Silvena Rowe needs little introduction. She is a critically acclaimed chef, author of award winning cookbooks, food columnist for The Guardian and regular TV guest of the BBC and founder of Omnia Baharat and Omnia Gourmet here in Dubai.

In possibly the most important interview of her distinguished career, the enigmatic Silvena Rowe talks to FoodSheikh Media about Dubai, her passions and achievements, her hopes and fears – and superfoods and Botox.

The ship traveling from South America to Europe was carrying precious cargo, and it wasn’t pirates, weather or scurvy that the captain was worried about.  On this voyage, time was the enemy.  The year was 1559, and the cosmopolitan cities of Europe had developed an obsessive-like infatuation with what was tucked away in the hold of this vessel.  It wasn’t gold, or spices, tobacco or precious textiles, although this trading ship probably carried those as well.  It was a divine fruit called a pineapple that had the captain praying for strong easterly winds.  Being able to land unspoiled pineapple ashore brought in a pretty penny.  Europe’s obsession with pineapple lasted for over 300 years.  I hope the avocado doesn’t last that long.

Back in 1493, Christopher Columbus bought back a consignment of pineapples from South America to Spain.  Out of the dozens he stored very carefully in the bowels of his ship, there was just one sole pineapple that survived the long, hard journey.  This solitary fruit made its way to King Ferdinand of Spain, who declared that its flavour ‘excels all other fruits’ and almost overnight the pineapple sent Europe into frenzied raptures.  It was like the Beatles landing in the USA.  To put it into perspective, Columbus also brought back tomatoes from the New World, but it took the tomato a full two hundred years between landing in Spain and appearing in a printed recipe.  I bet the Association of the New World Tomato Growers were super jealous of their pineapple counterparts.

However, for over 100 years, Europeans tried in vain to grow these exotic, sweet fruits in their allotments next to their turnips and potatoes.  However, due to the specific climate needed, it was virtually impossible and fast ships and favourable weather conditions remained one of the most reliable ways to get your hands on such a fruit.  Such was the magnitude of growing pineapple in England, that should anyone succeed, paintings were commissioned to celebrate their momentous achievement.  See, even before Instagram, people liked to capture incredible moments in their lives and pretend it was the everyday.

King Charles II used the pineapple as a political tool.  The British Empire’s ability to obtain these fruits from their colonies asserted English ascendancy across the region.  In perhaps the first recorded piece of fake news, in 1675 Charles II commissioned a painting of himself being presented a pineapple by the Royal Gardener.  Of course, at this stage, the pineapple was still not being grown in northern climates, and this was effectively just savvy PR.

It became a cold war between the Dutch and the British, on who could successfully cultivate this king of fruits first.  The Dutch being natural farmers, had the advantage, but the British had a fantastic sense of self-entitlement and stubbornness, so this battle raged on for years and years.

Finally, the Dutch managed to figure out a way to mimic the warm and humid climate needed to grow this fruit.  Special buildings were erected, called Pineries, that were designed specifically for growing this spikey fruit.  Imagine if they had fallen in love with Kiwi fruit instead.  Growing a pineapple was arduous and expensive work – the Pinery had to be carefully attended to for at least three years before the plant gave any fruit and each plant produces just one pineapple per year.  That is their yield.  Such was their scarcity and value, they were the Elizabethan day Birkin Bag – everyone wanted one, but only the very rich and famous could afford one.  There is evidence that a pineapple would sell for upwards of 36,000 AED.  Not even Waitrose could get away with those prices.

Posh aristocrats and colonist would boast of their wealth by throwing crazy lavish dinner parties, invite all the 17th Century influencers over and then show off by having butlers announce the arrival of a pineapple on a lavish display which would remain as a centrepiece for the rest of the evening.  The pineapple, with its tangy-sweet flesh, exotic skin and crown like head were soon recognized as a symbol for wealth, hospitality and status.  In fact, today it remains the official symbol for hospitality.  Such was their demand that rental shops popped up, where wealthy socialites could rent a pineapple for an evening, and they would attend a cocktail reception dressed to the nines while proudly cradling a slightly overripe, squishy pineapple in their arms.  Although, I’ve seen a few people do that at a Dubai brunch, to be honest.

Pineapples even appeal to mathematicians as well, as the hexagonal eyes of the pineapple follow the Fibonacci sequence, otherwise known as nature’s secret code.  This sequence is said to govern the dimensions of everything from the Great Pyramid of Giza, to seashells and broccoli to our magnificent pineapple.

 

Pineapples had been hidden from the Old World, and therefore there was no mention of this fruit in any classical texts or scriptures.  You see, other fruit had some pretty bad PR over the years – the pomegranate had a rough time with its association with Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld and become known as the fruit of the dead.  Nothing killed a 17th Century party faster than bringing out some Fruit of the Dead shooters.  Even the humble apple was associated with temptation and the fall of man.  In fact, Apple and Evil are the same words in Latin.  “Would you like some “Evil Pie, Mamsir?”  Figs usually point to sinfulness and lust, and the Elizabethans thought tomatoes were red because they were poisonous.

Luckily the pineapple arrived in the New World with a clean record, no embarrassing old tweets or Instagram photos in its history and so the hoity-toity of society could press their own meaning onto this beautiful untarnished fruit.

As pineapples grew in popularity and value, the fruit started being etched into wood panels, plates, headboards, wallpapers, carved into the end of silverware, all to impress guests and elevate status.  Wedgwood, the makers of fine china, started using pineapple themes in their porcelain and stone pineapples were carved into the sides of stately homes.  In the 1770’s it had entered into pop culture vocabulary, as a way to offer a compliment or commendation.  It was used for anything that was the best in class.  Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s 1775 stage comedy The Rivals, describes someone as “the very pineapple of politeness.”  Even today it is used – ‘Idris Elba is the very pineapple of sexiness.’  OK, maybe it isn’t, but I think it deserves a comeback.

But nothing good lasts forever.  (Avocado and acai bowls watch your back) The 1800’s were the best of times for the pineapple.  By the end of the century, the Age of Sail was in decline, and steam-powered ships meant pineapples became more commonplace and less valuable.  By 1900, a man named James Dole started pineapple production in Hawaii under his company Dole Food Company.  He was the one that stuck this King of Fruits into a can, dissolving its value even further.  By 1918, Jim Dole could produce one million cans of pineapples per year.   In 1954, it became a bit part in a Pina Colada cocktail, in 1962 it was put on a pizza, and its fall from grace was complete.

The pineapple of today is so very different.  It is used on phone covers and pool inflatables and shares the same space in Instagram culture as flamingos and cacti.  It is used as a visual narrative for some far away tropical place, or casually thrown in a pool somewhere hot and steamy as an aspirational image.  You’ll see pineapples being carved at Halloween or held aloft on sun-burnt shoulders at music festivals.  You’ll find gold versions in many a millennial home, along with fairy lights and a drinks cart.  You’ll find them on scarves and dresses, notebooks and pens.  (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen anyone?)

The pineapple of today is perhaps a stronger symbol of hospitality, inclusion and a brighter beacon of friendship and unity.  But next time you see a pineapple, remember this story.

Remember how revered and mighty it once was.

Remember it was the ‘King of Fruits,’ and there was “no nobler fruit in the universe” than the pineapple.

 

 

Conformity is out, and the kaleidoscope is in.  The middle of that bell curve is splintering and then re-splintering again.  Cable TV is for the masses; Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime are for the niche. The fringes.  A one-size-fits-all approach to restaurant openings is being challenged by micro-communities demanding experiences that they can resonate with.

I think after partnering up with JLT Dining once again for their annual micro-community JLT Restaurant Awards, I subliminally influenced myself to return to JLT for a quick lunch the other day.

The Serb and I headed to Cluster F, home to nineteen restaurants. Cluster F is perhaps the most densely populated area of JLT for food places. In terms of restaurant density, if JLT is the Lake District, then Cluster F is Manila.

We obviously weren’t going to eat at all of them, but we were heading to a restaurant which sounds like an SEO Bot chose the name for them based on Google algorithms. Favourite Choice.

Their full title is apparently, Favourite Dubai Best Choice Restaurant JLT Number One. They shortened it to Favourite Choice. You might not have heard of them, but that’s because they quietly opened their doors back in March and have been discreetly getting on with it ever since. It’s about time they got a little attention.

As is expected from JLT restaurants, Favourite Choice is a small place tucked around the side of the HDS building with around 35 seats both indoor and outdoor. One whole wall is covered in green foliage wallpaper, and there are sea green upholstered banquettes and playful table decorations like pineapples and leopard salt and pepper shakers.

