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? 
[rml_read_more]
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

Although El Mostacho sounds like a movie directed by Robert Rodriguez, starring Danny Trejo, it is, in fact, a taqueria or taco shop in JLT, run by Isaac Mendoza and the Bystro group.  Isaac and his brother used to run La Taqueria in Business Bay, arguably Dubai’s best taco joint.  When they closed their doors last year, there was a taco shaped hole in the city’s culinary fabric.

Admittedly, I didn’t know it was Isaac’s new place when I went there for a quick lunch one afternoon and had to stop myself from giving him a hug when I saw him.  You have to be so careful these days about unwanted affection.  Apparently, Netflix has created a policy that says you can’t stare at anyone for longer than 5 seconds otherwise it’s harassment.  They should never film in Deira.  Anyway, I digress.

As a restaurant, El Mostacho is about as big as a mustache.  Taking over a tiny sliver of the Silver Tower, in Cluster I, El Mostacho has nearly enough seats for the Mexican football team squad.  The seven-a-side team, not the full squad.  It is just like a taco stand from Baja California, where you perch against a counter and grab a quick taco or a bowl of tortilla soup.  It is welcoming and intimate, with no pretence or agenda except to serve excellent tacos and burritos.

The décor is fun and straightforward, and even the menu encourages you to not take life too seriously.  The space looks like they raided an old Tijuana travel agency.  There are posters, plates, and textiles on all the walls advertising the beautiful country of Mexico.  On the countertops are Mexican recipes books, Calaca figurines, little ceramic cacti and trompos – little toy spinning tops.  It is cheerful and uplifting.

Globally, Mexican food has unfortunately been somewhat high jacked by hipster food truckers, serving line caught fish tacos with sriracha and deep fried crushed kale.  They have become pretentious, complicated and a slave to the “Gram.”

Luckily, El Mostacho has stayed true to their origins, and their menu is small, traditional and authentic.  Tortilla soup, burritos and tacos, a couple of drinks and some guac.  There’s your menu, and that’s all you need.  We ordered the guac and chips, a couple of burritos and a couple of tacos.  Isaac served us, but the kitchen was right there, and we could have just called our order out to his brother directly.

The barbacoa burrito is like a big warm, familiar hug.  The soft flour tortilla wrapped tightly around slow-cooked shredded beef, with rice, beans, lettuce, salsa and melted cheese.  I’m pretty sure that’s all the food groups you need.  There is something deeply comforting about a soft, warm, thick burrito.

Then came the tacos.  I want to talk about the taco tortilla for a minute.  The tortilla is the vessel from which you create the taco, and you don’t just decide one day to start making perfect tortilla.   The Mexicans have been making tortilla since before they were even Mexican.  Their understanding of corn and its characteristics are legendary, passed down from generation to generation.  A real corn tortilla is a dull yellow and smells like fields and crushed corn kernels.  It tastes like artistry and legacy.  El Mostacho’s tortillas are home-made and guaranteed it’s a recipe his mother got from her mother and so on.

El Mostacho’s tacos are the real deal.  Home-made corn tortilla, filled with marinated grilled meats with radish, cilantro, and pickled red onions.  They are little envelopes of hope, consumed in about three delicious bites.  The Carne Asada was better than the Pollo taco, but that’s like saying Messi is better than Ronaldo.  Either one would make your fantasy football team.  But Messi is better.  Except at penalties.  However, neither are very good at paying taxes.

The service is Isaac, who is always four steps away from any point in the restaurant.  He is genuine and friendly and cares deeply about your enjoyment of his food.  I mentioned in my review of La Taqueria that it was like going around to your friend’s house and El Mostacho has the same vibe.  It is chilled, informal and heartfelt.

I genuinely don’t think a city is complete without a place like El Mostacho.  I suggest you stop by and support your friendly neighbourhood taco place as soon as you get the chance.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

El Mostacho
Ground Floor, Silver Tower
Cluster I, JLT
04 551 6679

Lunch for three – 180 Dhs

 

 

El Mostacho Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tom and Serg in Al Quoz was a breath of fresh air for the Dubai casual dining scene, back in 2013, with their hipster cool staff, casual laid back attitude and solid food and beverage programs.  They blazed a trail for the rest of the casual dining market and set the standard in café culture, oiled beards and tattoo sleeves.

