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

The real Reform social club is in Pall Mall, London and first opened their doors in 1836. Founded by Sir William Molesworth, it is a wonderfully traditional private members’ club thathas rather stern and rigorous rules for becoming a member. One must be nominated by an existing distinguished member, and they require your application to be posted for onemonth on the notice board so other members can sign their approval.

It is so British that when I read this paragraph back to myself, I read it out loud in a Winston Churchill/Prince Phillip accent mash-up. It sounds glorious. I recommend itwholeheartedly.

However, The Reform Social Grill in The Lakes, Dubai is a little different. Sister restaurant to its namesake in The Mandeville Hotel, London, The Reform Social Grill was founded byGates Hospitality FZ-LLC in 2014, exactly 179 years later, to the day. Maybe.

When I called to see if there was a dress code I was asked to make sure I was wearing a top. “A top” I asked, “You mean like a collar?”

“No, sirma’am. A top – any top. You just need to wear a top” Came the answer. Sir Molesworth would be aghast in his grave.

Anyway, undeterred, I took the Serbian along to Reform Social Grill for a weekend breakfast. I was hoping it could be my new favourite breakfast place. I rather like the idea ofanswering phone calls on a Saturday morning, and saying things like, “No, old chap. I’m just at the Social, having a spot of breakfast,” in my best Churchill/Prince Phillip accent.

Back in the day, Saturday breakfast shifts were my favourite to work – there is something special about the weekend breakfast in a restaurant. It’s a new day, full of promise.Everything is clean from the night shift and when you put on that first brew of coffee, you are pressing the reset button on a long week.

Upon entering, I was nostalgically calmed. A half empty, quiet restaurant greeted us. A sleeping personality, resting, gathering its strength.

couple in the corner, drinking coffee; a young family, feeding their baby in a high chair. A single man, reading a book, eating muesli and yogurt. The rustle of a newspaper, thescrape of a knife on toast. It was exactly as I remembered it. Even the manager was leaning against the empty bar, drinking her coffee, and happily chatting away to her staffpretending her day hadn’t started yet.

No rush, no stress, no drama. It was the restaurant equivalent of the extended triangle pose in yoga. Namaste, Reform Social, Namaste.

Such was my relaxed mood, I left the Serbian speechless (impressive, I know) by deviating from my usual, reliant, mainstay Eggs Benedict and ordering the Full English. Even thewaiter looked surprised, and he’s never met me before.

The Serbian ordered a Complete, which is eggs any style and coffee, OJ and toast. Typical, boring order, not like mine at all, which was exciting and different.

The menu is traditional English, and knowing what reputation the wet islanders have in the cooking department, this restaurant is obviously going for a very captive expat market ofthe Emaar residents.

And the residents should be happy that they have the quality of restaurant such as The Social on their doorstep. Because for a residential community restaurant, (which it really is,despite the name, cute fit out and the menu de jour options), it is not half bad. Certainly more than than the residents of Discovery Gardens or International City has on theirdoorstep! Arguably even better than The Palms’ local watering holes, although a friend just messaged me, raving about the Bidi Bondi Burgers, so perhaps I’m wrong.

Our coffees were good. My partner’s cappuccino had that fancy heart design in the foam. But you know what, I’m so over that. I want to see levitating sugar cubes. It’s harder tofind a bad cup of coffee than a good one in this town now.

My full English arrived with the usual suspects on a platter plate, beans, eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms and tomato and toast. All was perfectly edible and filled a hunger I hadsince I woke up. There was really nothing bad about it. It was a solid fry up. However, I hate to say it, but my old university house mate, Oshy, could have served exactly the same inour student house using a single hob and a microwave. But Oshy was a bit of a genius in the kitchen, so that’s kind of a compliment. I think.

Except, I would like to say that if you have the license to serve alcohol and pork on your menu, then you should take advantage of it. Chef Ryan Waddell should have the skills in hisrepertoire to produce a better-quality sausage rather than the store bought one that was served. A home-made artisan sausage perhaps, that would cause Sir Molesworth to twistthe tips of his walrus mustache in glee. May I suggest apple and sage sausage or vintage cheddar and onion sausage, for example. Oshy would have done it.

I had a quick look at their other menus, and they do everything I would expect. They do roasts, curry nights and afternoon teas. They do ploughmans’ and puddings, fish & chips andscotch eggs. They even have a Josper grill, which was a chef’s “must-have” toy, back in 2010. But they do cook a mean slab of meat if used properly. And if our breakfasts areanything to go by, they will probably be quite adequate and enjoyable.