We were greeted by a friendly server who took us to our table by simply turning around. The other tables were full, with local business people from around the area. With a two-course business lunch for 47 dhs on offer, it’s no wonder they were busy.

Our server handed us a menu each and stood there, waiting to see if we would order immediately. Clearly, they are used to regulars knowing what they want. Clearly, she had never met The Serb either, who takes so long that by the time she has chosen what movie to watch at the cinema, it has already been released on Netflix. I indicated she should come back in a few days for our order.

The menu is fantastic – one of the most fun and interesting menus I’ve read in a while. It is a menu with considerable thought and talent behind it. The ingredients are varied and exciting, and the flavours different and appealing. It takes you on a fun, entertaining journey of discovery and there is clearly a lot of love and personality in the place. You really feel it, not just in the menu, but the tone of voice, in their signage and in their staff.

Soups have names like Red Velvet Soup and Same Same But Different, and their salads have names like Back To The Roots, and Don Vito Goes Japan. They are fun, inventive and creative. Don Vito goes Japan for example, is a tomato carpaccio on smokey baked eggplant caviar with a ginger soy sauce and garlic chips. They also have a grilled teriyaki chicken with sweet’n’sour cucumber & spinach called Chicken In The Kitchen.

After a sense of discovery that we shared together, we were eventually ready to order. It was One Night in Bangkok, with a Dolce Vita, Dressed in Red. The Serb and I both sniggered at our order and congratulated ourselves on how clever we had been. I’m sure the server also thought we were clever, but as a true professional, didn’t show it.

Because of the small space, the staff of three engaged in a constant dance of avoidance, moving gracefully around each other, like some Filipino Swan Lake with plates and glassware, serving and clearing tables. They soon swanned over to our table to serve our dishes.

The Dolce Vita was a goat’s cheese salad with figs, celery and green apples, pomegranate and grapefruit, drizzled with a tangy raspberry dressing. It was well constructed, and the combination of sweet figs, bitter grapefruit, and creamy goat’s cheese was delicious.

The Dressed in Red was a beetroot risotto with white truffle oil and parmesan. It was filling and had a great flavour; the parmesan created the creaminess, and the earthy beetroot was sweetened by the toasted pine nuts. However, risotto is all about consistency and texture and for me, Dressed In Red needed more stock and more stirring, I think.

The One Night in Bangkok was a peanut chicken wrap with cabbage, mushrooms, pineapple, coriander, sesame, and satay sauce. Sounds chaotic, confusing and captivating, not unlike a real night in Bangkok, in some ways. The flavours were strong, the mushrooms and pineapple working well together, with generous amounts of chicken and a confident peanut sauce.

We finished with Santa’s Choice, two warm walnut cookies and a small jar of cold milk. The cookies were filled with liquid Nutella. I don’t need to say anymore.

Overall, Favourite Choice restaurant is a little diamond in the rough – a bold and brave menu, in an environment that has a lot of soul and character. It is almost as if the menu deserves a more spacious restaurant and kitchen to breath and grow and mature in.

Cluster F is very lucky to have you, Favourite Dubai Best Choice Restaurant JLT Number One.

 

 

 

 

Favourite Place
HDS Tower
Cluster F
JLT
04 88 34174

Lunch for Two – 140 AED

 

Favourite Choice Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

It’s mad what’s going on in our industry at the moment. It’s just one thing after the other.  There is so much change and drama, it’s like some weird episode of Games of Thrones.  Game of Stoves, The Red Catering.  I don’t recall a time when so many important topics and issues were being written and debated about in such equal parts celebration and condemnation and with such vivacity.

The F&B industry was once a golden unicorn galloping through the world’s high streets, retail centers and strip malls, pooping out glittering franchises, venture capitalist dollars and unsustainable accelerated growth throughout the lands.

Restaurants were sitting pretty, and EBITA was king.  Demand was high, sentiment was strong, and there was boldness and courage to try anything, because, despite conventional wisdom, it worked.  If you’ve ever spent 10 Euros on a bowl of cereal at Cereal Killer Café, in Dubai Mall, then you’ll know what I mean.

Gosh, what a difference an election can make.  Which election, you ask? Pick one.  Anyone will do.

Serious Business

In the past, the issues that most restaurants typically deal with were a few overcooked steaks, some light pilferage and a few questionable kitchen hygiene habits that needed correcting. But today, we are having conversations that are life-changing, necessary and difficult. We are struggling with a sexual harassment cancer that has been allowed to fester and grow throughout our great industry. When the most dangerous thing in the kitchen is no longer the meat slicer, but an empty walk-in fridge, you know change needs to happen.

Is this the most dangerous place in the kitchen?

Industry giants such as John Besh and Mario Batali are being called out and held to account for their behaviours and perhaps we are all complicit in allowing a ‘Bro’ mentality to thrive.

We are also grappling with demons of addiction and mental illness, with more and more chefs speaking up about their issues. Vice’s Matty Matheson openly talks about how, after years of alcohol and drug abuse, he suffered catastrophic heart failure at just age 29. David Chang has opened up about his fight with depression, and even Gordon did a documentary about drug use in his restaurants. Pretty bleak stuff.  However, support groups such as Ben’s Friends and Chefs with Issues have launched, providing much-needed help and support for those who no longer need to suffer in silence and the industry leaders need to start having more of these honest conversations with their teams.  There is so much more work to be done here though.

Lost Storytellers

Anthony Bourdain

We have lost some of the world’s greatest culinary storytellers – AA Gill, an irreverent writer of truly incandescent prose, showed us how exciting food and travel could be. Anthony Bourdain, with his ability to showcase extraordinary diversity and find common ground over a simple meal, connected with us all on a profoundly personal level.  Most recently, we lost Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer from LA, who was a conduit for bringing the City of Angels closer together.

Maintaining Our Standards

Our industry standards, our infallible benchmarks, those accolades that every professional strives to attain are in danger of losing their credibility.

The Michelin guide is coming under increasing fire about their independence and relevance.  The tourism authorities of both Thailand and Korea have reportedly forked out millions of dollars in return for a Michelin Guide.  To add to the controversy, according to many critics and Michelin followers, the Seoul guide was questionable in its accolades and riddled with errors.

Restaurant Awards – Diversity Issues

Even Tourism Australia paid 600k US$ to host the 2017 ceremony of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.  Sure, these institutions are not charities and taking revenue is fine, but if accepting vast amounts of money from the tourist board puts them under pressure to hand out stars and awards, then it raises significant questions.

The 50 World’s best is under fire as well, for their less than transparent voting process, which has as much clarity as a FIFA World Cup bid.  The growing consensus from the food media is that the 50 World’s Best is a great list if you are European, white and male.  If you’re anything else, you better have 600k spare to host the event, because that’s probably the closest you’re getting to one of the awards.

Circle of Life

As Gaucho goes into administration and Cau closed all 22 outlets with immediate effect, we are reminded of how closely connected we are as an industry.  It was encouraging to see the outpouring of support and sympathy across social media as the news broke.  Companies like D&D London reaching out to offer employment opportunities for ex-staff of Cau is heartwarming and shows the very best of our industry.  Hawksmoor, the steakhouse group, also extended their help to those who lost their jobs and offered a free round of drinks to all Cau gift card holders, who couldn’t redeem their cards due to the closures.

Dubai is shedding its skin, closing some legacy places, such as The Agency, 360 and Hakkasan.  Yet, Massimo Bottura, Akira Back, and Todd English are all opening new places this year, and the circle of life continues.

On a Lighter Note

However, it’s not all drama and chaos in our industry.  Some order in our world has been restored. NYC has finally banned the use of activated charcoal in food and drink items.  This “Goth food” has been finding its way into ice cream, cocktails, burger buns, juices and even pizza crusts in recent years.  However, it seems consuming too much of the stuff can result in things like dehydration, constipation, and black tongues.  We’ll all have to go back to scrapping burnt toast, like in the good old days.

The Museum of Ice Cream has also felt the wrath of the authorities down in Florida.  They have been fined for their selfie-friendly rainbow sprinkle room.  As visitors leave the ‘museum,’ they take with them hundreds of plastic sprinkles that end up in Miami’s waterways and streets and drains, causing environmental hazards.  Perhaps they should all “double-shake” before they exit.  Or the museum should install a walk-on vibration platform.  Just make sure the setting is on “vicious.”

Rainbow Sprinkle Room – Environmental Hazard

For those of you who don’t know, The Ice Cream Museum is a series of pretty rooms in pretty colours based on ice cream and candy themes.  Tickets for The Museum of Ice Cream are 38 US$.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other hand, is a highly curated collection of over two million works of significant historical importance. Tickets to the MET are 25 US$.

