In the 1920’s El Barrio Chino De La Habana or Havana’s Chinatown was the largest Asian neighbourhood in Latin America.  It was a bustling hub of Asian industry that housed laundries, pharmacies, theatres, grocery stores and of course, restaurants.

For forty years, these two cultures merged, and many Chinese culinary traditions, ingredients and techniques soon found their way into traditional Cuban cooking.

For forty years, chefs developed a new style of cooking, applying new flavours and creating new dishes that were the very best of Asia and Latin America.  Chino-Latino cuisine was born.

However, by the 1960’s this progression and innovation came to a grinding halt.  The Chinese left for America in their droves, ingredients dried up and culinary innovation and evolution became a distant memory.

Even today, unfortunately, the El Barrios Chino neighbourhood is just not relevant anymore – it is almost devoid of Chinese people, and there is little talk of the culture and passion the Chinese community once gave to these streets.

What is left is just the perfume of what it was.

But restaurant Asia De Cuba has not forgotten this moment in culinary history and strives to bring Chino-Latino cuisine to Dubai with the opening of their latest outpost in The Westin hotel.

Straight off the bat, let me say what a great fusion it is for a restaurant experience.  The varied and exotic flavours of the East, mixed with the sensuality and passion for life of Latin America.  It’s almost perfect, on paper.

To be honest, my knowledge of Havana and Cuba as a whole is limited to The Fast and The Furious 8 and the song, Havana feat. Young Thug by Camila Cabello.  However, in my mind, that makes me an expert.  I don’t know what else I would need to do to improve my understanding.

We were greeted by two young ladies at the door.  One of them asked us for our reservation details in the same way a worried doctor might ask his patient where it hurts.  We answered her, hoping for the best.  After consulting her computer screen for what seemed like an eternity, but must have only been a few seconds, she nodded to herself and turned to her colleague.

In a quiet tone, she suggested we get taken to table twenty three, like a physician sharing a grim diagnosis with her intern.  She looked back at us and smiled, “Enjoy your final evening,” I think she said.

We were whisked into the main dining room, where we were shown a booth that had a great view of the whole room.  We accepted it with enthusiasm and without fuss, being the perfect patients that we were.

The dining room is a double story space with dramatic foliage and waterfall murals that start on the ceiling and cascade down the walls like some special effect for the movie Inception.  I am sure after a few Cuba Libre it could get quite overwhelming and disorientating.  There is an abstract feature wall behind the bar and open kitchen that symbolises the turquoise waters of Cuba – probably inspired by Vin Diesel driving his Chevrolet Fleetline into the Havana harbour.

The decorative tiling used on the kitchen walls and the cocktail tables is more Levantine and Mediterranean in design than Latin American.  However, I’m pretty sure they were purchased in Dragon Mart, so maybe that’s the Chino side of the design coming through.

Overall it’s a nice room, but it had good bones to start with.  The space used to be where China Grill operated from, and you can still very much see the DNA of the original design.  Replacing vases with plants and adding some paint and wallpaper makes a big visual impact.  However, I worry that for regular China Grill clients, it will be seen as same, same, but different.

However, same same, but different didn’t stop Vin Diesel from making 8 Fast movies, so it shouldn’t stop Asia De Cuba either!

We looked through the menu and skipped quickly past the sushi section.  I’m at a stage in my life where if my sushi’s not hand-made by an 8th generation sushi master, born and raised in Japan, who is at least 95 years old, almost blind and prepares sushi by feel and emotion alone, then I’m not interested.  Call me picky.

Instead, we order the empanadas, fire and ice shrimp salad and chicharrones to start as sharing plates, and then the roast duck salad and short rib beef for mains.  The absence of any of the Serb’s favourite dishes triggers her need for alcohol, and she reaches for the drinks list.  It’s so much cheaper for us when restaurants have burgers on the menu.

Our server is attentive and plucky, having also worked for China Grill.  She clearly knew her way around the menu and was happy to answer any questions we had about the menu.

The room filled up steadily throughout the evening, although almost all of the guests asked to sit at another table from the one they were initially offered.  Unlike the Serb and I, who were grateful to still be alive at this stage.  It was like some weird game of musical chairs.  It’s a place to sit for a few hours, not a puppy you’re adopting.

Anyway, our waitress navigated the room wonderfully and brought us our first round of food.  The empanadas were stuffed with black beans and plantains and were good, except the dough was a little undercooked.

The Chicharrones are not the latest boy band from Cuba but are in fact small cubes of fried chicken (or pork) served with a great onion mojo and honey soy sauce.  The chicken was a touch dry, I think after spending too much time in the frying basket.  The sauce was great, however, and brought the dish to life.

Our fire and ice shrimp salad had deliciously confusing flavour.  It had this whole hot and sour thing going on, with the slightly pickled cabbage and cucumber contrasting against the sweetness of the watermelon.  The shrimp were well cooked, generous and mixed throughout the plate.

The roast duck salad seemed innocent enough until halfway through the first forkful, it sucker punches you with its spicy miso vinaigrette.  In a good way.  The duck meat was shredded and mixed in with the Chinese cabbage and red currants, with a nice combination of umami and vinegar – a good harmony.

The main event was the short rib vaca fritz, which literally translates as fried cow.  According to the menu, it was 48-hour adobo braised beef which should have rendered the meat beautifully tender.  However, I was left a little disappointed in that regard.  Beautifully presented, it was served with a great Asian BBQ glaze and a tasty chimichurri sauce but was let down by its chewiness.

Asia De Cuba is one of those legacy brands that seem to stand the test of time.  They opened way back in 1999 in London, and are still going strong almost twenty years later.

The Dubai outpost seems to have captured the spirit of Asia de Cuba, and the cooking is, for the most part, lively, fresh and flavourful. The ambiance on a weekend night was energetic and busy, but that was perhaps because no-one could decide where they wanted to sit.

A good recommendation for a fun night out.

 

Dinner for two – 482.00 AED
Asia De Cuba
Westin Dubai, Mina Seyahi
04 5117373

Asia De Cuba - The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Are we ready for life after brunch?

Ever since The Fairmont hotel launched the Moet Chandon Champagne brunch on SZR in the early 2000’s, Dubai hotels have been climbing over themselves to find their own niche in the infamous Friday brunch market.  Bigger, better, more, more, more.

We have the uber expensive ones with free-flowing champagne and several hundred meters of gourmet food.  We have the debaucherous ones that lead to Daily Mail newspaper headlines, with Jägermeister and shawarma stations.  We have the family-friendly ones with ice creams, magicians and face painters that go someway to alleviating the guilt of the parents who still end up ordering watermelon cocktails with twenty straws.  There are discount books dedicated to this single event, and a whole black market exists on expat facebook pages of people swapping vouchers back and forth.  It is one of the must-do things for first-time visitors to Dubai.

The Dubai Brunch is an institution, a time-honoured celebration of the expat way of life.  Four intense hours on a Friday dedicated to celebrating the success of self and friends, a weekly pat on the back for our accomplishments and achievements.  For almost two decades, the brunch has been the go-to marketing activation for almost every licensed F&B operator in Dubai.  Brunch, Ladies Night and Entertainer Voucher.  The big three.

According to Zomato, there are 285 listed brunches in Dubai.  If each restaurant has, on average, 200 seats available, that’s 57,000 brunch seats available every Friday.  It’s actually more difficult to find a restaurant that doesn’t do brunch on a Friday.  It seems like brunch is a no-brainer – a sure-fire profit generator and a great way to fill your restaurant.

However, here’s the thing.  Restaurant operators need to be open to the fact that certain things are changing and there is a distinct possibility we’re going to wake up one day and find our brunches empty and irrelevant.  Perhaps it’s already happening – a few extra tables available, same loyal faces, but no new ones, a lethargic response to new brunch themes.  Are the signs already there?

Have you figured out who the typical brunch goer is?  Chances are they are Generation X and Millennials.  We’ve spent the last decade trying to understand, interpret and build restaurant products for the Millennial and Gen X, but there is a new group of consumers, who are self-empowered, determined and ambitious.

They are called Gen Z, and we need to be ready for them because they are sprinting into our workforce and economy faster than you can say VIP wrist band.  The oldest is already reaching 25 years of age, and here in Dubai, they potentially have more influence on the economy than the Dubai Millennials.  They make up almost 27% of the population, and in a few short years, they will be dictating what they want from restaurant operators.  Even today, they are hugely influential on where they eat as a family.

So my question is, will the Dubai Brunch, as we know it today, still be relevant in five years’ time as more and more Gen Z enter the economy with their disposable dirhams and the Millennials grow older, and their priorities change?

