Restaurants have changed haven’t they?  I remember when the man in command of the kitchen used to wear the tallest hat protecting plates from loose hairs whilst showingsuperiority of his position.  Now it seems that the man responsible for the kitchen doesn’t have to wear any hat at all, while everyone else does.  Furthermore, it seems in the caseof Pots, Pans & Boards, the more hair and beard, the better.

 I blame TV and media. You don’t see Gordon Ramsey or Ferran Adrià wearing a hat when they are cooking away.  Chefs are the new rockstars, and it causes havoc with lighting andmake up if a pesky hygiene requirement gets in the way of that.

 However, perhaps I am being over sensitive, seeing as I just recovered from an international bout of food poisoning and am now convinced can see e-coli and salmonella oneverything I put in my mouth.

 Nevertheless, honestly, if you have been put in charge of a kitchen, and especially a kitchen of Tom Aikens caliber, you really should be wearing a hat as a mandatory.  Lead byexample, and at least show some respect to your customers and their health.

 Imagine a surgeon not wearing scrubs or a hair net whilst performing your surgery.  Me, before falling asleep, “Hey, the doctor didn’t wash his hands, and he’s not wearing anyscrubs, is that hygienic?”

Nurse – “It’s OK, Sir; the doctor was featured in Surgeons Weekly –he’s pretty famous.  Sleep now.”

 So, anyway, on with the review.  Pots, Pans & Boards, which will now immediately be shorted to PP&B, is a new British import from two star Michelin chef Tom Aiken. For avisual idea, Tom is the culinary equivalent of Ed Sheeran and just as talented, but in a kitchen, rather than behind a guitar, obviously.  PP&B is his latest international venture and isoperated by Meraas with a location at the end of The Beach, JBR.  I also worry about those restaurants, because I can’t imagine business is particularly brisk in the height of thesummer; but then I remember they are their own landlords and subsequently I don’t feel so bad.

 PP&B is exactly what it says on the tin. The décor is pots and pans and boards and the food is served in pots and pans and boards. However,that is not as bad as it might soundbecause the interior is actually pretty decent. They have excellent seating zones, from banquettes to booths, to large party tables to window tables for two.  It is well-designed anduses the space rather admirably.

 The flow of the restaurant is natural and organic, and it has one of the most intimate open kitchens I have seen (hence the extra need for the Chef to wear a hat).Overstocked pantry and kitchen shelves are used as room dividers and it all works rather well.

 The waitress very carefully explained to us that PP&B was a sharing restaurant concept, and the food came out when it was ready.  I did my best to look surprised and act as if thiswas a very foreign and utterly exhilarating proposal, and definitely not one copied by every new restaurant without fail for the last five years.

 However, I think serving staff should now tell you if the food is going to be served together instead.  That would be a cause for real surprise.

 “Sir, this restaurant adopts a rather traditional policy which means all the food will arrive together, and in the order that you placed it in.  I do hope that’s ok with you.”

The menu is an influence of Mediterranean, French and British cooking, with dishes such as short ribs, salmon, crab cakes, beef tartare and mac & cheese.

 The Serb wanted to order healthy, so we started off with the panzanella salad and the buratta salad (as long as it has salad in the name, we’re good).  Our health drive wentdownhill fast, with the triple fried chips and the ice cream to finish. “If you share it, there are no calories.”

 The buratta salad was a solid dish – excellent use of several different varietals of tomato, from black prince to green zebra (I’m not making those names up; they exist!)bringing some nice subtlety and flavours to the dish, sorry, pot.

 The panzanella dish was always going to be a tricky one. When you are selling a peasant dish designed to make use of stale bread, it is invariably risky. The risk is that you serve adish that is soggy, without flavour and is, well, stale. Unfortunately, that’s what happened. The tomatoes were powerless against the taste of the anchovies and overly oily peppers.Not a great dish, unfortunately and would benefit from some more work on either the recipe or execution.

 The three times fried chips should have been called what they really were; almost perfect roast potatoes. Big chunky wedges of potato served in an, erm, pot. They were excellentin the sense of their crispy crust and perfectly cooked center, but I could feel my veins thickening as the excess oil seeped down my chin with every bite.

“What did you expect with three times fried?” asked the Serb, and hate it when she raises a valid point.  However, they were belting chips nonetheless, and possibly the best I’vehad in Dubai.

 The ice cream was ice cream; cold, chocolate flavoured and creamy and the only surprising thing about it was it was served in a bowl; not a pot or a pan.

 PP&B is a difficult restaurant to sum up. It is part hipster, part family, part serious and part relaxed. It is difficult to put into a box, and although I wasn’t wowed by any of the menu,I know that two dishes out of twenty don’t make a final verdict and i certainly didn’t leave disappointed. 

I’ll tell you what else I know;  Dubai is getting spoilt for choice when it comes to decent casual dining options. The usual suspects of the franchised casual restaurants need to takeheed of this new breed – because they’re here, they’re getting better and better and they don’t wear hats.

minilogo Pots, Pans & Boards

Vivaldi by Alfredo Russo.  No, I’ve never heard of him either.  At first I thought it was a pasta dish with Alfredo sauce.  But apparently he is a Michelin star chef.  Do they give these stars out in cereal boxes?  There does seem to be a lot of them about.

Vivaldi must be one of the oldest restaurants in Dubai.  It’s in the Sheraton Creek Hotel which was opened in 1978.  The hotel is so old I think they built the creek after the hotel opened, but I might be wrong.  The hotel has undergone several face-lifts since then and stands firm at the edge of the creek – a reminder of Dubai’s early ambition and a measure of the city’s phenomenal growth.  The fact that there are some whiskeys that are older than this hotel should put into perspective what Dubai has achieved.

Vivaldi is a perfect example of how a hotel operates F&B.  From the décor to the service to the communication, Vivaldi is one hundred percent, a hotel restaurant, with an Italian chef’s name on the door.  It is old school in its fundamentals – a throwback to days gone by where hotels had the monopoly on restaurant locations and acted accordingly.

However, you can see they have tried to keep up with the Joneses, and their efforts endear you to them.  For example, their exposure on the Interweb is through the form of their website where they boast a “Gastronic Menu” that will “pamper you.”  Yes, I spelt gastronic the way it is on their website and no, I don’t know what it means.  There is a facebook page, but it looks like it was created by accident because the only picture they have is of a random man sitting at his hotel room desk, who I presume tagged Vivaldi by mistake.  No-one has corrected it, although the man does look rather satisfied with his desk.  It is endearingly amateur and makes me like them even more.

They have a DJ spinning his MacBook, (not literally) which for a restaurant named after one of the greatest Baroque composers the world has ever seen, seems a bit of a mismatch.  They could have called it Tiesto by Alfredo Lasagna, I suppose.

The room is above the swimming pool and overlooks the creek.  It is spacious with neutral light colours and a pleasant feel.  The spacing of the tables are generous and they have used the room well.  Apparently their views of the creek are unparalleled, but unfortunately when we ate there, the condensation on the windows meant I ended up staring at a frosty reflection of myself for the entire evening – which is definitely not a good view, believe me.  Luckily for me, the Serb had put on make-up and was looking particularly attractive that evening, even by her high standards.

Vivaldi was largely empty for the majority of the evening – three other couples were enjoying their evening, and all of us were seated in the same corner of the dining room.  So, our little section was super busy, but there was a cavernous empty room behind us.

We started with the smoked scamorza, which is a more intense, rubbery mozzarella cheese.  It was served on a wooden board with six bowls of other stuff, and some toasted bruschetta bread.  The presentation was complicated and un-necessary but the flavor of the cheese was great – firm yet stringy, subtle yet smokey.  I would like to say they smoke the cheese themselves in house but I got the impression that it was off the shelf of a local supplier.  I could be wrong.

The Serb ordered the spinach and ricotta ravioli.  I did clarify that this was a vegetarian dish, with no meat and she returned my statement with a steely glare.  This dish was a musical flop – the ravioli was stuffed with pureed spinach, and had a powdery artificial texture to it.  It didn’t resonate well with either of us.

