Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Ping Pong, Dubai Mall

In a nutshell: Really friendly staff, great food but uncomfortable seats

Although I have been trying to get away from Far Eastern food since a large number of my blogs feature Oriental food, I couldn't resist a visit to Ping Pong since I'd been wanting to try it for ages. I had read that the restaurant is modelled on a traditional Chinese teahouse where dim sum are served to accompany the tea and from the menu on their website, it all looked delicious. The decor is the standard dark wood that most Chinese-style restaurants seem to go for but the seats were either benches or stools - no chairs. Sitting on a hard wooden block is not my idea of a comfort and after being there 1.5 hours my bottom had gone numb! Next time I go I'll have to take my own cushion - although my comment to them was that cushions on the seats would be a great improvement so maybe they'll have some by then. I should point out that there is outside seating looking out on the Dubai Fountain and Burj Khalifa but we stayed inside.

The drinks menu is as extensive as the food menu but I had already heard about the 'flowering tea' which unfurls in your glass so I decided to give it a go - green tea wrapped around jasmine petals. A glass with what looked like a dried up butterfly cocoon was placed in front of me and hot water poured over it. Over the next 10 minutes the tea leaves slowly rehydrated and opened up to release the jasmine flowers trapped inside. A sort of 'grow your own flower' similar to those 'grow your own pet' toys. Sadly the taste was not the greatest, the only thing I could liken it to was grass (not that I've ever drunk grass tea) so I won't be ordering that next time.

The food is arranged in sections based on steamed, fried, baked, clay pot etc. We ordered a selection to cover all the different dim sum types. One thing to note is that the vast majority of the options were seafood based (mostly prawn and scallops) although there were some chicken items. We were told that each item (around Dhs 20 per plate) contained 3 dim sum so we ordered 6 dishes between 3 of us which turned out to not be quite enough and we then ordered an additional 4 items. The seaweed wrapped dishes were too 'fishy' for my taste, as was the seafood claypot, but all the other dim sum were fantastic, particularly the steamed buns which were incredibly soft with flavoursome vegetables or chicken inside. We ordered a smoked duck salad and the salad was similar to a pickled, mayonnaise-free coleslaw: red and white cabbage and carrotts - delicious.

Although all the food items were really tasty, dim sum is more of an afternoon snack since you need to order a lot of dishes to make you full for lunch. Despite the fact that each item is only about Dhs 20, that quickly adds up when you need to order at least 10 dishes for 3 of you to be sated. There are a selection of set menus (prices of Dhs 100 and upwards) which looked like a lot of food but my friend Dara ordered the Dumpling Fix menu and was still hungry at the end of it so had to order a couple more dishes. On a Friday you can have unlimited dim sum for Dhs 132 and although we were there on a Saturday, our dim sum plus drinks came to an average of Dhs 131 per person. Not extortionate but even after all that food we left feeling like we'd had a big snack as opposed to a meal.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dubai Museum and Bur Dubai Souk

The Dubai Museum has existed for decades but its tiny size meant that it wasn't much of a tourist draw. About 10 years ago a major renovation and extension of the museum was done and it is now really interesting and receives busloads of tourists every day. Located in the Al Fahidi Fort, one of Dubai's original fortifications and one of the few buildings in the UAE that is over 100 years old, it is to be found near to the Dubai Creek and the historic areas of Bastakiya and the Bur Dubai Souk. Bur Dubai is the oldest area of Dubai, located on the opposite bank of the Dubai Creek from Deira. Parking in the area can be a struggle but we managed to find a space in one of the private car parks that charge a rip-off price of Dhs 10 per hour...needs must though.

The Fort was built using the traditional coral and mud materials of its time; it has since been renovated but, as with Sheikh Saeed's House, the renovation has used cement so it is not quite the genuine restoration you would find in Europe. Nevertheless, from a distance the walls and watchtowers look the same as they do in the old photos of the area and if you can ignore the traffic and the neon lights of the buildings around about then you can imagine yourself back in the times where the people of Dubai had to keep a look out for marauding bandits from other Bedouin tribes.

Entrance to the museum is only Dhs 3 and you enter into a sandy courtyard where you will find examples of the various boats used over time (for transport, fishing, pearl-diving and more), numerous cannons as well as a reconstruction of a traditional Areesh house. Most people lived in homes made from palm fronds (areesh), not in solid mud/coral houses and this example allows you to experience what that would have been like. There is a windtower which trapped any breeze to naturally cool the house as well as an outside kitchen (so the heat of cooking didn't heat up the house) and an outside sleeping platform for during the summer months. In the past it was possible to climb up onto the ramparts of the fort, but this is now closed, however 2 of the rooms in the fort walls have been made into exhibit rooms showing the various weapons of the past, traditional musical instruments and other artifacts.