A Leader for our Time

I think the need for leadership in our industry has never been stronger than now, and it’s time for the industry leaders, regardless of where they sit in the food chain, to stand up and provide a voice of reason, support, and clarity for the rest of us.

We are an industry that needs a steady hand, and some credibility and confidence injected back into it.  We all know this industry is special, filled with some of the most talented, honest and hardworking people you could find.  We all know our industry will emerge, stronger, cleaner and better for all this turmoil and chaos.  We know all this, but sometimes we need to be told this and reminded of the way.

It’s hard to find a decent Friday lunch in this city, as most restaurants opt to throw ridiculous over the top brunches instead of a simple a la carte menu.  However, mall restaurants don’t typically do brunches in Dubai.  Perhaps it is a directive from the Ministry of Tourism to protect innocent tourists from being exposed to the decadent gluttony exhibited in the usual Dubai brunch.  So, if you’re looking for a low-key weekend lunch, might be worth heading to a mall.  Which is precisely what we did.

Gia Ristorante is part of the same portfolio that has Markette, Two at Symphony, Candylicious, Angelinas and Social House.  Strangely, all these restaurants can be found in the Dubai Mall only. I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but it’s as if there is some sort of link there.

Gia is an Italian restaurant, founded in Indonesia, open in Dubai Mall.  That’s like a Mexican inspired Taco joint from Toronto opening in Dubai Marina.  It’s what I call a Dubai “Special.”
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Gia is a word that can be pronounced many ways – with a soft G, hard G, High I, low I, it offers multiple ways to get confused.  However, we were informed at the door that it was pronounced Guy-a .  That doesn’t really help either.

The menu follows the tried and trusted ‘Italiational’ menu and offers no real surprises.  However, that is quite sensible for a Dubai Mall, Fashion Ave location.  There are appetizers, soups, salads, pizza, pasta, main courses and sides and the dishes have been created with an understanding that their customers are likely to be from hundreds of different countries.

We ordered bruschetta to start and share and then, like uneducated savages, we went with pasta for our mains.  We ordered the spinach fettuccine with wagyu meatballs, the spinach, and ricotta ravioli and the penne chicken ragu.  Two of those three dishes are decidedly absent from a traditional Italian table.  I told you we were savages.

The Serb did exceptionally well, as the menu had three languages to navigate and usually her patience is tested at simple menus that dare to use words rather than pictures.

I placed the order with our affable waiter who gravely warned me that the fettuccine was green because it contained spinach.  I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for the original guest complaint that created the need for that stark warning.  Maybe someone went on a Hulk rage.  I nodded my understanding to our waiter who looked genuinely relieved at my response and left to punch in the order.

Gia is a very agreeable space – lots of natural wood, ribbed glass partitions and a beautiful glass-encased show kitchen that looks like Dr. Who’s Tardis has landed in the middle of the restaurant.  In this case, it would be Medico Chi’s Tardis.  In Italian homes, kitchens play centre stage, so it was nice to see Gia’s kitchen being given the same importance.  They also have a great little outdoor terrace with the mandatory olive trees, overlooking the fountains that must be in high demand.

It wasn’t busy when we visited, and the ambiance suffered a little from this, although it’s a nice sized restaurant and small enough to feel intimate and included, despite not being full.

I have come to terms with the Dubai bruschetta and have accepted the fact that it will never taste as good as ones in Tuscany.  It’s about provenance and terroir and mood and emotion, and it’s impossible for Dubai restaurants to replicate that.  Gia’s bruschetta suffered the same fate.  The homemade sourdough bread was good, but the tomatoes were watery and diluted, both in colour and flavour.  It was almost as if they had been frozen.  However, combined with the fresh mozzarella, olives, and capers, it was a fresh, clean and well balanced few bites.

The spinach fettuccine arrived in the promised colour.  I thought about complaining to the waiter that it wasn’t green enough, but I fear it would have been a complaint too far for him.  The pasta was cooked well, probably a touch softer than in Italy, with the merest hint of spinach flavour.  The Wagyu meatballs were a disappointment. Mixed with too much bread and other fillers, they became chewy and lost the umami flavour that I was expecting.  If Wagyu is proving too expensive, drop down to prime or choice cuts, would be my suggestion.  However, the tomato sauce was delicate, quite sweet and fragrant.

The penne pasta was good, but to be honest, you can’t really go wrong with chicken, mushrooms, and cream.

Ravioli, the only traditionally Italian dish we ordered, dates back to the 14th century and is more often than not, filled with ricotta, spinach, and nutmeg.  Gia’s ravioli were delightful stuffed discs of deliciousness, in a thickened butter sauce, served with parmesan crisps.  They were generously filled, although I would have appreciated a little more ricotta to spinach ratio. I’m your food cost’s worst nightmare.

Gia’s pasta is all freshly made, and their ingredients are of high quality.  The staff are friendly and fun, led by a switched-on manager who spends quality time with her tables.  Overall, a safe, reliable Italian go-to and probably the best Italian in Dubai Mall right now.

 

 

Gia Ristorante
Fashion Ave, Dubai Mall
04 2349986
Lunch for 3 – 344 AED

 

GIA Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

This is exactly what makes Dubai so, well, Dubai.  La Carnita is a Mexican street food inspired restaurant and bar, from Toronto, that has just opened in Dubai Marina.  Isn’t the journey of food amazing?  That’s like finding a shawarma inspired restaurant and lounge from Milan, in Singapore.

La Carnita is downstairs in the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai Marina, having taken over the old Ynot? space, who I guess, finally got their answer.

Walking into La Carnita, you are blinded by a sizeable backlit signboard saying, “Kiki Loves Us.” The Serb asked me who Kiki was, and I promised her I didn’t know.

The vibe – it’s urban and edgy and very “street,” whatever that means in Dubai.  Edison light bulbs are still in fashion it seems, and they have put some of the booths in cages for extra security.  I guess the streets can be pretty rough in the InterCon.  The artwork is impactful and unique.  The main feature wall is a large gritty black and white image of what appears to be members of a gang driving to a gun battle.  Either that or its the staff transport on a bad day.  The music is a mixtape of genres but quiet enough to be able to hold a conversation.  The lighting is dim but bright enough to be able to read menus.  Which is what I did.  The Serb had already ordered and received her wine and was too busy to bother herself with a menu.  She, once again, left it up to me to decide.  If only she did that for everything else in our lives.

The menu fits comfortably onto one page, which immediately scores points for me.  Overly large menus make me suspicious.  The menu is almost identical to the Canadian venues, which not surprising for a franchise model.  There are starters, tacos, mains, and sweets.

Bish. Bash. Bosh.
Simple. Solid. Street.

We ordered the three dips and chips and the Mexican street corn to start.  I was worried that the table was going to be too small for all the dishes, but the team did a great job in spacing the delivery of the courses.  The Mexican corn looked great, and the server suggested we might need to wear gloves to eat it.  I immediately thought how difficult it would be to eat a corn on the cob wearing boxing gloves, so I declined.  I’ll take my chances if anything happens.  As it happens, the corn was great – a nice topping of crema, añejo cheese, with a kick of chilli powder.

Tacos, like pizza and burgers before them, are becoming a global cuisine and I think people aren’t so worried about staying true to origin anymore.  Bring on the crazy flavours, experiment with sauces and toppings, try different formats.  It’s how foods evolve, after all.  La Carnita’s taco menu consists of nine choices, ranging from crispy cod with a Voltron sauce, (It appears that Voltron, otherwise known as Defender of the Universe, has launched his own sauce range) to a grilled chicken with pineapple and jalapeno salsa and even a crispy cauliflower taco with charred pepper hot sauce.

We were informed that the tacos were tiny, our waiter making a circle with his fingers about the size of a one dirham coin to prove his point.  He also informed us they arrived solo, and we should order a whole gang of them.  He’s absolutely right – these streets are no place for single tacos to be wandering around.  We (I) went for three – the Pollo Frito, chicken with a peanut lime hot sauce, the Mexican beef chorizo, with mango salsa and habanero mayo, and the crispy Oaxaca cheese taco with chipotle sauce.

By this time, the Serb had finished her Pinot Grigio and complained that it was off because there were no bubbles.  The fact that she thought she had ordered a glass of Prosecco isn’t the surprising part in this.  What’s impressive is she still sat quietly and finished it despite thinking it was off.  That’s the Slavic perseverance coming through.

