Dubai Design District is a place where relationships are truly tested.  I’ll clarify that a little more – trying to get to Dubai Design District is a real test of a relationship.  Through a combination of an out-of-date GPS, Google Maps confusion and the Serbs built-in sense of direction, it will test your limits of commitment, trust, patience, and love.  I urge all couples to make this journey together at least once – you will learn so much about each other.  Then afterwards, go to IKEA.

Dubai Design District is located in.. I don’t know… you’re on your own for this one.  But once you get there, you’ll be pleased to know there is plenty of parking.  Plenty of parking – particularly at the weekend.  In fact, it is so empty that I felt like I was in the movie ‘I am Legend’ where the end of the world is upon us, and zombies lurk in dark corners.

Empty roads surround empty buildings, with empty offices and empty parking bays. Sand blows apoplectically across the small town, and temporary road signs sway ominously in the wind.  I even stopped the car to have an emotional conversation with a window mannequin; such was my solitary madness.  Then the Serb told me to stop being dramatic and get back in the car.  She was right – I could have sworn I heard a pack of wild wolves baying in the distance.

We parked across two parking bays, because, who knows if there will be a tomorrow.  We walked, hand in hand, finding comfort in each other’s company.  There, in the distance, was a café, with lights on and an open sign hanging in the window.  Relief flooding my body, I saw real humans inside, talking, communicating to one another, interacting.  I felt like we hadn’t spoken to another person for an eternity.  At least, not since I had said “Full, special” to the gas attendant – but that had felt like a lifetime ago.  Stumbling into the restaurant, I wanted to hug the hostess and sob with relief into her shoulder – but instead I sat down at a window table and perused the lunch menu.

We quickly placed our orders in case they changed their minds and shuttered the restaurant up.

We ordered the slow cooked duck salad with baby greens, fresh orange, and roasted walnuts.  We also went for the Korean marinated chicken ciabatta with yogurt and honey and the beef Anticucho with smoky chili garlic and oregano.

With the order secured, we sat back and took stock of our surroundings. Craft Café is well designed, as it should be, considering the address.  Bird cages are hanging from the ceiling, with an open kitchen that deserves it’s own Instagram account.  It is hipster yet classic in feel, with enough design features for all the creative cats that prowl these streets during the week to feel comfortable in choosing this place for their Guatemala single origin cold brew.

The restaurant columns are adorned with rather unique custom made lighting, and there are some random African shields (I think – could be Mayan masks) on one wall – and the other is a wall of moss – yep, African shields, and moss walls. You get the idea.  Craft Café is a great fit for the soon-to-be-busy design district.

However, the chairs have been over designed in my opinion, with sharp angular backs that contrast against the softer design of the room. They are large, awkward and cumbersome, and if they were humans, they would be the first to be eaten by zombies.

The food arrived in between large heavy thumps of construction coming from somewhere in the building.  Probably the infected trying to get in, I discreetly informed the Serb.  It was met with a pitiful shake of her head.

I am loath to say it because I generally want to celebrate restaurants, but I think the menu sounded slightly better than the food was – however, I think that is more of a compliment to the menu rather than a criticism of the food.

The duck salad was a good size – the baby greens were crisp and lively, and the shredded duck was fatty and carried its flavour well.  However, there was a yellow foam that covered the plate, and despite forcing myself to try it several times, I couldn’t figure out what flavour it had.  The only way I can describe it is like a vicious, sharp lemongrass foam. However, whatever it was, I don’t think it belonged on that dish.

The Korean chicken sandwich was the Serb’s choice.  It was marinated in Korean paste, and I assume yogurt and honey because those two ingredients weren’t anywhere else in the sandwich.  Overall, the sandwich was good – the bread was crusty, yet soft and the chicken was moist but didn’t make the bread soggy.  It arrived with a side of coleslaw and another foamy sauce that unfortunately was not easy to identify either.  Perhaps my taste buds were temporarily disabled.  I hope it’s not a permanent predicament as my future reviews will be rather useless.

Beef Anticucho are tenderloin skewers originating from South America, that according to the menu are with smoky chili, garlic, and oregano.  So you can imagine my surprise when it arrived covered with a bright yellow sauce.  A yellow so bright, it looked liked runny egg yolk.  The sauce wasn’t bad, but I just wasn’t expecting it.  However, again, I couldn’t tell you what sauce it was – I thought it might be a mustard, but it had no heat, and then maybe some crazy South American mayonnaise, but lacked the consistency.  So, if anyone knows – answers on a postcard please.  Having said that, the meat was great – tender, well seasoned and a good portion.  There were some baby potatoes hiding under the yellow magma that could have done with being cooked a little longer.

The drinks menu is ideally suited for the D3 creative crowd, with hand-harvested teas, cold brew coffees, smoothies and crafted soft drinks, of which some are from the excellent Fentiman’s range.

I must also add that all the food and drinks are served by a very friendly and approachable team, who seem genuine, down to earth and friendly – kind of like a group of your friends inviting you round for lunch – except much nicer than my friends.

I think when life returns to D3, which is probably Sunday through Thursday, this little café, with its on-trend menu, quality ingredients and cracking drinks list, will be a busy little place.

As the Serb and I made our way back to the car, we found a new appreciation for the D3 area – it’s going to be a great business hub for all the new innovative, disruptive SME’s that Dubai is getting good at nurturing into life.  I’m happy that places like the Craft Café are part of that journey.

As we approached the car, a security guy came out of nowhere and told us off for taking more than one parking bay.  I guess there will always be a tomorrow.

minilogo Craft Café

R Trader has a DIFC address but in the Al Fattan Currency House, which has been described by some as the overflow parking for DIFC restaurants.  R Trader is a prohibition themed restaurant serving a ‘modern British menu with international influences’.  I booked a table with nervous anticipation.

R Trader is an elevator ride up to the second floor.  Please be warned to gather full composure before exiting the lift, as you will immediately come face to face with a group of friendly and attractive hostesses.  There is no time for readjustment, physically or emotionally – your night has started – be ready.

From the people that brought you The Scene by Simon Rimmer, R Trader promises “rogue dining” in a prohibition style environment.  They have certainly got the rogue dining part right, but more about that later.  The staff are approachable and attentive, with good knowledge of what they serve. They are dressed in 1920’s-ish attire complete with suspenders, (the American kind, not the British) and Ipads.

The restaurant is a smorgasbord of leather and purple, stained wood and low lights. Cigar smoke hangs sweetly in the air, and the chatter of patrons is reduced to a pleasant murmur. The restaurant is intimate, and the Serb was very impressed with the wallpaper – apparently her grandmother and R Trader share the same tastes. The beverage list has some excellent choices, and I mentioned to The Serb in one of my moments of showing off, that this was the work of a good sommelier. She looked suitably impressed and asked how I knew he was from Somalia.  I’m going to assume she was making a joke – it’s better for the relationship that way.

Flavour and texture combinations are the foundations of any recipe creation. You can be the love child of Gordon Ramsey and Nigella Lawson, best friends with Ferran Adrià and have René Redzepi and Angela Hartnett and as your godparents, and you still wouldn’t be able to produce a decent meal, if you have the wrong recipe.  Menu development is a time consuming, difficult process, whereby hundreds of recipes end up in the menu graveyard.  Chef Dom Robinson knows this very well and delivers a menu that is overall, well constructed and at the very least, innovative.  There is no doubt Dom is a talented chef – his work at the ill-fated Supper Club was excellent, and you can see flashes of his genius on show across his menu.

However, his menu really has nothing to do with the rest of the experience of R Trader.  There are so many elements of cooking, yet they are ultimately part of one experience. An experience that should be continuous and complete, all components working towards a common goal.

The inconsistencies with R Traders identity are somewhat confusing.  The done-to-death ‘sharing plates’ concept contrast against the ultra-traditional bar environment, the heavy, masculine interior design against a minimalistic table setting is like sandpaper and silk.  Even the menu titles, (Raw, Birds, and Beasts, Land, etc.) jar against the finesse of the presentation of the food.  R Trader is a complicated concept, and they have either nailed it or got it horribly wrong.  It’s a fine line between genius and gee whizz and only time will tell.

Let’s talk about the food a little more.  I’ll start with the obvious – it was a master class in plate presentation.  All our choices were beautifully constructed dishes, plates that improved visually, the more you inspected the details.  Whether it was cut, diced, sliced, layered, dripped, quenelled, smeared or seared, every part of the dish was immaculate.

We ordered four dishes; two small and two large. The two small dishes were cauliflower risotto, black truffle with Banyuls and the burrata with green olives, almond, and balsamico.

The two large plates were BBQ Welsh lamb with aloo gobi, onion bhaji and chaat masala and the twelve hour braised beef cheek with amandine potatoes and raclette cheese.