They also scored home runs with the next two places they opened, The Sum of Us and Common Grounds and all three cafes have their own distinct core following.  They introduced us to a crazy new drink called a flat white and turned all of us into coffee snobs.

Next came The Brunswick Sports Bar (Let’s forget about Muchaha and Uncle Jheff) which was an edgy, grown-up sports bar that had a certain confidence and panache.  I even wrote a review about it and I think I called it “an achingly retro sports bar with some modern-day upgrades on a backdrop of industrial décor.” It was original and classy and it’s safe to say I was and still am a bit of a fanboy of the Bull & Roo team.  If Bull & Roo made merchandise, I would totally buy it.

Therefore, I was surprised when I heard that The Brunswick had undergone a renovation and rebrand, just a couple of years after opening.

Walking in, the change is immediate – The New Brunswick is moody, darker and much more serious than its predecessor.  Black tables and chairs are scattered across the concrete floor and the kitchen and bar are clad with dark shiny subway tiles.  There are minimal accessories, and a several planters dotted around the space.  For me, it, unfortunately, lacked a story or premise.  I found it difficult to connect to the space and wasn’t sure what vibe I was picking up.  Bull & Roo always operate clearly defined concepts with strong storylines, but this reincarnation of Brunswick needed that famous magic dust they usually sprinkle on things.

There was no-one at the entrance to greet us, so we wandered around for a while and eventually grabbed a table in what they call their lifestyle eatery.  I don’t know what that means, I think it’s just a pompous dining room.

Eventually, we were handed two food menus, despite there being four of us, and had to ask for two more.  After several additional minutes, the waitress finally brought us two drinks menus.  I didn’t want to make a fuss as perhaps this whole sharing concept has evolved to include menus too.  We hot bedded the menus and worked out a page sharing system to speed things up.

The new menu takes itself very seriously.  There are dishes with things like sherry vinegar gel, cultured creams, and charcoal mayonnaise.  The menu comprises medium sharing, large sharing, and sides.  There are dishes like grilled quail and monkfish cheeks. The Serb asked quietly what the difference was between medium sharing and sides.  It was a good question. In a move that implies they perhaps are not so sure of their new menu themselves, they have also included party favourites such as bar bites, pizzas, and burgers.

I applaud them for pushing the boundaries, and the menu reminded me a little of Folly’s menu, by Nick and Scott, which is a compliment.  However, nothing really stood out for us, and no dish demanded our attention.  It might have helped if the service team had shown some enthusiasm, taken the time to explain the menu and sold us on a few dishes, but they could barely make eye contact with us, let alone conduct an engaging conversation about the new kitchen direction.

In the end, we went for the safe options and ordered all three burger choices and the Neapolitan pizza.  As we ordered the triple cream brie burger and the Shropshire blue burger, I felt my arteries thickening and my heart rate increase.  To counterbalance that, we also ordered the crispy grain burger, made up of lentils, quinoa, mushroom, buckwheat and other great things you would feed to a rabbit. A balance was restored, kind of.

The grain burger was surprisingly good and even more surprisingly turned out to be the star of the lunch.  The brie burger was severely undercooked and was inedible, and the blue burger barely passed the mustard.

Then came Pizzagate.  Our server quietly dropped a pizza into the middle of the table and made a quick getaway.  However, the Serb, when hungry, has all her senses heightened and noticed immediately that it was the wrong pizza.  Amazingly, the server also knew this and explained our pizza had been taken to the table next to us by mistake, but we could have this one instead.  The old switch and bait pizza trick.  We politely declined and said we would wait for the Neapolitan.  On the way back to the kitchen, the server tried to offload the unwanted pizza onto the original table, but they also declined, having rather enjoyed our pizza.  Rumour has it, that pizza is still trying to find a home today.

Our correct order eventually arrived, but by then the burgers had been eaten, and our whole meal experience had ceased to be.  To rub salt in the wound, the pizza was effectively raw dough with some luke-warm toppings and was unfortunately left uneaten.