The tacos arrived on a tray altogether.  They were much bigger than a dirham coin, thankfully.  The toppings were generous, and they looked lively and fresh.  Chef Lara Said has a serious culinary background – Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, LPM, La Serre, Jean Georges, and Il Burro are to name a few kitchens she has worked in.  They say you sling tacos, in the same way you flip burgers, but I can’t imagine Chef Lara doing any kind of slinging – she’s far too refined for slinging.  However, she has a cracking grasp on flavour and texture, and it really comes through in her execution of the recipes.  All the tacos were on point – flavourful, balanced and delicious.

For mains, we tried to order the beef short ribs but once again our server gave us fair warning and informed us the Carne Asada, or ribeye was the better option.  Despite not being able to size tacos correctly, he seemed like an honest kid, so we went with the ribeye.

We were not disappointed.  It was a good cut, well cooked, with a sharp salsa Picante that was balanced out by a smooth black bean crema.

However, for me, the winner for me was the Pollo Frito –hot strips of chicken, folded into warm corn tortillas with salsa, a squeeze of peanut lime hot sauce, finished with a squirt of thick cultured cream, lightly done and delicately favoured.  A formidable few bites.

La Carnita also has a solid bar experience to it, and it could act as a great social hangout for those people trying to get off the mean streets of the Marina.  The staff were really very good – bags of personality, and I almost wanted to ask them to come hang out with me after the meal.  They were having fun with their tables, engaging, chatting and laughing.  It was refreshing to see.

Overall, I am pleasantly surprised by La Carnita.  Who would have thought it – a Canadian taco joint in Dubai.

 

La Carnita
InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Marina
04 3113800
Dinner for two – 383 Dhs

 

La Carnita - InterContinental Dubai Marina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

As is typical for many young recently graduated kids, Saud Al Matrooshi had no idea what he wanted to do.  However, food always cropped up, again and again, like some career guidance counsellor, giving a nudge here, a poke there, guiding him to a seemingly predetermined path. A path of food and kitchens and creativity and discipline.

It’s a familiar story, his love for food can be traced back to his childhood, where his dad was always in the kitchen cooking meals for the family to enjoy. His father was a family man and knew one of the best ways to bring his family together was over good food.  The kitchen was a center of the Al Matrooshi home and Saud was to learn that food was to keep coming back into his life, like a calling.

For a while, Saud wanted to be a pilot – a glamourous job, lots of travel, get to fly a plane, the perfect job for him.  But while at the aviation college for the entrance exam, he wandered over to the Century Village across the road and watched as people were enjoying their day eating, laughing and connecting.  Again, he felt the pull of the food industry.

He discussed this desire with his father, who was not entirely supportive.  You need to get a proper job, was the reply.  A proper job.  None of your cousins or family are chefs, this is not a proper job.  You cook at home, for your friends for your family, but not as a job.  A chef is a simple job. Too simple.

So, Saud went on to graduate in Communication Technology, but the allure and appeal of a chef still called his name.  A bit like The Force calling Luke Skywalker. The more he researched the role of a chef, the more he learned that a chef was an important job, highly revered in the West. It was not a simple job, his father’s words ringing in his ears. Despite working fulltime, making documentaries in the Seychelles, for the Seychelles Tourism Board, he still wanted to get into the kitchen.  It was like an itch he needed to scratch.

Even during his years in the Military, which he describes as some of the best times of his life, he laughs at how bad the food was. “It wasn’t meant to be good, this is the army,” he explains, with a smile on his face.  However, he couldn’t help himself and made some basic but impactful changes to the catering.  They eventually put him in charge of the catering, and he became known as the food guy throughout his division.

He was finally given an opportunity to get into a professional kitchen, but it was clear he wasn’t going to get any free rides.  He spent four months as a training commis in the Grand Hyatt, peeling potatoes, boiling water, mopping walk-ins.  I asked him if he was happy doing the grunt work.
“Yes, I was more than happy. I was finally learning,” he said.

I asked him where his initial motivation came from to embark on this four-month training.  He explained that every time he cooked for someone, he was told how good his food was. “If it’s good, it can be better, and for it to be better, I need to learn,” he says. “I love being in the kitchen, I love the smell, the heat, everything about it.”

After his four months of training, and even more enthused, Saud moved to the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, where Chef Max, his first professional mentor, put him on another training programme.  This time it was for four years. Working in stewarding, butchery, storekeeper, inventory, service, you name it, Saud did it.  It gave him a holistic and detailed overview of an entire operation.

The journey Saud took meant he had to break down a few barriers, but he was ready for it. There is a quiet determination about him. He is a man with resolve and purpose.

One example, during his time in restaurant service, he once served the table of one of his relatives, who was a senior government official.  Shocked at seeing Saud bringing over his soup, he took him to one side and asked if anything was wrong.  He asked if he needed any financial assistance, offering him a proper job.  A proper job.

Also, he knew his co-workers were wary of him as well. “Yes, there is a barrier. I’m a local.  They’re all scared of me, and I wanted to break that barrier down.  So, I told them, listen, we’re brothers, I’m here to learn.” It was only after he managed to break that barrier, did he really start to learn.

After four years, he became the Assistant Executive Chef.

He found comfort in food.  He found himself in food.  Not just eating food, not just cooking food, but all aspects of it, from inventory to stock taking to ordering.  At school, Saud failed maths miserably, again and again.  He was useless at numbers and calculations, but he became a procurement manager for Al Futtaim restaurant division because, with food, numbers started to make sense.  His currency is kilos and litres, pallets and packets.

During our conversation, Saud casually drops in further evidence of his drive, determination, and love of F&B. “I once owned an American diner in Garhoud,” he casually remarks between sips of espresso, “It’s closed now.” His hand gestures implied it was a long time ago.  He also is the co-owner of Food Box, a sushi place in Ajman, where he made his ROI in just twelve months.  He also has an active Snapchat account with thousands of avid followers who watch as he cooks family dishes and visits restaurants on a regular basis.  Because of this, he gets invited to international cooking competitions and funnily enough, Emirates Flight Catering job interviews.

Saud Al Matrooshi is the first Emirati chef to work for Emirates Flight Catering, and he’s been given a big job.

What is immediately clear is that this isn’t a token role handed out because he has a blue passport with a Golden Falcon on the front.  He wasn’t hired because they thought he would be a good poster boy, although, by chance he certainly is.  Saud recalls having to cook dishes for a panel of EKFC experts as part of the interview. “I think they were all surprised at how well I spoke about food, they wanted to check if I could actually cook it,” he explains.

He served them some of his signature dishes and distinctly remembers what was on his menu.  He served a zesty salmon tartare with chive infused cream, date syrup glazed short rib machboos and a peach and cream tart.

After the tasting, he was told to go home.  Confused and curious about their feedback, he asked the Chef what they thought of his cooking. “Look,” the chef told him, pointing at the table, “your plates are all empty. I think this is a good thing.”

Soon after that Saud was offered a chef role at EKFC.

It’s a title he’s earnest about. “People are abusing the title,” he explains to me. “If you are not a chef, don’t call yourself a chef. If you don’t have the credentials or the professional experience, you’re not a chef.  If you turn up at a restaurant pretending to be a chef, without the proper food safety training, you could end up poisoning people.  It’s like me going onto social media, calling myself a doctor and then giving out advice.  It’s almost criminal.”  It’s evident Saud’s protectionist mentality is born from years of hard work, failure, struggle, learnings, and graft.  It is inspiring to see such passion.  A chef is a title Saud has worked very hard to achieve, and it’s a title he’s learnt to respect.

Saud has been representing his country for years, through the military, international cooking competitions, making documentaries, but nothing quite as emotive and popular as representing Emiratis, and their food on their national airline carrier.  His social media feeds are full of requests for more Emirati cuisine on the EK flights. It’s a different kind of pressure, but one Saud is ready for. “I want to make my countrymen and women proud, but I also want to make sure we’re representing the hundreds of other nationalities that fly Emirates every day.”

For an average person, the interview would end there. A new job, head down and crack on. But Saud is far from average, and he is always moving forward and pushing boundaries. He explained what else he wants to do.

“I want to build a platform, where young Emiratis who are really ambitious, who really want to explore cooking more, can go for guidance and advice. I also want to build a platform for existing Emirati chefs – we don’t know each other, we don’t have the opportunity to meet and connect, and I want to change that.”

Saud is ambitious, confident and hungry to learn. He is passionate about what he does and wants to show others the possibilities that the kitchen can offer them.

“If you do what you love, you will wake up every day, feeling fresh, ready and you’re always going to have fun.  Your job, if you are passionate about it, will become like your favourite game.”