When one talks of the contrast of flavours, there still needs to be a balance and harmony – a marriage of opposites that work in unison.  Similar to the Serb and myself, one might say.

Typically, Buratta is served with some basil and tomato inspired enhancement, and there is a very good reason for this.  The flavours work – they harmonize and compliment each other.  Although olives and cheese often go well together, for me, these olives didn’t work – the acidity overpowered the delicate burrata, and I got the impression they were tinned olives or brine-cured olives.  You don’t get that bitterness from water cured olives.

The risotto, on the other hand, was cracking – risotto is a notoriously easy dish to both overcook or undercook. R Trader got it right, and the Banyuls, (a fortified dessert plonk), added a touch of sweetness to the dish. The nutty, slightly bitter taste of the parmesan cheese provided the balance needed to make this an enjoyable risotto.  Usually, a risotto benefits from a bit of a musky stink, otherwise known as black truffles – but for some reason, the truffle shavings here didn’t do anything to the dish except raise its price.

I was concerned about the Indian influence in the BBQ lamb dish.  Lamb is naturally a heavy, flavourful meat, (especially Welsh lamb), and there was a danger the Indian spices might turn it into a mosh plate of undefined flavour. However, Chef Dom controlled the balance admirably.  Indian spices can be quite delicate when done right, and the lamb was allowed to stay center of attention while the spices danced lightly in the background.

The beef cheek is slow cooked for 12 hours and therefore melts under the slightest pressure from a fork and explodes with an intense flavour in the mouth.  The mashed potato was encased in a raclette cheese skin and finished off with some pickled onion – one of the highlights of the whole meal.

We finished off with some dessert, called single bean chocolate – a spiced chocolate cake with churros.  The churro was magnificent – it reminded me of fresh hot doughnuts on a cold Brighton pier.  The chocolate cake was overdone with the fusion of chilli or whatever spice they used.  Chili and chocolate can go well together, the sweetness of the chocolate with a slight kick of heat at the back of the finish – but this cake was far too spicy from the start – it was a hot slap in the face from the get go and it needed to be toned down a little, in my opinion.

The disconnect between the menu layout, the dishes presented, the service style and the theme make R Trader difficult to place in a box.  They are unique, eccentric and eclectic.  There are flashes of genius mixed with rogue streaks of mediocrity.  However, overall, I think I quite liked it – and I think you might too.

Meal for two – 650 Dhs.

minilogo R Trader

Just a few years ago, as one stepped onto the land of this strange new city, there was a feeling of hope and excitement for the future. This was a young town, a settlement really, that was rich with opportunity and fertile with growth. You could look across the noisy arrivals hall as hundreds of foreigners flocked to this infant city, papers in hand, hoping to forge a new life. Hundreds of thousands of people, all nationalities from far-flung corners of the globe were bringing with them their culture, religion and cuisines. Strange languages and smells were everywhere, but the energy was almost tangible. It had taken a long time to get here, and looking across the skyline, there was construction as far as the eye could see. Investment flooded in from foreign lands, and the world’s tallest building started to reach towards the heavens.

Trade was brisk, and as the city grew in both size and population, it seemed everything was possible for this young urban metropolis. As more and more nationalities arrived, they brought with them the only thing that could remind them of home – their food of wonderful flavours and textures, exotic ingredients and exciting recipes. This was a city built on food and everything that comes with it. I am, of course, speaking of New York at the turn of the last century but you would be forgiven to think I was describing Dubai in 2004. The similarities are fascinating.

Food was and still is an integral part of defining New York, not just as a city, but as a community, as an expression of its history, an acceptance of change and integration, and that is exactly the role food is playing in Dubai today. Historians will look back on the history of Dubai, and a clear theme will be the role that food played in defining whatever Dubai becomes.

Why is food so important to a city like New York or Dubai? Food is the single great unifier across cultures. Our food culture maps out who we are, where we come from, and what happened to us along the way. What we choose to cook and consume is a result of everything that has come before us, a reflection of our experiences, and our ancestors’ experiences — the people we’ve become friends with, what we’ve learned and where we’ve been. We’ll always eat things that have meaning to us, and restaurants take that even further – they define and reshape neighborhoods, they inject vitality into communities – like Ravi did for Satwa or Nobu did for Tribeca.

You are what you eat.

Food is our identity, and this is so important for cities like Dubai that are host to so many visiting nationalities. Restaurants become particularly important when any one of us becomes part of a displaced community, even a voluntary diaspora like for many of us in Dubai. Food becomes the last trace of culture that we discard. Certain aspects of our maternal culture will be diluted almost immediately because of the need to blend in or be part of a larger mainstream audience. However, because food is something we engage with three times per day, it is the most emotive and the hardest to let go.

From the Brit who squeals in delight at Marmite in Park and Shop, to the Indian who brings in his Tiffin boxes to the office every day for lunch or from the Filipino who queues up at Jollibee’s for her fix of chickenjoy, to the Emirati who rushes home to share ‘goozi’ with his family, – every nation on earth gravitates back to their food heritage, back to something that reminds them of who they are, where they have come from and more importantly, where they belong.

Dubai’s Third Place.

A third place is often seen as an essential part of any community. It is the place, after the home and the office, that humans need to function as a civilized society. Walk around Dubai and you will see these third places everywhere you look – from the backstreets of Karama to the landscaped streets of the Arabian Ranches, you will find them. They are the hairdressers and the barber shops; they are the nail spas and the communal parks – and they are, of course, the coffee shops, shisha cafes and restaurants.

Coffee shops are a huge part of Arab culture. They are a natural evolution of the Majlis, that Arabian third place where relationships are forged and friendships maintained. Starbucks is the market leader in terms of number of cafés, with about 75 in Dubai. However, that’s less than 4% of the total number of listed coffee shops in Dubai.

There are an estimated 10,000 restaurants in Dubai, and with a population of 2.5 million people, that is 7.5 million meals that need to be produced every single day, either in a kitchen at home, or in a restaurant – that’s just to cater for the residents and citizens.

Furthermore, I haven’t even factored in the three meals needed daily to feed the 13 million tourists that visit every year – but that’s what the malls and hotels are for.

Imitate or Innovate?

Dubai has one of the highest F&B brand saturations in the world, however, what does that really mean? Dubai has an appetite for international restaurant brands, and despite being heralded as a major food city – a foodie’s paradise – some might argue that it is just a shimmering city of simulation and imitation and others might disagree and claim something more substantial is at play. Is Dubai a landscape of barren brands or is there a hint of innovation and culture bubbling up?

Let’s science this a little. Currently, three of the top chains in terms of number of restaurants are Subway, with approximately 100 restaurants, KFC with about 66 and MacDonald’s about the same, all in Dubai.

Now, I’d like to put that into perspective – for every one MacDonald’s in Dubai, there are thirty-six Indian restaurants, there are nineteen Arabic restaurants, and there are seventeen Chinese restaurants. The international chains might have the fancy billboards and the prime locations, but they are in a sense, overshadowed by these restaurants that provide a grounding point for people yearning for a taste of their culture. The restaurants and brands we are exposed to on the radio and social media and magazines are but a superficial drop in the cultural pool of the restaurant industry.

Original thought hasn’t existed in the F&B industry since a caveman decided to try suck milk out of a buffalo. He was the first original thinker and since then, we have been copying, sometimes improving, but always imitating one another. There have been some candidates for original thinking – some would say Ferran Adria and El Bulli came close, and some say we regressed about four thousand years with the Paleo diet.

Dubai’s need for imitation in the restaurant world is often frustrating. All the press releases, advertising copy and the menus I read, all boast of restaurants being inspired by a New York eatery, a Chicago restaurant, a Parisian tea shop or a Melbourne café. What’s wrong with being a Dubai inspired restaurant? By the way, a New York deli in New York is just called a deli and a Chicago steak house in Chicago is just called a steak house.

Dubai is like a teenager, mimicking and copying until their own identity is formed and established. Unlike buildings that can materialize overnight, or economic cycles that rise and fall every seven years, cultures and identities are formed over decades and centuries.

If I was to travel to New York, or Chicago, or Paris or Melbourne, I wouldn’t find restaurants there that boast of being Dubai inspired restaurants. Perhaps not now, but I guarantee (because I am highly likely to be dead and won’t care) that in 100 years from now, some new urban city will be making plans, not for the worlds tallest building, but for perhaps, the first clean energy city, and hundreds and thousands of foreigners will be flocking in, hoping to find fortune and opportunity – and some restaurant will open with the tag line “A Dubai inspired restaurant.” and why stop there – a Satwa eatery perhaps, a Jumeirah Juice Bar or even a Barsha bakery. That is how cities create their culture and their sense of identity – through food and restaurants.

Stay Hungry, Dubai.