Despite Generation Z being our customers of tomorrow, we can’t afford to spend a decade trying to figure out what they want.

Gen Z grew up in a post 911 world, during the middle of a recession and don’t know life before the internet.  They have developed their personalities and life skills against a global backdrop of chaos, uncertainty, volatility, and complexity.  They worry about the economy, and their future and entrepreneurship is in their DNA.  They have always known how to pinch, zoom and swipe. 360-degree photography is their norm.  They communicate with speed and with a certain vagueness.

Gen Z might not want to spend an entire Friday dedicated to brunch – they are ambitious, and patience may not be an essential virtue for them.  They are drinking less, smoking less and are more in tune with their planet and environment than any other generation before them.  Gen Z like to snack and graze at their convenience throughout the day – they are not confined to traditional meal periods. Gluttonous over indulgence with narcissistic undertones might not do it for them.

Historically, across the globe, brunch popularity grew anywhere where there was disposable income or time according to Farha Ternikar, the author of Brunch: A History.  For the last two decades, the Dubai Millennial have had both of those in abundance. However, Gen Z put very different values on their time and income.

Restaurants need to start talking about these customers of tomorrow and develop experiences and products that appeal to them. The quote “change or die” seems a little overly dramatic for a brunch article, but Gen Z want individual, highly curated experiences – they don’t want to be herded in their hundreds into what is effectively an IKEA restaurant on steroids.

Will the Dubai brunch model get stuck in a no man’s land between an aging demographic that no longer wants to brunch and a new demographic that has never wanted to brunch in the first place?

Or maybe the brunch is here to stay, and it will simply evolve into something more mindful and captivating, finding appeal for both the Gen Z and the older generations.

Whatever the Dubai brunch of the future looks like, it better have personalised table top shawarma stations and vegan chocolate fountains.

This is a story about lineage and legacy, about the past and the future. It’s also a story about pizza, and it starts around 40 years ago with a Japanese man called Susumu Kakinuma.

In the early eighties, Susumu spent a year in Naples, Italy, unable to find work or apprenticeships.  Obsessed with Neapolitan pizza, he ate it every single day, sometimes more than once, teaching his palate to remember every texture and flavour, every last piece of charred crust and every stretch of melted Italian Mozzarella.  After his year was up, he knew his calling was to bring Neapolitan pizza back to his home city, back to Tokyo.

However, what he brought back to Tokyo was not a just Neapolitan pizza – it was something different, something more.  The thing with the Japanese is they really are the best in the world at absorbing and understanding other cultures and techniques and refining them in their own image.  They are not inventors; they are craftsmen.

Master Susumu Kakinuma - photo courtesy of Wall Street Journal
Master Susumu Kakinuma – photo courtesy of Wall Street Journal

No, craftsman is not the right word either.  The Japanese word is “shokunin” which encapsulates the total commitment and dedication one has towards full mastery of their skills.  However, it’s important to note that shokunin not only expects extraordinary technical skills but also demands a certain attitude and social consciousness.  The shokunin has a social obligation to perform their skills at the very best of their ability for the welfare of their society. It’s an extremely important distinction. You don’t get that at your local shawarma stand or fish and chip shop.

Susumu himself said in an interview once, “Japanese people are really free.  They are beholden to no single point of view.” After 20 years of understanding, practicing, and perfecting his art, Susumu’s pizzas are truly unique and are a thing of beauty.  Tokyo Neapolitan pizza was born.

A perfect Tokyo Neapolitan pizza is defined by a Japanese crafted wood-burning oven, an extra throw of salt, and a delicateness of dough that extends to the edge of the oven charred crust.

Serving only two variations, Margherita or Marinara, Susumu’s pizzas are like Jazz music.  Just in the same way you know you are listening to Herbie Hancock on the piano or Charlie Parker on the saxophone, you know you are eating a pizza made by the hand of Susumu.  Lighter, more delicate than the pizzas found in Naples, his goal is not to bastardize the base ingredients, but to pull the richest inherent flavours from the ingredients at hand.

This is why Master Susumu Kakinuma is known as the Prime Minister of Pizza, and perhaps unlike those Italian pizza makers in the 1980’s, Master Susumu feels a responsibility to pass on his learning to others, so the craft can continue long after his own oven goes cold.  It’s a responsibility ingrained in the culture of the Japanese shokunin.  It is known as The Way.  A right and correct way of doing things.  His students, or deshi, spend months, sometimes years training with him before they go off and open their own pizzerias.

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Although not a direct deshi of Master Susumu, Hisanori Yamamoto runs Da Isa, a highly celebrated pizzeria in Tokyo.  Ironically, for three years running, Hisanori was a winner at the World Pizza Cup competition held in Naples, Italy.  Master Susumu, arguably, has been the catalyst and muse for the single-minded obsession with perfecting the pizza making process for an entire generation of pizzaiolo.

Had it been any other country, one might be tempted to simply franchise their name out to many locations across the globe. However, to be a shokunin is to rise above the narrow thoughts of competition, and to have an understanding that you will never have peace, nor reach the apex of your craft, until you learn that you are only really competing against yourself. That is why there are so many independently successful pizzerias across Japan, many able to trace their lineage back to Master Susumu.

One student, Kengo Inoue, now runs his own place, Pizza Dada in the ancient Japanese capital, Kamakura. Another student, Shougo Yamaguchi used to sit at the counter of Master Susumu’s pizzeria and watch the Prime Minister perfect his craft, writing down everything he saw in a little notebook on his way home. Shougo now runs his own place, Frey’s Famous Pizzeria.

Tsubasa Tamaki - photo courtesy of The Japan Times
Tsubasa Tamaki – photo courtesy of The Japan Times

However, our Dubai story continues with yet another student, Tsubasa Tamaki, who trained in Master Susumu’s pizzeria for five long, hard years. He now runs his own place, Pizza Studio Tamaki in Tokyo. The quality of his pizza is so high that people say Tamaki is the student that has surpassed his master in technical skills and application. He has never been to Italy, and yet using a blend of US and Japanese flour, his dough has an intricate balance of flavour and texture that makes every pizza sing.  His pizzas are, by all accounts, spectacular.

When Dubai based restaurateur Samer Hamadeh and his partners, first reached out to Tamaki-San to bring Tokyo Neapolitan pizza to Dubai, Tamaki-San agreed to train someone in The Way. “Send me an Italian – they know pizza,” he instructed. When questioned why not a Japanese seeing as he was Japanese himself, he was dismissive – “Yes, but I am special, no-one else like me.  Send me Italian.”

So, an Italian was sent. Luigi, a true blue, born and bred Naples boy, and experienced pizzaiolo in his own right, flew to Tokyo to learn from Tamaki-san, a new breed of highly specialised shokunin. Luigi was to become a deshi once again.

After half a year of an intense, accelerated apprenticeship in Tokyo, Luigi is ready to bring Tokyo Neapolitan pizza to Dubai.  There is evidence that Tamaki-san’s single-minded obsession has rubbed off.  Throughout the day, Luigi-san documents oven temperature, humidity levels, water quality and several other seemingly innocuous variables, because over time, he will learn what the optimum environment is for the perfect Neapolitan pizza.

The pizza masters in Tokyo open their doors every day of the year, so their ovens never go cold.  Luigi carefully feeds beech wood into his Japanese made pizza oven, and the flames warm the cold stone for the first time.  There is an expectation for Luigi to continue this story that started 40 years ago by a Japanese man called Susumu Kakinuma.

I, for one, look forward to the next chapter.

You can find Luigi and his Tokyo Neapolitan pizza at Tokyopolitan located inside Akiba Dori at D3 Dubai.

Instagram accounts – @Akibadori & @tokyopolitan

Everyone loves to take pictures of their food.  It is an extension of who you are and where you’ve been and your photo album is as much your personality as your own thoughts and behaviours.  If you didn’t post it, did it really happen?  Well, here’s another thought for us.  What about the provenance of these ingredients we document so eagerly?  What about the origins of those ingredients.  What about paying attention to the authenticity of those ingredients?

In a casually investigated expose into the beef market, and more specifically, the Japanese beef market, and even more specifically, Kobe beef, I found a pretty remarkable story.

Here’s the lowdown.  Kobe beef is a very defined and rare type of Japanese beef.  To tell the whole story, is super complicated, so I’ve tried to make it as easy to understand as possible, by using Marvel Universe analogies.