Saud Al Matrooshi is Executive Sous Chef at Emirates Flight Catering, and he wants you to know that it’s a proper job.

First, let’s start with the big news – GRIF has a new logo. The dripping purple strawberry of 2018 has been retired and we have a new candle/lightbulb, apple/pear hybrid thingy going on.  You’ll have to ask their branding partner, Insignia why they seem to have such a vicious vendetta against fruit.

Anyway, GRIF Society, is the most important and complete community of industry decision makers, experts and operators on the planet.  Probably.  We gather for many reasons, mainly for fear of missing out, getting gossip updates on who is now working where and why they left and to see how many business cards we can collect in 90 minutes.

But we also meet to connect as an industry collective and so we met for a concise two-hour industry update at a reconfigured Westlodge restaurant at the Marriott hotel.   Jennifer said it best in her intro, that these few hours are important for us to take a collective breath, look around and take stock of what the larger industry is doing.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  So, how is our industry doing?

Here it is in a nutshell.

According to Muhammad Ali Syed at Mingora Consult and of no surprise to anyone in the room, the Dubai F&B market is performing poorly against a soft global backdrop.  Average Dubai sales data shows a negative decline on last year, although some operators are finding ways to win.  The new leaders of F&B are Marketing Directors (Something I wrote about here a while ago) and we must fight for our regular customers.

Duncan Fraser Smith and Darren Tse updated us on EXPO 2020, one of the few MENA projects that is confident enough to put an actual opening year in its title.  Everything at EXPO 2020 (apart from the liquor license) is about legacy and longevity.  Over 200 F&B outlets will be available for the Expo, and more importantly, there will be another mall there as well.  Can never have enough malls, in my opinion.

Ronald Huiskamp from H-Hospitality took us on a quick global tour of who’s doing what and well.  In Dubai, however, fine dining is dying, rent is still astronomical, profitable life cycle is between 3-4 years and we are still in love with large 170-seater restaurants for some reason.  Ronald is also taking us all for lunch in Amsterdam next year.

Dubai’s finest F&B thinkers, Emma Banks, Ravi Chandran, Kieran Mallon and Andrew Morrow spoke with Naim Maadad about the Industry Think Tank Initiative they have been developing over the last year.  They have established a mission statement and objectives and are finding ways to encourage honest and frank dialogue about difficult subjects.  Well, Naim is, at least.

Finally, Duncan returned with Adrian Azodi from Deliveroo, who spoke about the Dark side Kitchens that are successfully bringing more food options to more people across the region, providing great partnership opportunities for many F&B operators.

We then moved upstairs to Hotel Cartagena for some networking and what happens in Hotel Cartagena stays in Hotel Cartagena.  Thank you to Atelier EPJ for hosting us and on behalf of GRIF, I’m sorry we left the team of Westlodge with only about 8 minutes to put their restaurant back together before their first guests arrived.  It won’t happen again.

 

A lot of people ask me why I want to and need to remain anonymous.  It is not out of some narcissistic, egomaniacal delusions of grandeur, I can assure you.

It is so I can experience a restaurant as it is meant to be experienced, document it and share it, in all its natural glory.  A restaurant experience is never perfect – and it’s not meant to be, but that’s what makes it so great.  We are dealing with humans, personalities and about a billion moving parts, most of which we have no control over.  There is no way it’ll be perfect.  Show me a restaurant that never makes mistakes and… well you can’t, because they don’t exist.

It’s surprising what lengths some restaurants will go to, to manipulate and control a restaurant review.  They print off photos of the reviewer and stick them to the notice board, making the service staff learn those faces so they know them better than they know their loved ones.  They stalk social media accounts and download photos, sharing them across WhatsApp groups and I get it, to some extent.  The pressure to succeed at all costs is immense.  I’ve even done some of it myself, so I know it happens.

However, without my anonymity, it’s a guarantee that restaurants will start acting unnaturally around me, the layers of forced standards and false narrative overpowering their natural beauty and suddenly, and with great sadness, the magic is lost.  All my efforts to celebrate our industry are rendered lame and without purpose.

FoodSheikh started with a very clear mission and objective.  To celebrate our industry, provide a voice for the restaurants that perhaps don’t have one, and to bring people and places together.  It was about being sincere and honest to an important audience and never breaking that trust.  It was never about money, or fame or recognition.  If it were, I would have accepted the financial offers that restaurant groups promised me, in return for a few hundred words on my website.  Instead, I answered back with my #noreceiptnoreview initiative, posting my receipt with every review.  I could have taken up the radio spot offers and the panel talk requests, but instead, I started increasing the type of stories I wanted to tell, across all my platforms.

The FoodSheikh voice has always been honest, unfiltered and unbiased.  That’s why the FoodSheikh voice has always been anonymous.  To allow the industry to sing, in all its imperfect glory.

 

Back on May 23rd, 2016, Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain, with their sleeves rolled up, top buttons unbuttoned, shared a small intimate table in a crowded, sparsely decorated dining room in the bowels of Hanoi.  The photo capturing these two men became an instantly iconic image, with Bourdain tweeting poetically, “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.”

Vietnamese Foodies in JLT is the sort of place you could expect to find Bourdain and Obama sharing a meal together.

However, VF position themselves as ‘Authentic Health Food,’ which got my Spidey Senses tingling straight off the bat.  Authentic is such a dangerous word, often misused and overused.  A bit like truffles, if you follow my Instagram feed.  If you don’t, you should.  When companies use the word authentic, it sets off all kinds of alarms.  If you have to tell me you’re authentic, then are you really?  We have this thing called instinct. When our gut feels like something is off, it tells us.  Surely it is the customers prerogative to determine the level of authenticity? 
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And what is authentic anymore anyway?  Alas, that’s for another article.

The next alarm bell that was ringing was the use of ‘health food’.  Are Vietnamese Foodies simply adding a Vietnamese twist to kale, quinoa and coconut oil, (which is the new devil’s food, BTW)  Health food has had such a bad run over the years, with menus of uninspired, flavourless roughage, and I was genuinely worried we would be seeing acai & avocado spring rolls with a sweet kale dip.

However, you’ll be pleased to learn that VF haven’t ‘Frankenstein’ed’ their cuisine, as Vietnamese food is some of the world’s healthiest, frequently making it into the top ten along with Greece, Japan, Sweden and, err, Chad, which surprisingly tops the list, according to the Lancet Global Health survey.

In fact, Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup is regarded as one of the most nutritionally balanced meals in the world.  It has proteins and carbs, some fats, dietary fibres, vitamins, and minerals all in a bowl of deliciousness.  The Goi Cuon or fresh spring rolls are translucent rice paper packed with vegetables and herbs, have virtually no oil, almost zero fat and are utterly delicious.

On the other hand, Slovakia has the unhealthiest cuisine where they have Bryndzove Halushky – potato dumplings with full-fat sheep cheese and roasted bacon, Zemiakové Placky – potato pancakes fried in generous amounts of oil with garlic and flour and full-fat cheese, deep fried in breadcrumbs.  Imagine a Chad expat living in Bratislava!

Back in VF, the tables are crammed into the small dining room, taking intimate dining to an almost illegal level.  The AC is on the blink, and their good intentioned solution of aiming a high powered fan directly at your face was quickly dismissed by The Serb.

The place was full when we arrived, but we got lucky and took a recently vacated table against the wall.

A menu with foreign words does not last long in The Serb’s hands, and after pointing to a picture of a salad, she discarded the menu and left the rest to me.  The menu is quite sizeable for the size of the kitchen and does not strictly limit itself to Vietnamese food.  There’s a Tom Yam soup from Thailand and Dim Sum from China.  True to their word, they have kept the menu as fresh and healthy as possible, there are a very few fried items on the menu and a good selection of vegan and vegetarian options too.

The salad the Serb pointed to turned out to be the Goi Ga Bap Cai or chicken cabbage salad.  I also ordered the Honey BBQ steamed buns which don’t have a Vietnamese translation, strangely.  I added a Bún Ga Nuong, a dish of grilled chicken satay with rice noodles and a dipping sauce.  Of course, you can’t go to a Vietnamese restaurant without ordering the Goi Cuon Ga Nuong Ngu Vi, otherwise known as chicken lettuce spring rolls.

I was tempted to go for the Pho, but it was about 400 degrees outside, and with a dodgy AC unit, I didn’t want to risk ordering a piping hot noodle broth.

The dining room has little decor, its unadorned simplicity defining its function – this is clearly a place to focus on and enjoy the food, first and foremost.