American diners share a culture with gas stations, hot rods and drive-ins.  They boast of stainless steel, a casual atmosphere, late operating hours, art deco design and Americana food.  They’re significant in pop culture too – remember Grease, and Happy Days, Seinfeld and Back to the Future? American diners are the James Dean of the restaurant world.  I’ve always thought how cool it would be to be called James Dean.  It’s simple and timeless but edgy and hard at the same time.

It’s amazing what a name can do.  I’ll give you some examples.  When I saw The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, I knew it was going to be an entertaining read – Or take Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter Thompson as another example.  Cool titles and cool author names.

Incidentally, The Da Vinci Code sold 80 million copies, worldwide – if it had been called ‘Museum Symbols’ by Nigel Button, I highly doubt it would have shifted so many copies.  If a Nigel Button reads this, please get in touch directly.  I have a book idea for you.

So when I knew that Michael Mina was opening a new restaurant called The Firebird Diner, I was already sold.  The Firebird Diner by Michael Mina – how utterly cool in a grown up way.

It’s at the new Four Seasons hotel at DIFC.  Drive past the Zuma valet parking and it is there on your right.

Michael Mina runs a bunch of restaurants in the US, a few are replicated in several cities, but Mr. Mina prefers to create individual restaurants of substance and personality.

Firebird Diner is inspired by the 1940’s American diners.  However, gather all your preconceptions about them – take the juke box and the booths, and the stainless steel and the counter stools, and jazz them to the moon and back.  Polish them, smooth them out, add some spit and shine and you’ll start to get an idea of what Firebird Diner is all about.

The floor is a glossy canvas of black and white marble, and the tables are crafted from highly polished solid teak wood.  The seating is a collection of custom made booths and chairs upholstered in quality red and cream leather, and the bespoke chandeliers are a stroke of art deco genius. Sia would be proud.  Music plays from a working juke box; the servers tap their feet to the tunes of Elvis, Lynn Anderson and Billy Lamont, and the chefs cheerfully greet you from the kitchen as you walk in with a New Jersey “How ya doin’?”

The menus cover breakfast, lunch and dinner.  However, we were given the brunch menu – a mix of breakfast and lunch items ranging from Elvis toast – (French toast with cinnamon custard and a spiced peanut caramelized banana) to a sweet pepper frittata.

The brunch menu also offers steak & eggs, power salads, ice cold shellfish and wood fired burgers.  But the steaks and eggs weren’t ordinary steak and eggs – they were Firebird steak and eggs.  Again, note the power of a cool name.  Stick Firebird on the front of a food item and it’s immediately sexier and cooler and is worth at least 30% more on the menu.

I was a little disappointed – not with the brunch menu itself, but with the obligation that every restaurant feels it has to cater for the brunch crowd. The Friday brunch is due for a massive overhaul.  Someone is going to come up with an alternative that will disrupt everything – because let’s be honest; there hasn’t been an original brunch since Fairmont’s Moet brunch back in the noughties.

We had a look at the lunch menu, which is not available during brunch, unfortunately.  However, there are some great sounding dishes, such as a Trio of Picnic Eggs, Popcorn Shrimp, Lobster Pot Pie and the amazing sounding Chicken Fried Wagyu Steak.  I don’t think I can even imagine what that would be like. A chicken fried wagyu steak…. Nope.. No idea.

However, what we really ordered was much more grounded – both in reality and in texture.  On a side note, some people have been commenting that I don’t order enough food for each review.  I order what I think I will enjoy, and try to sneak a few extra items in wherever possible to give a more complete view.  The Serb is her own force of nature and any issues there should be taken up directly with her.

With that said, we had an enjoyable spiced lamb burger with squirts of cucumber yogurt and a thick scoop of tangy tomato relish.  The lamb wasn’t as spiced as I expected, but the French fries were cracking – cooked in duck fat and well seasoned, they were crispy and well-seasoned.

The Serb hadn’t had a burger since the night before, so she ordered the All American burger, with smoked Gouda and a sweet onion marmalade.  Oh, and Chef Michael’s secret sauce. Yeah – I’m not sure if I’m OK with that, either. Both burgers came in a semi-sweet brioche bun and ketchup on the side.

Judging by The Serbs reaction, I think she had eaten better burgers elsewhere. She claimed it was too soft. Confused, I took a bite, (any excuse) and I immediately knew what she meant.  The bread was soft which is great. However, the onion marmalade was also soft, as was the patty and the cheese and therein lies the problem.  The great thing about both the Serb and I having a full set of healthy teeth means we can handle a little crunch, bite and texture in our food.

We also had the mac and cheese, which was a perfect example of how simple comfort food can punch above its weight class.  The macaroni pasta had a little bite to it, (my teeth were particularly happy about that) and the cheese had a smoky depth and flavour that brought the dish together.

The Firebird Diner has just opened, and for once I am ahead of the curve in reviews.  For once.  The Serb did ask if we should wait a few months to give them a chance to settle in, but my thinking is that if they are comfortable charging me full whack on the bill, them I’m comfortable going full whack with a review.  And full whack they do go on the prices – 120 dhs for the burger, 40 Dhs for a bottle of water and 400 dhs for the whole meal. That’s a 32 US dollar burger.

I understand that a couple of mediocre burgers can’t reflect the success of the rest of the menu, but with Michel Mina behind the recipes, the chances are pretty high that the rest of the menu is going to have some winning dishes.

The Firebird is a seriously classed up American diner, and they’re not messing around.   But don’t take my word for it – visit them and see for yourself, but just remember, this is a particularly pricey option for those Happy Days feel goods.

minilogo Firebird Diner by Michael Mina

In 2012, the Raju Omlet Centre in the western Indian city of Vadodara won a “Best Roadside food stall” award.  Rajesh “Raju” Rana, the owner, said of the award,

“I have probably got more than what was written in my fate. This is an award for those who eat at my place.”

From a handcart in 1982 to a tiny restaurant in 1995 to an international franchise deal with two branches in Dubai in 2016, Raju Omlet is a wonderfully inspiring story.  No crowdfunding, no venture capital investment, no IPO – just good recipes, hard work and fresh eggs.  Lots of fresh eggs.

Raju Omlet is an Indian restaurant that specializes in eggs – all kinds of eggs – omelets, Bhurji (scrambled), half fried eggs, crushed eggs, power boiled, grated, you name it, if it can be done to an egg, Raju Omlet has done it.

Add to those eggs, the flavours and spices of the Indian cuisine and over 30 years of experience, you have a surprisingly dynamic menu that covers over forty menu items.

The latest branch is in Al Quoz and can only be described as a grungy, artsy Mumbai street café.  Unpolished concrete floors, simple, elegant furniture with well-considered artwork and posters on the wall.  The play on eggs is very apparent and although cute, thoughtful and humorous; there is a little danger of overplaying the whole egg theme.  The light fittings are industrial and chic, and it is obvious there is a serious marketing mind behind this brand.  It’s located close to Noor Islamic Bank metro station – a little difficult to find, but worth the google.

The Serb and I entered with the excitement of two lonely planet explorers, pushing open the doors to some mysterious, unknown world. A world unknown only to us, apparently.  Several groups of all nationalities filled up the small restaurant, and they all sat with the confidence of obviously being there several times before.

The servers were all Indian, very charming, modest and attentive and dressed in yellow and beige – another unnecessary nod to the egg connection, I feel.

We ordered some cutting chai that arrived hot, sweet and thick.  Cutting chai comes from the very simple habit of asking for a half portion of the full chai.  The chai vendor literally cuts the chai portion in half.

As an unnecessary preventative measure, The Serb ordered an Adrak Chai, a special chai with a subtle kick of ginger – good for the digestion apparently.

My cheese Masala omlet arrived with some fresh, flakey buttery paratha on a side plate. This little, rolled pancake of eggs with chillis, coriander, and spices, was unassuming and modest. There was no fancy garnish or fanfare. No unnecessary accompaniments.  I forked some into my mouth and immediately closed my eyes for a brief moment. It is an exceptional omelet – it makes you feel that little bit more alive.  The spices coat your mouth and your tongue twitches in exhilaration.  Your taste buds have nowhere to hide – not that they want to – they tingle with anticipation of the next bite.  I was invigorated and inspired.  It was bold yet subtle; the spices linger softly at the front of your tongue, and the cheddar cheese brings a balance and harmony to the dish.

The Serb, famous for her adventurous nature when it comes to food, ordered the plain cheese omlet with the bun.  It arrived, fresh, yellow and lively.  The cheddar cheese was plentiful and gooey and had the consistency of thick lava.  The Serb delicately nibbled at a small forkful and gave a tiny nod of appreciation which is the equivalent of a champagne celebration for ordinary folk.  She was impressed – I could tell.

