Review: La Mer

William Khala grew up aspiring to become a surgeon. When the path to a medical career became infeasible, he sought an alternative that could still play to his strengths. “I love details; I love the intricate stuff,” explains the Canadian native.

Then he heard a calling in the culinary arts.

It’s a few hours prior to the start of dinner service at La Mer. The showpiece restaurant of The Ritz-Carlton Doha is perched on the penthouse of the hotel. Its wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass windows offer sumptuous vistas of the city, which, incidentally, have been known to distract diners from the food in front of them.

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I’m taking no chances for such diversion and opt to meet Khala in the kitchen, what the industry calls the back of house. It’s insider access to see a tasting menu come to life. And it’s here in the domain usually tucked away from public gaze that I’m able to understand the chef behind the plate.

I watch Khala hover over the first dish of the evening — a pair of slender tweezers in one hand and eyes unflinching — as he arranges micro greens over a corona of mushrooms. There is exactitude in the placement of each element and a silence born of sheer concentration; Khala is, in every sense, mid-operation.

“This is my favourite dish on the menu: the La Mer Salad,” he announces as he nudges the now completed plate towards my poised fork and knife. “I was inspired to create it because guests here love mushrooms, so I tried to look for ways to elevate the ingredient.”

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The elevation is done through an almost rhythmic repetition. It begins with Shimeji mushrooms, a handful raw, a handful pickled. Tussled together in citrus and olive oil, they’re dotted with truffle-infused labneh and then sprinkled with dehydrated morel powder.

One bite, four mushroom profiles: the softness of uncooked Shimejis, the crunch from those pickled, an ethereal scent permeating through the strained yogurt and finally specks of woody, earthy dust that linger on the palate. If this were a sonnet, you might call William Khala an alliterative chef.

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The same device appears in the Angus strip steak with mash. At its core, this is basic meat and potatoes, rudimentary sustenance to comfort the soul. But Khala is intent on lending his brand of flourish, and so turns to root aromatics for accent.

Onions, leeks, and garlic all make an appearance. The first is deep fried, the second charred, and the third fermented into a paste known as black garlic in Korean cuisine. Each plays on the other, reinforcing the flavours within the same family subtly if not subliminally. As bridesmaids, they do not upstage the steak, but frame it into a prepossessing lineup.

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It’s impossible to say if this style of cooking comes down to instinct or training. Khala certainly has the latter, having worked in a number of three-Michelin star kitchens on both sides of the Atlantic: Mugaritz in San Sebastiàn, Chicago’s Alinea and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, among them.

“The chefs there taught me about the culture of food and the importance of respecting ingredients,” Khala says. He now seems to have built on that wisdom, not only respecting ingredients but also embracing new ones he encounters.

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The prime example is his Middle Eastern beef tartar. Inspired by his first taste of kibbeh nayeh when he moved to Doha in 2014, Khala turns a fundamentally French dish into his own, giving the meat a burst of freshness with burgul, mint, parsley, and horseradish. Why?

“There’s such a lot of good products we need to utilise from the region,” he explains. And this is not just preaching, it’s practice.

Khala pairs Medjool dates with duck confit, dukkha with Scottish salmon, lemon tabbouleh with sea bream. The techniques employed are unmistakably classical, but the incorporation of Arabian elements gives the menu a cosmopolitan, contemporary edge to tantalise the well-traveled tastebud.

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Perhaps the defining quality of every course landing on the table this evening is how they adhere to the oft-espoused but rarely achieved principle: less is more. Khala is a disciplined chef, adding enough to create excitement but staying restrained to ensure cohesion. Macerated mango pieces reiterate the mango panna cotta sitting beneath, while a daub of coconut foam puts a little extra into the ordinary.

When Khala shares his cooking philosophy, the whole meal makes perfect sense. “I like to keep the food honest… focus on the ingredient and highlight the flavour of that ingredient,” he says.

No wonder his food speaks for itself.

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