I feel like I am jumping on the bandwagon a little late here, but I must say, the food was delicious.  It was flavourful yet light, showing excellent command of herbs, spices, and flavouring.  The spring rolls were translucent, fresh and utterly moorish.  They had a great texture, the soft chicken and the crunchy vegetables combining beautifully in the mouth.

The buns were stretchy-soft, generously filled with piping hot, fragrant sweet chicken.  The chicken cabbage salad was balanced, crunchy and refreshing, with plenty of fresh coriander, the most magnificent herb on the planet.

The Bún Ga Nuong was again a well balanced and complete meal – a good portion of cold rice noodles, satay coated grilled chicken pieces and a fragrant sweet dipping sauce.

Lily Hoa Nguyen, a Vietnamese from Hai Pong, is the unlikely culinary drive behind the VF menu.  With no formal culinary training, she used to offer private cooking classes before convincing herself to open her first restaurant. I am glad she did because that was a masterclass in Vietnamese cooking.

If you haven’t been, I suggest you roll up your sleeves, unbutton your top button and grab a stool.

 

Vietnamese Foodies
Lake Terrace Tower
Cluster D, JLT
055 1696190
Lunch for two – 133.45

 

Vietnamese Foodies Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

“Twenty dirhams for company,” used to be the response when asked how much for a car wash at a certain Dubai mall.  The implications clear in his well-scripted answer.  The company will take all 20 dhs, and there is nothing for me.  I usually handed over 25 dhs.  Sometimes 30 if the car is filthy or it’s crazy hot outside.  They now have a new approach though.   Now it is a straight 26 dhs – presumably, a strategy that banks on shoppers not wanting to wait for 4 hot little coins to be handed back.

I watch as the petrol pump guy gently coaxes the last few drops of ‘Super’ into the tank to make it a round number.  As I usually round up to the nearest ten, I secretly hope the amount falls on a number that ends on a 4, 5 or 6.  Because anything less than a 4 is too much tip and anything above a 6 is too little a tip, and then it becomes awkward.

However, everything about tipping is awkward.  How much is enough, and do different industries work off the same rates?  The restaurant industry should be between 10-15% but what about the grooming industry, for example.  Do you tip your mani and pedi lady?

Tech Disruption?

However, as technology improves, and cashless payment becomes more and more part of our daily transactions, where does that leave the delivery drivers and servers and bartenders and taxi drivers and valet guys.  I’m not in the habit of carrying a stack of 5 or 10 dhs bills around with me – the Serb would get suspicious as to where I’m going with a stack of small bills.

As a result of using Apple pay and delivery and taxi apps, do Careem drivers no longer get tips, and how many Deliveroo delivery drivers have to leave the office lunch order with the receptionist without getting a tip?  As you remove the cash from the transaction, are you also removing the triggers to tip?

Sure, some of the delivery apps allow you to add a driver tip when you place your order, but that defeats the whole purpose of a tip.  What if the driver is a real jerk, or has eaten half your food on the way over, or parks his bike on your prize-winning Chrysanthemums.  You’ve already tipped him, and you are left to salvage whatever you can from your flowerbed.

FoodSheikh’s Tipping Scale

 

Behind the Scenes

When it comes to the restaurant industry, and the management of the gratuity tips, it is never clear and straightforward, although it should be.  Every restaurant has a different way to manage them.  Point system, pooling, percentage or voluntary, there are several ways, each with their pros and cons and no real industry standard.

What is key to remember is that tips are a financial reward that a customer has chosen to give to an individual for their efforts in looking after them.  It is money that belongs to the restaurant team.  When managers dip their sticky fingers into the pot, it starts to get unsavory.  When the tip money is being used for other things like covering shortages or breakages, it starts to highlight questionable management tactics.

Service staff work hard for their tips, which make up an essential part of their salary.  Most restaurant line staff are not splashing their cash at brunches every weekend or driving fancy cars.  Most of them are sending money home and living pay cheque to pay cheque.

However, I was recently told a story that is all too common in our industry here in Dubai, and it makes me simultaneously sad and angry.

In a single month, this restaurant collects a certain amount of  credit card tips.  As per restaurant policy, these tips are meant to be shared equally among the team members.  Without going into too much detail, the staff are only given 30% of their total tips collected, with the balance being withheld by the restaurant.  Across a year, it equates to almost ½ a million dirhams of staff tips that the owners/management are keeping.

The latest Fair Labour Standards Act in the U.S expressly prohibits employers, managers, or supervisors from collecting or retaining tips made by employees.  Unfortunately, no such law exists here yet, and the added service charge you see at the bottom of the bill does not go to the employee directly.

An Ideal World

In an ideal world, our restaurant staff would all get paid enough not to have to rely on the benevolence of others in what is quite a degrading and discriminatory practice, when you think about it.  However, until such a time, it might be worth asking your server what the restaurant’s tipping policy is.

The only moral questions we used to ask of our favourite eatery was about high welfare chicken and organic broccoli.  It’s a sign of our times that more and more now we are finding ourselves questioning the moral integrity of the establishments we choose to support.  In a world that is becoming increasingly divided, restaurants can be and should be a safe haven of inclusion and professional integrity and equality.

If your favourite restaurant is stiffing their employees over a few dirhams worth of tips, what else are they doing – because chances are they haven’t stopped at the tips.

 

While everyone is focusing on veganism and flexitarian diets, there is something refreshing about a restaurant that celebrates carnivorous sin without apology or reservation.  Blacksmith Smokehouse is such a restaurant.  However, this is not a well-done sirloin with some sweet bottled BBQ sauce slavered over it.  Nor is it charred chicken legs, dry burger patties and exploded sausages with ketchup and sesame seed buns.  No Sir.

Blacksmith is an American Barbeque Smokehouse.  Comparing a British style BBQ to the BBQ’s of the Deep South (Texas, not Brighton) is a bit like comparing a game of village rounders to the baseball World Series.  American BBQ is in a whole different league.   They have national barbeque conventions and workshops, and they hand out titles like Chief Pitmaster and Smokehouse Clerk.

As an example. the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) is the world’s largest organization of barbeque and grilling enthusiasts, with over 20,000 paid up members.  They sanction over 500 official barbeque events in 46 states.  They also have local, regional and national competitions, and with names like ‘Sherman’s Last Burning,’ ‘Autumn Blaze Smokeoff’ and ‘Hottern’ Hell Cookoff,’ you know these folk aren’t messing around.

Especially when the British equivalents are called ‘Lemington Spa Flavour Fest’ and ‘Grillstock.’  Put away the bunting, Britain, America, for once, has got this.

The name Blacksmith is very evocative, creating visions of fire and heat, glistening forearms hammering hot steel and ancient warriors dropping bags of gold on a table in exchange for the finest sword forged from Bavarian steel.

The Blacksmith Smokehouse is in the Wyndham Hotel in SoMa (South Marina) and has secured the services of Pitmaster Orelle Young.  Although most Pitmasters traditionally originate from the south, Young is Manhattan born and raised and worked under Pitmaster Big Lou Elrose at Hill Country BBQ Market in New York City where he mastered the ways of the pit.

Walking into Blacksmith, there is a subtle, sweet, smoky smell, so faint and lingering that it might have been clinging to the apron of chef Young as he walked through the restaurant.  Inside, the décor is bordering on budget, which is sensible in this current market and takes very little away from the experience.  There are large vinyl graphics on the walls, and stacks of wood are used as decorative items.  The ceiling is low, making the room intimate but with nowhere for the sound to travel to, it can get quite noisy in there.  There are high tables close to the bar and dining tables in the main room.  There is a terrace as well, which of course, like all terraces in August remained closed even to the most resilient German tourist.

The table is set with the heaviest knife and fork I have ever held.  They are formidable and very fitting for a restaurant named The Blacksmith.  In the unlikely event that anything arrives at your table still alive, you can club it to death.  There is also a black towel napkin. It’s a proper linen towel, the type you would use in the gym to wipe down machines with.  I can only assume this is to towel off after the meat sweats kick in.  Do you even meat sweat, bro?

Typically, BBQ menus are quite limited in nature, but Chef Young has expanded the offerings admirably.  There are starters such as tenders, armadillo eggs, and Texas toast, along with a selection of sides and trimmings such as BBQ beans and lime slaw.  The main courses are nearly all meat – beef, lamb, duck, chicken and fish, hot smoked, cold smoked, dry rubbed and deep fried.

I thought The Serb would be in her element, with a menu that offers a solitary vegetarian mains option.  I thought she would dive into the brisket, or the ribeye or the short rib with aplomb.  She ordered the chicken sliders.  You think you know someone.

