When I hear the phrase “fusion food” my eyebrows arch (as much as they can). Why can’t good food just be food? Why does it have to have a label?
So it was with a certain degree of trepidation that I finally entered the brightly lit premises of the much hyped Cactus Senshi in Bin Mahmoud.
This restaurant opened a couple of months ago to much fanfare and almost hysterical behavior by some bloggers and the media. I briefly attended their opening night, complete with giant cake and endless selfie opportunities. But left before the food was actually served.
Since then I had heard mixed feedback about the food. So, I wanted to give them time to settle and refine.
Cactus Senshi defines itself as a “fusion of Japanese & Arabic cuisine with a kick of fresh and feisty Mexican flavours”. That’s layer upon layer of fusion and I had believed a recipe for confusion.
The space itself is flooded with natural light – unusual for here – and the dining room sleek and almost basic. The day I ate there (I dined alone), I was greeted warmly and seated without any of the usual drama associated with single diners. While not full, business was brisk with tables of Qatari families mingled with expats of all complexions.
The menu itself is physical cumbersome and long. It runs from traditional maki and nigiri, bento boxes, sharing plates, ramen and noodle dishes and desserts.
But the menu veers off piste into the “fusion” territory with its Arabic/Qatari take on sushi. Options include a shrimp biryani roll, a chicken machboos roll (a take on a traditional Qatari dish of chicken and rice), falafel spiced roll and even a roll with chicken mansaf (a Jordanian yoghurt and meat dish).
Salads also veer into cultural melting pot terrain. There is a feta with edamame beans, snowpea and snake beans with a yuzu and sesame dressing which is like east, meets west, meets somewhere in-between. I have also earmarked a crispy duck laksa for my next visit.
We’re not in Tokyo anymore Toto.
I opted for a mix of new and traditional – ordering a shrimp biryani roll and an Asian themed bento box accompanied by a pomegranate bubble tea.
A pre meal “amuse bouche” of Tom Yum soup isn’t as spicy as it promised, but was a nice way to start.
The biryani uramaki roll arrived swiftly and the half order as I had requested (usually comes in a generous serving of eight pieces). The flavor itself was at once foreign yet familiar. It looks like sushi…but tastes like our Friday night dinners at home. isn’
The biryani/sushi rice is encased in a wafer thin flat bread rather than seaweed. The “binder” of the dish is smoked cherry tomato jelly which I don’t actually taste. There were also faint flashes of coriander and lime. The shrimp was cooked perfectly and the creamy, spicy dipping sauce elevated it beyond a dish that was teetering on the edge of bland.
A manager told me earlier incarnations of this dish had not been as good and they had worked hard to get the balance of flavors right and it looks like they have succeeded in getting to close to where it should be.
I liked the dipping sauce so much I asked to keep it for the bento box. You can choose from a Japanese, Arabic or Asian bento box.
On the advice of my server, I went for the far east version, with the promise of some spiciness.
The box itself included Japanese California roll accompanied by salmon sashimi and tuna nigiri, Indonesian satay and rice, a Thai inspired mango and papaya salad and a breaded shrimp.
The salmon and tuna were VERY fresh and well executed. California rolls are always a crowd pleaser and in this case were equally as fresh. A surprise for me was the satay. So so so many attempts at satay in this country go awry – bland, overcooked and no spice. This chicken was tender and even had a kick.
The prawn skewers were passable and benefitted from a little tickle of the spicy sauce from the biryani rolls. The Thai salad held promise, and was fresh and crunchy, but had none of the chilli kick you would expect.
Portions were not the massive ones we come to expect, but nevertheless are challenging. At QR95 the Bento Boxes also include dessert. Here’s where I encountered another surprise.
I’m not a dessert person, but this hit my sometimes missing sweet spot. Matcha crepes accompanied by a milk icecream. One word – excellent. The earthy flavor of the green tea/matcha is beautifully paired with the velvety sweet and creamy icecream. This is how desserts should be in my limited savory world.
There was a couple of grating aspects about the place – there is a whole “myth” created around how the Mexican/Japanese/Arabic flavors came to be – something about a Mexican catcus farmer living in North Africa and a shipwrecked Japanese sushi chef and their bromance.
This could have been cute, but instead it’s labored and just weird. This seems like a venture the owners want to franchise (including one at North Gate Mall), but the “story” is almost nonsensical.
In the positives column, prices also seem to be competitive for this niche market. A bento box is an almost pocket friendly QR95 but larger platters sit around the QR180 to QR200 mark. Maki rolls come in a huge serving of eight for QR60 and smaller serves around QR30.
Unlike other new openings, it seems management has worked hard to not only select staff with a personality, but also to train them well.
My server was knowledgeable about the food and helpful – he even organized for valet parkers to bring my car to the entrance of the restaurant. Samples of some of the the bubble teas on offer were brought around. The little touches like the amuse bouche and branded kiddie chopsticks for the young girl at the next table.
I was concerned this would be a case of food confusion rather than food fusion. And let’s be honest, everything food wise was not exactly on point on my first proper visit to Catcus Senshi. However, the bones of a good, casual, family friendly restaurant concept are there. I left not full to bursting but impressed with many of the dishes I tried.
C Ring Rd, Doha, Qatar