When Raju cracked open that first egg back in 1982, few could have seen where this journey would have taken him.  I hope success and accolades continue to be written in his fate.

Because at 45 dhs for two, this unassuming, quirky Indian egg restaurant is a little gem of a place that has left a wonderful impression on me.

Raju Omlet is one of only a handful of restaurants that provides a space and cuisine that is so egalitarian and equal.  Or Eggalitarian.  And on that pun, I think I’ve finished.  There is nowhere else to go.  Except back to Raju Omlet, perhaps.

minilogo Raju Omlet

Doesn’t time fly – life whisks past so fast that if you’re not careful, you’ll be old and wondering what the hell happened – which is where I find myself today.  I remember reading about the Clinton St Bakery opening and making a mental note to visit.  That was over two years ago, back in January 2014 and this is the first time I have been.  Where have the last two years gone?! I feel like I’m late to the party with this review, and all the other restaurant reviewers will be mocking me for not being more on the ball. There is fashionably late, and then there is FoodSheikh late, I guess. In fact, you don’t really need to read on – this is like me writing a review for Star Wars, the original one.  Spoiler alert, Darth Vader is Luke’s father.  Nothing new will be said here today.

The Clinton Street Baking Company & Restaurant made its name in the Lower East Side in NYC largely due to its stellar breakfast and brunch line-up. Founded by a husband and wife team back in 2001, they eventually expanded to lunch and dinner, and Chef Kleinberg, showing significant business savvy made sure his tried and trusted breakfast was available all day.  The fanboys and girls were ecstatic and their enthusiasm spread across an entire city – The Clinton St. Bakery legend was born.

Fast forward 15 years and Clinton St. has expanded its empire across the globe, with outposts in Singapore, Tokyo and of course, Dubai.  Clinton St. Bakery lives in Burj Views, the seemingly permanent construction site wasteland behind Downtown proper.  An odd and remote location for such a cult classic, but perhaps that is their strategy.

“Come find us,“ they seem to say. “We’re that good.”

Their location doesn’t seem to be affecting them, however, and with only around fifty-five seats, the cozy little restaurant fills up fast – especially late mornings through lunch.

With my newly found concern for my procrastination skills playing heavily on my mind, I was eager to get seated and place my order.  Which perhaps is why it felt like another two years before someone came to take our order, although it was probably only 5 minutes in reality.  I’m all for a leisurely Friday breakfast, but I have to work on Sunday.

You probably all already know this, but Clinton St. Bakery is all about the breakfast – half of the menu is dedicated to breakfast items, serving uninhibited, unfussy comfort food.  These breakfast items are the real deal – comfort food, moreish and rather quite brilliant in their simplicity.

We ordered the organic oats with roasted apple and almonds, the buttermilk biscuit sandwich, the Venezuelan chocolate pancakes and a couple of coffees.  Yes, all that food was just for myself and the Serb.  It sounds like a lot of food – and yes, it is.

As all of you know, the restaurant design is a modern diner – high-quality booths and banquette seating with white washed brick walls and a semi-open kitchen. Our server was splendid and had the confidence of knowing that the food she was about to serve was probably going to be the best thing we would eat that day.  The coffee was hot and strong and was re-filled frequently.  The other diners were a collection of nationalities, all young, hip and relaxed. Life is good at Clinton St.

My buttermilk biscuit was crumbly, buttery and had a salty sweetness to it. One-half was smothered in scrambled eggs and melted cheese – the other half was smeared with a tangy homemade tomato jam.  There was a spatula scoop of hash browns, crispy and hot off the griddle.  The stringy, overly brown beef bacon was left to one side, but the rest suffered from no procrastination from my side this time.  It was a deliciously satisfying meal.

For the Serb, the oats were a healthier decoy for the real prize, the chocolate cherry pancakes.  The oatmeal could have been warmer, but it was thick and sweet, and the dried apples and roasted almonds added a good texture to the bowl.

Clinton St. pancakes were voted best pancakes in New York by New Yorker Magazine – twice.  Apparently, they dominate the pancake scene in NY.  I don’t know if there is a pancake scene here in Dubai, but if there is, they would probably dominate here too.

A three-stack of American style pancakes with whipped cream, cherry halves and Venezuelan chocolate held pride of place in the middle of our table.  They were fluffy, chewy and crispy – an astonishing contradiction of characteristics.

Clinton St Bakery knows what their strengths are and quite rightly, that is where their focus lies.  A solid execution of unpretentious food in a charming environment with confident service.  But who am I kidding, you all knew this two years ago.

minilogo Clinton St. Baking Company

As I confidently pulled into the Grand Hyatt hotel, we quickly realized that we had arrived at the wrong Hyatt.  Luckily for me, I can depart just as confidently as arriving.

La Tablita is in the heart of Healthcare City, and as I drove past the obesity clinic on the corner, I told the Serb how hungry I was and that I couldn’t wait to skip the chips and put my face straight into some guacamole.

La Tablita is in the Hyatt Regency Dubai Creek Heights hotel, and to be honest, I think that’s all there is in that hotel.  Getting there is difficult, there are no sign posts except for the Grand Hyatt, but we’ve already established that’s the wrong hotel.  Once you arrive, however, someone has been brilliant with floor signage and a little Mexican breadcrumb trail leads you directly to the restaurant. Where was this guy when we were circling the building for ten minutes, I wonder?

The hostess led us to our table, and by the time we were seated at our booth, she had charmed both of us into submission.  She took us through the rather complicated menu and taught us how to place our order.  The Serb made notes, and I focused on finding the head sized bowl of Guacamole on the menu.

The idea of the menu is very on trend, even if the execution is not particularly user-friendly.  They have a menu card called the Taco Shop & Ceviche Bar, where you fill in your choices for tacos or ceviches yourself, and then they have another menu where you verbally place your main order with the waiter.  Here’s a little life hack for those planning a visit.  You could probably give your entire order to the waiter and bypass filling in the card yourself. FoodSheikh is always looking for ways to make life easier!

Unfortunately, the restaurant space and design is nothing to write home about, and so I won’t.

What I will go on about are the service team and their attitude.  The team are energetic, charismatic, and you leave feeling like you’ve made some new friends.  They know their menu inside and out and are splendid at making favourite personal suggestions which, purely coincidently I’m sure, are the more pricier options. I think it‘s genuine enough, though, as the team kept coming back to check if we enjoyed their suggestion as if they had a competition going on.

The tacos are all individual, all priced at 12 DHS and with fourteen to choose from, it’s a good starting point.  The Serb was on taco duty that night – she ordered four kinds, two chicken, one beef and one seafood.  Unsurprisingly no vegetarian tacos made it onto the list.  They all had very authentic sounding Mexican names, such as the Dorado, and the Texano and the Al Pastor, which in reality probably translates to gringo gobbledygook in Spanish.  The crispy fish taco was excellent, especially with the Valentina hot sauce liberally applied.  The chicken, however, was overcooked and quite dry. The sizes were great – the same size equivalent as a slider in the burger world. They are taco sliders.

The camarones al ajillo, (shrimp, garlic & mushrooms) comes out sizzling and it’s a punchy, confident dish.  The garlic is strong – like Yoda and The Force strong – and possibly overpowers the more delicate flavours of the shrimp.  However, wrapped in the soft flour tortillas, it is a great combination with wonderful textures and one of the highlights of the meal.

The queso con chorizo is melted mozzarella cheese in a chorizo meat sauce – wrap all that up in a soft corn tortilla, and it makes for a heavy, artery thickening little meal.  However, in fairness, Mexican cuisine is not known for its delicacy and lightness.

You’ll be pleased to know that I got my guacamole as well – La Tablita’s guac is chunky, smooth and plentiful.  I opted for the crispy duck topping because I’m greedy, but in hindsight, it didn’t make the dish any better.

You have a special treat this review – I don’t usually order or comment on dessert, but because I had made some new Mexican friends and they insisted that we try one of their desserts, I felt I couldn’t refuse.

The tres-leche vanilla cake with jalapeño ice cream is a contender for an award.  The sponge is light, airy and moist, and once in your mouth, it explodes with smooth, creamy and sweet milk made from condensed, evaporated and heavy cream.  Mexico is a country that celebrates a surprisingly joyous holiday called Dia de Muertos – Day of the Dead – where they take the favourite food of the deceased to their graves as an offering.  Apparently the tres-leche cake is popular offering on this day.  I just feel that perhaps if the deceased hadn’t loved this cake so much, they might have lived a little longer.  It is deceptively light and airy, but must whack a mean calorific punch.

In Mexico, the skill of cooking can be translated to “sazon” which literally means seasoning and meals are seen as an important way to preserve relationships.  Due to the sazon of the chefs and the passion of the service team, I definitely intend to maintain my relationship with La Tablita – even if I can’t remember what hotel it is in.

