I woke up the other day with a incredible urge for Mexican food. I was dreaming of soft flour burritos, crispy tacos and tostadas, with tangy avocados and slow cooked meats in a Yucatecan marinade. I was like a crazy pregnant lady with my food urges. So I gleefully booked at O Cacti, the Mexican house and cocktail bar at Pier 7. And as the day wore on, the excitement grew and I was looking forward to writing a worthy review.

At 7 pm, In the short elevator ride to the 2nd floor of Pier 7, I was almost bouncing with anticipation like a piñata being hit by a fat kid looking for the candy.

We got greeted by a hostess who made the terrible mistake of giving my Serbian partner the once over, up and down. She seated us on the terrace, and I managed to placate my partner who was sharing her thoughts about the hostess in terrifying detail.

The view was great – I always try to see the positive in everything and the view of the marina on a crisp February night was very pleasant indeed. After 15 minutes, the view was still pleasant, but my patience and enthusiasm were not. And when I say 15 minutes, I am not exaggerating – I used my timer on my phone. 15 minutes with no menus, no eye contact and no attention from anyone in the entire establishment.

So we left, and on the way past the host station, I shared my concerns with the manager who was leading up against the wall. He looked at me with eyes of a deeply resigned and beaten man.

Which is why this is a review about Cargo, the contemporary and industrial night spot on the 3rd floor. However, they have an advantage for this review. I arrived like a fragile young lamb, looking for solace and comfort. I couldn’t tell how the Serbian was feeling – she was maintaining impressive neutrality.

Cargo is a gastro bar, a grittier All Bar One, with exposed ceilings and a large open bar and restaurant area. The staff were great, but after my O Cacti experience, they could have spit on me and I would have said the same.

We were seated close to the terrace and given a rolodex of menu choices by a very friendly waiter who immediately tried to get us to start some serious drinking. Which I declined and the Serb didn’t.

The menu is Asian inspired, so we immediately both ordered the burgers. The Serbian ordered the trio of sliders and I went for the regular burger. However the menu has lots of teriyaki, ponzu (which I thought was a dodgy financial scheme) and sashimi marinated meats and vegetables.

Before our non-Asian burgers arrived, we ordered the summer rolls and the Cantonese spring rolls. Delightful. The summer rolls were a generous portion of crispy julienne vegetables wrapped in rice paper. The yuzu soya sauce was necessary to enhance the flavours, but I assume the chef already knew that. The Cantonese spring rolls were stuffed with a generous mix of tiger prawn and mozzarella. The flesh of the prawns was very apparent with every bite, with a fine partnership of the smoky prawns and light mozzarella.   They were well cooked, however, perhaps on the slightly greasy side if I was being picky. Which I always am.

What I liked about Cargo, apart from being served, of course, was the mix of people that were there. From the staff to the customers, there was a great egalitarian representation of Dubai demographics. In a country that is trying to create a playground for two hundred and two different nationalities, it seems Cargo has managed it rather well.

And they serve customers as well which is a huge advantage to their south of the border cousins on the 2nd floor.

The burgers were good. Wagyu beef, as announced on the menu. My issue with Wagyu is when you slather it with wasabi mayo and stick in between two slabs of bread, the quality of the beef is lost. The distinction of the burger would not be diminished by using a less premium beef, in my opinion. The bread was good; not too sweet, with a well proportioned thickness to it. The wasabi mayo was not wasabi enough for my taste; I felt it could have packed a bit more of a punch. My partners sliders were well cooked and boasted to be served three different ways, however, my partner claims she couldn’t tell the difference. The French fries were French fries, but they were served in a tortilla shell, and knowing how much I wanted tortillas that night, it did feel like a slap in the face.

The total bill was a very reasonable 375aed for two people.

By the time we left, the place was buzzing, and the large open space we walked into earlier had become a rather intimate warehouse of engaged customers, energetic staff and a relaxed ambiance.

So I would like to thank O Cacti Mexican house for making my evening at Cargo lounge and Restaurant an enjoyable evening.