Kobe Beef
Kobe Beef

Cattle arrived in Japan from China, around the 2nd Century, which is a long time ago.  This is even before MySpace and BBMs.  I don’t even think Wolverine was alive back then.  These cows were only used as draught animals for many, many centuries.  Then, in 1900, the Japanese started crossbreeding their domestic cattle with imported European cattle, a strategy they would use in the motorcar industry some years later!  From there, four superior breeds of cow were born.  They were bigger, stronger, better tasting with more flavour.  They were named The Japanese Black, Brown, Polled and Shorthorn.  Together they were known as The Wagyu – forever immortalised in the echelons of cow history.

Consider The Wagyu like the wider Marvel Universe, a group of individuals cows all with superpowers, like intense marbling, abnormal percentages of unsaturated fats (the good kind), amazing ability to “moo” in a deep register.  Things like that.

The Avengers
The Avengers

Here’s where it gets complicated.  Within The Wagyu, there are a small group of cows called the Tajima, from the Japanese Black breed, who are born and raised in a small area of Japan called The Hyogo Prefecture.  Consider these cows as The Avengers, earth’s mightiest cows.  The highest of profiles in The Wagyu Universe, the big summer box office hit.  The Japanese Polled and Shorthorn might go straight to Netflix or animation, but the Tajima cows are kept for the big screen blockbusters.

We all know, within The Avengers, there are the big three.  There is Iron Man, The Hulk, and Captain America.  Likewise, with Tajima cows, there are the big three brands, Matsusaka, Omi, and Kobe.

Now, every group needs a leader.  The Avengers have Captain America.

Sidenote:- if you want to get into specifics, Tony Stark is technically not in The Avengers, the Iron Man suit is. Therefore, Tony Stark is technically a consultant, which is why Captain America is really the official leader of The Avengers.

Within the Tajima cows, The Kobe brand is clearly the leader, internationally at least.  Kobe holds itself to the most exacting of expectations and the highest of standards, much like Capt’n himself.  Kobe is the boy scout of the Tajimas.

USDA Prime vs Real Kobe
USDA Prime vs Real Kobe

Now, let’s talk about how rare Kobe beef is.  Approximately five thousand cows are certified Kobe each year.  Five thousand for the entire world.  Each cow gets a ten-digit certification number that allows the consumer to confirm true Kobe heritage.

So, how special are these Kobe cows? Well, USDA Prime, the very best of American beef has a maximum marbling score of either four or five. The minimum score a Japanese Kobe is allowed is a level eight and can go all the way up to twelve.  That’s like Thor against Hawkeye.

Out of the five thousand Kobe cows available annually, only about two of them were sent to the UAE in 2017.  Not two thousand.  Just two.  To be more precise, 964 kilograms of certified original Kobe beef was imported into the UAE in 2017 according to the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association.  Otherwise known as S.H.I.E.L.D.

Let’s put that in perspective – Assuming an average portion size of a 150g steak, that means only 6,500 steaks are available for the entire year or 125 portions a week for the whole country.  So, unfortunately, if you think you’ve had real Kobe beef recently in Dubai, maybe think again, because there really is not much available on the market.  If you are going to pay 800 dhs for a 150g Kobe steak, perhaps you should ask for some certification from the butcher or restaurant to make sure you are getting what you pay for.  In fact, I would argue that anyone claiming to sell Kobe beef should already be showing proof of authenticity.

Kobe Byrant
Kobe Byrant

However, unfortunately Kobe is not a Protected Designation of Origin so that means anyone can use this word.  Kobe style sliders are the worst, in my opinion.  What does that even mean?  Even Wagyu beef is misleading as most of the Wagyu in this market is from Australia, not Japan.  Be warned about Kobe or Wagyu burgers, because chances are they’ve been blended with a lower grade of beef.

This raises a broader question, what’s more important, getting that beautiful flat lay Instagram shot or getting genuine, authenticated ingredients.  I’m afraid of the answer, to be honest.

Next week, I’ll be explaining the origins of Parmesan cheese, using Pokémon as an analogy.  Stay tuned.

The Palestinian Table is not really a cookbook.  It is a profoundly intimate and emotional tour de force into one of the world’s most deeply complex cuisines, told through the beautiful narration of author Reem Kassis.  Such is the intimacy of the recipes it sometimes feels like you should slam the book closed and allow its privacy to remain intact.

The Valley of Galilee
The Valley of Galilee

But to keep this book closed would be a huge disservice to Palestinian cooking.   The Palestinian Table is a powerhouse of emotion – Reem takes us on a deeply personal journey of how hope, culture, and connection are intertwined with the past, present and future.

Chicken, Sumac & Pine Nut Rolls
Chicken, Sumac & Pine Nut Rolls

Jerusalem is a melting pot of foods, religion, and cultures and was where Reem Kassis, daughter of a Palestinian Muslim woman and Palestinian Christian man, spent her childhood.   A lot of her time was spent in the kitchens of her Aunts and Grandmother, watching them prepare and cook the most glorious family meals and it was in these formative years that, unknowingly, food and cooking seeped into her very essence.

In some places, Reem’s narrative is quite reflective and nostalgic, as if she is writing it for her younger self.  Then, in other places, her audience is clearly her future, her own daughters perhaps, as she looks ahead with hope and determination of what her cuisine can offer.  This sense is magically captured in her recipes and again is a reminder of how powerful a family dinner table can be – how powerful that notion of home is.

Reem is not a classically trained chef; this is a significant benefit as she approaches this book with enthusiasm and caution in equal measure.  Each recipe is a splendid result of all her mistakes and triumphs, and her skill in capturing family recipes, often unwritten, is to be applauded.  Working tirelessly with her mother to learn these family recipes, Reem would have to patiently explain that “adding flour until it’s soft like your earlobe” would not work in a cookbook as an instruction.  I actually beg to differ, but nevertheless, she would measure out the flour, allow her mother to take what was needed, and then measure the balance, to get accurate quantities.

Kafta & Tahini Bake
Kafta & Tahini Bake

Palestinian food takes on a complexity as deep as the region it is born from.  Palestinian food is as Palestine is – resplendent in flavour, culture, and emotion and is forgiving, inclusive and warm.  If nothing else, The Palestinian Table is a celebration of that.  Each recipe, like Palestine itself, is layered, so each addition brings more flavour and character, and the result is something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Palestinian Table is home to over 150 recipes from the Middle East mainstay, Labaneh drizzled with clean, fragrant olive oil, to Mansaf, a lamb and yogurt stew served when honouring your most important guests.  (Incidentally, a dish served to Reem’s family when visiting her husband-to-be’s family for the first time) The recipes take inspiration from the entire land from the mountains of Galilee to the valleys of the south, from the coast of Yaffa to the West Bank, in a beautifully styled book, equally at home on your kitchen table or your bedside table.

Chickpea with Lamb on Toasted Pita with Tahini Sauce
Chickpea with Lamb on Toasted Pita with Tahini Sauce

For the cooking purist, one of the most important phrases in this book is “A recipe will only get you so far.” The book is surprisingly forgiving to the amateur chef – no dish will be ruined by a slight miscalculation or a missing ingredient.  There is an acceptance, almost a challenge, to make these recipes in your own image.  Add that extra squeeze of lemon juice to your salad, or include yogurt in your tahini, if that’s how you like it.  This is how Reem’s recipes become your recipes, and how your recipes become part of your story and your journey.

As I sadly arrived at the end of the book, I felt that Reem had found the magical ingredient that made her grandmother’s cooking so famous back home.  She realizes that cooking by sight, sound, smell, touch, and emotion was the best way to do it.  Remember, a recipe can only get you so far.  Some call it a natural culinary talent; others call it intuition.   Reem’s grandmother’s village simply called it love.

 

 

 

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The Palestinian Table, By Reem Kassis
Published by Phaidon 02 October, 2017
Available in BookWorld Dubai Mall & Virgin Mega store, Dubai Mall & Mall of Emirates

 

Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. They work with the world’s most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children.

 

I never thought I would say this, but I think Dubai needs more Masterbakers.

This is in no way throwing shade at the existing Masterbakers, but as a craft, it has not evolved in Dubai as much as it has across the globe.  Also, there are some excellent Masterbakers in some of the 5-star hotels, but they often play a supporting role in banquets, buffets and room service.

The Serb woke up wishing there was a local bakery serving fresh, warm baked goods, straight from the oven that we could have breakfast at.  By local, I think she literally meant downstairs in our kitchen as she seemed disappointed that we would have to leave the house.

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With everyone distracted by the newly opened La Mer, I thought a quick trip to JBR’s Beach might be a quiet, pleasant way to spend a weekend morning.  Pleasant, it was, quiet it was not.  Dubai has a habit of stuffing more and more retail projects into densely populated areas of Dubai, and the Marina is no exception.  The new harbour construction is well underway, and with the tram, traffic and small diversions, it turns a quick trip for a relaxing breakfast into a road trip that almost requires overnight provisions and an extended mixtape playlist.