I tried to order the Alfredo Russo for my mains – a joke that skipped across the creek in the same way a bowling ball would.  Eventually, I settled on the penne pomodorino.  Penne pasta in a smoked cherry tomato sauce with cream of mozzarella.  I keep saying that the strength of Italian food is in its simplicity, and one can usually judge a kitchen on how well they can cook a simple dish.  They did a good job – if the whole dish was a concerto then the sauce was the treble – fresh, sweet and light, allowing the mozzarella cream to provide the bass.

Vivaldi restaurant was a nice enough experience, but the reality is that Italian cuisine is a crowded, highly competitive space with some excellent operators out there.  Vivaldi have the added obstacle of trying to bring people back across the creek, which must be difficult, a bit like going the wrong way in a one way system.  To move beyond the hotel restaurant stigma, Vivaldi need to be bringing something really special to the table.

Instead they bought an old school Sheraton branded bill folder with a bill for 410 dhs for two (including Prosecco) which are actually very old school prices for once.

My recommendation would be to give Vivaldi a go – they have a certain humble charm, the menu is enjoyable and the prices and views will more than make up for the taxi ride.

minilogo Vivaldi by Alfredo Russo

Café Rouge is a French themed restaurant chain from the UK, made famous by the 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, as Bridget’s favourite watering hole.

Café Rouge in Souk Madinat sits in the space where the ever empty, doomed Dome Café used to be.   The space that you always glanced at, probably on your way to The Meat Company or Trader Vic’s.  Well, they have spruced it up a little, added a much coveted alcohol license and stuffed as much French themed interior décor items as they could find within its four walls.

Café Rouge’s interior is typical of a homogenised, branded restaurant chain.  Overly heavy, artificial, and lacking in atmosphere & substance.  Edison bulbs, (lots of them, casting a yellow, tobacco stained hue over the room) mosaic tiles, those mirrors with French writing on them, and I’m pretty sure I could find the Chat Noir poster that was a mandatory ‘back of the toilet door’ adornment in the 90’s.  If the waiter had been wearing a black and white striped top with a beret and a necklace of garlic I wouldn’t have been surprised.  I even wouldn’t have been surprised if the manager had ridden past on a bicycle with a basket of baguettes, followed by a band of twenty accordion playing Frenchmen.

Anyway, you’ll be happy (or disappointed) to hear that none of that happened; the waiter was very “un-themed” and polite, and greeted us with an enthusiastic smile.  We were shown to the world’s smallest table, where the salt and pepper shakers had to be moved so our waiter could find space to put the specials card down.

The menu starts with a small paragraph from Chef Duncan McEwan welcoming us to Cafe Rouge, telling us how excited he is to share his menu with us.  It always concerns me when the Chef is three thousand miles away from the kitchen that is about to serve your food.  It’s a bit like your lawyer providing you with a note to give to the judge.  Doesn’t fill you with much confidence.

However, the restaurant was busier than it would have been under the Dome name, and there were a couple of large tables of young parents taking advantage of a few cheeky glasses of wine while their babies gurgled happily next to them in their prams.

Café Rouge’s menu is safe, French inspired brasserie food.  Croque monsieur, steak frites, baguettes, burgers and salads, with the odd duck dish thrown in for good measure. Everything you would probably never find on a real French menu.

I ordered the Super Salad, which turned out to be the most ironically named dish I have ever come across.  A spattering of bitter red endive leaves that were dehydrated, soft at the ends and had seen better days, with some beetroot, squash, peas and a few seeds.  It arrived with no dressing or seasoning, and left me feeling rather ambivalent about life in general.  There was really nothing super about it, unfortunately.  I ordered a side of fries as well, that were immediately sent back to the kitchen as they were cold.  What kind of kitchen makes that sort of mistake these days?  The same sort of kitchen that charges you for bread, i presume.

The Serb, unsurprisingly, ordered a burger, with raclette cheese.  Raclette cheese is a particularly smelly cheese, with a rather mild, balanced flavour.  It is an excellent cheese to melt and one of my favourites.  The burger was well constructed, with good seasoning and size.  However, according to our waiter, the burger was only allowed to be cooked well done, as per a bizarre Dubai Municipality requirement.  It therefore arrived rather dry and grey and my point is this; if you know you can’t produce a quality product due to some alleged restriction, then remove the dish and get a little inventive with its replacement.  Don’t accept that you are going to have to serve sub-standard dishes.  That’s what happens when your chef is 3000 miles away.

The coffee to follow was also burnt and prepared without care and the service, although enthusiastic and genuine, was without direction and leadership.

Café Rouge hit the height of their popularity in the 90’s and unfortunately haven’t really moved on since then.  There is no relevancy or passion behind the brand and if you can’t be relevant, then you have to at least be passionate.

According to recent reports, Café Rouge owners back in the UK have employed Alain Ducasse to help them with the brand.  I suggest the local franchise operator to hold fire on their expansion until the concept is freshened up.  It’s not that Cafe Rouge is so terrible, it’s just that the other choices are considerably better in my opinion.  When you consider the other choices on the market these days, you have to be bringing something very special to the table.

Café Rouge will be good for the Souk Madinat tourists, pre-theater diners and the odd expat family that want an unpretentious place for a meal with wine.

Having said that, Cafe Rouge is a down to earth, unpretentious, high street themed french brasserie.  As long as you accept that before going in, you will not leave disappointed.

If I happen to be in the area and want a quick sandwich and a top up of all things French, then I’ll be happy to stop by.

minilogo Café Rouge

Jean-Georges Vongerichten expands his empire with two new restaurants at the Four Seasons Hotel on Jumierah Beach Road.  

JG at the Four Seasons is split into two concepts. One is the Jean-George Dining Room – his fifty seater, 900 dhs-a-head fine dining gastronomic center that helps maintain his nameand positioning around the world.

The other is the JG Kitchen – an informal, casual-dining space – his commercial avenue that keeps the lights on and the bailiffs at bay. This review is for a quick lunch at the JG Kitchen earlier in the month.  

At first glance, the menu seems to be a collection of his greatest hits from various restaurants across his vast empire.  I don’t know if that’s a compliment for Dubai that we would getall the best bits from his other restaurants or an insult that he couldn’t come up with a new menu for this market?  However, it is a safe, mature choice of global favourites, neverstraying far from comfort and safety.

This starts to beg the question, how many restaurants can you open, before you really should be calling yourself an operator, rather than the chef?

The restaurant industry has never been as popular as it is today, with so many people willing and open to try new flavours and ingredients – what an opportunity for restaurants andchefs to experiment on such a receptive audience; never before has a demographic been so accepting and pliable.  One thing is clear though – dishes like marinated olives, crispycalamari and ricotta raviolis are not going to have anyone rushing to the door in excitement.

However, with Colin Clague at the helm, the food is never going to be bad.  He did some fantastic things over at Qbara and Zuma, and his name is held in very high regard across theregion.  Each dish that came out of the kitchen made no apologies for their simplicity and nor did they have to.  The food was simply the result of a well-trained and talented kitchenteam.  The dishes were confident, flavourful and full of identity – they knew what they were and what they were meant to do.

The baratta was savory and light, but the citrus topping was too close to store-bought marmalade for me.  However, the spiced chicken samosas were a winner – moist, delicate andcrispy.  The rigatoni & meatballs and the wagyu burger were also as expected – well cooked and satisfying and the plates went back to the kitchen empty.  The cheesecake was so-so. Great texture, but the crust had no bite and was too soft.

While no doubt the menu is a well tried, well rehearsed compilation of great dishes that will hit the mark nine times out of ten, a restaurant experience is always more than the justfood.

Just because you put pizza on the menu, doesn’t mean you are casual and informal.

So, moving to the rest of the experience, the ‘kitchen’ space is an intimate little dining room, with an open-plan kitchen at the back.  Glass, tiles, and stone are used in the design,and if it weren’t for the fabric chandeliers, the room would be very cold and hard.  Premium cutlery, plates and glassware dot the tables, and I get the feeling there is a dress code.  You can see that JG is very comfortable partnering with five star hotels in this sense.