I was tempted to walk into the kitchen and drop a bag of gold on the counter and demand the Pitmaster’s finest cut, forged from the hottest coals.  Instead, I ordered the Short Rib from the server.  We also ordered the corn pudding – a southern living, comfort food staple, and the hush puppies –  deep-fried cornbread balls with a dipping sauce.

The service was just about on point, but our server was getting stretched as more tables came in for dinner.  He was probably exhausted from carrying all the cutlery during set up.  However, he just about held on and still managed to hustle with a smile on his face.

The Short Rib, smoked for 14 hours with just a salt and pepper rub, was crusted black, intensely smoky, rich and crisp, juicy and not too lean.  You could eat it with just a fork.  Chef Young knows how to smoke them, and he indeed proved his Pitmaster credentials with this dish.

The chicken sliders came in mini croissants that looked like they were left over from the breakfast buffet.  It was an odd choice of vehicle for the excellent tasting chicken inside.  Not sure if they are trying to be inventive, or cost-cutting, either way, it didn’t work for me.  Perhaps a moist biscuit or cornbread muffin would have been better than the mini croissants.

The deep-fried cornbread balls were fluffy, textured and had that wonderful grittiness that you want in your balls.   Dipped in their mac and dream sauce, a layered, heavily flavoured cheese sauce, they were little mouthfuls of southern delight.

Their corn pudding is a decadent, heavy pudding, and like its Southern counterpart, the sweet potato casserole, it was almost sweet enough to be a dessert.

For the actual dessert, we tried the Grand Choco Waffo experience, which is meant to encapsulate all their desserts in one heart attack-inducing dish.  It was decadent and over the top, chaotic with flavour and saturated with sugar.  A one-time try for me.  Next time, I want Pooky’s Peach Cobbler.

The Blacksmith Smokehouse is an excellent introduction to American BBQ, and it would be good to see the highly skilled Pitmaster Young start experimenting with different cuts and techniques, flavours, and rubs.  He could then launch Dubai’s inaugural “Desert Dog ‘Hotter than Hellfire’ Bake-off.”

Until he does, get down to Blacksmith and get your meat sweat on.

PSA:- Their tagline is “Put some south in your mouth.”  I would agree with this, but make sure you get consent first.

 

Dinner for two – 323 AED
Blacksmith Smokehouse
Wyndham Hotel
Dubai Marina

 

The Blacksmith Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I must start with a dire warning for all men out there.  Carine at The Emirates Golf Club is possibly the worst restaurant in Dubai for a date.  Maybe even for relationships as a whole.  Once your partner finds out that Chef Izu named the restaurant after his wife, all your efforts will be compared to this, and you will be found wanting.  Here I was offering to go Dutch on the bill, and this chap over here just named a restaurant after his wife.  Thanks, Izu.

I purposely said nothing to The Serb about this little fact in the hope that her usual levels of culinary curiosity remained at the, “do they have burgers?” level.

We arrived to a couple of smiling, friendly hostesses.  After giving our reservation, the hostess quickly checked her computer screen and then exclaimed with quite some surprise, “we have your table ready!”  It was delivered with such infectious enthusiasm that we virtually skipped through the restaurant to our table.  Well, I did.  The Serb had a bit more dignity and maintained a safe distance in front of me.

We sat at a table laid out with a simple linen table runner, with wooden handled knives and forks.  A large cloudy olive oil bottle loomed over the salt and pepper grinders and a bright yellow lemon added a splash of Mediterranean colour.  The similarities to LPM’s table set up cannot be avoided – even the salt and pepper shakers are the same.  The only thing missing is the tomatoes.  However, in LPM, the purpose of these table fruit remains a mystery as no-one ever attempts to explain their purpose to the guest.

Here at Carine, the waiter makes a wonderful little olive oil and balsamic dressing right at your table.  He sliced the lemon and squeezed it into the dressing, explaining that the lemon was flown in from Scilly and therefore wasn’t as bitter as the usual lemons.  I had visions of our lemon sitting in Emirates business class, headphones on, watching ICE and all the other lemons in economy, fighting over armrest space, getting more and more bitter.

Onion Tart

Carine is an attractive and charming bistro with an open kitchen counter and French/Mediterranean styling.  The lighting is spot on, and there is a great feel to the room.  It is classical, yet youthful.  Retired couples (do they exist in Dubai?) playing golf would feel as comfortable here as a young power-hungry DIFC banker. (Do they still exist in Dubai?)

The staff are busy but efficient, knowledgeable and happy to engage in conversation.  The manager came over and introduced herself, welcoming us to Carine.  The Serb was very pleased with this, as we rarely get a manager to our table, preferring low-key meal experiences.  Unfortunately, this is where the manager decided to let the cat out of the bag and explained why the restaurant was called Carine.  The Serb, to her credit, waited at least 45 seconds before bringing it up.  “Izu named this restaurant after his wife?  That’s lovely,” she said, as she ripped apart an innocent piece of bread.  If I can translate that, I think she really meant, “Watch it, buddy – you better step up your game.”

We quickly ordered the Tarte Flambée and the Duck Confit Quinoa Salad to start followed by the Rigatoni with Beef Ragout and the Lamb Saddle.

Confit Duck Quinoa Salad

Written in French, with English translation, the menu has hints of Le Petite Maison, but to make any further comparisons would do no justice to Carine’s menu.  In my opinion, it is better than LPM’s in almost every way.  It is classic, yet modern. It has substance but is light.  While LPM’s is built on tradition and nostalgia, Carine’s menu seems young, relevant and forward-looking. It is a Generation Z menu to LPM’s Baby Boomer menu.  It is resplendent with elevated bistro food – from fish to lamb to veal, where Mediterranean spices such as harissa and sumac live in harmony with Périgueux Sauce and Ratatouille.

The duck salad arrived along with the tarte flambée – onion tart.  Both were excellent, but the winner was the onion tart because, well, quinoa is quinoa and that only takes you so far.  Slow-cooked onions as soft as they were sweet, sat on a lightly baked flatbread crust with cherry tomatoes and dollops of sour cream.  The sweetness of the onions was balanced out by the sour cream, and the contrast came together wonderfully. It was a dish that got better with every single bite.

Rigatoni Beef Ragout

I think The Serb only ordered the Rigatoni with ragout because it was the closest thing to a burger (i.e beef) on the menu and also because it was the only dish she recognised amongst all the French.  However, I am delighted she did, because it was the surprise dish of the year so far for me.  It is a credit to Izu’s understanding of flavours that a simple meal can elicit such complexity from such humble ingredients.  It was umami heaven, layered with flavour, depth, and character.  It was superb, and I don’t use that word lightly.  You must try it.

Lamb Saddle

The lamb was prepared with skill and finesse.  Cooked perfectly, it was tender and packed with flavour.  The parsnip puree took the potato impersonating vegetable to a whole new level.  Creamy, almost sweet in taste, it was a great support and balance to the savory lamb.

The manager came over to inquire about the food.  In her enthusiasm for her restaurant, she let another cat out of the bag.  She explained the olive oil on the table is from Izu’s private olive grove in Greece.  I closed my eyes.  Of course, he owns an olive grove.  I own a souvenir meteorite stone in a little plastic box.  A rock that came from out of space.  That’s just as impressive.  The Serb looked at me but said nothing.  Sometimes that’s even more dangerous.  I just hope she never finds out he sells his olive oil under the retail name Theo, which is his son’s name.

We decided to skip dessert, much to my relief – mainly because I was terrified that the manager would come back and tell us another amazing fact about Chef Izu.

Carine is a triumph.  A brilliant example of Chef Izu’s mastery of simple ingredients with fresh Mediterranean flavours.  The service was personable and charming, and the setting is casual, refined and modern.  I wholeheartedly recommend Carine and genuinely look forward to returning.

As we got home, I asked The Serb if she wanted some tea.
“Yes,” she replied, and then muttered under her breath, “he named a restaurant after his wife.”

Thanks, Izu.

 

Dinner for two – 418.01 Dhs
Carine
Emirates Golf Club
04 2482152

 

Carine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

David Chang is one of the most relevant chefs on TV at the moment.  A third culture kid, Chef Chang is the founder of the Momofuku Restaurant Group which are the holders of two Michelin Stars.  He published the cult food journal, Lucky Peach and produced and presented a Netflix series called Ugly Delicious.

Credit:- Eater.com

Recently, Nike, the sporting apparel giant partnered with Chang to create a limited-edition Momofuku sneaker.  The denim on the shoe is the same blue as the apron Chang wears in his kitchens.  A peach, Chang’s most recognizable icon is stitched on the heel.  Inside on the sock liner are the numbers 163 and 207 which are the addresses of Chang’s first two restaurants in New York City.  They are currently going for about 1,300 AED – if you can find a pair.