I know Bouchon Bakery has been open for a while, but the concept intrigues me because it is a partnership between Chef Thomas Keller, whose US restaurants have 7 Michelin Stars between them and Alshaya of Starbucks and Shake Shack franchise fame.

Bouchon Bakery has taken over the old Paradis Du Fruit location on The Beach Walk.  If you had never heard of it, you weren’t alone.  It made barely a ripple when it was open and closed just as quietly, unfortunately.

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Bouchon Bakery has taken the space and utilized a light, Parisian inspired décor to pleasing effect.  There is a homely, whimsical and nostalgic feel to the place, without being overly forced or manufactured.  Quite an achievement for Alshaya, which I sometimes feel is a real estate company first and a retailer second.  The indoor palm trees added a hint of the exotic, and the traditional booths, globe lights, and brass detailing balanced the space out.  The bakery’s accordion doors were open, allowing the indoors outdoors, the Gulf’s cool morning air bringing a subtle Californication to the whole experience.

The bakery choices are unfortunately a little bit too familiar, but that is to be expected as Bouchon was created in the image of the famous traditional boulangeries of France.  Viennoiserie such as strawberry croissants and pain au chocolate, almond croissants and blueberry muffins are also familiar mainstays of other bakeries across Dubai as well.  However, where Keller hints at some creativity is to give space to some lessor known bakes, such as Monkey Bread, Streusel Cake, and Cheese Danish.

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I’ve watched enough GBBO to know that climate and humidity can greatly affect the consistency and quality of the bake and I’ve heard Dubai’s kitchens are notoriously difficult to work in when it comes to proving, rising and baking.

The Serb wanted the BLTE, and so did I.  I said we couldn’t order the same thing, especially if we are doing a review.  So, after a brief discussion, I magnanimously changed my order to the Croque Madame.  Having won that standoff, the Serb then changed her order to the chicken salad pretzel sandwich.

I also ordered three pastries as well.  For research purposes of course.  Pain du chocolat for direct market comparison, a lemon currant scone, and streusel cake to test the skills of the kitchen. Call me Mr. Hollywood.

Service was satisfactory, but I almost forgot to even mention it, such was the perfunctory nature of the overall engagement of the staff.  That’s the big question, can a huge franchisor pull off “local community” service? Answers on a postcard.

The Croque Madam – two slabs of brioche with slivers of turkey ham and cheese, topped with a fried egg and drowned with sauce Mornay.  Sauce Mornay is a béchamel sauce with cheese added.  Some argue that extra egg yolks and mustard seed should be included, and I feel this dish would have benefited from that particular recipe.  The sauce was quite thin, pale and very mild in flavour.  I missed the gentle punch that a cheese like Gruyère should have provided.  If a cheese was in the sauce, I missed it.  I would also mention that the brioche was probably a 1/8 of an inch too thick, but I won’t because I don’t want to nitpick.

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The Serb’s pretzel chicken sandwich arrived, and she announced that pretzel bread is her most favourite bread ever.  I wanted to mention that this was the first time I’ve ever seen her eat pretzel bread in my life.  Instead, I just nodded encouragingly and popped a piece of brioche into my mouth, thankful for its thickness.  However, the pretzel bread was excellent – the softness of the bake, the chew of the crust, the sweet-salty flavour all came together.  The roast chicken filling was mixed with cranberries and pecans in a yogurt dressing.  A really pleasant sandwich.

The three pastries arrive on a wooden board topped and tailed by small pots of butter and jam.  Their quality was undeniable.  The chocolate in the pain au chocolat was generous and premium, elevating this staple croissant to the higher echelons of Viennoiseries.

The winner for me was the lemon currant scone – a tangy sweet scone that was firm, yet broke away into satisfying chunks, ready to be generously smeared with lightly salted soft butter. It was buttery and soft, with small nuggets of chewy currants interspersed throughout and a freshness that only lemons can bring.  I could have eaten eight more.

The streusel cake was also surprisingly good – less sweet than it’s associates, quite delicate with a subtle layer of cocoa running through it like a geographical fault line.  It also tasted great smeared with butter, but then again, most things do.

As for the coffee, perhaps go elsewhere – it’s not their strength.

Chef Keller has left some excellent recipes with the kitchen team here in Dubai, and several months in, they are still executing it very well.

I think Bouchon Bakery has gone a long way to filling that gap of good quality European style bakeries and I look forward to them providing a good alternative to Paul’s in a few more locations. However, can they fit into that local micro-community space? I’m not so sure.

Having said that, I wouldn’t mind if there was a box of lemon currant scones in my kitchen every morning, and we all know how much The Serb loves pretzel bread. It’s her favourite apparently.

invoice

 

Breakfast for two – 197.40 AED
Bouchon Bakery
The Beach
04 441 90772

Straws are so convenient for us humans!  We don’t have to tilt our head too far back when drinking.  It minimises repetitive arm movement.  You can shoot the papers ends off them at your friends.  You can slurp loudly during movies.  Straws make people’s lives better every day.

Except they don’t.  They really don’t.  Five hundred million straws are used every day in the USA, and we are on track to having more plastic in our ocean than wildlife in just a few decades.  There is a pile of garbage in the Pacific that is the size of Texas.  Let that sink in – the size of Texas, just floating there.  It even has its own Wikipedia page.  And you must have all seen that video of the poor turtle with the straw up his nose.

Luckily, 2018 seems to be the year of change; of challenging the status quo, and there is a movement that is building through campaigns such as Friends of the Earth and the #Stopsucking hashtag.

Here in Dubai, it took someone like Ian Ohan at Freedom Pizza to make the first move.  In hindsight, of course, it was Ian.  I don’t think anyone else could have done it.  Ian and Freedom Pizza are at the forefront of standing up for principles, for doing what’s morally right, often over what’s commercially right.  It’s why Freedom Pizza has such a tremendous amount of goodwill currency within the market.  They announced that they would stop adding single-use straws and plastic cutlery to their deliveries, and just like that, the blue touch paper was lit.

Image credit - @nowastewahine
Image credit – @nowastewahine

Naim Maadad, CEO of Gates Hospitality instructed his portfolio of restaurants to also support this movement.  Restaurants such as Bistro Des Arts, Folly by Nick and Scott, Publique, Reform, The Black Lion, Ultra Brasserie and Via Veneto all signed up to go strawless, and suddenly this movement is starting to gain some traction.   When a prominent restaurant group like Gates Hospitality commit to something like this, it gives reassurance to others that their world will not end if they don’t supply single-use plastic straws with their drinks.

Not to be outdone, Emma Banks from Jumeirah Restaurant Group has also announced that her entire restaurant group will ban all plastics in their restaurants, not stopping just at straws, but also stirrers, swizzle sticks and more.  That is huge.  Jumeirah Restaurant Group has some pretty high-profile stakeholders, and the exposure alone from this announcement is hugely significant.  Plus, JRG serves a huge number of international tourists, meaning this message is for the world, not just our city.

Please join me in commending these restaurants and the commitment their leaders have made towards helping make the planet a better place for every living thing, including poor turtles.  Let’s thank them for improving our neck mobility and for potentially making movie theatres quieter.

You, too, can support this initiative by refusing your straw and telling the restaurant you are not eight years old anymore and you can drink from a big cup with no handles.  When you order delivery or drive through, tell the restaurant you don’t want a straw, if it is plastic.  Shoot the paper end at them, if they aren’t listening.  No, don’t do that.  Just let them know your point of view and demand change.  Consumers drive change through their actions and what’s great about this, is there are many, many solutions already available in the market.  Recycled paper straws, biodegradable straws, and plant-based straws have all been developed – we just need to ask for them.

I also wanted to try come up with some workable and sensible solutions to living without straws that we could apply to our daily lives.  I couldn’t think of any so here are some ridiculous and unfeasible ones instead.

  1. Restaurants hire extra staff with tiny ladles to pour beverages into customers mouths at regular intervals throughout their meal.
  1. You can buy your own reusable straw and keep it in your handbag or suit pocket. They can be retractable and customised, or in true Dubai style, made from precious metals and “strajazzled.” Totally made up that word.
  1. Dubai invests in a massive Dabbawalla style delivery service, that moves hundreds of thousands of personal straws around Dubai every day, with unerring accuracy.

Jokes aside, please share this article to increase awareness of this important issue and start demanding change from the restaurants you dine in.  You are the difference. You are the change agents.  We are the world.  We are the children.