Cargo, 3rd Floor. Pier 7, Dubai Marina, 04 3618 129

 

minilogo Cargo

I think I like the idea of Leopold’s of London more than the actuality of the place. Don’t get me wrong, I like the actual place as well, but the idea is far superior to the reality. But isn’t that often the case? Trying to get a seat on a Friday morning was a bit like trying to find a watering hole in the Serengeti. My partner and I obviously arrived through the wrong entrance and spent several awkward minutes searching for a table. We looked like two meerkats stood on an ant hill looking for something to eat. And despite numerous staff buzzing around like flies on a hot day, no-one actually plucked up the courage to approach us. So we fought our way through the other table searching meerkats to “re-enter” the establishment via the terrace entrance. Whereby we hit our next obstacle; a slightly sweaty hostess in a slightly too tight skirt suit. They either change the uniforms, or I am sure they will dehydrate into just empty crumpled suits.

I don’t think the experience would be any poorer for it, if I am honest. Having asked for a table outside, we covered our ears as she bellowed, literally fog-horned it up to the balcony on the first floor to inquire on a table for us. Having got absolutely no confirmation from anyone upstairs she confidently instructed us to make our way back through the Serengeti of meerkats and flies to our potential table on the upper level.

It was at this point I was willing to continue walking and try our luck at another place. I was dreading what experience could await us upstairs. I felt like Simba walking out of the Pride lands and into the dark forbidden elephant’s graveyard. I was convinced I could hear the Hyenas laughing from upstairs. But, as I said at the start of this review, I really like the idea of Leopold’s and so I persevered. And I am glad I did.

Upstairs was like a different world – the lush green foliage on the wall of the staircase acted like a Feng Shu cleansing for me and we arrived to a wonderfully considered mezzanine floor. Ornate and eye catching with tea and coffee labs, where they probably practiced sinister caffeine alchemy. Their coffee menu had wonderfully exciting names like Chemex and Cold Brew and Syphon and my favourite, the Manual Shot. How alpha male! This is what Putin would drink if he came here.

The tea menu was over-complicated, perhaps to justify the pricing. It’s difficult to charge premium prices for what is effectively a fancy cup of PG Tips. The food menu was succinct and considered. Their breakfast range was what you would expect – the usual egg menu, poached, scrambled, omelezzzzzz….. I ordered the eggs benedict, with a choice of soft cooked eggs. My partner wanted to try the healthy breakfast, a chickpea bruschetta type dish and then, after some internal deliberation, she added the vanilla bean pancakes, because, well, you don’t want to be too healthy.

We sat back and enjoyed the mayhem and what turned out to be excellent coffee. The staff were plentiful and diverse, and seemed to be just managing to stay afloat of the Friday morning tsunami. I started to explain the history of Leopold’s, but when my partner learnt that there was actually no Leopold and he wasn’t from London, she lost interest immediately.

Luckily the food arrived and we were saved from the impending one sided discussion. My eggs benedict was satisfactory, but certainly the eggs were not soft. The muffin was fresh but the hollandaise sauce was not sharp enough for my liking. But it was better than Paul’s but not as good as Tom and Serg’s. The healthy breakfast was poked at with both our forks, but largely left untouched. The chickpeas and tomato based sauce made the bread soggy and with too many strong flavours, it was far too heavy to be considered a breakfast dish or a healthy dish. Luckily we had the pancakes as backup. They were thick cakes, slightly Bavarian in nature, with a good, not too sweet cream and some artisan home-made style jam, sorry, compote.

Leopold’s of London is a clever, well designed “home grown” concept, with a strong location down at the beach on JBR. It will have a good following of European expats and locals, looking for safe, suitable food and good quality coffee. It’s the new wave of gastro-ish coffee/café/restaurants. It has a good story behind it but I feel there are just a few too many errors in the plot for it to be a blockbuster just yet. But what do I know; I spent half my time there thinking I was Simba from the Lion King.

 

minilogo Leopold’s of London

Simon Rimmer, according to my research team, Mr. Google and Wiki, is a fashion and design student turned chef. After winning a few culinary accolades, Mr, Rimmer then moved into television hosting several cooking shows. After that, it seems, he put his name onto a restaurant in Dubai called The Scene. I don’t know if he was a hands on partner, throwing swaths of rejected floral wallpaper off the terrace and dramatically spitting out substandard sauces from the kitchen or he simply sold his name to the investors and sat back home in Chorlton Cum Hardy counting his money.