 

minilogo La Tablita Mexican Restaurant

Lime Tree Café.  So, for those of you relatively new to Dubai, you wouldn’t have remembered the phenomenon that was Lime Tree Café.  They opened their doors in 2001, which was only a few years ago, I thought, until I did the maths.  2001 was fifteen years ago!  To survive fifteen years in an industry as cutthroat and fickle as the restaurant industry is no mean feat.  But then again, these New Zealanders are a cunning nation.

When Lime Tree Café opened, it was unlike anything Dubai had seen before.  It was new, cool and fresh, serving home cooked quality food with an emphasis on ingredients and health. It very quickly became the hottest place to be seen.  A Friday lunchtime at Lime Tree, in their iconic Jumeirah villa, was the equivalent of the red carpet event at Cannes film festival.  On a Friday, people woke hours earlier than they normally would during the week, just to perfect that, “just got out of bed” look.  Lime Tree café was a place where the maids weren’t invited because the baby was an important accessory.  I can imagine the conversation back in 2001.

“Have you been to Lime Tree, yet, Tarquin?”

“Poppy darling, not yet. I’ve been meaning to, but I’ve literally, just been so busy. Lettice says they have a cheeky Irish girl working there? Is that true? Is it any good?”

“It’s amaazzing, Sweets. You have to order your food at a counter, and then you have to find your own table. It’s quite the adventure!”

Lime Tree were first movers in many things that the industry now claims as standard.  They insisted on counter service with limited table service.  They insisted that their food display fridges would be a visual feast.  They embraced a healthy, fresh approach to their menu, and according to some, they invented the carrot cake.

For many years, Lime Tree ruled the café scene, they were the caterer of choice for the Jumeirah Jane lunches and the weekend brunches.

The latest Lime Tree Cafe branch is on Sheikh Zayed Road in the Umm Al Sheif district and walking in, it felt familiar and friendly.  Concrete flooring, industrial fit out, exposed ceilings, galvanized steel tables and an outdoor terrace.

The menu choices are what you would get if a posh farmer from Surrey and Jamie Oliver had a love child and he became a chef.  Lots of quiches and salads and toasties and cakes adorn the cabinets, and to be fair, they all look very appetizing.

I ordered the eggs florentine, and the Serb ordered the flatbread sandwich – turkey, brie and cranberry.  As mentioned, you order and pay at the counter, and I felt that the girl taking the order could have been a little more cheery and engaged.  There was no real greeting or experience level that I couldn’t have got from the new Macdonald’s self-order kiosk.  Where was the Irish girl that welcomed you with a cheerful smile and a cheeky wink?!  We took our number and had a wander round the restaurant.

They have a retail section that sells pricey foodie things like cookbooks that you’ll never try, and designer aprons you’ll wear once as a joke after too much Pimms one evening.  The interior of the café is quite earthy and modern; they have indoor trees and a stone wall.  There is a kids area (I think) and thankfully a separate dining room far enough away from the kids to avoid cross contamination.  When I pointed out the indoor trees to the Serb, she seemed unimpressed and admitted to me that she frequents this café quite often as her nail spa is upstairs.  You think you know someone.

We finally chose our table, in time for our food to arrive.  My eggs were cooked well, bright yellow yolk that oozed out over the bread and spinach.  The spinach was far too wet, though, and that’s just laziness from the kitchen.  Drain, dab or squeeze the spinach, but never put it directly on bread straight from blanching it. The bread instantly became a soggy spinach water sponge.

Apparently the Serb always orders the turkey sandwich, and it was crisp and tasty, although the ingredients aren’t always uniformly spread across the whole sandwich.  What this means is you get a mouthful of cranberry and lettuce every now and again.

The food isn’t bad, it’s still of high quality; I just think that the competition has caught up with what they were doing fifteen years ago.  The public are more knowledgeable about quality and flavours and are certainly more demanding now about their food.  The Lime Tree Café isn’t doing anything wrong, in fact, they are doing most things right – the problem is, there are some places doing things better now.

Lime Tree Café is the original gangsta of the contemporary café scene – they blazed the trail for all others and on that basis alone, they deserve respect and acknowledgement.  However, to the unbiased and the non-nostalgic, Lime Tree are going to be compared to some very high-quality cafes serving some excellent food.  The question is, are they doing enough to keep up? After this review, I don’t know the answer to that, so I might have to go back and have some carrot cake to help me decide.

 

minilogo Lime Tree Cafe

The Hide is a place where cows go, thinking they are safe from people like Chef Nick Cuadrado and his kitchen team.   It is also a new steak restaurant in Al Qasr Hotel where the old MJ’s used to be.

They have described themselves as a Meatery and claim to be a total premier meat experience.  I almost didn’t make a reservation based purely on that fact alone.  I told the Serb, who was, of course, delighted at the thought of a Meatery, that if the manager was wearing a Lady Gaga meat dress, we were going home immediately.

I can imagine when the concept development team were asking management what language tone did the brand want to use in conversations with their demographic audience, the answer was, “Puns and quips.  I want ridiculous quibble everywhere.  Make it Puntastic!”

And this is why the starter section is titled “Nice to Meat You.” Yes, that got approved.  There is also a section called Forgotten Cuts which just sounds like there was a forgotten tray of steaks at the bottom of the walk-in chiller about to expire.  I suppose it’s better than Signature Cuts which was so 1980’s.

Everything on the menu is either Heritage, or Smoked, or Naked or Aged or Vintage.  I understand the new trend in food is all about the provenance of ingredients and lifestyle words, but when your menu has more superlatives and descriptors than a Nicholas Sparks novel, I think you’ve gone too far.

The restaurant interior is a strong attempt at re-claimed industrial chic, with typical American booths and group seating.  The lighting is soft and warm, using some rather good filament bulbs to great effect, and the furniture is an inviting, soft brown leather.  On a side note – what is it with steak houses insisting on using leather for chairs and booths? Talk about adding insult to injury to the sacrificed bovine beasts.

The issue with steak is that it’s just that – steak.  Chefs will kill me now – but, there isn’t much else you can do with it apart from applying some heat and sticking it on a plate.   And in that regard, The Hide has done quite a good job in trying to bring a little fun and difference to a static and slightly inflexible cuisine.

I ordered the Flat Iron Steak, which is a cut that can sometimes be a little tough, so is usually marinated in something to soften the meat up.  The Korean marinade sounded great, and I was looking forward to a nice kick of tangy soy sauce with perhaps sesame or garlic undertones. I, unfortunately, didn’t get any of that.  Perhaps what they simply meant was that their Korean Commis Chef, Kyung-Joon was on marinating duty.

Having said that, the meat was tender and cooked well, which are the sacrosanct basics of beefery. (Yes, I can make up words too.) The other cuts they specialize in are dry aged Spanish and Black Angus US beef.  I could practically taste the carbon emissions just reading the menu.

The Manwich is purposely oversized and messy. It is a dish that regulars will try once, and tourists will Instagram and tweet along with their Burj Al Arab and camel photos.  Made from approximately one million ingredients, from cheddar slathered bread wedges with brisket beef to fried eggs and pickles.  It is unlikely that the dish is ever finished, and I suppose that is the point.

Because steak houses find it so difficult to differentiate themselves from each other, they inevitably bring in gimmicky knives to “compliment the steak.”  Some steak houses bring you a display case of knives, and you can choose your weapon, and some even engrave the knives for the regular guests.  In the case of The Hide, I was given a miniature meat cleaver, which made me feel like an oversized butcher on a busman’s holiday.

Service staff were friendly and personable, but the actual service was a little awkward if that makes any sense.  The restaurant was full, which is a good sign, and it was a mixture of the Jumeirah faithful and the few tourists that didn’t get the memo.  The atmosphere was pleasant but not as cutting edge as the New York or Chicago scene they were aiming for.

Overall, in a saturated steak market, The Hide performs admirably well.  The menu is cute and playful, if a little overdone for my liking, and the interpretations of classic steakhouse fare are executed well.  At 450 AED for two, the pricing point is spot on for their positioning, and overall it is a check in the win box for me.

If you are looking for a Meatery that provides a premier total meat experience, then this is a great place to hide away in.

minilogo The Hide Meatery and Bar

Beyond the relentless rat race of Dubai, behind all the construction and traffic and noise of Beach Road lives a time warp, a hidden commune that operates outside the expected norms of Dubai.  It is a tranquil, serene garden; a parallel universe where you feel that time has stood still, all problems are on hold, all phone calls can wait, and all emails are no longer important – at least for a few hours.

Behind Jumeirah Center is One Café – a peaceful little garden that doubles as a restaurant.  Fifty cute little seats spread around a garden full of trees, flowers and life.  Here I must warn you, however, that what I type next will thin the herd and cause many of you scrambling for the close window button.