FoodSheikh guest contributor Pandasfoodbelly is a multi-talented, third culture kid.  She loves food and music and dancing.  Most of her emotions are linked to food.  She generously shares a few of them with us.  Do you have a go-to food?  Comment below.

You can find her on Instagram @Pandasfoodbelly

Allow me to reintroduce myself, let emotions and food redefine themselves.  I was born in a land with nothing but desert, then raised in a city with outdoor leisure.  Graduated with Law and Psych in my pocket, then back to Dubai for full-fledged flourish. Take a step into my mind and experience these pleasures, then leap out, go on, and enjoy your own type of treasures.

Chocolate.  Sweet like chocolate.  If you’re allergic to chocolate, I don’t suggest this read – but me… I’m a chocoholic.  Also the type of person that resorts to the comfort of chocolate when something heavy is on my mind.  Depending on the gravity of the situation and the level of thought required, I would grab a bar of snickers while working long hours or if it’s something more deep, and something I can’t even figure out, I’ll want that chocolate fondant.

Why? Because I know fondant.  I know it will be good.  I know that when I cut through the cake, the chocolate will flow and so will the heavy thoughts, out of my head. And as I dip the warm chocolate into the vanilla ice cream, I’ll forget momentarily that I had any heavy thoughts. Yes, it has to be vanilla.  That bite is simply perfection.  A match made in heaven.  As your taste buds awaken and are aware of what’s going on, they rejoice at the contrasting tastes, temperatures, and textures.  Once that bite is over, your eyes rejoice at what remains on the plate.  Because there’s more! Before you know it, it’s annihilated, as are the heavy thoughts.

Sorry, what heavy thoughts?

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Pizza. It’s the first type of food that comes to my mind when I think parties, movie nights, game nights, and any night for that matter.  Suitable for all occasions. I have a very fond memory of pizza.  One in particular for that matter… Pizza Hut.  When I was living in New Zealand, Pizza Hut was basically the only fast food chain that would deliver so late at night… yes, 11PM/12AM was and still is super late in New Zealand.  Now, this is when I was a kid.  My older brother used to come back from boarding school on the weekends. It was the most exciting thing about my weekend.  Having him home for a couple of days before dropping him back with mum on Sunday night.  He probably wasn’t that excited to see me because he claims I was super annoying. Yah ok sure, I beg to differ. Anyways, Pizza.

So as kids we’d spend our Friday and Saturday nights at home, but we’d stay up late. Honestly, there really wasn’t much to do at night in Auckland about 17 years ago. However, we are huge movie junkies. He probably loved watching movies with me because I wouldn’t be talking to him at the time. Well, I wasn’t allowed to. We’d always rent out movies and watch them late.  So obviously we’d need food at the time, and we’d always order pizza.  I wouldn’t have much choice on the pizza but I’ve been a foodie since I was a kid and I knew I’d be eating 3 slices of whatever we got.  The usual flavor of choice was cheese and tomatoes, with chunky tomatoes and thick crust.  That was the dream for me.  I lived for those late night dinners while watching movies.  A lot of the times they were the Fast and Furious movies.  To date, Pizza hut and the Fast and the Furious hold a really special place in my heart.  I got pizza and coke late at night on the weekend, while watching a movie with my too cool for school brother.  Definitely some of the best nights as a child for me.

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Coffee. My favourite drink in the world.  I just love coffee.  It’s unconditional.  And the love grows stronger as my hours get longer at work.  My best friend.  There with me in the good and the bad, and through the thick and thin.  That glorious moment when the frothy milk touches my lips, and I taste the sensational flavour of well roasted coffee beans.  Life is made.  I love a good cappuccino, latte or flat white.  I don’t discriminate.  But sometimes, just sometimes, I want it black.  There are certain places that create such an incredible brew, that you just need to taste the full flavor, without the comfort of milk.  The beauty of it lies in the instant boost of energy a well-brewed cuppa black coffee gives you.  It’s fabulous! But when you have the time, and are in the mood for a cosy coffee, a cappuccino is the way to go.  It’s smooth, creamy and milky texture, can make you feel as full as the kind of milk you should be drinking when enjoying that cup of goodness.  I really do love coffee.  Can you tell?
Instagram:- @Pandasfoodbelly

Are we falling out of love with restaurants?

It is a horrible question to ask and a depressing notion to comprehend, but is Dubai falling out of love with the traditional restaurant experience?  When a new restaurant opens, we all go “Yay!’  But I’m sure there is, secretly, an inward groan highlighting our larger concerns. Keep shoving something down someone’s throat and they will eventually wretch.  I mean that in the nicest way possible.  I used to love Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn until it was played on every single radio station over and over; until I couldn’t bear the sound of it.

I fear for the enthusiasm of the market – I fear that because of this continuous, incessant stream of restaurant opening in every conceivable space in Dubai, people are, at the very worst, going to get bored and at the very least, ambivalent of this industry.  I fear for the over-reliance on F&B as the magic bullet that will solve all of retail’s problems.  Foot traffic down? Bring in some food trucks.  Got some dead retail space to fill?  Open some F&B kiosks.  Our industry’s saving grace has been a resilience and enthusiasm from our customers to continue to support the thousands and thousands of seats available across the city, every night of the week.  I fear for that continued gusto.

Perhaps people are bored already.  Home delivery is on the up and restaurant reservations are down. People are choosing Netflix’s The Crown and Uber Eats over traffic and a restaurant.  Deliveroo is building restaurants that live on their app as a “delivery only” option.  We’re not even bothering to build restaurants anymore – just a hot stove and a bike.

How have we got to that point where our restaurants are being threatened by luke-warm food (that is usually far below restaurant quality), impersonally delivered with little emotional attachment.  How have we become happy with an automated message asking for a rating as a replacement for an engaging, genuine table touch by a restaurant professional?

How have we got to the point where the majority of restaurants don’t need a reservation on a Thursday night, yet we have to wait up to an hour and a half for food delivery due to heavy demand?

The reasons are simple.

Too much mediocracy, not enough innovation.
Too much capitalism, not enough connection.
Too much ego, not enough egalitarianism.
Too much social media, not enough social skills.
Too much management, not enough ownership.

So, what’s the solution? How do we, as an industry, keep that fire alive?  How do we avoid becoming irrelevant?  We desperately need our guests to care about us because if they stop caring about us, we are lost.

Luckily, my thinking didn’t end there.  There are three things that I’ve identified as a food writer and a food professional that we, as an industry need to consider and get better at.

1. Accessibility

Is the restaurant easily within reach of your customers, physically, psychologically and financially?  Being accessible to your guest is ultimately about convenience.  How easy is it to visit the restaurant?  This includes fighting traffic, hunting for parking and distance traveled to get there.  Once there, how ‘open’ is the place?  A guest needs to feel welcomed and important from the moment they walk in, not alienated and awkward.  Finally, how accessible is the pricing of the experience?  The pricing should aim to encourage repeat visits, not remind guests to stay at home and order a chicken biryani.

2. Innovation

Innovation is the cornerstone of progress, especially in a fast-moving industry such as F&B.  It doesn’t have to be expensive; in fact, innovation is often born from frugality.  However, the very best restaurants are pushing boundaries and keeping things fresh.  Smashed avocado and kale will only get you so far.  A chef’s real job is to continuously explore flavours and technique.  A restaurant owners real job is to continuously reinvent service and experience.  Not enough restaurants here innovate.

3. Emotional connection.

This is the hardest to achieve, but the most powerful.  I’ve used this quote many times, but the great Grandmaster Flash once said, “Conquer your street.  Conquer your park.  Conquer your neighbourhood, and the world is yours.” Restaurants need to have a connection to the community they are in.  The local hairdressers should know the restaurant owners name.  The local dental clinic receptionist should have eaten there recently.  The guests should know who’s behind the business and buy into why they are doing what they’re doing.  Suddenly you’re not just eating at Café Abbaca; you’re supporting Lubna and Jonathan, and their dream of running a successful neighbourhood café.  You become part of that journey, part of something special.

What do you think? Are we falling out of love with restaurants? What do restaurants need to do better to get bums on seats? Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Comment below!

Originally, back in 1909 when International Women’s Day started, it was a day of protests and marches, in cities all over the world. Women across the globe marched for equal rights and the right to vote.  They marched for the right to hold public office.  They marched against employment discrimination, and they marched for equality and parity.  International Women’s Day became a moment in a calendar where women’s issues were allowed to be discussed and where women’s achievements were allowed to be celebrated, and the incredible struggles of women who have paved the way for others were recognised.

