Monday, April 25, 2016

Toronto restaurant group Icon Legacy brings Weslodge Saloon to Dubai: Meet executive chef Ben Heaton

Ben Heaton, Weslodge Saloon executive chef.
I'm pretty excited because I am hanging out in Dubai this week, and some friends and I are going to pay a visit to Weslodge Saloon, the first foray into the Middle East by the popular Toronto-based restaurant group Icon Legacy, which has 10 restaurants back home. 

I chatted recently with the 39-year-old executive chef Ben Heaton, a Yorkshire-born Canadian who arrived in the middle of March for the frantic launch process. He will leave Dubai at the end of April, when things are appropriately humming along, but return for several week sessions throughout the year. 

"I really want to nurture and grow the restaurant here," he said. "It's like my baby."

Weslodge Saloon in Dubai's interior: note antlers.
Weslodge opened its bright yellow doors in Toronto's King West neighbourhood in July 2012, with work on the JW Marriott Marquis location beginning months ago. The National has this great story with all the details about the 4,500 location, including the 68th-story view of the Burj Khalifa, the Deadwood-style feel and the massive grill - costing Dh220,000 and at four metres long, the biggest in the Middle East. There are going to be more eateries from Icon Legacy coming to the Emirates, which is something to look forward to. 

Heaton did 500 interviews on a trip out in January, seeking out the best people from Dubai's top restaurants.

"It was really intense," he said. "I really was lucky in the people I brought on board here, we got some fantastic people back in the kitchen, from Qbara, Jean-Georges, Zuma."

A challenge unique to Dubai, for Heaton, was basically learning how source everything he needed from scratch. 

One particular frustration was those small cups that restaurants use to serve their various sauces and dips. 

"Finding kitchen equipment that fits our style in Toronto out here, like metal ramekins, they're really hard to find here," he said. "They'll have one on display, but it will take four to six weeks to get here."

Even in the lead-up to the restaurant's opening April 14 - he did finally find those ramekins, in Al Quoz - Heaton to get around the city. That included trying other hot eateries including The Maine, which is tucked away in the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Dubai Jumeirah Beach, and The Hide in Madinat Jumeirah.

One thing he's noticed - and appreciates - is the region's tendency to large group dining. 

"I've noticed the dining scene it's a really sharing concept," he said. "It's not tables of two, like you see in Toronto, it's six, eight 10. I like really large tables." 

Although Weslodge offers American dishes with a twist, it is now one of almost a dozen outlets in the UAE that has picked up on the Canadian poutine craze (Poutine: a French-fry based dish from Quebec that is traditionally covered in gravy and topped with cheese curds). Their version sounds interesting: twice-baked Russet potato fries topped with Bearnaise sauce (lemon juice, egg yolk and pepper), lobster bisque gravy, chives and tarragon. 

•Weslodge is open from 7pm-2am daily on the 68th Floor of the JW Marriott Marquis Tower B.

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