Despite the room being attractive and chic, as long as you’re putting your waiters in waistcoats and ties, your managers in starched suits and then accessorising them with JG cuff-links, you can’t call yourself a “casual, relaxed place for everyday dining.” as JG did in a recent interview.  That’s like sticking a Cornetto on the forehead of a cow and calling it aunicorn.  Additionally, showcasing Louis XII and magnums of Cristal Champagne in a cabinet is not an ‘everyday dining’ look.

If JG Kitchen is targeting the kind of people that consider cuff-links and Cristal as “relaxed everyday dining,” then they might need a smaller seating capacity – a couple of tables shoulddo it!

Overall, JG Kitchen offers a fresh and uncomplicated lunch – the staff were approachable and had a good sense of humour.  The food was tasty and enjoyable and the room certainlywas elegant and classy.  However, at 300 dhs per person for a lunch without alcohol, it’s not going to become my everyday dining spot. Nevertheless, I will be back for dinnersometime.  And the Serb can pay.

minilogo JG Kitchen

Jason Atherton is a very busy man. He has opened seventeen restaurants in the last five years – that’s one restaurant every three and a half months. And as if that wasn’t enough, he’s managed to pick up a few Michelin Stars along the way. A student of reality TV star, Gordon Ramsey, Jason has been winning friends and influencing people all over the globe. Such is his commercial drive, he has even created a signature perfume, inspired from his time in the kitchen. I’m not sure if garlic, fish and oil are a nice combination, but I presume the check smelt good!

The Marina Social is housed in the new Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai Marina. Upon arriving at the host stand, we were offered a drink at the bar, before going to the table. They have a great one paged cocktail list, and the bar has gone for an industrial chic look. However, I am pretty convinced that the hotel designed it, and it was donated to Social sometime in the pre-opening stage. The space smells of hotel design; banquette tables void of character, the same gunmetal colouring as seen in the lobby of the hotel – this was not a good sign. Please don’t tell me that Jason Atherton agreed to inherit a generic, hotel designed restaurant space? Say it isn’t so!

The service was up and down. – Once the staff relaxed, they got better, but to start with, they were stiff, formal and too intent on following standards and training manuals. I think the key to their future success will be getting the team to really understand what Social means and just loosen up a little.

It took them a while to get the music levels right, and they need to remember to cool down the room early, because a combination of animated guests, an open hot kitchen and hard-working staff will put a serious strain on any AC unit.

It’s a sharing restaurant, but I wouldn’t expect anything different from Jason. It’s his go-to, and it has served him well over the years. What this means is the food arrives whenever the chef prepares it. To their credit, they did follow a relatively logical delivery order, but they need to work on pacing. The first few dishes came out in a timely manner, and then there was a rather long break until the next round. It was in one of these breaks the Serb commented that Social Marina was similar to her favourite restaurant in Hong Kong. I have a feeling she was just name dropping though.

The food, for the most part, was belting – as it should be from Atherton’s Chef Patron (don’t know what that means) Tristin Farmer. Tristin has some excellent cooking chops himself and brings his own impressive CV to Dubai. You hope that Tristin will hang around, because a city will always benefit from such experience and skill. Unfortunately, you get the impression that with so many international Social openings on the cards, it is only a matter of time before he is whisked off to look after another venture.

Out of seven dishes ordered, two were mediocre, one was disappointing and the remaining were deserving of applause and adoration. The first round of applause goes to the social dog, a duck and foie gras hot dog. A decadent, delicious sausage in a sweet brioche bread and a huge step up from the IKEA dogs that I’m used to.

The goat’s cheese Churros were too doughy and were only saved by drenching them in sticky honey. The seared tuna and the Hamachi were as good as you’ll find in any specialized seafood restaurant. They were fresh, vital and clean in both flavour and texture.

The risotto was a little too close to rice pudding for my liking and the pulled lamb flatbread was delightful; but honestly, who doesn’t like pizza? The big let down for me, however, was the black onyx tenderloin. A musty, stale, overpowering flavour rendered the beef inedible for me. However, the Serb, unsurprisingly, had no issues in daintily devouring her piece of meat.

I really want to treat the Marina Social like Atherton wants us to treat it – somewhere to casually pop in with some friends over a bottle of wine and some sharing food. However, with an eye-watering bill of 1,500 Dhs for two, I would quickly become a bankrupt socialite, crying into my IKEA hot dog at what I used to be. I am assuming they only have one sitting per night, and that will always drive prices up.

In an interview, Jason Atherton claimed he makes no money from his food, but I find that hard to believe. Jason Atherton makes money off everything – we just need to decide if he deserves it.

I have a feeling the next time I go, Marina Social will have a few awards to their name, and as long as it’s not a value for money award, they will probably be very deserving of them.  A good restaurant with a fresh, intelligent and relevant menu.

Well done for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

minilogo Marina Social by Jason Atherton

Bianca Mozzarella & Co love their jars. The iced tea came in a jar. The buratta came in a jar. The knives and forks came in a jar and the bill came in a jar. I wonder if IKEA was having a jar sale.

Bianca Mozzarella & Co is at Box Park, on Al Wasl Road. Box Park is a great little retail space, and is again, a signal that Dubai is growing in confidence and competence. I only hope the landlords are being reasonable with rents as the whole area will be messy for another few years at least.

OK, the concept, in a nutshell – or milk sack. Once upon a time, there was an Italian couple who produced the finest mozzarella cheese in the land. They became famous and revered for their wonderful cheese skills. A few years passed and two nephews, who had traveled across oceans and mountains, realized that no-one could replicate the quality and authenticity of their grandmother’s cheese. So they did what any one of us would have done. They built a mozzarella factory in Sharjah. I guess it’s the building that has the water buffalo hanging around outside.

The restaurant is split into two sections – the main kitchen and restaurant and a separate conservatory section which just has seating and a random wooden swing. We decided to eat in the conservatory because the Serb wanted to have a go on the swing. The waiter was very keen to explain the concept to us, and proudly announced that the chef was Italian whilst pointing to a chef in the kitchen that looked suspiciously Filipino.

I think it’s the white furniture and white-washed stone walls that did it, but the space is really very relaxing and rather quaint – some might even say romantic – despite being within spitting distance of the main road and without any music at all, not even a whistling waiter.

Despite being packed at the weekends, the place was quiet when we ate there – in fact, there was a moment when the Serb went to freshen up, and the waiter left to go to milk the buffalo or something, and it was perhaps the most alone I have ever felt in Dubai. It was just me and the silence and an random, wooden swing.

So Bianca is banking on their mozzarella. So much so, that they have put it in the name of their restaurant. If you are confident enough to name yourself after such a specific food item, it better be good. And my goodness, it is better than good. It is excellent. The burrata al bicchiere is mozzarella cheese with whipped cream, served in a jar with croutons, sweet cherry tomatoes and baby spinach leaves. It is quite possibly the best thing I have ever had in a jar. And I have had a lot of things in jars, surprisingly. I have always said every restaurant needs a signature dish, and the best of these can make a restaurant famous. This could be one of these dishes.

The rest of the meal was pleasant, maybe even good, but there is such a divide between the quality of the buratta and the other dishes, that the rest of the meal appeared all quite average.

The bruschette was satisfactory – but having said that, I always compare it to a bruschette served in Tuscany in the late summer when the tomatoes are at their finest. Not particularly fair of me, I know, but it’s me that has to live with that constant disappointment, not you. The great thing about Italian cuisine and the thing that makes it so unique is that the simpler you keep it, the better it can taste.

The penne alla siciliana was also very average – undercooked pasta in a heavy, complicated tomato sauce with the basil calling in sick.

The food is served on large cumbersome chinaware that reminds me of banquet plates from the 1980s. Oh and by the way, Bianca Mozzarella & Co love their jars. The iced tea came in a jar. The buratta came in a jar. The knives and forks came in a jar and the bill came in a jar. I wonder if IKEA was having a jar sale.

The chicken salad was uninspired and rather boring – several slices of grilled chicken hiding a mountain of iceberg lettuce. Just so we are clear – Iceberg lettuce is the most boring of the lettuce family. Iceberg is the last lettuce to get invited to the salad party. This dish would have benefited tremendously by getting a little inventive with its salad leaves.

Bianca has some great reviews on their facebook page and it’s obvious they have some serious fans. Some of them are perhaps a little too enthusiastic. However, there are some sterling comments such as “One Word – THE BEST” and “The greatest Italian restaurant of its kind!” Pretty powerful stuff.

Overall, Bianca is a great neighborhood Italian with its own inimitable charm. The service is friendly and genuine. The space is relaxed and charming, and the mozzarella is some of the best in Dubai. But there is an old Italian proverb (probably) that says, “A man cannot live on mozzarella alone” and neither can Bianca.

Nonetheless, I will be back to put that proverb to the test.

 

minilogo Bianca Mozzarella & Co

Incubate this!

Sasaki Associates recently finished a study on The State of The City Experience in the States, where they concluded that Urbanites agree on three things. They want great food, they love waterfronts and they value historical architecture. Dubai has got two out of those three. And if they could import history, I am sure they would.

But what was most interesting about the survey is that when city residents were asked what aspects of urban life enchanted them, food kept popping up in their responses. Eighty-two percent of urbanites appreciate their city’s culinary offerings. 82%!!

What is so important to remember here, is that food continues to be a major social, cultural, and economic driver, not just in the US, but here in Dubai as well. Restaurants are used to revitalize neighborhoods and bring life back to hotels.

However, what Dubai needs is a new restaurant, artist and entertainment destination. Wait, before you roll your eyes, hear me out. This project will be slightly different. This F&B park will foster the growth of start-up concepts & businesses and capitalize on Dubai’s culture of drive, ambition, entrepreneurship and success.

The idea is to be a magnet for bringing the best and brightest culinary talents and entrepreneurial thinkers into an area that will rival any of the real estate projects that Dubai already has.   A safe haven for budding talent that have a dream and a vision.

Starting from scratch

This park should offer support, favorable commercial terms, and have a long list of industry experts available to provide unique assistance in build, fit-out, marketing, menu development, business advice etc.

These restaurants can only stay a finite amount of time and must meet certain criteria to survive. This allows an ever changing landscape of inventive cuisines and concepts to be tried and tested by real customers.

Imagine local artisans, off Broadway theater, art studios, a park, museums, restaurants and food markets, all in one destination with plenty of parking. No chain retail, no large corporations – just raw talent and hard work.

Similar projects are working well around the world and I don’t see why Dubai can’t do something like this.  All it needs is a group of investors that want to give back to the industry that has made them so much money in the past and support Dubai’s vision for innovation and drive.  The entrepreneurs and the demand is already here.  Dubai has an abundance of creativity and innovation bubbling under the surface, just waiting for a chance to erupt.

Can you imagine what a successful initiative like this will do for a city like Dubai – what benefits and excitement it could bring?  Honestly, just take a minute to think about it. The benefits reach far beyond what my brain can comprehend.

Comments below – let’s start a dialogue.

Incubate this!
Sasaki Associates recently finished a study on The State of The City Experience in the States, where they concluded that Urbanites agree on three things. They want great food, they love waterfronts and they value historical architecture. Dubai has got two out of those three. And if they could import history, I am sure they would.

But what was most interesting about the survey is that when city residents were asked what aspects of urban life enchanted them, food kept popping up in their responses. Eighty-two percent of urbanites appreciate their city’s culinary offerings. 82%!!

What is so important to remember here, is that food continues to be a major social, cultural, and economic driver, not just in the US, but here in Dubai as well. Restaurants are used to revitalize neighborhoods and bring life back to hotels.

However, what Dubai needs is a new restaurant, artist and entertainment destination. Wait, before you roll your eyes, hear me out. This project will be slightly different. This F&B park will foster the growth of start-up concepts & businesses and capitalize on Dubai’s culture of drive, ambition, entrepreneurship and success.

The idea is to be a magnet for bringing the best and brightest culinary talents and entrepreneurial thinkers into an area that will rival any of the real estate projects that Dubai already has. A safe haven for budding talent that have a dream and a vision.

Starting from scratch
This park should offer support, favorable commercial terms, and have a long list of industry experts available to provide unique assistance in build, fit-out, marketing, menu development, business advice etc.

These restaurants can only stay a finite amount of time and must meet certain criteria to survive. This allows an ever changing landscape of inventive cuisines and concepts to be tried and tested by real customers.

Imagine local artisans, off Broadway theater, art studios, a park, museums, restaurants and food markets, all in one destination with plenty of parking. No chain retail, no large corporations – just raw talent and hard work.

Similar projects are working well around the world and I don’t see why Dubai can’t do something like this. All it needs is a group of investors that want to give back to the industry that has made them so much money in the past and support Dubai’s vision for innovation and drive. The entrepreneurs and the demand is already here. Dubai has an abundance of creativity and innovation bubbling under the surface, just waiting for a chance to erupt.

Can you imagine what a successful initiative like this will do for a city like Dubai – what benefits and excitement it could bring? Honestly, just take a minute to think about it. The benefits reach far beyond what my brain can comprehend.

Comments below – let’s start a dialogue.

Tribeca is a new eating establishment, taking its name from the reclaimed industrial wasteland area in New York City.  Those clever New Yorkers back in the early 70’s started naming districts based on city mapping abbreviations.  So, for example, SoHo came from South of Houston Street and Tribeca because it was The Triangle Below Canal Street. My favorite is BoCoCa.  I don’t know why it’s called that, but it’s just fun to say.

However, I don’t know why people are so concerned about copying other places, when a little bit of originality could work.  They could have called themselves SoMa, due to them being located South of the Marina.  I’m going to start a petition.

It takes a brave person to drive down to JBR on a weekend night, even in August, when I braved it.  The Dubai Marina suffers from master planning inefficiencies when it comes to traffic flow, parking options and general access.  I don’t know how anyone who stays there ever gets any visitors.  It must be very lonely living there.  They could have called themselves SoBra – derived from being so brave in travelling there, but that sounds like something a spaced out surfer would say, so maybe not.

I think I knew what to expect from Tribeca before I even arrived there.  I was expecting exposed ceilings, Edison light bulbs, brick walls and generally an industrial feel.  When you call yourself Tribeca, there isn’t much else you can do and I wasn’t disappointed.  However, there were more touches that I hadn’t expected and quite enjoyed.  References to pop culture were dotted around, with a wall painting of Daniel Day Lewis in his most underrated role as Bill the Butcher and local photographer, Martin Beck’s grizzly, battered Superman smoking a cigarette.

Amongst the reclaimed materials, such as wine box ceiling features and wooden pallet tables, they had a plant in a birdcage.  Perhaps this symbolizes the inevitability of growth and life despite society’s best attempts to keep us trapped and caged.  Or perhaps it is simply a plant in a bird cage.

Tribeca is a good looking restaurant – from the attractive staff, (whose employment requisite is to look good in tight jeans) to the customers, to the interior, this is one good looking place.  Perhaps the most attractive place in the SoMa area. (See what I did there?!)

From a place that has a suitcase stuffed with cash chained to the ceiling, the menu is surprising in its direction.  It boasts organic and wholesome foods with simple ingredients, and our starter of the Burrata, which is just mozzarella cheese with more calories, was fresh, clean and plush.  Discovering Burrata is like the first time you try poached eggs – you won’t forget it, regardless of how you feel about it.

People come to a restaurant to connect, converse and engage, and the music levels made it very difficult for tables to do that.   I think what exasperates the issue is that reclaimed materials are not the most acoustic friendly.  Exposed ceilings, glass and concrete are incredibly good at bouncing sound around a room – and not in a good way.  The bar area was getting busier than the restaurant area as the evening went on, and Tribeca need to be careful on what they are trying to become.  It’s extremely difficult to get both the bar and the restaurant dynamic right – you are primarily either one or the other.  In this sense, Tribeca was neither.

The food arrived and I had the grilled chicken which unfortunately was a little too simple and underdeveloped as a dish to warrant the 120 dhs + price tag.  The seasoning was so subtle; it was almost as if the chef forgot entirely.  The crumbled bits of feta cheese and figs (I think – it was dark) did help the dish somewhat on the flavour front though.  Halfway through, I luckily found my missing seasoning – it had been dusted across the top edge of my plate.  Maybe they were aiming for the chicken and missed.

The ravioli pasta was the artisan type, which basically means someone stuffed it by hand, rather than bought it in a shop.  However, whoever did the stuffing did a great job. Six or seven little parcels of perfectly cooked pasta stuffed with a creamy beetroot mascarpone filling.   The deep-red beet mixed with the pea foam created a satisfyingly sweet, yet savoury balance.  The only issue I had was the portion was too small.  The reason it was my issue was because the Serb, upon finishing, moved onto mine without breaking stride.

I think Tribeca is a well thought out concept, and is a wonderful sign of the confidence of the industry.  Their focus on the arts, music and community will bring something special to the SoMa area and I look forward to watching them grow and improve, especially on the food side of things.  They have a first rate set of staff and managers, but will need to keep turning those tables if they want to keep them.

As we left, I noticed, at the bar, they were advertising Rakia, which is a drink from the Balkans region used primarily for torture and punishment.  Luckily the Serb didn’t see it, otherwise this review would have been completely different.

 

minilogo Tribeca Kitchen and Bar

For regular readers of this website, you will know that I am forever looking for the perfect weekend breakfast place. I have got it into my head that this magical place must have a relaxed energy to it, ideally located in a little piazza surrounded by rustic Tuscan houses and flower gardens or perhaps tucked away somewhere green yet urban, like Central Park.  Or even somewhere iconic like an old bank or church with high ceilings and lots of history.

So when the Serb made the choice of Urban Bistro, I immediately asked where it was in the hope that it could come close to any of these aforementioned criteria.

“CNN building, Media City, in the lobby.” She replied, and I sighed out loud.  You see, I wasn’t able to veto her, as I had been on a bad run of restaurant choices recently and had reluctantly agreed to accept her decision, no matter what.  So the CNN building it was.

As I drove through the quiet roads of Dubai, I reflected on my preconception of authenticity and came to rather startling conclusion, that in hindsight isn’t particularly startling in the slightest.

Every city on this planet is unique, with a distinctive heartbeat and rhythm.  Rio and Munich are as different to one another as they are distant from one another.  Ho Chi Min city is vastly different than Dallas, just as Budapest is nothing like Beijing.

However, they all have authenticity in their own way, no matter what city it is.  Even Vegas has authenticity.  Furthermore, you can’t compare Dubai to London no matter how much you want to or the media tries to.  London was founded in 43 AD and Dubai was founded a couple of Tuesdays ago.  Seriously though, London has approximately a one thousand and ninety year head start.  Of course they are going to have old banks with high ceilings and lots of history.

London has the Wolseley in Piccadilly and Dubai has The Urban Bistro in the CNN building in Media City.  Both are as authentic as each other, in that respect.  It is what it is.

So with my heart lifted and my head clearer, we headed to Media city to enjoy some breakfast at Urban Bistro.

Urban Bistro obviously caters for the media city workers during the week with a healthy, hipster salad bar and take away food such as protein crisps and Filipino mango chocolate.  There are health bars and super juices.  Either Media City workers are all fatties or they take their health seriously.

There are dresses for sale on a rack by the cold cabinets and on the bar area there are second hand handbags and scuffed Jimmy Choo shoes for sale. I didn’t really register it when I was there, but now that I write it down, it does seem rather odd.  I don’t know if they are there all the time or only rolled out for the weekends.

However, the restaurant itself is a pleasant little room with good use of mirrors and bookshelves to give off the impression you are in your living room.  There is a nice little terrace overlooking the Media City lake, which might be enough to get me back in cooler months.

I wish a restaurant serving breakfast would get creative with their egg choices. There must be hundreds of innovative, fresh and exciting egg recipes out there. Out of nine egg options on the menu, three were variations of omelette, four were variations of benedict, and one was your choice of eggs. The only original and interesting egg dish was the eggs baked in avocado with cayenne and parmesan.  So, of course, I went for the breakfast burrito, which was nice, but I expected something better. It was too similar to a Zataar Zeit wrap, and I think that’s because they both use a lot of cheese and there were no other flavours bursting through.

The Serb had the ham and cheese omelette, which in presentation could have been fluffier. But, the Serb seemed to enjoy it, and when asked for feedback she said, “It’s really good. You can’t taste the egg.” I have no idea what that means and as usual, I’m too scared to ask.

Urban Bistro emphasizes the message of healthy eating and super foods, but still adorns the menu with burgers, pasta alfredos and club sandwiches.  Which just confirms what I believe all along.  If asked in a survey, my preference between a quinoa salad and a Big Mac, I’ll tick the quinoa salad every day of the week. However, in reality, you better supersize those fries. But give me a diet coke, please.

Having said that, the menu actually looks solid. There is nothing there that hasn’t been done before, and the place won’t win any awards for originality, but there are some interesting interpretations of some classics. The risk is, of course, that if you are targeting office workers two or three times a week, your menu needs to be kept fresh and relevant. The print date on the menu was October 2014. Almost a year without change. Just a observation.

The service was smooth and the coffee was good. I don’t know if the handbags and shoes shrine had some sort of laws of attraction thing going on, but there were significantly more women than men having breakfast.   The men were probably ordering their Big Macs. However, everyone seemed happy.

Urban Bistro is a nice little place, probably very popular for the Media City crowd, and a nice place for a breakfast if you are in the area.   They know who they are, and in that, they are authentic Dubai.

The Serb is still there, looking at the shoes and handbags.

minilogo Urban Bistro

I know that traditionally, these sort of predictions are made at the end of the year as funky little fillers for trade websites.  I predict that’s all about to change.  Here are my top five predictions on what’s in store for the restaurant world in the future.  I say top five, but to be honest I only came up with five in total.

Surge Pricing

 As restaurants compete with traditional entertainment forums, multiple table turns will become harder to achieve and profits will be threatened.  Get ready for the Uber model ofsurge pricing.  You want to eat at 8 pm, you’re going to pay 10% more.

Total Transparency.

A halal or organic logo on the menu will no longer be enough.  There is going to be a tidal wave of information that the restaurateur will need to come clean about; calories, sugars,fats, additives and preservatives.  All this information will be made available to the customer, through mandatory laws enforced by governing bodies.  All processed foods from saucesto meat patties will be regulated and controlled.  Restaurants can no longer claim ignorance or hide behind vague labels.  Accountability is coming.

Restaurant Tickets.

Tock, the ticketing software built by Nick Kokonas, allows restaurants to sell tickets to their customers.  It reduces the bankrupting no-show or last minute cancellations and makessure the customer, and the restaurant are taking the reservation seriously.  You buy theatre tickets, airline tickets and movie tickets up-front – why not restaurant tickets too?

Don’t just sell food – sell time.

The millennials want immediacy; they want speed.  They want now.  Customers will be able to place their food order, whilst they are on their way to the restaurant.  Restaurantswill work to the customer’s schedule.  That’s what Netflix, Tinder and Uber all do.  That’s what restaurants will do.

Take-away and delivery – but not as we know it.

Early in 2015 and for the first time in history, Americans spent more money in restaurants and bars than they did on groceries.  Home delivery and e-commerce will hit this industrylike a sledge hammer.  I’m not talking your fast food burger meal arriving semi cold in 45 minutes after fourteen phone calls with a lost delivery boy.  I’m talking premium restaurantfood, delivered efficiently and accurately to your door.  Fast Fine Food – it’s on the way.

Bonus Food Sheikh Thought!

 The restaurants that are going to excel will sell something extremely uncomplicated. Chicken, steak, good times, social credibility, nostalgia. One of them will do, but not all of them.There is profit in simplicity.

This is not a regular review.  There isn’t even a mention of food in the whole article – read on to find out why!

I want to start by describing a scene from the movie Focus with Will Smith.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I should give you a spoiler alert here.

There is a scene where a gentleman at a football game is conned into choosing a number of a random player on the field, thinking he has complete freewill and control over hischoice.  However, thanks to some careful subliminal messaging from Mr. Smith and his team throughout the day, the number is pretty much predetermined, and the gentleman isleft a few million dollars lighter.