But guess what – it’s 2018 and #TimesUp on International Women’s Day because women aren’t waiting for March 8th to let their voices be heard.  They aren’t limiting themselves to 24 hours of appreciation for their contribution to this planet.  The IWD is no longer just a single day – it is a movement – a powerful tide of progress, a seismic shift in the balance of gender equality and I’d like to talk a little about my experience of women in my industry.

Let’s start by calling it for how it is – globally, in the very best examples, women are underpaid, under-promoted and held to ridiculous standards.  In the worst examples, they are subject to sexual harassment and blatant discrimination.  There are always outliers, but for the most part, these observations hold true, especially in F&B.

So, please remember that any woman working in the F&B industry probably has as much, if not more grit, determination and resolve than her male counterpart.  It is likely she has been teased, touched and tormented by co-workers and customers alike.  Malicious or not, it is the same; it happens every day, and nevertheless, she persisted.

So, let’s not use today to offer a dinner discount or a free glass of bubbly to women.  Let’s make a commitment to acknowledge that without women in our restaurant kitchens, we would have less creativity, discipline, and innovation.  Without women in our dining rooms, we would have less harmony and balance and less genuine hospitality.  Without women in management, we would have less clarity and focus, less perspective and vision.  Women in our industry bring balance, energy, intelligence and grit to our businesses. And they do it every single day, not “once a year.”

So, I would like to shout out to all the women in our great industry – the chefs, sous chefs and commis, all the bartenders, cocktail servers and waitresses, all the hostesses, and supervisors, all the managers, and leaders that bring such balance, strength, and vitality to our industry.  My hat is off to you, and it remains off.

Please share this article with any women in the industry that need a shout out!

In the Willy Wonka world of La Mer, with its bucket showers, pavement paintings and Insta-perfect landscaping, a selection of restaurants vie for the crowds’ attention and custom.  However, it’s a vicious dog eat dog world out there on the brutal, unforgiving boardwalk of La Mer.

Cartoon eyes hang from trees, wet floor signs are in the shape of bananas, dramatic angel wings are painted on walls, large cartoon octopus and sharks pose for photographs, and hundreds of multicoloured slinkies hang from ceilings.  It is an experiential overload and restaurants are stuck in the middle of it like a puppet ventriloquist suddenly finding themselves competing in the middle of a Cirque du Soleil performance.

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Instagrammers beware – it seems like Slab didn’t get the memo.  The restaurant is understated and subtle and with monotone greys, concrete and architectural lines, it is urban, uncluttered and clean.  Slab is a respite for the eyes and a well-needed rest from the visual assault of La Mer’s “sense of place.”

There is also a terrace that overlooks a small little pond.  The pond was, of course, filled with hundreds of floating yellow plastic ducks, much to the dismay of the restaurant, I’m sure.

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Yellow Ducks

In the absence of anything Instagram-able, I’m pretty sure I saw a table of Instagrammers sitting in total silence, phones out but motionless, like zombies waiting for some kind of peripheral movement to activate them.

We sat inside, and a friendly waiter arrived with the menus.  He introduced himself and offered some recommendations on what we should order.  He was chatty and seemed honest and genuine.  He even managed to mention that his father had called him that morning from Serbia.  It seemed relevant at the time.

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Slab serves classy tartines and main courses.  Tartines are basically just half a sandwich, but because they are French, they get away with it.  The menu is clever, taking the tartine fillings and turning them into more substantial main course offerings.  This allows a fuller menu in a smaller kitchen.   The flavours are globally inspired – there were influences coming in from the Middle East, Europe, and the Far East – however, it is a menu that doesn’t overstretch or overcomplicate itself.  It is clean, unfussy food.

Because our waiter was from Serbia, The Serb attempted to place her order in a deep southern American twang in case he noticed her accent.  It was a good move, but I’m not sure why she put on her sunglasses as well though.  As you might have learned by now, it’s best not to ask.

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We ordered the West Bank Chicken Tartine, a Fragrant Chicken Salad, the Duck Confit Brioche, and the Organic Salmon Sandwich with avocado puree.  We also had some cassava crisps and sweet potato fries.

The music in Slab was a little too loud for the number of people in the restaurant. However, the playlist was pretty good, with eclectic songs from NAS to The Cat Empire.

While we waited for our mains, I’m pretty sure I saw our waiter trying to sink a few yellow ducks out by the pond, but I could have been mistaken.  Eventually, our food was ready and arrived at the table in very attractive plates and bowls.

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The West Bank Chicken Tartine came alive with the sumac and pine nuts, but the caramelized onions brought a little too much sweetness for me.  The bread was soft and had a great char to it, enhancing flavor and texture.

The fragrant chicken salad was a little misleading – the promised mixed greens turned out to be just chopped kale – however, this actually gave it much more body and substance.  The dressing was bright and lively and balanced out the kale’s bitterness.  The pears and walnuts brought in a breezy summer feel.

For me, the Duck Confit Brioche was the winner.  The umami of the duck contrasted wonderfully against the sweetness of the brioche, and the plum puree was subtle and didn’t overpower the sandwich.  The duck meat was generous and cooked beautifully.DSCF0508

The salmon was a little overcooked for me, but I like my salmon almost translucent, and the rest of the table ignored my comment.  It came with an avocado puree and long strands of pickled cucumber.  A solid, well-constructed dish, although quite safe and simple.

Overall, the presentation of the food was excellent, it must be said.  You know the plating is going to be good when the Chef has flowers and tweezers on the kitchen counter.

Our waiter returned to ask us if we wanted some desserts.  We did, and we ordered the cheesecake and the chocolate bar, which prompted a story from our waiter on how his grandmother makes the best brownies in the world.  It was refreshing and enjoyable to be included in such enthusiasm, and we might visit her on our next trip to Serbia.

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The chocolate bar was far too stodgy and rich; it is a heavy, decadent dish that takes commitment and work to get through it.  Maybe our waiter’s grandmother could hand over her recipe.  The cheesecake, however, was blinding – the semolina and pistachio crust was moist and chewy, and the yogurt cheesecake was light, fragrant and moreish.  A real surprise dish for me and one I would return for.

When is a sandwich not a sandwich? When it’s a tartine from Slab.  The combination of consultant Chef Thomas Reger’s creativity and Chef Omar’s mastery of flavours means Slab serves up some pretty tasty food.  It is an interesting addition to La Mer, and part of me thinks it might do better with a more elevated menu and a wine list.  But that is totally a compliment to how seriously Slab takes their sandwiches.

Well Done Slab.

invoice

 

Slab at La Mer
04 298 8899
Lunch for 4 – 492 AED

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

Two and a half years ago, I started on a journey to experience restaurants and create helpful, credible and entertaining reviews.  I gave myself a few self-imposed rules to follow, without exception. I would always review independently, anonymously and fairly.  I would never get on my high horse and belittle, embarrass or berate.  This was not an egocentric mission to blast the smallest of errors but to give the restaurant a genuine summary of their performance.  Every review I write has two audiences – one is the consumer who wants to learn about the restaurant and be entertained at the same time.  The other is the restaurants themselves.  I try to offer genuine advice and feedback with each review, with the hope that FoodSheikh can play a small part in helping the industry raise its standards – one restaurant at a time.

I have reached a milestone in my journey – I have just finished my 100th review.  It may not seem a lot – especially against the thousands of restaurants in Dubai, but for me it is significant, because each review is a story in itself – one thousand words of research, knowledge, and narrative.  It is a portfolio I am proud of, and I am grateful for all the people I have met along the way.

I’ve developed a significant audience across all my platforms.  It’s not the biggest audience, but they are intelligent, engaged and supportive and I wouldn’t swap them for anything.  Every review is read thousands of times, reaching into the hundreds of thousands in totality, if you include everyone who clicks through from other platforms as well.

Here are a few highlights from one hundred restaurant reviews

The Ingredients (serves 100 restaurants):-lily-lvnatikk-540998

52,560 Aed – Amount spent on restaurant bills alone.  No alcohol included.
451 – Number of dishes eaten.
116 Aed – Average dish price.
525 Aed – Average Check (for two)
3 hours – the time it takes to write a review
5 hours – the time it takes to research for a review.
13% – % of restaurants reviewed that have since closed.

 

 

Methodology/What I’ve learned.