Nevertheless, to summarize, The Social felt to me like an average gastro-Brit pub that lazy morning. However, I can imagine it as a rather good residential community restaurant,busy and lively with regular guests in the evening. It all depends on how you want to look at it. And remember, a well-run bar can hide a multitude of sins.

Now read all that again in your best Churchill/Prince Phillip accent.

 

minilogo The Reform Social Grill

I saw a post on Linkedin for a restaurant in Dubai that was boasting three Michelin Stars without even being open yet. There are so many things wrong about that, and it made sucha powerful impact on me, that I did the biggest u-turn on subject matter since Alexis Tsipras of Greece promised his people no more austerity measures.

You see, I was going to write a delightful piece of the positive progress of the industry and how the Dubai restaurant scene was becoming a respected destination on the internationalstage. But yet, to further irate my creative juices, at a recent awards show, there was a club nominated for an award, even though they were only due to officially open the followingweekend. In a more mature market, these sorts of outrageous claims and suspicious nominations would light up the twitter sphere faster than the horsemeat in beef-burgers.

However, here in Dubai, the market is awash with these fantastical claims of grandeur that take the essence of “mistruths” and often move quite boldly into the world of falsity anddeceptiveness.

Although there isn’t a legitimate authority to challenge these claims, furthermore, there isn’t a media or crowd pressure willing to question or expose these establishments in anysignificant capacity, why do establishments feel the need to partake in this behavior?

If one is claiming three stars, you are obviously targeting a fairly affluent individual who in every likelihood is probably rather travel and restaurant savvy. Imagine what damage youwill do, once your customers learn that the closest any Dubai restaurant has been to a Star is when Kim Kardashian opened the Millions of Shakes in Dubai Mall. And I use the word“Star” loosely and definitely on purpose.

What we are basically talking about is a very imbalanced sense of entitlement by many of the operators. There is a quite ridiculous and somewhat immature expectation thatsuccess, acclaim, awards and profit should be directly and proportionately linked to total money spent on fit out, caliber of celebrity endorsement, relation to media publications andmost attractive, overpaid staff.

A restaurant should rely on three basic things – food, service and atmosphere. This is your holy trinity, and one must beware of false idols. A custom-made bar from the samemarble as Michelangelo’s David does not guarantee the best cocktail. The waitress who was a Russian catwalk model does not guarantee the best service. And, I hate to say it, butan array of industry awards, definitely does not constitute an award-winning destination.

Instead of spending considerable amounts of money on stunts like delivering your food to a beach via helicopter, savvy, relevant establishments are spending that money as aninvestment into the quality of their ingredients. They are investigating the technological advances that allow evolution and growth. They are not wasting resources and damagingcustomer trust by making false claims and inventing fabricated validations.

So, until our industry understands the consistency, the expertise and the hard work that turns a simple food establishment into an iconic restaurant that is truly worthy of a MichelinStar, my original article will remain unwritten.

However, had I embarked on my original subject matter; you would be reading about the growing interest in home-grown concepts, the improvement in local innovation andexperimentation by operators. I would be bragging about the willingness of the customers to engage and support hard work and local initiatives. I would be boasting about the subtlebut very real, rising levels of interest from Emirati operators breaking into the industry. I would be proudly telling you that Dubai is being quoted alongside places like London andNew York when experts talk about international markets. I would be ecstatically announcing the growing competence and professionalism of the chefs and operators. But as youremember, I made a rather rash and impulsive decision to discuss the exact opposite of this.

Five Guys Burgers. Not in line with my usual reviews, but I just finished lunch there with a colleague and thought I could probably squeeze out a few words about it.

Five Guys arrived in Dubai with a lot of hype and pomp – they scored a sweet location in Dubai Mall, a new, unproven operator behind the franchise in Rise LLC, and perhaps the holy grail of the better burger concepts, except maybe In N Out Burgers.

However, where Elevation Burger casually talk to us about their quality ingredients and organic meat and Shake Shacks proudly discuss their growth from humble beginnings of a shack in Madison Square Park, Five Guys scream narcissistic self-proclamation about their superior quality and hype.

The danger for an establishment that has to prominently display their awards and credibility on the walls is that they could be seen as insecure about their assets – Signs everywhere, reminding us of their superiority in the burger and fries world. If you are going to display your entire trophy and first place certificate collection for the world to see, you better have the goods to back it up.

However, I think Five Guys just about gets away with it – just.   They don’t take themselves too seriously; they know their meat is closer to MacDonald’s quality than Wagyu quality. They know their beverage selection is still the mainstream carbonated sugar water. The focus on their accolades comes from a cheeky competitive nature that lets people know they are currently America’s favourite fast food joint. And why shouldn’t they? Make hay when the sun shines. Or burgers, whatever.

