enclosed private dining room, overlooking the main restaurant. To create a more secluded and intimate ambience in this room, Keane specifically focused on the lighting.
“Inside you are transported to a completely different experience,” she continues. “We developed what we wanted the lighting to look like conceptually, and then worked alongside the lighting designer to help us with lighting levels, temperatures and turning it into a reality.”
The spacious dining area features long tables with wooden tops and industrial-looking benches with black metal frames, which are contrasted by ornate upholstery. With different seating and dining arrangements, space can accommodate various groups of diners.
“We used the same patterns upholstery as in the bar area but in different colour combinations, connecting the two spaces,” says El Mettouri.
The oversized picture frames bordered by thin strings of light hang from an exposed ceiling, along with custom-made glass pendant lights.
For the light frames, Keane took inspiration from the artwork and vintage mirrors with holograms that adorn the brick wall, which is painted in dark green.
“The large mirrors in the main dining room with ghost printing are one of my favourite features. It reminds me of an old and forgotten glamour, giving the restaurant a subtle grandiose feel,” she says.
The designers wanted to achieve a “nothing is too perfect” effect.
“Dubai can feel too polished sometimes,” comments Rowley. “That’s why we used a lot of antique brass and handcrafted flooring. Each one of these tiles is hand-made, and some of them may have a defect, but that is what gives a character to space.”
The design team decided to keep the kitchen closed, leaving the ceviche and sushi counter open to the guests.
“An open-plan kitchen is only worthwhile if there is something worth seeing,” points out El Mettouri. “Here we are only showing what we want you to see. The rest of the cooking is done behind the closed doors, guests don’t need to see everything.”
The outdoor area is shared with six other restaurants, and the designers were fairly restricted regarding what could be done. They demarked the area with planters and furniture, incorporating the upholstery with a traditional Peruvian feel to it.
According to Kalwani, with Ají being on the trunk of Palm Jumeirah, this helped to ensure that it can capture a wider market without making guests feel too threatened by the distance on to the Palm.
“In the beginning, many used to feel slightly intimidated by such a grand setting on the shore side, but they’ve come to realise that despite the many fancy features, the restaurant still allows for a relaxed atmosphere,” she concludes.