I can count the great restaurants on one hand. The rest fit into a mosh pit of mediocracy.  Originality cannot be celebrated enough.  You can tell how committed or passionate the owner is within 3 minutes of walking into a place.  The art of the table touch is dead.  Only 18% of reviews had a meaningful table touch by a manager or supervisor.  Genuine hospitality is still an issue in F&B service.  Avocados, so many avocados.  Most restaurants are 40% too big.  Bread quality is mediocre.  Foodies can spot an influencer fluff piece a mile away.  Nothing is as important as overall experience.  Facebook is the blogger’s frenemy.  Restauranteurs trump hoteliers when it comes to F&B, hands down.  Ingredients maketh meal.  The word authentic is overused and misunderstood.  Some PR companies don’t truly understand restaurants.  Celebrity Chefs will have to work harder.  Restaurants are obsessed with escapism.  Always tip in cash.  Eating out is expensive.

What year are we in?  Is this 1903?  Pepsico is creating snacks exclusively designed for women.  I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast where the CEO of Pepsico (who is female) claims that women don’t want their Doritos to crunch “too loudly”, they don’t like licking their fingers in public, and they want to be able to carry their snacks in their purses.  Apparently, Pepsico is getting ready to launch several lady specific snack ranges very soon.  The backlash in the media has been swift and brutal.  #ladydoritos.   I’m assuming women would like equal pay, not crunchless crisps!

I feel like we’ve taken an enormous step backward and this got me thinking, the F&B industry has a terrible misconception of women – for all our advances in technology and ingredient trends, food provenance, and ethical farming, it is embarrassing how the industry communicates with the female audience, even in Dubai.

Reese Witherspoon created a film company which came out with some pretty big hits, amongst them are Big Little Lies and Gone Girl.  She created this company with the desire to create films that not only have female characters in them, but that have female leads that are mysterious, deep, confusing, brave, controversial… all the things that a regular woman is.  Why can’t we communicate to all the nuances of the female gender instead of assuming all she wants is pink, sparkles and unicorns?

Almost twenty-five years ago, back in 1994, a company called Six Continents asked the question, “how do we make the British pub more accessible to women?” Surprisingly, they asked a bunch of women, and the answers were simple and effective.  Improve the bathrooms.  Put hooks under the bar counter for scarfs, jackets and handbags.  Provide more comfortable seating.  Improve the food.  Have lots of windows so you can see the atmosphere before walking in.  Ban all football shirts, to eliminate “tribes” and conflict.  These are pragmatic, respectful and obvious considerations and in hindsight apply to both genders.  This is how All Bar One was born.

Fast forward quarter of a century and we seem to have gotten worse.  How restaurants talk to their female customers is downright embarrassing at times.  I’ve seen many ads that have gentrified the eating experience, or the food, or the ambiance, to attempt to appeal to a female audience. The thing is, women are far more nuanced than needing to gentrify anything.

Traditional steakhouses trying to appeal to the female audience use tag-lines “Not your daddy’s steakhouse.”  Really?

They use adverts that highlight the legs and lips of the women who are supposedly the restaurant’s target customers.  If anything stimulates a woman’s appetite for a piece of meat, it’s seeing another woman being treated like one.

Restaurants give cocktails names like “French Kiss” or “Pink Elegance” because those will clearly make their female audience feel cute and sexy and asking a bartender for a French Kiss is totally not awkward.   It gives the term “switch and bait” a whole new meaning!

Dubai’s ladies’ nights probably allow for the best/worst examples.  Close-ups of women’s lips, pictures of red lipstick, handbags and high-heels adorn most of the promotional flyers.  Three free drinks and discounted food seems to be what the entire market has agreed it will take for women to act as bait for men to visit a venue.  Bonus points for pink champagne and super sweet cocktails.

Check out a few of these real ladies night names.

Lipstick Ladies. Gossip Sundays.  Leave Your Boyfriend At Home.  Pink Elephant.  One for the Girls.  12-inch Tuesdays.  Friends with Benefits.  Pin Up.  Lost Angels.  Mile High Club.  Sparkle in the Sand.  Go, Geisha.  Her Night.  Dollified.  Boom Boom.  Berries and Bubbles.  Miss Independent.  Lady Liberty. Guilt-Free Ladies Night.  Ladies on Top.

Come on Dubai – can’t we do better than demeaning names and free pink drinks?

 

If a British artist decided to open a café and build it, largely by himself, in some obscure space, in some unknown neighbourhood, then that is what Cabin would be.

Which is funny, because that’s exactly what happened.

Food and art is not a new thing – not by a long shot.  Food has always played a role in art.  Even Stone Age cave painters used vegetable juice and animal fats in their paints.  Going even further back, when More Café first opened, they used their walls as a canvas for local artists.  Some might even say the combination of food and art has been a little overdone.

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However, Jonny Gent is a legit artist – his work has been shown in galleries and exhibitions worldwide.  Serious art collectors seek out his work.  He has been featured in globally recognized publications.  He gets inspiration from cool stuff like books, music, food, gardens, castles, cars and the way his dad shaves.  He has also just opened a café in Barsha South.  I have no idea why, but I’m glad he did.

Cabin is an indoor/outdoor, upstairs/downstairs kind of place.  It’s quirky, amateur and unpolished.  It is clearly a labour of love for Gent.  The patio is encased by a large untreated plywood fence.  If you look up, there are ripped strips of bedsheets that provide somewhat unequal shading for diners.  If you look down, there is rough concrete flooring and dusty plants.  It is as if my dad had built it over a long weekend.

Naked Man

The patio is actually on an incline, so nothing is quite straight.  If the chef serves anything round, he’ll be in trouble, as it is likely to roll off the plate and into Barsha South.  Peas, melon balls, meatballs, grapes, cherry tomatoes – these are all off limits to the chef.  It must be difficult to work with such culinary restrictions.

Inside is a narrow-elevated corridor that is home to a curated selection of arty stuff.  Notepads, pens, books, small naked men, etc.  All of it is available for purchase.

The actual café is down a short flight of stairs where the kitchen shares the room with several large American style booths.  There is, of course, art on the walls, although I didn’t see the Warhol or the Hirst that are apparently on display there.  However, I wouldn’t know Picasso’s Pomegranates from Munch’s sunflowers if they hit me in the face.  The room is like a studio – it is functional, quirky and welcoming.  It is also a little rough around the edges.  The extraction doesn’t get rid of the stronger smells, and seating efficiency is terrible.  The décor is an extension of Jonny’s personality, once would assume.  It is charming and unpretentious.

IMG_1327They hand out complimentary carafes of mineral water infused with long strips of cucumber, which is a nice touch and should be recognised.  However, ice would have also been a nice touch, as the carafe got quite warm in the sun, and warm cucumber water is not particularly refreshing.

The service is laid back but good – friendly, accessible staff, clearly empowered and respected by the management there.  They are happy to engage in conversation and seem to know many of the customers and their dogs too.  (Guests brought their dogs with them – they weren’t just asking after people’s dogs, randomly.)

We ordered the broccoli and bulgur wheat and the grilled cheese sandwich.  The Serb very nearly had the cheeseburger, but has recently watched some Netflix food program and has decided she doesn’t want to eat meat for a while.  She ordered the chicken Caesar salad instead.  I know.caesar salad

They brought us some sliced bread with a quarter of a demitasse worth of butter.  I see in older reviews the bread used to come with cherry tomatoes as well, but for reasons I’ve already explained, they have had to replace them with a ratatouille of some sort.  Probably.

The menu is elevated café food – it’s tight, with just a few options covering a single page, but with enough variety to satiate most dietary requests.

The chicken Caesar salad arrived with big chunks of rustic croutons and a well-balanced dressing.  The chicken was ridiculously tender and juicy as if it had lived its entire life submerged in some delicious moisturizer bath.  The egg was also perfectly cooked to soft medium as well.  Good job all round on the poultry!

wheat brocoli

The broccoli and bulgur wheat arrived looking like it was waiting for something else to join it on the plate.  An odd presentation style, but a well-constructed dish.  The broccoli was slightly charred and had a hint of spice to it.  The bulgur wheat was well cooked, and its softness found a harmony against the bite of the pomegranate and broccoli.  My only comment would be that the avocado puree did nothing for the dish. It was there because it was avocado, and for me, served no other purpose.

The grilled cheese sandwich is filled with cheddar and taleggio cheese, sweetened with a tomato jam and sealed with a parmesan crust.  The different flavour profiles of the cheese were good, but drowned out a little by the overly sweet tomato jam.  The key to any sandwich is balance. Nothing should be overpowering.

pudding

We ordered the sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream.  It looks nothing like what I saw on their Instagram account and was a bit of a disappointment.  It was cold in the middle, and quite dry, not very sticky and was more of a cupcake than a pudding.

For someone who, one day put down his paintbrush and opened a restaurant, Jonny Gent has done a remarkable job.  It is a work in progress, and I think with every piece of feedback given, Cabin will get better and better.  I look forward to watching their journey.