The Brunswick Eatery Bar and Terrace has a long way to go to reach the high levels of the rest of Bull & Roo’s portfolio.  The food was a big let-down – burgers and pizza are not the hardest of food to get right.  However, more importantly, a few of the staff seriously let down the brand with their lack of customer care and attention to detail.  To their credit, the pizza was removed from the bill, but that is not a long-term solution for what they need to do to improve.

As we left, heartbroken and hungry, not a single member of staff attempted to say goodbye or even acknowledge our departure.  Bull & Roo, I still love you, but I’m going to stick to Common Grounds in the future.

 

Brunswick.  Eatery. Bar. Terrace.
Sheraton Hotel, MOE
056 4040685
Lunch for four – minus pizza – 399.00 AED

 

Brunswick Eatery, Bar & Terrace Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

For the F&B industry, Dubai has long been fertile fields famous for fruitful yields and bountiful harvests.  For years, the Dubai residents and citizens have embraced the F&B market, allowing even the most mediocre of operators to carve out a viable living.  There has been no end of companies and individuals happy to pump investment into this industry – a movement helped by an enthusiastic retail landscape supply. Hotels frequently have upwards of double-digit restaurants servicing just five hundred or so guest rooms.  As an example, the newly opened QE2 hotel has thirteen F&B outlets planned.  As a fun comparison, the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas has fourteen outlets.  However, they have over four thousand guest rooms, a casino, and significant convention and events centre.  The new Pointe on The Palm due to open late 2018, has space for another one hundred retail outlets, many will be allocated for F&B.  Blue Waters will also have over two hundred retail spaces when it comes online.  Dubai has the highest ratio of restaurants to people on the planet.

However, our industry has become fat with empty dining rooms, discounts and meal deals as restaurants clamour and scratch for customers.  We have farmed the land so hard and without respite, that the soil is fast becoming void of many essential nutrients and minerals.  Our audience is fatigued and weary.  Our costs are out of control and passing it onto the consumer is no longer a strategy that is being accepted.  Many of us are in survival mode, and I hear it almost every day from colleagues and peers.

There is a whiff of desperation out there, and growing signs of panic.  Questionable management tactics are being utilised by popular restaurants we all visit regularly.  One restaurant has enforced a minimum spend on all tables – and if the server can’t convince the table to eat that amount, they get reprimanded.  I hear of staff tips being used to pay suppliers.  Restaurants are drastically reducing staff numbers to control costs, resulting in one restaurant expecting a single waiter to look after eighteen tables by himself.  Substandard ingredients are being passed off as premium and commodity products like water are way overpriced to try make that bottom line.

Alas, we are perhaps in a situation of our own making, though.  There is an argument that says the global F&B industry, (of which I include landlords, investors, suppliers, governing bodies and restaurants), spurred on by the initial success and prosperity, have grossly overstretched themselves.  They started wanting more and more, finding little satisfaction with previous achievements and goals.  There was a desire to open more restaurants, make more profit, grow beyond their means, and their ambition became grotesque and self-serving.  The fall out can be seen across the globe – it is almost as if we have forgotten our why because we were too busy chasing that big private equity buy out.

In these challenging economic times, I hope that, as an industry, we remain ambitious and positive, but do not allow greed and panic to sully the fantastic progress and advances we have made.

However, the very fact that I was recently charged 48 dhs for a 500 ml bottle of water means someone, somewhere along the line has decided to get greedy.

Although the line between ambition and greed can sometimes seem quite thin, thanks to both being goal-driven, there is a clear difference. Simply put, ambition serves a purpose while greed is self-serving.  I think our ambition has blurred somewhat over the years.  Greed is the desire to take everything you can.  Ambition is the desire to give everything you’ve got.

You see, in some ways, everyone is a stakeholder in our industry.  Virtually everyone in a city or community has an interest in creating and maintaining a healthy F&B sector. From the government to the landlords, to the suppliers, to the operators, to the consumers, everyone has a vested interest.  A strong, robust and healthy restaurant market is one of the best indicators of a thriving economy.

Ambition serves a purpose.  It’s important to remember that.  I hope every business involved in our wonderful industry remembers their original purpose and stays true to it.  Adopt a long-term strategy, not short-sighted apathy.  Yes, by all means, do what you need to do, to survive, but hold your integrity tightly with both hands.  Put your mission statement back up on the wall, reread your company vision, remind yourself of your core values, and don’t let panic turn your ambition into greed.  Our purpose ultimately is to serve the customer, and at the end of the day, we are all customers to one another.

I know we all have targets and goals for growth and KPI’s and ROI’s and expectations to meet – I get that – those goals are important but so is the longevity of our broader community.  We have a responsibility to one another.  Ambition is not self-serving, where any means justifies the end.  It is time for us to realise that greed is not good, never has been and never will be.  Let’s consider for a moment that our choices are not just limited to boom or bust.  We don’t have to work within such extremes.  There is a middle ground between the two and it’s ok to find safe harbour there once in a while.

As Edward Dearborn says, “Let us emulate in our actions and words that ambition is the heart and soul of success and lasting prosperity.”

Akiba Dori is a new venue in D3, taking over the corner of Building 8.   Designed like a Tokyo street, Akiba is achingly cool, quirky and eclectic, in the way only Japanese pop culture can be.  It is for the young and the young at heart.  It blends gamification, music, food, and drinks effortlessly.  As you walk in, you enter what looks like a Tokyo street, with wet-finished cobblestones, neon lights and a Japanese bakery on your right.  There is a small arcade game room on your left and further down the street is the licensed bar and DJ booth.  At the very end is Tokyopolitan and their Japanese wood-fired pizza oven – our reason for waking up that morning.

The space is fun, quirky and original.  It’s not your conventional restaurant space – there is a lot going on, and because of that, it takes on the atmosphere of a fun, lively street party.    

You could easily film a Bollywood/J-Pop hybrid music video in Akida Dori.  You’d have to set off the sprinklers first of course, because you can’t have a Bollywood/J-pop music video without torrential rain. 

Mistakenly thinking that Akiba would be quiet on a weekend lunch, we walked into a buzzing restaurant filled with families and friends.   I was almost upset that so many people had found it already and for a minute thought they might actually be filming a music video there – which would have been awesome. 

We were greeted by a friendly member of staff, who gave the impression we should just sit wherever we felt like.  They didn’t seem big on formalities.  We sat halfway down the street, and our waitress brought us over their menu.  A single card with salads, Japanese street food, specials and baked goods on one side, and the other size dedicated to their Tokyopolitan pizzas. 

I’ve had the advantage of eating at Akiba Dori a couple of times now, but I’m not allowed to write about any restaurant unless The Serb is with me.  Contractually, it’s a mess, and I’d rather not talk about it.  I’m actually not allowed to talk about it. 

We ordered the Akiba rock shrimp with a spicy mayo sauce, some Akiba sliders, and a Margherita pizza.  The waitress explained that it’s a sharing restaurant and the food will come out when it’s ready.  I don’t know why restaurants still bother explaining this anymore.  At this point, restaurants should only highlight if it’s not sharing style.

As we were waiting for our food to arrive in a random order, we watched Chef Luigi stock his pizza oven with some more wood.  The Serb commented how delicate and careful he was with his oven.  I didn’t want to say it was probably because the oven was bloody hot, not because he felt spiritually connected to it.

Although, some do say if that Tokyopolitan’s oven ever goes cold, D3 will fall.

The sliders came in pairs, which is good because most sharing food comes in odd numbers which ironically makes sharing equally very difficult unless you are in an odd numbered J-pop band.  The sliders were not bad, but I’ve had better.  In a nod to their Japanese roots, they came with a sheet of nori and were sprinkled with panko breadcrumbs.  Both were un-necessary for me and were there just for the sake of it.  The bread was also a little too toasted and could have been softer.  Having said all that, the beef was of excellent quality, and the cheese was generous and melted perfectly. 