Ordering is done at the counter, and although there was no queue this time, the several kilometres of snaked rope barriers is a testament that this place rocks during peak times.

There is no such thing as combo meals in the better burger world. You want fries, you gonna pay for them fries. You’re going to pay 21 dhs, to be precise. Soft Drink? Sure, another 13 pieces of silver.  Or Dhs.  All these prices quickly add up on the final check.

Five Guys operate an open kitchen with stacks of burger buns and lots of stainless steel shelves. Drinks are free refills from a self-serve soda machine.  Bags of potatos are used for décor in the front of house area.  And so are open boxes of shelled peanuts.  Not sure either, so don’t ask.

The burgers come as standard with a greyish double patty. The meat is not seared like you would find in Shake Shack and it is not seasoned, leaving the beef and toppings having to do the talking in the taste department. The patties are not thick enough to allow a cooking temperature, so you don’t get that juicy center either, but you don’t get the same level of grease as you would in Elevation Burger.

The buns are sesame seed topped buns, slightly sweetened, with a good bun to burger ratio. Fresh, crunchy tomatoes and lettuce, with an appropriate amount of mayo complete the foil wrapped package. Compared to other traditional fast food burger joints, I can see what the hype is about, and I can appreciate the improvement in building the burger. Yes, they cook to order, and they claim nothing is frozen, but for 40 dhs a cheese burger, I would expect a bit more. Especially as I learn that a cheeseburger and fries will set you back 1,793 calories! You would have to run the equivalent of a Tour de France to burn that off. Or something like that.

Apparently, the fries are what the devotee’s tweet all their OMG’s about. These fries are supposed to be the industry leaders on what fries are all about. They are meant to be the Ferrari of Fries. Life changing fries. However, after emptying my order from the brown bag, there was probably half a kilo of soggy potato bits left in the bag. Not even full sized soggy fries, but stunted, miniature bits of potato, like you would get if you cleaned out the fryer at the end of a shift. According to my expert dining partner, the 5 Guys fries are hit and miss and sometimes they are a Ferrari and sometimes they are a Sharjah auto-market second hand Nissan Sunny.

Luckily for this review, I was comparing my experience to MacDonald’s and Burger King and therefore I left Five Guys overall satisfied and satiated, 147 dhs poorer and 1,783 calories fatter. And the fries, I am sad to say, go below Macdonald’s and Burger King in my French fry list that I keep on my fridge.

I think the Five Guys brand has benefited from decades of standard, mediocre offerings that have lowered the consumers’ expectations of a fast food burger. They have definitely elevated the game, no doubt about it, but is this level high enough to keep people satisfied and coming back? In an industry akin to the burger equivalent gang wars of East Coast Vs West Coast, it could be a bloody battle, best watched from afar.

For now, looking at the nightly queues and positive social media feedback, they should be good for a while yet. I however, am going for a quick jog to Abu Dhabi and back.

 

minilogo 5 Guys Burgers and Fries

The biscotti Incident.

I went to an interview a while ago, and I personally like interviews for several reasons.  Firstly, it gives me a reason to shower, put on some nice clothes and get out of the house.  The other reason why I like interviews will resonate with many of you, I’m sure.  I have a phobia of meeting people.  It’s something my therapist says I must talk about, so, I’ll be honest – I hate meeting new people for the simple reason that I have no idea what sort of greeting to give.  There are so many rules and regulations, and it is such a social mine field.  The handshake, the hug, single kiss, double kiss, triple kiss!!  What do you do?  You both approach each other, the fear evident in one another’s eyes, as both try to gauge what the other will go for, like two UFC fighters in the opening seconds of the first round.   One of you gets it wrong and there is this awkwardness that will stain the both you forever.

But the simple interview has no such drama.  You are on safe ground with an interview greeting.  A simple, firm handshake is all that is expected.

But, when I arranged a time and place for this interview, his choice of location was the equivalent of a social IED being thrown directly at my head.  He chose a Starbucks coffee shop.  Why on earth did he choose this place?  Doesn’t he have an office?  Or a private room, at least?  As I read his email, questions raced through my head.  Was this a test?  Was he going to be waiting there, watching me arrive, assessing my every move?  What would I do when I got there?  Do I wait for him and risk the uncomfortable silence of queuing together to get our coffees?  What would we talk about? We can’t start the interview in the line for coffee, for crying out loud!