 

invoice

 

Cabin
Al Barsha South
Info@cabindubai.com
Lunch for two – 210 AED
Cabin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

This is a risky review for me, personally.  Even as I type this, I am being watched by an over-protective Serb who is reading every word I write, in case I irk her fellow countrymen over my interpretation of her cuisine.  They say 21 grams is the weight of the human soul.  I might be 21 grams lighter, if I get this review wrong.

IMG_1149121 Grams is an urban Balkan bistro.  The Balkans is the collective term for a bunch of countries, whose relationship status would be “it’s complicated” if they were on Facebook.  It is basically South East Europe.

21 Grams is a cute little modern-day Kafana or tavern, run by a Serbian, and I must tell you, the Serbs know Kafanas.  From the 200-year-old tavern, with just a “?” for a name, to the intimate, smoky Smokvica, the Serbs have understood bistros for generations.

We arrived at the new Park Regis Boutique hotel and found 21 Grams just off the lobby on the right-hand side.  21 Grams is an intimate little place with seating for thirty.  Technically. In reality, it feels much smaller than that.  The place was full when we arrived just after lunch.  I believe that’s the future of restaurants here in Dubai – smaller, more intimate dining rooms, which are easier to fill and have lower rent costs.

We needed a table for four people, and our host, in true Serbian fashion, told a single diner enjoying his coffee to move outside so that we could sit at his table. I felt a little bad, but he didn’t seem to mind, and I’ve learned not to question Serbian decisions too much.

We sat down and had a look around.  It didn’t take long.  It’s a single room, with quaint little sidewalk tables around its perimeter and a larger communal table in the center. There is a service counter in one corner for the bakery items, coffee, and discussions of revolutions.  The room is pleasant, with millennial peaches, residential rugs, bookcases and intimate corner tables and chairs.  It is simple, charming and very natural.

mezze

The place was full of Slavic speaking customers, chatting, relaxing and contemplating whether they should re-join the outside world anytime soon.

Our server handed us each a menu, but we didn’t need one.  The Serb had known what we were going to eat before we had even woken up that morning.  She rattled off our order before we could say ‘ajde.’

We had the mezze to start, which consisted of Kajmak, Ajvar, and Urnebes, which are all dips and not IKEA’s latest bedroom range.  We also had a shopska salad as well.  The trio of dips arrived in quenelles on a terrazzo disc and the shopska in a quaint little side bowl.

Kajmak is one of the most famous of Balkan exports – it’s like a clotted cream cheese, rich, creamy and perfect on warm, crusty chunks of bread.  Their ajvar is a sweet, bell pepper and eggplant relish, creamy red in colour, with a deep, layered smokey flavour, perfect on warm crusty chunks of bread.  The final dip we ordered is the spicy Urnebes, which literally translates to ‘mess.’  It is a cheese, paprika and chili flake spread, confusingly classified as a salad in the Balkans.  It is perfect on warm crusty chunks of bread. The shopska salad was diced cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and onions under a mound of salty feta cheese.  Fresh, lively and filling.

cevapi

Balkan food is naturally eclectic and diverse, thanks to the vast amount of (sometimes) unwanted influences the region has experienced throughout the ages.  From the Romans to the Turks, to the Italians and Germans, the cuisine of the region has benefitted enormously from these influences.

In fact, Balkan cuisine might be one of the world’s most versatile, with flavours and ingredients that are recognizable to many different cultures.  Yet, it is a food that is grounded, almost soulful – preferring simplicity and accessibility over sophistication and fancy.  The Serb wants you to know I am not writing this under duress.

cabbageOur mains were the grilled cevapi, or kebabs, the sarma, the slow cooked lamb and the spring salad.  After the success of the starters, we were looking forward to the mains. Unfortunately, we were made to wait a long time.  I was worried that by the time we got the mains, the Balkans would have formed new international borders with Europe.

They have just opened, so it was clearly a teething issue, but waiting 45 minutes really disrupts the energy and flow of an experience.  However, it did mean we were able to listen to the Balkan’s entire collection of Starogradska Muzika, the traditional folk music, or old city music.  It was surprisingly pleasant.

The mains were cleaner, more polished versions of what I was expecting.  The food is very humble in origin, but 21 Gram’s interpretations elevate them to a much more premium level. The portions were lighter than usual and showed a real understanding of the Jumeirah market.

The cevapi, six little minced beef kebabs, are seasoned and grilled and served with urnebes, onions, and peppers.  A simple, nostalgic dish, with bright flavours and quality meat.

The sarma is sour cabbage rolls, stuffed with seasoned ground beef and sour cream, in a sweet tomato and bell pepper sauce.  The sharpness of the pickled cabbage cut through the umami of the beef, creating a wonderfully balanced, flavourful dish.

lambThe slow cooked lamb was a triumph – tender lamb roll cooked in milk, served with a horseradish sauce and sweet, soft poached apples.  The flavours married perfectly together, creating a delightful harmony.  The lamb was so soft it fell apart like Novak in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

The service would be my only gripe – friendly enough, but not particularly attentive with a few breakdowns in standards.  However, they are newly opened and are for sure still finding their feet.  I’m sure they will improve.

Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 21 Grams is a place you should visit – the food is relatable and delicious, and the dining room is personal and charming. Congrats to Stasha and Chef Uros for bringing a little bit of Balkan soul to the city.

 

invoice

 

21 Grams – Balkan Urban Bistro
Park Regis Boutique Hotel
Umm Suqeim 3
04 349 0744
Lunch for 4 – 501 AED

 

21 Grams - Urban Balkan Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

The new year hasn’t even got started, and Zahira restaurant at The H Hotel has already closed their doors, after trading for just seven short months.  Two hundred and fifteen days was all it took for the owners to cut their losses and turn off the lights.  That’s like getting a divorce during your honeymoon.

I have walked through a few closed restaurants myself, always with grief and sad reflection.  Where there was once laughter and life and happiness, there is just silence.  Where there was once good food and drinks being enjoyed every day, there is nothing but emptiness.  The restaurant team scattered into the wind, each one of them responsible for finding work that will support their families.  It is a surprisingly emotional event – someone’s hopes, dreams, and savings extinguished.

Zahira was a venue with a dream kitchen team, a slick, well-designed restaurant, and a quite delightful menu, conceived and cooked by none other than Chef Greg Malouf – the “Godfather” of Middle Eastern cooking.  This restaurant should have had a waiting list weeks long.  The food was critically acclaimed and boasted perhaps the best hummus and Ouzi in town.  Greg himself was cooking alongside his talented and trusted head chef, Troy, six nights a week.  The pricing point was excellent, and the bar had some decent bottles behind it.  Alas, after suffering a torrid summer and seeing no upturn in business over the remainder of the year, the writing was on the wall.  In capslock.

Having read the online social and trade commentary about the Zahira closing, and understanding a little of the history of the restaurant, some interesting things became apparent.

The first thing is that the Dubai F&B industry is a close-knit community, despite everyone ferociously fighting for the same diminishing dirham.  When a new place opens, industry colleagues pass by, partly to have a nosey and check out the “new place” but mainly to support and congratulate their industry peers.

Similarly, when a place closes, there is an outpouring of condolences and support, as if a dear friend had passed away.  For the most part, there is a real integrity and mutual respect for what every restauranteur is trying to achieve out here.  It’s these little things, in moments like this, that make me proud to be associated with this industry.

Additionally, the strong empathetic reaction is not just because Greg is a popular chef and personality, but also because every restaurant owner and chef know they could easily become the next Zahira restaurant.  Closure is just a bad weekend away for some operators – that is the reality, unfortunately.

Another thing I realised is how easy it is to perform a back-seat autopsy and claim the closure was because of this or that.  Poor management, an undefined concept, lack of marketing strategy – there are hundreds of reasons why restaurants fail, and it’s easy to throw the blame around when it’s all done and dusted.

The astonishing part and this is what impresses me the most, is the desire to do it all over again.  Reflect, learn (find new investors) and stand back up, again and again.

The very best traits of this industry are its persistence and resilience and eternal optimism.

Zahira might have been the first casualty of 2018, but unfortunately, it won’t be the last.  Yes, the challenges are there, and this is not an attempt to sugar coat them.  The industry is approaching breaking point; rents are crippling, food costs are soaring, disposable income is decreasing, and yet there is hope.  There is determination, and for the very best, for the ones who will win, there is strategy and discipline and a commitment to excellence.

In a market that is softening faster than my soufflé cheesecake, it is remarkable that restauranteurs are still hungry for good locations and opportunities, and ways to serve food experiences that bring joy to the city.

I wish each of us the same resilience and optimism, and the very best for 2018.