The Akiba rock shrimp are similar to your dynamite shrimp made famous in places like P.F Changs and Cheesecake.  Surprisingly, Akiba is cheaper than both of those places for this dish.  Our bowl arrived with a mountain of lightly battered shrimp glistening in a tangy mayo sauce.  Did I mention, it was a mountain of shrimp?  If the Marina Fisheries Department ever need to tackle overfishing of shrimp, the first person they should pull in is Akiba Dori’s chef.  The shrimp themselves were well cooked, the batter offering the slightest of crunch and the spicy mayo sauce coating your mouth with a velvety heat.  An excellent dish.

Then came the Margherita pizza.  A pizza, so important it came with its own table.  Also, because our table was full and the pizza didn’t fit.  NB: small tables and sharing menus don’t mix well. 

Tokyopolitan’s Margherita was up there with the best in town.  Chef Luigi is a born and raised Naples boy, formerly from Rossovivo, and has recently trained under one of Tokyo’s best pizza masters.  Our pizza was charred perfectly, and in true Neapolitan style, was soft, elastic, tender and fragrant.  Even with something as simple as the Margherita, there is a crescendo of flavours and smells happening, from the intense smell of baked dough to the slight hint of acid from the San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella to the added saltiness of the crust.  From the subtle touch of fruit and spice from the olive oil to the grassy freshness brought by the basil leaves, there is so much to appreciate on something so simple.

We ended with their Dolce Luna dessert – vanilla ice-cream cooked in pizza dough drizzled with Nutella.  It sounds amazing, and I wish I could tell you how it tasted, but I can’t remember, because my subconscious has erased my experience of it as a protective defence mechanism.  You see, the Dolce Luna is the most phallic looking dish I’ve seen this side of Patpong.  Seven inches long, two inches in girth, with a controversial curve to it, this dish could star it its own movie.  Imagine sharing this with your boss. Or mother?!!  I can barely look the Serb in the eyes now, let alone anyone else. 

Thank God the two ice cream scoops are on the inside.

The superstar of Akiba Dori is their pizzas, they could easily compete with any pizzeria in Dubai.  The rest of the food is a collection of good and average, and I think there will be improvements and changes made as they go along and mature as a concept.  The alcohol license changes things for them, and with a bottle of grape coming in 99 dhs and a pint at 37 dhs, they seem to have got their pricing right.

The service is quite relaxed and casual – I can see them getting a little stretched when busy, but they are approachable and down to earth.  The vibe is what makes it – carefree, egalitarian and energetic.  I recommend you head down there and see for yourself.  You never know, they might be filming a Bollywood/J-pop music video.

 

 

Akiba Dori
D3, Building 8
04 770 7949
Lunch for Two – 230Dhs

 

Akiba Dori Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bao Wow, the Last Exit food truck concept has been upgraded into a full brick and mortar restaurant, in City Walk, no less. That’s like a conference division football team being promoted directly to the Premier League! No testing the market in a JLT or Barsha Heights, no growing brand awareness through a Deliveroo kitchen. No sir! Bao Wow went straight in at the deep end, like an over-enthusiastic toddler on their first day at the public pools.

As a food truck, Bao Wow sells steamed buns, primarily.  Bao Wow as a restaurant however, serves up traditional and modern dishes from across China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.  It has taken over the old Dragonfly location, which was headed up by Chef Tim Raue.  Unfortunately, Dragonfly didn’t last long – you can read my review of it here if you’re interested in reading about a restaurant that doesn’t exist anymore.

Apart from hiring a local graffiti artist to create colourful, urban artwork on the back walls, Bao Wow has done little else to the original fit out, making use of the same furniture and operating equipment.  They have also toned down the red, which was the signature colour of Dragonfly.   It was also the only colour, I seem to remember.

We walked into an empty restaurant and had our choice of where to sit.  The seating consists of two corridors, framing the perimeter of the square space, meaning everything is linear, and I struggled to grasp a sense of the place.  For me, the layout doesn’t encourage community or social connection.  If I was a Feng Shui master, I think my aura would have collapsed in on itself.