Lexus has their brand experience space, Intersect, in Toyko, Dubai and soon in New York as well.  This restaurant space acts as a brand extension where people intersect with food, fashion, design, and entertainment.  Restaurants have always been a great storytelling canvas when done right and what is marketing if not storytelling?  

Hyundai Card, one of Korea’s largest credit card companies commissioned London design studio, Blacksheep, to create an F&B experience that provides an analogue antidote to the fast pace of city life in a digital world.  Spread over five floors, The Cooking Library includes a deli, bakery & cafe, library, and kitchen with an ingredients house and rooftop farm.

IKEA’s founder Ingvar Kamprad famously noted that the furniture giant’s best sofa sellers were their meatballs.  IKEA restaurants were conceived to stop people leaving the store and to spend more on flat pack furniture.  Visitors who have eaten in an IKEA restaurant, spend almost 25% more than someone who has not had an IKEA meal.

The Cooking Library Credit: Echochamber

For years, global brands have been using the emotive power of F&B to help market their products or services, and I am surprised that hotels have not quite fully grasped this concept yet.  Surely hoteliers (other than Ian Schrager and Nick Jones) can see that one of their best room sellers might be their F&B?  Historically, the best hotel operators have understood the importance of marketing and F&B working closing together to drive business, but what if we move beyond just working “closely together”?

In its current form, the marketing function of a hotel has a responsibility to promote and market all hotel services, from rooms to banqueting, from spas to F&B, with a critical focus on rooms.  However, what if a hotel’s F&B became part of the hotel’s marketing department.  Instead of another revenue center to promote, F&B becomes a tool to sell and promote the rest of the hotel and support the brand’s positioning.  I’m not talking dotted line to marketing, I’m talking full-on commitment – that F&B becomes a marketing function.

What a mindset shift that would be, to treat F&B as a tool to sell rooms and strengthen the brand.  It might already be done in some respects, but as a fundamental shift in organisational structure, it could completely change how hotels treat F&B.

Traditional organisational structures are already being challenged in hotels like CitizenM, Radisson Red, and even our local Rove hotels.  Gone are the days where the General Manager lords over his lobby like a sovereign over his lands.  Now the staff are at the front line, leading the brand forward, so it is not such a crazy thought to question the role of F&B within hotels.  No-one understands the hotel brand DNA or guest profiles better than a good marketing director, and that is what’s missing in the dry world of hotel F&B today.  How can the F&B Manager or Exec Chef meaningfully connect with guests and communities when they are stuck in the nitty-gritty of managing food costs and perfecting operational flow or worst still when they are being egomaniacal monsters!  (it’s true, some do still exist)

The role of marketing has changed so much over the years.  Besides storytelling and engagement, community-centricity is now key, and F&B is the heart & soul of a hotel’s “micro-community.”  Therefore, there is a strong argument that says why not hand over the ownership of the F&B to someone who understands, lives and breathes that – the marketing director.

Just imagine what a smart marketing director could do with F&B if it sat on her P&L account as a marketing cost.  Would boring all day diners stay the same, or would they evolve into brand and lifestyle experience centres that tell the hotel’s story and work towards strengthening the emotional attachment between customer and brand.

Menu prices could be kept low and accessible, with low food margins treated as a marketing cost to give the very best product to the guests.  A financial investment could be made into hiring the highest caliber of staff – highly trained brand ambassadors that fly the flag for the hotel.

F&B revenue can account for a vast portion a hotel’s total income, especially in this region and of course, the operations will still need to be run by a dedicated F&B ops team.  A gaggle of omnichannel marketing executives trying to serve Martinis and tableside crepe suzettes is the stuff of nightmares.  However, my argument is the overarching strategy, drive and direction could be spearheaded by a marketing director.

It’s a significant change and will have massive implications for the hotel structure. New job descriptions will need to be written, marketing directors will probably have to be re-hired, or re-trained at the very least.  The role of the exec chef and F&B director will dramatically change, and there will be massive pushback from people in those roles – but sometimes changes as dramatic and extreme as this can yield surprising results over time.  Maybe it’s time to smash that glass box, flip everything on its head and evolve that hierarchy and organizational structure.

Or maybe not.  Thoughts anyone?

 

Travel and food have been the hot couple for a few years now.  They have spurred a whole genre of storytelling, from significant production shows like Parts Unknown and Ugly Delicious, all the way through to someone who once tried a Pastéis de Nata at Faro airport and is now a travel and food blogger with a profile that reads “Wanderer. Thinker. Eater.”

It’s no wonder that restaurants are now incorporating this combination of epicurean escapism into their offerings.  The newly rebranded Brunswick at MOE is launching Charlie’s Brunch, which in the 1980’s would have meant something completely different, but now means that Charlie Lane, who is a traveling expat, brings back flavours and stoires from his travels and serves them at brunch.  Another example is Miss Tess at The Taj hotel; a traveler who is here to take you on a journey through the street foods of South East Asia.

This leads me to my most recent restaurant excursion to Dubai Mall.  Going to Dubai Mall in itself is a journey, especially if you commit to exploring the newly opened Fashion Avenue.    Somewhere in Dubai Mall is a travel café, that serves modern Levantine plates.  I’m not being vague and facetious – Somewhere is the name of the place.  Emirati owned, from the same group as Parker’s and Salt, Somewhere takes its inspiration from a newsstand, which is synonymous with travel hubs – train stations, airports, bus stops, valet parking and the like.  As you walk in there is a neon light saying “Let us take you somewhere.”  I whispered to the Serb that I wasn’t falling for that line again.  Last time I fell for that, it ended with a trip across international borders with two strangers and a small goat.

We arrived early and were seated right away in an almost empty restaurant.  Opposite us was a half wall of shelves.  Stacked with books.  The type of books that sit on the coffee tables of those friends who, at all times, maintain a pristine, picture perfect living room, just in case Architectural Digest pop by for a quick photo shoot on a Wednesday afternoon.

I asked if the books were for sale because at that moment I had an overwhelming urge to own an unnecessary collection of beautiful, oversized picture books that I would maybe look at once.  Luckily for my credit card, they were not for sale, and I sat back down again in a dramatic huff.  I was going to be so embarrassed if AD came calling.

Somewhere’s menu is Levantine at its core, with some fresh twists that liven up a familiar offering.  The dishes are all quite shareable and “mezze-like” in their make-up, which is why Somewhere has more of a café feel than a restaurant.  It actually is a well-conceived concept for the new fashion district and a good place to refuel after your Hermes shop and before heading into Prada.  It isn’t such a big commitment to eat at Somewhere – it is easy and accessible.

We went with the chicken musakhan rolls, lime corn salad, chicken shawarma bao, the chicken ouzi puff and the zaatar and cheese cones.

As we waited for our food, the place quickly filled up with local families, and I’ve heard it already has somewhat of a cult following among the Emirati foodie crowd.  There was, however, an expat couple in the corner, who might have been Miss Tess and Charlie Lane discussing brunch strategies.

The music was notable too – artists like Alina Baraz and Galimatias providing excellent energy to the place and the staff were approachable and attentive also.

The interior design is clean and uncluttered and what I call the “Millennial Instagram” style.  Grey walls, marbled grey table tops, clean archways and pendant lights.  It is not of any particular place, which I think is the whole point.  It is somewhere.  Anywhere.  I would have liked to see some global accessories and trinkets from around the world built into the décor – I think they tell a better story than a few travel books.

The food arrived in no particular order, and each dish was bright, lively, fresh and modern.  The musakhan chicken rolls paid homage to its namesake, the Palestinian dish and were fragrant and well spiced.  The chicken shawarma bao was a good effort, but the shawarma is such a difficult food item to reinvent.   The winner was the chicken ouzi puff.  An oversized vol en vent, stuffed with delicious, soft, slippery spiced rice with chicken and roasted pine nuts.  A thick, umami gravy accompanied the dish.

They also brought a chicken jalapeno fatteh to our table as well, although we didn’t order it.  I ate it before they realised their mistake.  I was unapologetic about it – it was delicious.

The Serb had claimed she wasn’t particularly hungry.  However, she demolished most of the dishes and still had a look at the dessert menu.

Somewhere is a cute little café that serves some delightfully fresh Levantine dishes that are great as a light bite while in the mall.  If you find yourself with nowhere to go in the new Fashion Avenue, I can recommend Somewhere.

 

Somewhere
Fashion Avenue
Dubai Mall
04 3295182

Lunch for two – 243 AED

 

Somewhere Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato