Souk Madinat is my go-to place for whenever I need a jar of sand with a camel scene in it or my picture taken with a blindfolded falcon. On this occasion, I didn’t need either, but I did need to take The Serb out for dinner as it felt like we hadn’t been out since 1989.
As I walked through the winding streets of the souk, I reminisced out loud over all the restaurants and bars that have come and gone over the years.
I pointed out the good ones that are missed – The Agency, Jambase, and Rivington Grill. I pointed out the ones I wouldn’t miss. Dome, Pacha restaurant, and Frioul De Luxe, for example.
I pointed out Folly, by Nick and Scott, which is probably the Souk’s gold standard in F&B at the moment. I pointed out Trader Vic’s and Times of Arabia and told The Serb that they were there before the Souk was built. I’m pretty sure she believed me.
I did all this because I was horribly lost and didn’t want The Serb to notice.
The third time we passed the man who paints names like Aleksandr and Hildegard in animal letters, the Serb stopped, looked at me, and said. “We’re lost, aren’t we?” I nodded silently, relieved to share my burden with someone.
Eventually, a wonderfully kind, but totally silent housekeeping man led us to our destination, where a hostess greeted us with enthusiasm set to ‘tourism level.’ Which is to say she was very bubbly and smiley.
We were at Americano, a new retro American diner that had opened in the old Japengo space. It is not, as The Serb thought, a coffee bar serving watered-down espressos.
I had decided on Americano earlier in the week and had been singing its namesake song by Holly Johnson ever since. It was on my favourite compilation album when growing up – Now That’s What I Call Music 15. Released in 1989, which, if you remember, was the last time The Serb and I had been out for dinner, I think.
Americanos – Blue Jeans and Chinos
Coke, Pepsi and Oreos – Americanos.
Movies and heroes in the land of the free
You can be what you wanna be.
Inspiring stuff. I wonder what Holly would think of today’s USA. I digress. It was a weekend night, and we walked in without a reservation. There were plenty of seats available, so we annoyingly took a six-seater booth for all two of us.
As we relaxed in our mammoth booth, we had an opportunity to take a good look around. The interiors are great. Excellent patina effect on the tiles, beautiful retro detailing around the bar and booths, and a great open kitchen at the back. Americano visually checks all the boxes. It has kind of a speakeasy 1920’s feel to it, which would explain all the smoking inside the venue because that is definitely not 2019.
The menu is americano diner but only through a few of its classics, like mac and cheese, hotdogs, and burgers. I’m not sure where the beetroot hummus, Japanese robata grill, and fish and chips fit into retro americano.
Then again, this is a retro American diner in a purpose build faux-traditional Arab market with man-made water canals, in a city forged from the desert. We don’t have time for purists here. They also called their French fries, chips, which is a subtle nod to America’s founders and heritage.
The Serb looked over the menu and explained to me that because this was a classic American diner menu, it was essential to order the classics. I agreed wholeheartedly with her. She ordered the Classic Americano Burger. I totally didn’t see that coming.
I ordered the southern fried chicken with sage and garlic mayo with a side of mash potato.
We also went with the charred cauliflower because I fell in love with this surprisingly versatile vegetable at Lowe. We added a prawn taco too, as I wasn’t sure how long it would take us to find the car again, and I was worried about sustenance.
Americano’s service still needs to find its feet. It is pleasant and friendly and perfectly fine but doesn’t have the comfortable, natural feel of The Meat Company, for example, which is another restaurant from the same group.
The service at Americano was like a new pair of Levis 501’s. They fit right, look good, but need some time for the denim to soften and become really comfortable.
The food arrived in good time. A thick slice of charred cauliflower was sprinkled with popped quinoa and pine nuts and covered with a spiced labneh and sumac mayo. It was good. The cauliflower was soft but not overcooked, and the flavours balanced well.
The prawn tacos arrived in a patriotic Statue of Liberty taco stand, and in some ways, those two tacos at the base of Lady Liberty represent everything that makes America great.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and in return, I will give you cultural appropriation of your cuisine.
I would have preferred the tacos to be a little more delicate and subtle. The plump, pink prawns sat on an avocado salsa in a soft taco shell. The prawns were surrounded by crème Fraiche, which squirted out the back of the taco with every bite. Unfortunately, some squirted onto Lady Liberty’s face, which was mortifying for all three of us. However, despite being overstuffed, squirty, and a bit clunky, they were also quite delicious.
The burger and southern fried chicken arrived, along with the mashed potato, and they offered us a complimentary mac and cheese too, much to the Serb’s delight.
“They know who you are!!” The Serb stage-screamed at me from 30 centimeters away. You see, the Serb is waiting for the day we can be recognised in a restaurant. I sometimes think it’s the only reason she is still with me.
The burger would have been great, but for the stringy, over salty beef bacon that clung onto the patty. Beef on beef is like denim on denim. It may seem like a good idea on paper, but it’s really not. I have yet to find decent bacon that isn’t pork.
The fried chicken reminded me more of a Schnitzel than southern fried chicken, although it was beautifully cooked. The batter stuck to the meat like a shower curtain to wet skin. It was crunchy, and the chicken inside was juicy and moist. However, there was no seasoning that I could detect. Southern fried chicken is rooted in West African heritage, and you know those boys would be throwing in some spices and seasoning when frying up their chicken.
Americano will do very well for the hungry Souk Madinat crowd, who are craving reliable food and some inventive after sun beverages.
For the rest of us, it’s definitely worth a visit next time you are getting those blindfolded falcon photos done.