Either way, his two main strengths design and cooking, were well represented in The Scene.   If my grandmother was a, still alive and had b, taken too many of her special pills, she would have designed something like The Scene. Eclectic British adornments deliberately mis-matched were scattered across the dining room. Jam jars for lights, faux Thomas Minton Willow patterned jugs, Chatsworth house deer antler light fittings – you get the picture.

So I decided to take my lifelong expat parents for a late lunch along with the Serbian. I was hoping to incite some nostalgia for the old couple and instil some colonial culture in the Slavic one. We arrived to a busy restaurant. Busy with staff more than customers though. A lot of staff were on duty, all standing around, doing very little. Perhaps they were getting ready for a busy evening shift and we happened to arrive in the quiet before the storm.

Upon arrival we were asked if we wanted the lounge or the restaurant. According to the hostess, the only difference between the two was where they were located. We ended up choosing a booth but I don’t know if that was in the restaurant or lounge area. I don’t think the hostess knew either, if I am honest.

The menu incited little gasps of joy from my mother, who then proceeded to read out every dish that she particularly liked. And it seems like she liked the entire menu. If there was sea bass on the menu, my father was going to order sea bass. He always chooses the sea bass. The Serbian was going to go for something safe and familiar to her mother country, like a slab of meat. There were too many strange exotic dishes on the menu, like fish and chips, Welsh rarebit or Scotch egg for her liking.

My fish and chips arrived exactly how I thought it would – on a wooden board, just like they are served in er, Bognor Regis?! The battered fish was a little too light in colour; I would have enjoyed a little more golden brown and crunch to the batter. However, the fish was good, moist, flavourful and a good portion. The chips were better than average, great colour, crispy and well cooked. I think the fish fryer chef needs to take lessons from the chip fryer chef.

My father’s sea bass fillet (see I told you) arrived looking rather lost against the Greek salad and a comically over-sized filo crisp. When asked to give his in-depth opinion, he shrugged and said “I like sea bass.” Which I took to mean “it wasn’t particularly good, but in true British fashion, let’s not make a scene, especially at The Scene.”   Mother had the pie of the day, which was beef and ale. It continued to elicit little yelps of happiness so I assume it hit all the expectations she had put on the dish beforehand, and knowing my mother, they would have been significant. Finally, the chuck steak Herd Burger arrived for the Serbian one. Chuck steak, otherwise known as braising steak, actually makes for quite good ground patties, thanks to the balance of meat and fat. She didn’t eat all of it, but she never does for any meal. I don’t know why, and at this stage I’m too afraid to ask.

At this stage of the meal, we had witnessed countless managers wander by the table but none of them thought it might be nice to engage in some pleasantries with us, inquire about our food, or if we had watched the latest series of Downton Abbey. So I suppose, our great British hospitality is living up to its reputation.

We finished off our meal with some shared deserts, Apple crumble (“I like apple crumble”) and Eton Mess (insert another excited squeal here). Both dishes were demolished by all four spoons rather quickly. They were good; well presented, good temperature and flavours and a thoughtful spin on some classics.

The Scene has definitely had some heart and soul put into its menu and design. You feel relaxed and comfortable from the moment you walk in, and are pleasantly surprised with the diversity and quality of the menu. It is just a shame that the same heart and soul wasn’t seen in the staff. Despite having a large work force and plenty of pretty faces, The Scene seemed to be lacking some genuine hospitality.

minilogo The Scene by Simon Rimmer

“A Melbourne-style café in the heart of Al Quoz” is what Tom and Serg’s website states.  “A restaurant in Al Quoz?  What will they think of next?!” is usually the response when suggesting to Tom & Serg virgins that we dine there.  However, I am now totally down and hip with the concept that an industrial estate has a restaurant. Although, technically, Tom and Serg’s is not in Al Quoz proper.  You’ve got to go past the grave yard and cement factory before you can claim that.  But I get that it supports their hipster vibe that they are aiming for.

