Thursday, May 13, 2010

Café Havana – Mall of the Emirates

In a nutshell: Extensive menu, tasty food but lacking in service
Score: 4/5

Café Havana (near Zara in Mall of the Emirates) used to look out on the jumping fountains but with the current refurb of the outside area going on, it has left Café Havana quite literally in the dark. The hoardings completely shut off the windows so no natural light gets in. Fingers crossed it will all come down soon to help brighten the atmosphere!

I went to Café Havana specifically to have their prawn and pineapple skewers. After ordering this from the waitress, she came back to tell me that the menu had actually changed recently and that item wasn’t available any more. A bit more training on the menu with the staff wouldn’t go amiss! Although this isn’t a 5 star establishment you would still expect the staff to know the menu – even if it is a very comprehensive one.

I settled on a caprese salad which was very good; the balsamic vinegar had been mixed with, I think, honey to give it a sweet flavour that was great. The salads don’t come under the starter section of the menu so I had expected something fairly substantial, but it was a definite starter size and since I didn’t have time to order anything else I left the restaurant still quite hungry. So a slightly more generous portion wouldn’t go wrong – or a choice of starter / main size dishes perhaps?

In terms of the menu selection they offer breakfast (eggs benedict at Dhs 28), appetizers at Dhs 25-50 (calamari, coconut prawns, spring rolls), salads (the Havana salad includes all sorts of Far Eastern fruits and sounded very tempting) at Dhs 40-50, sandwiches and burgers at Dhs 40-50, main courses (including fajitas, fish & chips, lamb rack) at Dhs 40-70 and pastas / pizzas at Dhs 30-50. All very reasonably priced. There is a dedicated children’s menu at Dhs 25 per dish and a selection of ice-cream specialities, banana split any one?

Long’s Bar – Towers Rotana Hotel

In a nutshell: Cheap and cheerful brunch!
Score: 4/5

Dubai has so many over-priced brunches so it’s great to find somewhere that offers a Friday brunch for just Dhs 149 (less if you have the Rotana Rewards card). You know how it is when you’re organising a get together, figure a brunch will be easy since it’s a fixed price but then you realise that not everyone will want to pay Dhs 400 or more! Well this offers a good solution to that problem.

The drinks list is fairly extensive and includes sparkling wine as well as house red and white, a variety of beers and the usual spirits. They have a policy of only giving you a fresh drink once your current one is finished but the staff kept a good eye on the table and we never had to wait long for refills. We also ordered water and this was included – I’ve been to a number of brunches where you can have as much alcohol as you want but have to pay extra for water!

The buffet wasn’t huge, but was more than sufficient with a selection of salads, breads, carvery items (beef, lamb and chicken), a couple of curry items and then the all important desserts. There’s a live omelette and waffle station, plus breakfast pastries for anyone who’s just rolled out of bed at midday. My only gripe was the usual thing about pepper! The roast beef was literally crusted with pepper but the chef was great and carefully cut it all off for me…I didn’t ask him to but he offered when I told him it was such a shame it was covered in it.

Atmosphere-wise, it is pretty lively but when we left at 4:30 it hadn’t yet descended into the dancing and partying you’d find at Yalumba (although it is a couple of years since I went to Yalumba). Dancing would have been difficult since our table was set up on the actual dance floor. Long's is down in the basement of the Rotana with no windows so you can easily lose all sense of time and a couple of hours turns into half a day!

If you want a fancy, high brow brunch with views of the city then this is not for you. But for a brunch that’s reasonably-priced with good food (although it won’t blow you away) and a general unwind with friends…this is just the place.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

St. Maxim’s – Kempinski Hotel, Mall of the Emirates

In a nutshell: Excellent food and service but something just didn’t feel right – maybe the mall location with hotel prices
Score: 4/5

St. Maxim’s has quite a ‘moulin rouge’ style with dark red banquettes and chairs and romantic lighting. There is a live pianist/singer in the bar area who was excellent. The bar and restaurant are separated so the music didn’t drown out conversation and he sang a huge variety including Louis Armstrong, Lionel Richie, Chris de Burgh and Bob Marley. You could see everyone in the restaurant had their foot tapping along to the beat. The only down side was that the large TV screen behind him was playing Mr. Bean; a slight distraction! If you’re a smoker then they have a balcony where smoking is allowed and you then have a great view onto the metro as it whizzes by.