We were seated and our waitress, who was very nice and chatty, handed us a couple of iPads which had the menu preloaded onto them.  She didn’t take the time to explain how a humble food truck on a highway rest area made it to the Premier League, which was a shame.  Maybe she was still trying to find out herself.  This is a personal preference, but I dislike iPad menus.  The menu is an extension of a restaurant’s personality, and how it is laid out, what paper it is printed on, what colours and fonts are used, tells a lot about the restaurant and adds to the experience.  To swipe and pinch and zoom on a screen doesn’t allow me to connect with the restaurant on a deeper level, and that’s important to me because I am a Millennial.  If I had been a Baby Boomer, I think my aura would have collapsed in on itself.  The Serb was using her iPad to check her facebook.

We ordered the Peking duck and teriyaki chicken steamed buns, the chicken gyoza, the beef donburi and a Bao yasai side salad.

They had a sushi maki roll section as well, but ten minutes ago, they were a food truck, so I passed on them.

The food arrived staccato style, as and when it was ready with the salad being the first out of the gates.  It was a great salad – fresh mesclun greens with the snow fungus and mushrooms providing some great texture and some real sharpness coming in from the wafu dressing as well.

The steamed buns arrived, looking like little-stuffed clouds of deliciousness.  The duck was far too sweet for me though, and unfortunately, the meat lost all of its glorious umami.  We also both had to pick duck bones from our mouths as well.  The Serb was very lady-like about it and gracefully deposited said bone in a napkin with little fuss and drama.  However, I was a little more dramatic and acted as if someone has just tried to assassinate me, by waving my arms, coughing and generally spluttering unnecessarily.  Unfortunately, none of the staff were on our side of the seating corridor, so my antics went unnoticed.  Probably for the best.

The slaw in the teriyaki chicken bun was dripping with juices, ruining the structural integrity of the bun.  It was wet and sloppy, and not in a good way.  However, the taste was great, and if they can get the slaw right, you’ve got yourself a good steamed bun right there.

The chicken gyoza arrived in a modern steamer basket with some dry ice smoke for effect.  It was a gimmick that seemed forced and out of place and distracted me from what were actually very nice dumplings.  They were generously filled, had a good mouthfeel and more importantly, had excellent flavouring.

The donburi was the big winner for me.  A Japanese rice bowl with seared beef slices in a donburi broth.  Pak choi, kimchi, edamame and baby sweetcorn made up the rest of the toppings.  Sitting gently, right at the top, was a slow-cooked egg yolk that you broke, allowing the deep orange yolk to seep into the rice below.  It was a crescendo of flavours, comforting and filling.  All it was missing was a sparkler or something.

Despite not looking at the menu, the Serb had spotted the word Nutella and ordered the Nutella Dim Sum for dessert.  What arrived were two mini ice cream cones on a yellow neon plastic stand.  The dim sum were little single-bite pockets of chewy gyoza skin filled with Nutella.  Highly disappointing.  I felt the ice cream cones were there as an apology for the dim sum.

I think Bao Wow will learn some important lessons moving into the Premier League.  There is a big difference between a fast casual food truck concept and a fully fledged restaurant experience.  For me, despite a few sparks of excellence, there was not enough substance for this concept to be a winner just yet.  However, the Donburi was good and the pricing is sensible.

 

 

 

Bao Wow – City Walk
Lunch for two – 311 AED
04 3427044

 

Bao Wow Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

NB: All photo credit to row7seeds.com

Michael Mazourek is not your average horticulturist.  For the past couple of decades, Michael has been reimagining how we see vegetables, and it is mind-blowing.

Michael’s job is to breed seeds for farmers so that they can grow their crops.  Farmers typically have preferences for the type of seeds they want to buy.  Traditionally, they want seeds that will produce high yields of produce, or seeds that are resistant to disease and insects for example, and because demand dictates supply, this is what Michael’s focus was on.  Until seven years ago, when he met a chef called Dan Barber and the game changed.

Dan Barber is famous for farm to table cooking and runs an almost 100% self-sustained restaurant and farm in New York State, called Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  After cooking for Micheal one evening, Chef Barber took him on a tour of his kitchen.  Grabbing a Butternut Squash, he challenged Michael saying, “If you’re such a good breeder, why don’t you make this thing taste good?”