That’s how I felt when the Serb read out a selection of restaurant options for breakfast from a restaurant guide.  Due to some careful subliminal Facebook advertising, as soon as Iheard the name, I thumped my fist on the table dramatically and announced that was my choice.

“I don’t care that it’s in JLT, home of beauty therapists, ethnic restaurants, dentists and random small businesses, like ballroom dancing classes.” I screamed. “That’s the choice andwe’re going!”

However, this is not a review on that restaurant, because exactly 34 minutes after setting foot in that little place in JLT, I got back in the car, feeling like that gentleman at thefootball game in the Focus movie.  So, in my moment of distress, the Serb as she usually does, offers a wonderful suggestion.

“Let’s go get a good cup of coffee and start the day again,” she says, and so my day starts again.

In a quiet, difficult-to-find warehouse in Al Quoz, a small team of coffee entrepreneurs are hard at work, roasting, quality-control testing and packaging responsibly sourced coffeebeans.  The Al Quoz warehouse is the “Dojo” where Raw Coffee is based and where the Kiwi (of course they are) founders, Kim Thomson and Matt Toogood have been blazing atrail of revolution since 2007.  Kim and Matt are not newcomers to the coffee business.  The two of them, along with maybe Justin from Orbis Roastery were probably the firstpeople in the whole region that started roasting their own beans.

Fast forward eight short years and Raw Coffee are the hipster café supplier of choice and leading experts in the java scene.  Which is why I turned my vehicle in the direction of AlQuoz and set off for a guaranteed good cup o’ joe.

Raw’s warehouse is a working warehouse, and also doubles up as a small café with a few tables and chairs at the front.  However, you get the impression that should they ever needthat space for more coffee bean sacks, they would gladly kick you out.

You see, when it comes to Raw, coffee is their king, not the customer.  It really is all about the coffee.  Matt will bore you to death about its acidity, aroma, body, finish andfragrance.  If he ever invites you to a cupping, say no.  Actually, say yes, because his passion and obsession is quite inspiring.  He travels to coffee conventions with the same glee asa Trekkie would go to Comic Con.  I personally don’t care for all that sort of stuff in the same way I’m not so bothered about grape varietal in my wines.  However, it’s essential thatthe people running the show do care, because that’s how you know you’re going to get a good cup of coffee.

What I really like about Raw Coffee is that back in 2007, they were just starting out; a small, down to earth business, that was fueled by passion and a common love.  Over theyears, they have humbly and literally taken their wares to market, talking to anyone who would listen, educating, entertaining and learning how to become a business to be takenseriously, not some hobby undertaken by bored expats.

They have survived a global crisis, fended off stiff competition, embraced the direction the market has moved in and kept pace of its technological advancements.  They havemaintained integrity and their sense of fun throughout it all.  Raw coffee is an example of how local entrepreneurs can manage and grow their business sustainably, successfully, andlook good doing it.

Stepping into the little café in Al Quoz and you see everything I have just explained in action.  You see a wonderfully authentic and homely little café with not-so-much of a coffeecounter, but more of a coffee workshop. A couple of work benches where three or four employees in shorts, and Converse sneakers are tasting coffee, weighing grinds and writingnotes.

I know Kim’s recruitment policy, and she hires in the same way parents adopt children.  You work for Raw Coffee and you’re part of the family – of course, not like in a mafia, creepykind of way.  As far as I can see they are one of the most cohesive, well trained teams in Dubai.  They are super involved in the company and play a huge part in their success.  These guys and gals are real baristas and it is a title well deserved for once.  We are talking serious coffee geeks here.

Now, I couldn’t tell you what sort of coffee bean I was served, or how many meters above sea level it was plucked at, or what the daughter’s name of the farmer who hand-inspected the bean for quality and size was. But I am pretty sure the barista knows.  And that knowledge, passion and obsession scream at you with every sip of your coffee.

Some of you might be wondering if I have shares in Raw, or if I have been promised a private cupping by Matt, but I can assure you, this review is written completely withoutinfluence.

Sure, Raw Coffee café is certainly not perfect – the AC is terrible, and the airflow is directed by a piece of cardboard box straight onto the tables. There are electrical extension cablesdumped in random corners and the seats are a prickly sack material that itches the back of your legs. The barista wasn’t particularly well-groomed and I wouldn’t let him close to afood production area without a good shave and a hair net.  I am sure there have been one or two staff that left Raw in a huff as well.  Furthermore, Raw is not the only coffeeroaster in Dubai.  Justin at Orbis has carved out a good segment of the market for himselfRob Jones over at Coffee Planet can roast a mean bean and The Sum of Us are having a go also. (Although probably using Raw’s beans.)

Nevertheless, Raw know their coffee, and it’s as simple as that. They are down to earth, unassuming and transparent. I know they are expanding, opening places like specialty coffeedestination, Mokha1450 and a rumoured mobile truck, and a part of me are happy for them, for that. But another part of me hopes they don’t, because like all good things in life, it has to be rare to maintain its value.

In my never-ending quest for the perfect weekend food stop, I visited two places that are strong on social media and received good recommendations. One of them fell significantly short of the mark, which is why I am doing them a favour and writing about the other one instead.

It is said that there is safety in numbers, and Al Manara street is certainly becoming an unlikely but popular safe haven for restaurants.  What with Jones, Reem, Bertins and others all contributing to a street that resembles a Tetris game with SUVs and Audis, Bystro Restaurant and Pastry House is in good company.

Jones the Grocer has spawned another entrepreneur ex-employee who felt he too, could ride the wave of the gastro-chilled out restaurants that are popping up in Dubai like faster than you can say Sriracha hot sauce.   A word of warning however, Bystro’s entrance is abrupt, sudden and unforgiving.  One minute you are chatting away with your partner, oblivious to what lays behind the innocent looking glass doors.  A swoosh of cold air and a blink of the eye later and you find yourself center stage of a busy restaurant, with a sea of faces staring at you, mid fork, as if you were expected to break into a cabaret routine for their enjoyment.  It’s like a cross between Come Dine With Me, and So You Think You Can Dance.  It is the stuff of my nightmares.

At first glance, the restaurant is busy, eye catching and exciting. The table configuration is erratic enough to create some unruliness and bring character to the room, whilst still maintaining sufficient order to stop it from falling into utter chaos. The bare bulbs bring that Melbourne industrial feel and the blues, purples and beiges of the furniture add a depth to the area. There is a large feature wall at the back that has some impressive chalk artwork/lettering and I can imagine the staff hissing at children as they innocently rub off various letters on a daily basis. The chalk man has a good gig there, looking at the number of children running around.

The menu is a double-sided card affair with a nice selection of café/pub items across breakfast, sandwiches, mains and salads.  There is a hole-punched subsidiary menu that looks like it was put together by one of the children after they had rubbed off some chalk lettering. With an establishment that has such sharp owners and intelligent social media conversation, I would have expected something better looking for specials menu. They even have the hole-punch hole protector stickers that you can only buy in posh public schools or one of those Japanese shops that sell everything.  The main menu was strewn with spelling errors and typos and sealed with a lipstick mark at the top – Rose Pink by Mac according to the Serb – and she knows her lipstick colours. I have explained before about the importance of the menu to a restaurant – it states your intent as an establishment, and I just don’t know what a menu with hole-punch protector stickers, typos and lipstick is intending to do with the food.

Nevertheless, Bystro was super busy and that certainly brings character and more importantly, credibility to the place. The staff were attentive and engaged – not manic, stress inducing busy, but enough to keep the place buzzing nicely.  They have their Italian imported, custom-made cake display in the center of the room and I can see children, after rubbing off chalk and hole-punching specials menus, slapping their sticky fingers all over the glass and the staff hissing again at them.  Perhaps.  However, the cake display was awkward and I’m not sure it bought anything to my experience, apart from supporting that they have written pastry house on their menu.  Certainly, in a busy restaurant, walking around the display proves to be difficult and clumsy.

Anyway, onto the food. Suitably impressed with the chalk artwork offerings, I opted for the roast with all the trimmings, which was sirloin beef with roast potato, vegetables and a Yorkie, which I can only imagine was called that because some pesky kid had rubbed out the rest of the letters.  My partner homed in on the coronation chicken sandwich with the accuracy of a laser guided missile.  Add to that a wonderful Fentiman’s drink and the waiter’s job was done.