This cafe is a vegan, health restaurant. I’m talking full on – tie dye t-shirts, meditation with crystals and free love, (figuratively speaking). This is the real deal, no cute little kale salads underneath the double fried ribs. We are talking flax seed crackers, zucchini lasagna, raw tabbouleh with nut balls and carrot cupcakes with cashew cream.  Still here?  Excellent.

As I looked at the menu, I wondered how I was going to be able to review a menu that puts such severe restrictions on itself.  The restrictions being that there are like, only five ingredients allowed, and they all have no flavour, substance or fun.

We ordered the green juice and the SMB smoothie.  The green juice is mainly cucumber, kale and spinach and tastes exactly like a mouthful of some field in Derbyshire.  But, it was fresh, cold and full of goodness.  If I were a cow, it would be my drink of choice.

The hummus and vegetable sticks were as good as anywhere else, although quite heavy on the garlic.

I had a vegetarian burger, just because I found comfort in the word burger. I like to try new things, but I’m not crazy.  The burger was packed full of good things like buckwheat, potatoes, broccoli, pumpkin seeds and cumin.  I felt like a little child being tricked into eating healthy under the disguise of a tasty burger.

Once the Serb finally understood the concept of veganism, she picked the menu back up off the floor and chose the gluten free pasta salad.  It was mixed with black olives, peppers, cherry tomatoes and broccoli.  It got the mark of approval from the Serb, who conceded that it was rather tasty, filling yet light.

What is great about this little place is that you feel like you are in a safe food zone – nothing on the menu is going to thicken your arteries or cause you long term damage.  It is like a straitjacket and padded cell for unhealthy people.

There is a chalk board wall where people are encouraged to finish the sentence, “Before I die I want to…. “ Reading the responses is quite fun – there are people that want to make a difference and save the world and be successful and work with children and climb Everest.  These are all admirable goals and certainly worthwhile aspirations.  Then there are the people that are a bit more realistic and straightforward in their objectives. Some people just want to be patient or happy, or simply start a family.  But my favourite on that wall by far was written by someone extremely at peace with themselves.  They apparently felt that their entire life was already complete; all goals had been achieved that the only thing left to do before dying was to brush a fox.  That’s right – “Before I die, I want to brush a fox.” What a beautiful place to be in life.  I too, want to brush a fox.

The service is like the atmosphere – tranquil and calm.  No-one is in a hurry here, and you’ll be served at exactly the time you were meant to be served. Relax and enjoy the trees.  I honestly urge you to take a moment, close your eyes and take a few deep slow breaths.  Open your eyes and immediately feel better.  Then send me a message to thank me – and quickly check your emails while you’re at it.

The menu is small and limited, but once you consider the juices, the mains and the desserts, it is a rather impressive selection.  However it is not cheap – our meal came in at 350 dhs for two people.  Although you leave with your wallet lighter, your heart, your stomach and somehow, your mind also feels lighter as well.  That’s well worth the price of admission.

Before you all die, I recommend you stop by One Café at least once, and see for yourself.  As for me, I am going to look for a fox to brush.

minilogo One Café by Life'n One

Let me tell you about the city of New Orleans.  It’s bold and loud and full of soul and flavour.  It is the Mardis Gras on Bourbon Street and beads and Louis Armstrong and Jazz and alligators and swamps.  It is exciting and gritty and sweaty and fun.  It is alive and exhilarating.  New Orleans is one of the worlds’ greatest cities – In fact, it is said that America has three cities only – New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.

From the same people that bought us Mythos, a restaurant I very much enjoyed, comes Nola, a New Orleans-inspired eatery and social house tucked away in the bowels of the Armada blue hotel in JLT.  Be warned – the entrance to Nola is through the hotel, into the basement, through a darkened parking garage with dripping pipes, past a one-eyed black cat that hisses at you, (probably not a permanent fixture, in all honesty), then through a metal gray corridor inspired from the The Maze Runner novels. It’s quite a trip, but the best destinations often are.

I have always tried to be honest in my reviews, and I am going to be honest here too.  I think Nola Eatery and Social House is probably a better social house than it is an eatery.  They have created an excellent little space, breaking the room up with little caverns of seating areas, supported by a long bar and tucked into a corner is a small music stage that will create a fantastic atmosphere when in full swing.

Despite being in a basement of a hotel in JLT, Nola has some real character and charisma.  Interestingly, they managed the same with Mythos Restaurant and Grill next door, although Greek and Creole restaurants are as far apart as Rihanna and Sarah Brightman.

Like a rescue dog of mixed pedigree and a promiscuous mother, New Orleans food is typically an influence of many different cultures and cuisines from French, Spanish and Italian to African, Native American, and a hint of Cuban.  With that much history and with so many layers to the cuisine, it takes an experienced and talented team to re-create the flavours – an ask too far perhaps for the Nola team.

We ordered the oven baked camembert with drunken figs and the black eyed peas empanadas.  The camembert and figs were good, the flavour combination is great although not particularly original.  However, it is rather easy to melt cheese in the oven, so I would have been more impressed if it wasn’t good.  The empanadas were flakey, chewy and quite stoic; heavy dough and a heavy filling.

I had the cornflake chicken, which was a chicken breast in a Cajun cornflake crust.  The Cajun spice was there – that slow build to a deep heat that hits the back of your tongue.  However, the cornflake crust was a disappointment. Soggy and wet, It slid and crumbled off the meat, leaving the chicken exposed and bare, and me with a fork full of soggy spicy cornflakes.

The Serb chose the Cobb Salad, which came neatly presented with each ingredient separated and lined up in a row.  She poked at the dish with her fork, and I knew precisely what she was thinking.  Eventually, she leaned across the table and asked: “Why haven’t they mixed it up for me?” First world problems.

The service team were great – but we are hardly a demanding duo, and the restaurant wasn’t busy when we went there.  The place can get quite busy, however, and it’ll be interesting to see how they manage the social and eatery aspects at full speed.

Before I finish off, I am well aware that I have just reviewed a New Orleans inspired restaurant without trying the Beignets or the Jambalaya or the Po Boy.  I have no excuse for my behaviour, and I blame the Serb.

Head down there with some friends, and enjoy being whisked away to an unassuming, lively little venue.  Nola is an endearing little place with a big personality and a lot of charm.  I have no doubts this will become a popular spot, and if they can improve their menu execution slightly, they might even win a few awards.

minilogo Nola Eatery and Social House

First things first – Sun& is a ridiculous name for an establishment – it is incomplete and unfinished and if it’s meant to provoke and add a playful mystery to the place, it doesn’t.  I just keep saying Sun & Sand Sports.

However, that’s the worst thing I will say about the place in this review. Except that their insistence on using pale yellows and pastel blues means that they come across as a package tour booking company.

OK, that’s the worst thing I will say about Sun&.  The rest is pretty good.

We arrived at a fairly empty Sun& Restaurant, and as we were guided to our table, we were politely warned that they were fully booked starting from 5 pm onwards.  I glanced at my watch and decided that we could probably order, eat and leave before the reservations arrived.  However, it was almost one o’clock, so we were going to have to hurry.

Sun& is tucked away in a random building on the exit side of the palm trunk overlooking one the Palm fronds with the fancy villas.  I bet the residents of the villas are furious that the common folk can now watch them on their private beach while sipping fizzy wine and nibbling olives.

Sun& is a licensed (no idea how) Mediterranean restaurant and lounge with a small but pleasant terrace and a clean and uncluttered interior.  The menu is concise and depending on how hungry you are, splits into small, medium and large plates, with about seven items per section.  They do have a section on the menu called “Graze” and I looked around for any cattle, sheep, horses or goats that it might apply to, but didn’t see any.  Then I realized it wasn’t really food suitable for livestock and just a cute way of saying starters. The Sun& name makes more sense now.

The Serb took her time in reviewing the menu choices, thoughtfully announced that she wanted a “nice fresh chicken salad” and therefore ordered the beef Carpaccio. I ordered some other smaller items, such as the Cauliflower croquettes, the meatballs, chicken skewers and a three dip appetizer.

The meatballs arrived just as the theme song for Game of Thrones came on the sound system – it cast the meatballs in a whole new light.  I expected an immediate beheading of some sort. Perhaps there already had been, hence the meatballs.  However, despite the dramatic music, they were superb.

Overall the food is tidy, smart, familiar and fun – the Carpaccio came in a thicker cut with a well-constructed truffle mayonnaise.  The cauliflower croquettes were moreish and even surprised the meat loving Serb, who normally turns her nose up at such concoctions.  The chicken skewers were juicy and served with a refreshing tzatziki sauce.  The beetroot dip was worth the price of the dish for the colour alone.  The bread was slightly undercooked and doughy, but had a good salty flavour to it.