I mentioned at the start that Michael was not your average horticulturist – he is in fact also an associate professor in Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University.  He was amazed that no-one had ever asked him to breed for flavour before.  Which seems ridiculous, but at the same time, totally makes sense.  Our world is one where everything needs to look pretty and make maximum profit.

However, a chef and a seed breeder asked the simple question, what if, instead of yield, shelf life and uniformity, we started with what’s delicious?

It seemed serendipitous as Michael had already been working such a concept, and had developed a smaller, more intense butternut squash, called the Honeynut squash.  Unfortunately, farmers and growers just weren’t interested.  There was no demand, it was too small, and the Honeynut squash remained unwanted and misunderstood for many years.  That was, until Dan Barber and his culinary team got hold of some.  Barber dry-roasted them at high heat, caramelizing the interior, so it didn’t need brown sugar, or anything other than the squash’s natural sweetness.  The result was spectacular.

Honeynuts have an intense natural sweetness that becomes rich, caramel-y, and almost malt-like when roasted at high heat. Furthermore, they require no peeling, and they have had three times the amount of beta-carotene crammed in.  They have an exterior of deep golden honey and an inherent sweetness.  A new breed of vegetable was born.

Seedsman Matthew Goldfarb, breeder Michael Mazourek, and chef Dan Barber – Founders of Row Seven Seeds

Barber served  this new Honeynut squash at the G9 Chef’s Summit and Massimo Bottura, and Rene Redzepi were among many chefs that fell in love with this new ingredient.  This is where the strength of celebrity chefs’ marketing muscles can be seen.  From an unwanted product with zero demand the Honeynut is a vegetable that 90% of farms now grow, and are available at most Whole Foods and Costcos from coast to coast.

Encouraged by what this simple little vegetable had done, Chef Barber, seed breeder Mazourek, and seedsman Matthew Goldfarb decided to keep going.  They created a company called Row 7 Seeds, and are developing seven types of seeds, focusing on flavour first.

Imagine potatoes so creamy, there is no need for butter.  Imagine squash so flavourful, it needs no maple syrup.  Imagine a pepper that tastes like a habañero, but “minus the burn.”

Well, back in February of this year, after seven long years of organic, GMO-free breeding, these seven seeds are available for purchase, for farmers, both commercial and amateur alike.

I’d like you to meet the Magnificent Seven.

898 Squash – the Honeynut 2.0, the vegetable that started it all.  This variety packs concentrated sweetness, flavour, and beta-carotene into a squash that is the size of your palm.  The Butternut 661 is for the processing industry, providing the best qualities of the honey nut, but in a larger longer storing package

 

The 7082 Experimental Cucumber, intense green with a slight bitterness that enhances the aroma and flavour dramatically.

 

Robin’s Koginut Squash – a cross between two squash varieties revered by chefs, is sweet, intensely squashy and delicious.  What’s more, this squash turns from green to bronze on the vine, so you know exactly when to pick it.

 

The Habanada Pepper – a pepper that has all the floral sweetness of the famous habanero, but with none of the heat.  It’s aromatic with a lingering sweetness and defies everything we’ve come to expect from a pepper.

 

The Upstate Abundance Potato – golf ball sized with bright white flesh, these potatoes are creamy, buttery and nutty.

 

With Dubai farmers starting to experiment with advanced farming methods, it would be wonderful to see them perhaps growing a few of these exciting new varieties.  As we know, imported vegetables are often tasteless and can lack nutrition, and it is initiatives like this that can elevate Dubai’s culinary industry to new levels.

These seeds are all available online to purchase. They are organic certified, GMO-free and more importantly unpatented, meaning Dan Barber and Co. encourage farmers to continue this exploration into flavour first farming.

At a time in our history, where good health is diminishing and there is a growing argument that more vegetables and less meat is a better diet for our species, these seven seeds could be the start of something truly game changing.

I’ll end with a quote from Mr. Barber himself. “Part of the goal of the company is not only to increase the flavour of vegetables: It’s to look at how we, as chefs, can change the culture of eating.”

Check out more of their work at their website at https://www.row7seeds.com