Coronation chicken was, of course, one of the dishes served at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 1953.  If Bystro’s coronation chicken was served back then, perhaps Prince Phillip might have been more agreeable in his years to come.  It may appear to be a simple sandwich, but it is anything but that.  The bread, a dark, soft wedge of baking mastery supporting delicately spiced, pulled chicken, enhanced with a charming grape and mango chutney and served with a cute paper bag full of seasoned French fries.  It was a sandwich fit for a queen, and rather fitting that the Serb was eating it.

My roast, however, did not fare so well. The dish arrived at the sort of temperature that could only be achieved by microwave or a trip to the surface of the sun. The gravy was a gelatinous, over seasoned tidal wave that tsunami’d its way over everything on my bowl leaving the carrots and green beans holding onto each other for dear life. The meat, after I had pulled it to safety onto my Yorkshire pudding safety raft, was quite good, although sliced a little too thin for me to get any of the chew and texture that I like with my beef. My suggestion would be to give the chef a smaller ladle and allow the stars of the dish to shine a little more.

The cakes were chosen from the display and the carrot cake, although small in portion was big in flavour.  Moist, decedent and delightful, the carrot cake was a little piece of sunshine at the end of my fork.

Bystro has found a voice in the busy and loud gourmet-gastro restaurant market. They have some excellent foundations to build on and although my roast missed its mark, the place was sufficiently busy for me to have faith that the rest of the menu is doing enough to create fans and keep people coming back.

minilogo Bystro Restaurant

Zengo is currently the number one restaurant in Dubai on Trip Advisor but to be honest, you never can trust these restaurant review sites in my opinion.  Everyone’s a critic these days!

 

Zengo, at the Le Royal Meridian Hotel, is one of 35 restaurants in Richard Sandoval’s empire of Mexican contemporary restaurants. I have eaten in not just one, not just two, but three of hisrestaurants and therefore I deem myself Dubai’s foremost authority on the Richard Sandoval empire. I am probably his most avid groupie, faithfully following his openings around the globe. Iam considering a Sandoval tattoo down my left calf.

Zengo is currently the number one restaurant in Dubai on Trip Advisor but to be honest, you never can trust these restaurant review sites in my opinion. Everyone’s a critic these days.However, within seconds of sitting down, I knew why they were a Trip Advisor favourite. At every opportunity, the staff mentioned it and it was clearly something they focused on in staffmeetings. Funnily enough, when I was doing my groupie thing and ate at Toro in Belgrade, the staff there did the same, so it is obviously quite a savvy strategy they all participate in.

After a warm welcome and a rather complicated decision to either use the stairs or the elevator, we arrived on the main restaurant floor. This is the sort of restaurant that calls you by yoursurname and encourages you to get drunk at the bar before moving to the table. In that sense it reminds me of my university housemate, Oshy. At the bar, the young bartender is a strongsalesman and I ended up with an Old Fashioned cocktail interpretation with very cool ice cube balls. I hate Old Fashioned cocktails so I still don’t really know why I agreed to it. But I did likehow I felt whilst holding it. It was a good looking drink, despite remaining largely untouched for the reminder of the evening.

Zengo is how restaurants should be built – a great bar and sushi counter acting as the backbone of a sweeping curvature – a great variety of dining tables and lounge suites wrapped aroundthe outside of the space and a terrace that would be great in the winter. I am so glad they didn’t try to theme the décor; I was dreading seeing a Koi fish mural in a poncho, or samurai swordsmade from Burritos. They have kept it classy, neutral and sophisticated – the complete opposite to the stereotypical comments I just made.

The menu is designed by both Richard Sandoval and Akmal Anuar, so you should see an interesting menu of Mexican/Asian cuisine. That’s a great way to hedge your bets. Having beentalked through the menu by another extremely well trained and personable waiter, it was apparent that Akmal’s voice was the lead in the menu direction. A great selection of Asian dishes,accented with Mexican flavours. However, being the seasoned restaurant critic that I am, and the Serb not one to be swayed by boring server suggestions, we immediately agreed toeverything our waiter recommended. I would like to think I would have chosen those dishes anyway, though.

Zengo have opted for a sharing menu and for those of you who know me, know that I’m not necessarily a big fan of sharing concepts. But it does work in this instance – it allows a moreintimate familiarity with your table and brings the whole experience into a lovely balance of casual premium dining.

The food really is very good. The Angry Zengo was a slightly spicy tuna maki roll that was well balanced and reminded me of Angry Birds, the computer game. I was tempted to launch eachangry roll at the table next to me to see if I could knock over their wine glasses. I didn’t though. The duck maseca pancake was not what the Serb expected – she really wanted a Peking duckwith plum sauce and paper-thin pancakes, in the style of a Chinese take away. She didn’t tell me as such, but I know her and I know exactly what she was thinking. However, their versionwas excellent and I think this is probably their defining dish. Every restaurant should have one dish that everyone recommends, and Zengo’s is the duck maseca pancake – shredded duck,with a sweet chipotle barbeque sauce on a soft tortilla base.

We also had Wagyu Sate – beef skewers in a peanut sauce – but it too was quite a sweet dish, so combined with the duck and the Serb, there was just a bit too much sweetness at the table,unfortunately. Finally, we shared the carbonara, that famous Mexican/Asian dish. But it was made with udon noodles, so I think they just about get away with it.

The Zengo experience is traditional, keeping traditional service points that the newer breed of restaurants are often sacrificingIt’s this attention to detail that takes Zengo into the upperechelon of premium dining in Dubai. Whether it’s the best in Dubai is not my place to say, but as I looked around the room at the many busy tables, Zengo was doing exactly what arestaurant should be doing.

You see, restaurants affect us in every way you can imagine. Restaurants are not just a place to eat; restaurants are non-denominational cathedrals where people from all walks of lifegather for a common purpose. Restaurants offer companionship, unity, sustenance, shelter and comfort. They help us forge bonds and create memories that last lifetimes. What could bemore important to humanity then that? So, next time you are lucky enough to dine out with loved ones or friends, take a breath between your appetizer and main course to reflect,appreciate and savour that moment – they don’t last forever. You’ll feel better for it, I promise.

Zengo in Japanese means “Give and Take.” Zengo manages to give so much more than just food  but they do take your money. 600 Dhs for two, to be precise.

 

minilogo Zengo Restaurant

The sweet potato fries seemed like they were invited to the party simply because they are on trend.

I would like to start this restaurant review by saying that Souk Madinat must have the hottest, smallest car park in the world.  I would also like to apologize to Souk Madinat because,for some reason, I had it in my head that the Souk was a ghost market, a relic of days gone by.  However, I was surprised to see it was as bustling as a Bangkok street corner on aSaturday night.

Frioul Bistro de Lux is operated by the same people that bought you Pacha Club and is a re-incarnation of the old Jam Base space, except with a more confusing entrance.  Frioultakes its name and apparently its inspiration from the archipelago islands of Frioul off the Mediterranean coast of France.

What this means for the menu, is that they can pretty much serve any type of cuisine, as long as they can loosely link it back to the Mediterranean diet.  Take their Calzone, forexample, which is originally from Naples, Italy – the same home as the pizza.  Naples is almost 800 kms away from the Frioul islands, which, strangely enough, is the same distanceFrioul’s entrance is from the Souk itself.

Thanks to the restaurant being virtually empty for the duration of our meal, we could take a good look around the space. The main theme was elegant white, which can sometimesmake you feel like you are eating in a hospital. However, Frioul got it right and the restaurant is spacious, light and according to my partner, super female friendly;  she is a femaleherself, so she should know. The kitchen, all the way in the distance, is an open-plan design with great accents of deep amber to break up the room.

The space really was very skilfully done – possibly one of my favourite rooms in Dubai. Even the bathrooms were properly lit, clinically clean and had some thoughtful designelements to them. You know a restaurant is of good quality when they embed the toilet roll holder into the wall so it is flush against the tiles. That’s some significant attention todetail; I’m a sucker for Molton Brown hand soap as well.