The service throughout the evening was first rate and my parents (who are regulars there) were welcomed back like old friends by all the staff we encountered. The manageress spent close to 10 minutes chatting to us and kept checking on us throughout the evening. Our waitress, Lolita, joked with me when I ordered dessert that there would be no garlic or pepper on it – very refreshing to find a sense of humour.

Simon and my father ordered litres of beer but the glasses were so huge they were quite over-faced and could barely finish them. Great idea but not recommended with a 3 course meal. My big issue was that they didn’t offer local mineral water, only San Pellegrino, claiming that a plastic bottle on the table “wasn’t five star”. Although the food and service were excellent, the fairly casual uniforms and general feel of the restaurant (entering into the mall) is not five star. Plus the pianist had a bottle of Arwa water on the piano with him – did he bring it in himself from Carrefour?? My other gripe on the drinks was that the Cranberry juice was a cheap, super-sweet brand. Still, the food made up for the drinks…

As it is a French restaurant the menu has all the traditional French dishes: snails, foie gras, frogs’ legs, confit de canard and, not good for me…garlic with everything! There was no issue making my food garlic and pepper-free though. Most main courses are served with sautéed vegetables plus 1 side order plus a sauce – top marks for this as it always seems to be such a rip off when a main course comes with nothing and you have to buy every side dish. The baguette that was served on the table tasted as good as any you could get in France – divine.

All our starters were generous portions without being too big and were full of flavour without being overpowering. The beef carpaccio was served with lettuce and fresh parmesan cheese. The mushrooms on toast had a garlic and sour cream sauce, not a rich creamy one so it wasn’t too heavy. The bortsch (beetroot soup) had my dad in raptures. The foie gras was served with crushed nuts all round it and a mango salsa. Finally, my prawn cocktail was served with avocado but whilst it was a good portion, there was nothing in the flavour that really stood out as different to anywhere else.

The speciality of St. Maxim’s is their stone grilled meats. My mum had a stone grilled steak which came raw on the hot stone and you then had to cut off slices and cook them on the stone (which is salted so it flavours the meat as it cooks) – great presentation! The lamb chops coated with mustard and herbs were very succulent and fairly meaty – not cutlets with barely a mouthful of meat on each bone. The beef stroganoff was creamy but not overly rich or heavy on the stomach. My confit de canard was perfectly cooked to have a crispy skin but to be tender inside - why when I cook it does the whole leg become dry?!

For dessert I was really looking forward to my chocolate fondant, hoping to cut it open and have the molten chocolate ooze out…but I was sadly disappointed as it had been over cooked and although moist, it wasn’t liquid in the middle. I live in hope that one day I will find a restaurant that can make this dessert properly.

If you order off the set menu then the prices are very reasonable at Dhs 109 for 2 courses. If I go again, that’s what I’ll do because the à la carte price worked out at Dhs 220 per person (that price included the drinks and the beers were Dhs 68 for a litre). Although not extortionate for a hotel, because you enter St. Maxim’s from inside the Mall of the Emirates, it just felt very expensive for a mall restaurant.

Soups and salads range from Dhs 25-60; New Zealand beef on the stone grill is Dhs 80-160, Australian Angus is Dhs 115-195 and Australian Wagyu is Dhs 250-300; other mains are Dhs 60-125 and desserts are Dhs 30-35.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Bella Donna – Mercato Mall, Jumeirah

In a nutshell: Casual dining with good food and well-priced

For the second time this weekend we ate at an Italian restaurant, somewhat less upmarket than Thursday night but also not hotel prices. We were welcomed by a friendly manager but we found it strange that with all the staff available, he seemed to be waiting a lot of the tables and taking orders. All the staff we passed also greeted us and smiled so a genuine welcome but would the service match up?