The staff were capable.  However, I would be worried if their sense of urgency remained the same during their peak hours; they were certainly relaxed and happy to work at a leisurely pace. Perhaps they had all thought they applied for Sun & Sand Sports vacancies and were in a constant state of bewilderment.

Sun& is a great little spot for the residents of The Palm, and a good attempt by Nakheel to improve the experience of Palm Living.  My recommendation is if you are in the area, try swing by – it’s a casual, inexpensive restaurant that serves perfectly enjoyable food.  If you have difficulty finding the place, there is a Sun & Sand Sports at Ibn Battuta mall as an alternative.

minilogo Sun& Restaurant and Lounge

Despite their name, Play Restaurant and Lounge take themselves very seriously. As the Serb and I walked into the restaurant on the 36th floor of the H Hotel, I was taken back to pre-2008; a decadent and slightly irresponsible time where the success of a restaurant seemed to be linked to the amount of money it cost to build.

Fast forward to a very shaky 2016 and Play is a brave attempt at confidence and competence. Much like baby pandas, the birth of such restaurants are so scarce these days that they are almost like an endangered species – a relic of times gone by.  Multiple seating zones, elevated private dining rooms, custom furniture, wall features and chandeliers all add up to a very expensive restaurant and bar. Before arrival, I was told that this might be a vanity project, an expensive toy to satiate someone’s ego, however, with Chef Reif Othman behind the menu, there was a good chance this behemoth of a project might have some substance in the menu.

Because Reif is of Zuma fame, there will, of course, be comparisons of his work at Play, and those who care about that sort of stuff will make a variety of claims and observations.  This is what happens when you are as successful as Reif has been with Zuma – but he knows this already, and is well prepared, I am sure, for the incoming comparisons.

Stepping out of the rather shabby elevator and into the venue itself, it is obvious that Play demands glamour, class and sophistication, which is why I felt lucky to have the Serb by my side, as she has enough of those for both of us.  The staff are all tall, good-looking and charismatic and had we been in LA, no doubt they would have all been aspiring actors and models.

The space is design heavy, with a lot of features that catch the eye.  However, I only have two eyes, and it seemed like every wall, cabinet and ceiling was screaming for our attention. It was rather tiring for so early in the year – there were so many feature design elements that they all blurred into one.  After closer inspection and feeling a little like Sherlock Holmes, (Benedict’s Sherlock, mind) I started to get an idea of perhaps the real intent of the venue.  Neon lit Ice buckets built into the tables, a powerful speaker system and lighting racks on the ceilings, a DJ doing warm up exercises and finger stretches in the corner – they all point to once thing, my dear Watson.

Early evening, I think Play masquerades itself as an Asian/Mediterranean inspired restaurant but scratch the surface, and probe a little deeper, (By that I mean just wait until 11:30 pm or so) and Play would probably become a nightclub or lounge.  Which meant one thing – we better eat and get out of there fast! We are far too old to enjoy a spontaneous evening of bottle service and sparklers without several days’ notice and several days’ recovery.  And we hadn’t bought our sunglasses either.

It will come as little surprise that the menu is a sharing style format and everything arrives when it’s ready. Because the Serb was so distracted by all the feature walls and ceilings, she wasn’t paying much attention, and I managed to order a lot of food – far too much, in fact – and seeing as it was early January, it seemed even more glutinous and sinful.

I think we (I) ordered around ten different dishes, ranging from a wonderful Duck Gyoza, pan fried and topped with a parmesan cheese crust to Cod “New Style”.  A lot of thought had gone into the menu presentation– every dish arrived on a different plate, from ceramic hollowed out logs for the sashimi to the wooden blocks showcasing the Pita Surprise. It was unnecessary, indulgent and wonderful.

The menu had flashes of brilliance; such as the Pita Surprise, a lightly toasted, one-bite (for me, two bites for the ever delicate Serb) puffed pita bread, topped with a Kobe Carpaccio slice and stuffed with a truffle creamed butter.  The Duck Gyoza was also a highlight as were the Air Crackers, a simple melt in the mouth cracker with some wonderful flavours.

However, some of the dishes either needed more work in the design stage or more time in learning how to execute them.  The Kobe sushi was dry and lacked flavor, and the asparagus spear in the middle was too hard and crunchy.  The Chorizo Croquettes were a nice idea, but effectively it ended up being a lukewarm meat and potato paste.  Personally, I think it was the texture that put me off – perhaps a hash brown texture, rather than a puree would have been to my liking. But I’m not a chef, so perhaps that’s a horrible idea.

Play Restaurant and Lounge are entering into an arena with some experienced operators, OKKU, which is in the same building, will be direct competition, as will the other heavyweights on SZR, namely Novikov, and Cavalli Club, the latter being possibly the most successful at the dinner and nightclub formula.

The menu, I assume will evolve and change – Chef Reif is too creative to allow his menu to remain stagnant, and considering they have only been open a few weeks, it was a remarkable early indication of quality and innovation.

minilogo Play Restaurant and Lounge

If you believe all the expert reports, we are going to be buying everything we possibly need from the internet in 2016. Five years ago, if you were to order something online in Dubai, you would have to request three days leave in order to be at home to accept the package. However, in 2016, we are going to buy everything we need online – rarely will we leave our houses, the only vitamin D we will get will be from the pale light of our computer monitors. We will go weeks without talking socially to another human – and then eventually we will all snap and stumble into the sunlight, like emotional zombies craving human interaction, atmosphere and emotional sustenance.

This is where restaurants come in – because restaurants are the last bastions of human connection. E-commerce cannot and will never be able to replace F&B. It can certainly enhance it – (take a look at what Beam wallet or Eatapp are doing), but it will never change the landscape in the same way Kindle, and Amazon did for books.

Which is why restaurants have such an important role in 2016, because, exaggerations aside, we are all going to be looking for that authentic human connection even more in 2016. In a digital age, restaurants work on a refreshingly analogue level. Let’s move on from the “SirMa’am” service – it was acceptable back in 2000, but so was asbestos in the 60’s. Let’s look forward to engaged interactions by real humans allowing us that connection that is so important to a city like Dubai.

Restaurants are the communal kitchens and dining rooms of the urban metropolis

Which takes me on to the next ironic point. As smaller restaurant groups look for ways to expand and become bigger, the larger operators will look for ways to act smaller and more focused. Big Restaurants are suffering from a lack of authentic hospitality. Don’t write my name on a coffee cup, just because someone in Corporate decided that is what personal service looks like. It’s not a personal when you do it for absolutely everyone. Ultimately, it is about creating communities – 2016 will be about bringing people together.

This leads me seamlessly onto my next observation – Netflix.

What does Netflix have to do with F&B in Dubai, you might ask? Well, with Netflix apparently making an official appearance in Dubai in 2016, restaurants will have a massive opportunity to provide food to the plenty of people who are likely camping out in front of the TV to binge-watch a season or two on Netflix. What do people do after the Netflix and before the Chill bit? They order food; that’s what they do. Companies like Deliveroo and 24h.ae are poised to take significant advantage of this opportunity. So my advice to you is find a delivery company that know where you live, know your favourite pizza toppings, accepts credit cards and get their app downloaded immediately. Alternatively, even better still, look out for meal kits – dinner in a box, containing exact portions of every ingredient needed, delivered by subscription. Every Sunday night, learn how to cook a restaurant quality meal, then Netflix with the family. It sounds pretty good to me. Although not yet here in Dubai, check out blueapron or chefday. They might be a cheaper alternative to delivery, and people might start cooking with trendy ingredients, using expert advice and recipes.

Clean Menus

How do you know if someone is a Vegan? They’ll bloody tell you.

2016 will see some clarity in dietary fads and will see a significant focus on clean eating. Clean eating is not about Paleo diets or urban caveman foraging, or any of those diets that quite honestly are expensive, unrealistic and highly inconvenient to the average Dubaian. It’s important to accept that there is a major movement away from highly processed junk food, but those extreme health diets will always remain in the peripheral on the dining spectrum. A bit like your third nipple – you know it’s there; a few weirdoes will want to touch it, but it remains largely ignored. What is here to stay, and what establishments need to focus on is clean eating.

A strong clean-eating philosophy will focus on ingredients you can pronounce, and a traceability that goes beyond the freezer it just came out of. Clean eating is about reducing the reliance on chemicals and hormones and all the other nasty stuff that is injected (sometimes literally) into our food chain. Clean eating is about taking responsibility of what goes into our bodies, but also knowing that occasionally you’re going to destroy a box of Krispy Kremes during a particular Krispy session of Netflix and Chill. Restaurants are going to understand this and menus will reflect this sensible, moderate balance of health and enjoyment. Already places like HEAT are trying this out, and suppliers like Limeline are taking on the Big Beverages with alternative sodas and drinks.