According to their website, they boast a potentially destination-defining roster of jazz musicians from world-class venues such as the 606 Club in London. However, according to thewaitress, they haven’t had a musician in the place since before Ramadan and won’t have one until maybe October. What a disappointment, because I can imagine live jazz musiccould create magic in that place.

After some slight confusion, we were given food menus which were totally different to the ones advertised on their website. One word for that, “lazy management”;  OK, twowords.  However, the menu choices were a hodgepodge of international cuisine, from pizzas and pasta to Wagyu sirloin to Quinoa salads.  This is where the cracks of confusion startto show in the concept, in my opinion.

I couldn’t quite get a decent grip on what the chef was trying to do here. A menu is more than just a listing of F&B choices. It is a statement of who you are and what you stand for and Frioul’s menu left me a little bewildered, I’m afraid.  My bewilderment turned to dread when I read it was a sharing menu. Sharing menus are a diseased trend that has spread quite far enough across the restaurant industry. If done right, in a tapas bar, for example, it can be quite agreeable. However, being crowbarred into a French Bistro de Lux is adifferent story, unfortunately.

Luckily, no-one told the service staff about the sharing concept, and the food was served in the correct order and at the same time to the right person – just like in a real restaurant.Even the bread was Silver Served* by an eager young waitress. Anyway, who Silver Serves bread these days? I haven’t been served bread since I was accidentally upgraded toBusiness Class by Emirates.

*Silver Service is when the waiter or waitress serves you the food from a service dish to the guest’s plate. There are a bunch of old-fashioned rules thatcome with it, but are far too boring to write about here. Funnily enough, however, the French call this “service à l’anglaise” or “English Service”. But in thiscase, it was actually a Filipino who served us the bread. Confusing, I know.

The beetroot and pear salad was simple and direct, and I enjoyed it. I think the pears were canned, as they had that metallic sweetness that comes from living in sugar syrup, but Icould be wrong. The bruschetta was complicated and over seasoned. The tomato was cubed too thin, and the bread was soggy with the basil paste. Bruschetta bread needs a crunchloud enough to shake the toilet roll holders in the bathrooms.

The lamb cutlets were over-salted; a sign of an unsupervised cook with more youth than experience on his side. I had hoped the couscous would be light, fluffy and refreshing, butinstead it was flattened by the lamb and then drowned in its jus.

The steak minute came with a mushroom sauce that had some really good depth and flavour to it. However, the sweet potato fries seemed like they were invited to the party simplybecause they are on trend. For the Serb, they didn’t bring anything to the dish. However, to be fair, nothing apart from meat is really necessary for the Serb.

Even so, maybe I am over analysing it all, because taking a step back from everything, the entire experience was acceptable.  However the food could have been better, which isdisappointing but the future looks promising as apparently there is a brand new menu being developed.  I think if I could have had the full experience of a busy, vibrant restaurantwith great live jazz, it would have been a very different review, full of energy and adrenalin.

But luckily, there were enough hints of potential for me to want to try Frioul again, even if Souk Madinat does have the world’s hottest and smallest car park.

minilogo Frioul Bistro De Luxe

The Chicken Gyros – not good for a first date, but might be worth going home alone for!

There are some operators who stay largely under the radar and create a solid, loyal following based on sincere credibility. A case in point is Elia, the Greek restaurant at the ironicallynamed Majestic Hotel in Bur Dubai. I’ve had the pleasure of dining there a few times and every time it was enjoyable and reliable. This is how you create a sustainable business, bythe way.

So, when I heard that the Elia management, the M Management Company and Chef Ilias Kokoroskos, were launching a new Greek restaurant in Mythos Kouzina & Grill, I penciled itin my diary. And then promptly forgot about it.

Until last night. And, boy, I am glad I remembered. According to Chef Ilias, Mythos is “Greek comfort food in its purest and most delicious form.” And we all know that Greece coulddo with a little comfort right now.

So, Mythos is a bit tricky to find – you park up top at Armada Blue Bay Hotel in JLT and then you head downstairs to the lower level from the parking lot. You will see a strangelynamed Hugs and Mugs café on your right, but don’t be distracted by their fancy name and lights. You are on a mission, remember. Keep left and stay on the foot path. Pretty soon,you will find a little building with an entrance that Mythos share with another F&B place. Mythos is the one with the Mythos sign on the door. Enter.

I must admit; one of my pet peeves is when a restaurant tries to force themed authenticity down my throat, and I was worried that Mythos might have gone tried too hard with theinterior design. However, the only thing wrong with it was my preconception.

Archways and rough stone walls, exposed bulbs with warm filaments, faded Santorini blues and distressed whites, elegant mirrors and bleached raft wood ceilings.

Upon sitting down, you really got a sense of the Cyclades islands’ way of life. Simple, elegant and understated. The floor plan is casual and uncomplicated – banquet seating withsome independent tables as well. All arranged down a long, slender room. They have a small terrace, but during the summer, I don’t stray more than 3 meters from an AC unit, so Ihave no idea what it looks like.

The Serb had spent some time in Greece and vouched for the look and feel of the place. She actually got quite emotional whilst reminiscing, so thank you Mythos, because ansentimental Serb is just what I want during my dinner.

So, onto the food. No wait, before I get to the food, let me get my first gripe out of the way. When dining out, I expect the waiter or waitress to be able to respond to my mood atall times. If I am quiet, they must be silent. If I am telling jokes, they must act like I am the funniest man they have ever met. That night, I was in quite a jovial mood; it was aspecial night. I felt that the waiter could have read the mood better at our table. I would have, for once, enjoyed a conversation about the menu, suggestions, anecdotes, chef’sfavourites, etc. But there was none of that. Just an efficient, order taker. No bonding, no bromance, nothing. It wasn’t a big issue, but something I did notice.

Nevertheless, the food arrived, and everything was ok in the world again. Every now and again, a chef comes along with a thundering reminder of how good an casual diningexperience can really be. Chef Ilias, although on vacation when I dined there, has left a very capable team in charge.

The Greek salad was spot on – it was fresh, crisp and acidic with all the flavours happening at the front of your mouth as they are meant to. The grilled calamari came in twoseasoned tentacles, semi-sliced and grilled, drizzled in olive oil and served with lemon. Simple, clean and fresh.

But now it’s time for my second gripe. The Dakos salad is the Greek answer to Italy’s Bruschetta. But not as good. This dish was the weakest of the evening, in my opinion. It isshredded tomato and feta cheese over Cretan barley rusk. It was soggy, stodgy and heavy. I don’t want to dwell on it.

However, I have left the best till last – the Chicken Gyros and the Keftedakia. The Gyros might have been the best I have ever tasted. The “Greek Shawarma,” this example was theperfect size with a strong, confident tzatziki sauce and marinated chicken that had just a touch of char to the meat. It was wrapped in a warm pita and served on a wooden board.Magical. The aroma is still with me this morning. Literally. Not good for a first date, by the way, but might be worth going home alone for.

The Keftedakia, which are simply Greek meatballs, were the star of the evening. A perfect culinary embodiment of what Mythos is all about; unpretentious, simple and classy.Presented five in a bowl, with a little garnish, the balls were juicy, flavourful and slightly pink in the middle. Never underestimate how easy it is to overcook and serve a dry, tastelessmeatball. This simple dish was a direct reflection of the care and focus that has gone into the menu. Chef Ilias wasn’t lying when he said it was Greek comfort food at its mostdelicious.

The restaurant is small – only 70 seats or so and on that mid-week evening, there were maybe twenty other guests dining there. The atmosphere was relaxed and comfortable.Even the usually horrific Greek music managed to play its part perfectly. This is the sort of restaurant that subconsciously encourages strangers to talk to one another from table totable. A Greek couple were helping another table choose their food with genuine interest and care. (My point about the waiter was instantly vindicated) Mythos seems to effortlesslydo what many other restaurants strive their whole life-cycles to accomplish. They bring people together through their love of good food.

Mythos Kouzina & Grill deserve to be busy. They deserve reviews like this.

 

minilogo Mythos Kouzina & Grill