However, they even go on to say “Tom & Serg is an expansive warehouse, lovingly reworked into a space that’s both individual and packed with detail”  Again, I think warehouse is a little far-fetched.  You want coffee in a warehouse?  Then go to Raw Coffee in Al Quoz. Now that is quite literally a warehouse.  I would go there more often, but I can’t find the damn place.

Tom and Serg’s “warehouse” is in Al Joud Center, a row of slightly cheaper retail spaces just round the corner from Ace Hardware, next to Sketchers and Villeroy & Boch.  But, I get it.  Warehouse sounds gritty and real.  My first time driving there, I took my Dubai Explorer book, extra Masafi water and flares.  I was ready for the adventure and I wasn’t disappointed.  I had to park off road and walk across!

There is a great café culture coming out of Australia and New Zealand these days, and the magical thing about these cafes is that they are near impossible to scale and franchise.  This allows them to remain unique and individual.  T&S have done a pretty decent job in bringing this laid back, yet professional style of café eating to Dubai.  Their time at Jones the Grocer gave these Hipsterpreneurs the foundations of good hospitality.

So, let me paint the picture.  T&S has large glass façade that allows you to see how busy the place is prior to entering. And it is usually very busy.  They have a downstairs and a mezzanine level and according to an industry associate of mine, they have 16 different seating styles.  I don’t know if that is good or bad.  But, yes, they have high tables, communal tables, banquet tables and regular tables.  They have a station for water in cute glass bottles with lemon slices in it.  They have staff with tattoos, shorts and piercings casually serving food, as if it was not the primary reason they are there, but will do it, because they are happy to help.

They maintain a relaxed, “best buddy” conversation through their Instagram and facebook accounts.  They blog and tweet.  They have polished concrete floors, open plan kitchen and they close at 3:45pm.  (4:30pm at the weekends)

The thing with hipster cafes is that while good atmosphere of a café has become a pre-requisite, customers also expect a high level of creativity in the whole concept as well as quality in the food and drinks served. Though being unique is a factor, they have to continuously re-invent their foodcraft.  The Dubai crowd are easily bored.

Their coffee is good.  Not excellent but certainly not average.  They obviously have some good skill behind their coffee machine.  And he’s probably bearded, tattooed and speaks with an Australian accent.  Just a guess! They have their flat whites and short macs along with the usual cappuccinos and espressos.  The staff are typically arrogant and condescending if you use another name for your coffee other than what they have been trained to respond to.  But once it arrives, it is a solid cup of coffee.  Occasionally not hot enough, but I was told off when I complained, because apparently if it gets any hotter the milk burns and the world will immediately end.

The food menu takes comfort food and hipsterizes it.  Yes, I did just make up a word.  Dishes such as the salted caramel French toast, breaky burrito con carne and the slightly humorous Baghdad scramble adorn the chatty menu.

The food nonchalantly arrives at the table and is lively and fresh.  The flavours are well rounded and the ingredients are wholesome.  This is hipster comfort food at its best.  Quirky, inventive and serious.  Not award winning, but it’s not meant to be.  They rotate their menu items, but never stray far from tradition.

The eggs Florentine is as good as any you’ll find in Dubai (although, other restaurants would simply call it eggs benedict with spinach) and their gluten free Bhutanese eternal salad is the gateway drug to the world of Veganism. (The yogurt is fine – it’s biodynamic)

It fits – in fact, everything fits.  The staff, atmosphere, location, fit out, food and prices – they all fit.  They all have quirks and faults, but put them together and they harmonise like a Hipsters beard and thick rimmed spectacles.

T&S is a popular place and it’s easy to see why.  They are doing more things right than they are wrong.  And that’s a good ratio.  They understand the changing expectations of the consumers and they have bought something fresh to the market.  And fresh is always good, until it goes bad.

minilogo Tom & Serg

The people that bought you Zuma and Le Petite Maison have created another shining example of how to design, build and operate a big restaurant name in Coya. And let’s not underestimate the importance and intelligence of the timing of this opening.