So we would have to make small talk, and there is a danger that we would get onto the topic of favorite coffee shops as we both search desperately for a safe subject to talk about.  But even that is fraught with danger.  What if I say my favorite is Café Nero?  Will he think I’m being rude, because he chose Starbucks?  But if I lie and say Starbucks, and I end up working for him, I will forever have to remember this lie, and I will never be able to reveal the truth, and that is no way to start a new job.  And what about the choice of coffee?  If I choose a fancy coffee and he goes for a black filter coffee will he think I am some high maintenance metrosexual male who has weekly manicures?  And what If I order a filter coffee and he goes for the fancy choice.  Will he think I’m too boring to work for him?  And who pays?!

The more I thought about this the more sick I felt.  I longed for the days where I only had to worry about the greeting.  Should I cancel and tell him I’m busy, just to save us both from the stress and worry?  He must have realized by now the implications of his choice of location.  Surely he must be as worried as I was.

As all these complications became apparent, I realized that I perhaps don’t like interviews as much as I thought I did.

So I arrived at the coffee shop a safe 45 minutes early, grabbed my coffee and chose a suitable place, moving to another table that I thought would be more suitable.  It wasn’t, so I moved back.

My interviewer arrived, and I stood to greet him.  I was happy so far.  I was in control, It was my territory and I had marked it 45 minutes earlier.  The greeting went without a hitch, as I knew it would.  A simple handshake and a polite and friendly “hello.”  He asked me if I minded if he went and grabbed a coffee.  I became even happier, as I felt in total control of the situation.  I had manipulated the circumstances so that he was asking me for permission.  Brilliant, I thought to myself as I sat back down.  This was going to be a great interview.  This was the coffee shop equivalent of sitting on a slightly higher chair.

He returned, with coffee in hand, and I was ready to engage in a detailed and professional conversation about my career.  And then he offered me The Biscotti and everything changed.  I looked at it, lying there in his outstretched hand, and then back up to his face.  Perhaps he made a mistake and wasn’t really offering me a biscotti at all. Maybe he just wanted me to hold it, until he sat down.  But then I saw another one in his other hand.  He had bought two.  “Here you go, I got you a Biscotti.”  He said, smiling.  I was dumbstruck.  Didn’t the man realize what he had just done?  What social norms he had just shattered.  What public boundaries he had just crossed? “Don’t say I never gave you anything,” he laughed. I laughed too, to show my appreciation for his humour, but it sounded maniacal, frenzied and out of place, which was exactly how I was feeling.

I placed the biscotti on the table, my mind a whirl of thoughts and questions.  Why would he do that?  What does it mean?  Is it another test?  And the questions went on. Do I eat it?  Should I dunk?  I only ordered an espresso and I’ve been here 45 minutes – I don’t have enough coffee left to dunk it into, even if I wanted to.  But I didn’t want to eat it.  Not since the spaghetti interview fiasco I had in the past.  I re-focused on him, trying to ignore the Biscotti that was sitting directly between us on the table.  I moved it to one side, hoping that would help.  It didn’t.  It just bought his attention back to it.  And then I realized as he finished his Biscotti with a satisfying smack of the lips, that I was coming across and rude and ungrateful.  But now, I couldn’t eat it even if I wanted to.  I had left it too long – I couldn’t simply pick it up and start munching away.  That would be weird.  But I also didn’t want him to think that I wasn’t grateful for this gift.  If I had known the etiquette beforehand, I would have also bought him a gift.  A pin badge or something equally appropriate.

So, I did the next best thing – I picked the biscotti up, and clutched it close to my chest for the duration of the interview, hoping my actions would signal my gratitude for the Biscotti he had bestowed on me.  He kept glancing at it, expectantly, as if I looked like I was ready to rip into the wrapper and devour it with enthusiasm and vigour.  And in hindsight, I probably did look like that, as I sat forward, tightly gripping close to my chest looking slightly Schizophrenic.

The interview ended and we shook hands, me still clutching  the Biscotti, which had now turned to crumbs in the packet.  He glanced down at it, and said “Enjoy your Biscotti.”  And he walked away.  I stood there, speechless, my mind in turmoil.  I didn’t move, incase I inadvertently walked in the same direction as him, which is incredibly awkward after you’ve already said goodbye once.  I didn’t want him to think I was a stalker as well as someone who is ungrateful when given a biscotti.

When I got home, I carefully staged the wrapper of the biscotti, snapped a picture, to indicate that it was eaten, and attached it to an email, thanking him for his time and his kind gift, that by the way, was delicious.

He hasn’t replied yet.

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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