Bella Donna has outside seating on a large terrace looking out to the sea, but at lunch time we decided it was just a bit too hot to be sat outside. The table we were given was near the door to the terrace though and so after one too many blasts of hot air we asked to be moved somewhere else. Our new table gave us a view into the open kitchen area and we were impressed that the ventilation is good enough that none of the cooking smells or smoke come out into the restaurant.

The décor is black and white with big black and white photos of 1950s stars – all very funky and modern. The salsa music was great but I have to say that I prefer to hear Italian music in an Italian restaurant, not Spanish. They could also do with getting small surround-sound speakers since they only had two large speakers to cover the whole restaurant and so sitting near one of them was a bit loud. Away from the terrace door, the temperature was just right and no pashmina was needed which is always a bonus.

The fresh juices available are the same as at Japengo and other Bin Hendi restaurants. They are freshly made to order and my pineapple juice came with a big frothy top on it – none of these ‘squeezed that morning and kept in the fridge’ affairs. The food itself was very nice, but didn’t blow us away. Simon’s Italian burger was huge and he had to remove the top piece of bread just to be able to taste anything other than bread. His first bite elicited a “This is really good” but by the end he’d decided he wouldn’t order it another time since it was too dry and ‘bread-y’.

My poached salmon was more successful but, as with Thursday night, there were only 3 thin stalks of asparagus served with it and a few cherry tomatoes – a few more vegetables would not have gone amiss. The salmon is served in the saffron poaching liquid it’s cooked in, whilst it was nice it was a bit like a thin soup and my personal preference would be to serve it with a creamy saffron sauce instead. My request for no pepper was followed though! At Japengo’s I usually have the grilled salmon and I would have to say that dish wins over the poached one of Bella Donna.

The service was excellent; we were able to attract a waiter’s attention very quickly and as soon as we finished our juices we were offered more. I also noticed that the chef on the fresh juice counter was keeping an eye on tables and calling waiters when he saw a customer needed someone. Being so close to the kitchen, I also saw a chef chewing gum…not quite so impressive.

In terms of price, this was very good and the total bill for two was only Dhs 150 (Dhs 100 on food and Dhs 50 on fresh juice and water). Starters range from Dhs 40-80, pasta Dhs 40-55, pizza Dhs 30-50, mains Dhs 55-90 and desserts Dhs 25.

I wouldn’t drive down to Mercato just to eat here, but would certainly come here again if I was in the area.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

BBQ: The Simple Pleasures

There is something so satisfying about BBQ’d food. The smell of the charcoal burning and the meat slowly grilling fills the air and I don’t think anyone can smell that and not have their mouth watering. A gas BBQ just doesn’t have the same effect. Then you have the taste of the meat…impossible to get that in the oven or in a griddle pan. Divine.

Last night we had some friends over for our first BBQ party – we only got the BBQ two weeks ago. We’d resisted getting a BBQ for 3 years and finally, not able to think of anything else to buy my husband, Simon, for his birthday I decided on that. An apartment’s not really ideal and 11 people on our average-sized balcony was a bit tight; in the end we moved inside and left Simon to the grilling with just a couple of trusty assistants!

Apart from the taste of the food, grilling is acknowledged as one of the healthiest ways to eat meat. Plus there’s minimal fuss in the kitchen once the BBQ gets going. Of course, there’s a fair bit of preparation needed to marinate the meats, make the salad, scrub the potatoes and get anything else ready but once that’s done you can sit back and let the BBQ’er get on with finishing the meal all off.

I can’t think of any downsides to having a BBQ. The preparation time and amount of washing up are more or less the same as preparing any meal, I’d say. The actual BBQ grill shelf doesn’t need cleaned as it’ll get self-cleaned with the flames the next time you cook, so there’s no soaking and scrubbing needed which is a big plus point. The first ten minutes while the flames get going are a bit eye-wateringly smoky but nothing too severe. So all in all, a resounding thumbs up.

Although it was a lovely temperature outside, once the BBQ got going things heated up a bit too much for me. Not sure how many more we’ll have before the summer really kicks in, but we’re going to cram in as many as possible before then. Now I’m off to warm up the leftovers so we can experience it all again…