South American food is the hot volcano of the food world right now and Peruvian food specifically is the Magma that is ejaculating from this culinary volcano.  Peruvian food is the new black and as Coya Dubai runs off to count their gold, I can see them throw callous, maniacal laughter over their shoulder as other restaurant groups and hotel groups stumble over themselves to bring in a Dragon Mart copy just to stay in touch.

And this is not a coincidence – They did it with Zuma back in 2009 when Japanese food was on fire. And then, when the world went crazy for provincial French food in 2011, La Petite Maison was there to satiate the cravings.

Considering how from a dream to inception, a restaurant launch can take at least 12 months, that vision is boarding on clairvoyant. Peruvian food is right in the now, it is the culinary hotspot that restaurateurs are all flocking to and it’s great to see an operator with his finger on the pulse.

But despite how obviously good they are at what they do, they must be careful of using a cookie cutter approach to restaurants – every restaurant has its own character and personality and the truly great restaurants are the ones whose personality shines the greatest. The holy trinity of Zuma, LPM and Coya seem to be the same personality, just with three different passports. Even the management seem to be on a rotational contract between the three places.

Now this takes nothing away from the experience – my partner and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and we had the good fortune to have the only waitress from Peru look after us. She was knowledgeable, friendly and had the nervous energy and excitement of someone who has only been in Dubai a few months. She said she was enjoying the experience but missed her family. I sympathized with her and then ordered what turned out to be an exceptional ceviche.

The Lubina Clasica, a sea bass ceviche arrived in tapas style at the table, delivered by our servers assistant. Yes, our server had an assistant. The ceviche was sharp, fresh, tangy with clean edges to the dish. It was everything it was supposed to be, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from the Coya team.

My partner was definitely enjoying herself; you can always tell because she talks non-stop, to anyone. And she on fire; asking everyone where they were from and then nodding knowingly, as if she had been aware of their place of birth all along. We both ordered the steak, as it was highly recommended by our server’s assistant’s assistant who came to deliver our wine.

My partner was upsold the Solomillo de Buey, which translates to the wagyu sirloin, chimichurri and tamarind salsa and I stuck with the poor man’s version, which was the Solomillo de Res, a beef fillet with crispy shallots and garlic. They arrived pre-sliced on a side plate, which is good, because if they were served on a regular plate, one would feel rather disappointed with the portioning. Especially as all the extras are also Al La Carte.

However, both dishes were well constructed; my beef had a delicate char to it that enhanced the texture, and the crispy shallots blended well with the medium rare meat. The Wagyu was full flavoured thanks to the Chimmichurri tanginess and punching power of their tamarind salsa. A good two punch combination. But at 328 dhs for the Wagyu, it had better be a knockout dish.

However, apparently it was. In fact, my partner was so impressed with her smidgen of beef that she actually took a quick respite from talking, and I watched with fascination as she let the flavours cascade across her palate, her face lit up with gratification.

I wasn’t as ecstatic however and I think that’s because I rarely exhibit such emotions, but more importantly because there was an expectation for Coya to be at the very best of their game, purely because of their reputation and I suppose it is a credit to them that they lived up to their reputation.

As I glanced around the dining room, I watched as the Coya team spent healthy amounts of time at each table, patiently explaining the menu to people un-familiar with this kind of cuisine. I watched as some tables had an alpha male host who confidently and loudly butchered the pronunciation of every dish on the menu and other tables’ submissively resign themselves to the suggestions of their waiter or waitress. All was how it was meant to be. The restaurant was full, and we had been told we had to be out by 9 pm for the second seating.

The clientele were the same groups you would find at Zuma. The well to do crowd that like to be seen and the less well to do crowd that immediately check in on facebook to show everyone where they are.

However, while Zuma has found the magical formula of being able to attract the female crowd, Coya might have to be satisfied with a more male dominated customer base, which will be drawn by the dramatic lighting and heavy décor. But, I was made to promise that I would include this in the review; the chairs did have a secret tray that slide out for ladies to put their handbags on, which delighted my partner and is obviously very female friendly. Well done, Coya; Girls love stuff like that.

minilogo Coya Dubai

 

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