Do forget to tip your waitress!

Service or gratuity tipping is undergoing massive change around the world and is currently a hot debate. Heavily linked to the minimum wage debate, it is not something we give much thought to over here, but it’s time we did. Expect to start seeing subtle but significant changes in the way our bills are added up in restaurants. Service charge becomes inclusive or a fixed surcharge per person at the end of your bill; whatever the form, I’m all for it – it’s civilized and truthful; transparent and clear. And let’s be honest – tipping doesn’t really affect what kind of service you get, certainly not now, if it ever did. Training, management and company values will determine what kind of service you get, not tips. And the wonderful thing is, if you feel they deserve something extra, then by all means, leave some extra as well. More importantly, if the restaurant owners are honest and do it right, (or if the government enforces it) there is a great comfort in knowing that the waiter is receiving better remuneration and perhaps can bring some more opportunity to his or her family, wherever they may be.

And finally, I wish you all a healthy, prosperous and safe New Year, and please support your favourite restaurant in 2016!

With a grand staircase that belongs in an old American plantation house in the deep south, La Serre proves they know how to make a subtle statement of purpose.  With theirtraditional wooden doors, encapsulated in a glass frame, La Serre boast that they know how to mix the modern with the timeless.  Finally, with a white tiled, open plan kitchenintertwined with the dining room downstairs, La Serre screams their intent across the Boulevard – and what an intent it is.  La Serre exploded onto the dining scene with an almightybang; much like nebulous gases exploding to create a new star.  I know this happened quite some time ago, but as usual with the hype train; I am rarely in the first carriage, butrather, stuck back at the station wondering if I got the right platform.

 Their breakfast menu is limited to only fourteen items, but it is a case of quality over quantity; substance over choice.  There is nothing on trend here, no fancy Korean chickenquesadillas or Kale crisps.  Their breakfast menu is timeless and simple, eggs, breads, fruits and waffles.  The time the chefs saved on creating the choices, they put into perfectinghow to cook them.

 Spread over two floors of the Vida Hotel, upstairs is the bistro, which despite the name, is actually a premium dining experience.  The boulangerie downstairs is more relaxed andcasual, and that is where you will find the open kitchen and in my opinion, one of the most thoughtful spaces I have seen.  Despite their menu being traditional and classic, theirdesign is bang on trend.  The kitchen is the theatre; the staff are the actors and you, my dear friends, are there for the experience.  Which is wonderful as long as the chefs behavethemselves, and refrain from all the nasty little habits that usually go unseen in closed kitchens.

 As you walk onto the terrace, on a fresh December morning, you get an immediate sense of who La Serre is and what they are about.  I know this is a bold statement, but La Serremight have just served me my favourite breakfast experience of the year. (I’m confident in saying that, because it’s already mid-December) The ambiance was just right – not toofrantic and energetic, but not too lazy and labourious either.

 It was quite early when we arrived, although apparently they open at 6 am, which I think is rather romantic and authentic and utterly ridiculous.  I ordered the scrambled eggs withsmoked salmon, and The Serb ordered the cheese omelet, before changing her mind to a plain omelet because the six grams of cheese would be “too heavy.”  Having said that, thisis probably why she can still get into all her dresses, and I am contemplating elasticated waistbands on my trousers.  I also added a plain croissant to my eggs order.  I threw it ontothe order last, hoping my casual nonchalance towards the item would remove all calories from the all-butter dough.  I feel it made little difference.

 My eggs must have come from some sort of pedigree hen with superior taste genetics – they were cooked soft, with a touch of seasoning and cream and tracing-paper thin sheetsof smoked salmon gently laid on top – rich, decadent and utterly delicious.  The cheese omelet without cheese was fluffy and moist.  My only gripe is that it is served in an old-fashioned Staub deep dish pan.  It looks great, but it does feel like you are having to dig your omelet out of a grave in order to eat it.  And also, their coffee could be a little better. The dishes are not accompanied by anything, no fancy cherry tomatoes or complimentary hash browns.  In typical French fashion, they serve you exactly what you order. However,the quality of the food makes such a bold statement that you feel like you don’t deserve anything else.  Having said that, the Serb disagrees with me and thinks I am getting carriedaway by Christmas shopping and all the festivities and I am being far too generous with my praise.  So I shall try to tone it down a little for the croissant review.  Which, by the way,was definitely the finest, most inspired croissant ever to have been baked. In the history of time. Ever.

 A good croissant is difficult to find in Dubai.  To transform a rich butter-based dough into a pastry that’s simultaneously forgiving and flaky, with a brittle crust and a feather-lightinterior, is undeniably a difficult thing.  With such pure ingredients —butter, salt and flour, the result can be unforgiving in the wrong hands.  The chef’s mastery of the ingredients iscrucial, and a talented pastry chef is worth his or her weight in gold.  La Serre’s croissant is a pastry you linger over, a pastry you gently tear into small pieces, trying to prolongthe enjoyment, wondering what your life will be once it’s finished.  I genuinely am pleased to announce that La Serre’s croissant is one of the best I have experienced in a long time,and the pastry chef should be showered in gold – and to be honest, at 250 dhs for breakfast; they can afford it.

 La Serre has got a strong reputation, and my somewhat dramatic praise aside; my breakfast was damn good.  Which is why I am reluctant to ever return, for fear of it neverliving up to the mythical proportions it has reached in my memory.  I suggest you try their breakfast if you haven’t already, but if you feel the same as I did, never go back. If youdon’t feel the same, keep returning until you do.

minilogo La Serre Bistro and Boulangerie

Claiming to fill a specific gap in Dubai’s culinary scene for authentic, regional French specialties, Bistro Des Arts has taken on a tall order in taking on French Cuisine.

French cuisine is intimidating, unforgiving and unnecessarily complicated.  It requires you to spend 128 years in a kitchen learning how to perfect a garlic confit.  The head chef thenspits your fish stock into your face, flamboyantly screaming “Yuck!” whilst rinsing his mouth out with red wine.

BDA is “conveniently” located at Marina Mall – well not really.  Let’s just say, you park at Marina Mall. After that, it gets a little complicated.

Bistro Des Arts claims it is a quintessential Paris bistro, and as I sat on the terrace overlooking the marina and watched a maid getting repeatedly hit by a child in her careand a teenaged boy almost crash into a mega yacht as he lost control of his hover board, I was whisked away to the Rue de Bretagne, circa 1970 and was sure I heard a faintaccordion player in the distance.

The tables are very Parisian – small, wobbly and heavy topped.  The set up is simple, tea towel napkin, side plate and silverware.  The whole space is rather intimate and hidden;with a low canopy and small side entrance, one felt rather special, and I congratulated myself for finding this place. Although I didn’t really find it – my friend suggested it.  However,because he is French, he is incapable of arriving anywhere on time, so I arrived first, and in true British fashion, felt I could claim ownership.

The interior is quaint and thoughtful – they haven’t reinvented French interior design, but then again, they don’t have to.  I can see this being a wonderful little spot for a casual andintimate dinner.

At this point, I am beginning to see a trend – the menu is also very French – focusing on “Terroir” French home-style food. The menu is two pages, stuck inappropriately on twosides of a piece of wood, which is large and cumbersome, especially on the small tables.  I genuinely think I got a splinter.

We ordered the pissaladiere; an onion tart with anchovy, black olives and an unpronounceable name.  We also ordered the home-made duck terrine with onion marmalade andbaked St Marcellin cheese.  Two of the three starters were enjoyable.  However, for me, the pissaladiere is always going to be compared to the La Petite Maison version, and it cameup short, in my opinion.  It was over oily, and the onions were overcooked; almost to a puree.  On a positive note, my one-year-old nephew would have enjoyed it.  The duckterrine was smoky and well textured, but the baked cheese was left under the grill a little too long, and it became a mini fondue, unfortunately.

We both had the Bœuf Bourguignon, or beef burgundy, for the uncultured and the Americans.  Beef bourguignon is one of the many peasant or farm dishes making it onto main-stream menus.  Julia Child once described the dish, as “one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man.”  Had she not died over a decade ago, she might have been talkingabout Bistro des Art’s Bœuf Bourguignon.

It was an outstanding every man’s dish.  Nowhere near as subtle as Japanese flavours, or as simple as Italian cooking, or as punchy as Asian cooking, but this was an outstandingdish and simple French cooking at its best.  A base sauce, with complex, layered aromas and flavours that only the French are arrogant enough to try, with a slow-cooked beef sosucculent that could be eaten with a fork alone.

Bistro Des Arts has certainly found a little corner of the Marina that they can call home.  I would tell you where it is and how to get there, but I don’t want too many people to findit.

minilogo Bistro Des Arts