The courtyard used to be the sum total of the museum but the extension takes you underground to a surprisingly large air-conditioned series of rooms. A circular ramp leads you down from the courtyard and past a number of taxidermied birds that have seen better days and could really do to be replaced as they appeared rather moth-eaten and forlorn. The first room shows a video of Dubai from the early years (pre-1950s) through to the 2000s. An excellent introduction that reminds you exactly how far Dubai has come in such a short space of time, it could do with updating though since it only goes up to the early 2000s and a lot has been added to the city in the past 5 years.

Other rooms in the museum include one showing traditional life with life-sized mannequins within the settings of the carpenter's shop, the textile shop, the ironmonger's, the grocer's, the Quran school and more. With clear explanations next to each exhibit of exactly what is being shown and why things were done in that way, it is very informative without being boring. A room dedicated to the desert at night showcases the local animals (taxidermied, not live ones) but, as with the birds at the entrance, they could really do with replacing since they are starting to look a little bit threadbare. The room dedicated to the sea was very interesting as you learned how dhows are constructed and about the dangers of the pearl-diving industry - some divers could hold their breathe for up to 4 minutes and they risked jelly-fish stings and more in their pursuit of the tiny little white pearls. The most exciting exhibit for children would probably be the skeletons unearthed from ancient burial sites; archaeologists found evidence (including these skeletons) in Jumeirah and other areas of the UAE of settlements dating from approximately 3,000 BC. Prior to leaving the museum, there is of course a small shop selling tacky memorabilia as well as the newest extension showcasing archaeological finds including 5,000-year old arrowheads, pots, jewellery and more.

From the museum we walked down to Bur Dubai Souk with the intention of finding a kaftan for my mother-on-law and as we entered a very narrow passage you would have been forgiven for thinking you had been transported to India. The Hindu temple is located in this small back alley and on both sides of the lane were tiny shops selling the traditional offerings of chains of bright orange flowers, milk and sweets. We arrived just as people were leaving the temple so it was thronged and full of life. Free food of rice and vegetables was being offered not only to all the worshippers but to us as well, whilst it smelt very tasty I didn't want to risk an upset stomach and also didn't feel it would be right to take food that I'd not done anything to deserve.

Exiting the busy temple street into the souk was like entering a ghost town. All the shops were closed (perhaps because all the shop staff were at the temple) and there was barely a soul about. Luckily as we continued our walk through the deserted souk we entered a section that was open for business and we then had to withstand every seller calling us into his shop and fake watch and bag sellers following us down the street asking us to go with them to look at their illegal products. At the end of all that, nowhere was selling kaftans but we did manage to buy some pashminas at a third of the price that you can buy one in a shopping mall. All was not lost though and we drove to a street where locals shop (as opposed to tourists) and Kath was able to get her kaftan for just Dhs 50 - if you're looking for the street, it is where Lobo's Tailor is found.

A great afternoon of the ancient, the old and the modern thrust and bustle of market life. Visitors to Dubai who only visit the shiny mega-malls and five-star hotels are sadly missing out on a genuine opportunity to experience the real life of Dubai up close and personal that you really only get by going into the thick of things in Bur Dubai and Deira.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Zahr El-Laymoun, Souk Al Bahar

In nutshell: lukewarm food, rude staff but reasonably priced and good location

Souk Al Bahar is designed in a similar way to Madinat Jumeirah so that it creates an 'old Dubai market' style of shopping arcade. The unfortunate major difference between them is that Madinat is the only shopping centre in its area and is surrounded by 3 large hotels whereas Souk Al Bahar is opposite Dubai Mall (the largest mall in the world outside North America) as well as being in the centre of town with a plethora of other shopping and dining options within easy distance. The result is that almost all the shops were boarded up with 'opening soon' signs outside, so as a shopping destination it really isn't worth a visit. There are a large number of restaurants although we found many of them appear to only open for dinner and most also had very much hotel prices as opposed to shopping mall prices - the souk is attached to The Palace Hotel. We finally found a restaurant with lunch prices that didn't take your breath away and settled down outside enjoying the view of the artifical lake.

Zahr El-Laymoun is a Lebanese restaurant so we of course had to start with hummous, which was very good. Fresh juices came in glass or pitcher quantities so for only Dhs 20 you got a great little jug of tomato juice - this was one idea that I really liked about the restaurant. When we arrived at 12:30 the restaurant was quite empty and the manager was very friendly but as it filled up with diners and the rest of the waiting staff came on duty the service went downhill. It was extremely difficult to catch anyone's attention, none of the staff were welcoming (I think they'd all forgotten how to smile) and we even saw a large Egyptian waiter smack a much smaller Filipino waiter around the head!! A complete overhaul and retraining of the staff in this place is very much required.

Amongst our party we ordered a variety of main courses that included jumbo shrimp (for me), chicken taouk, chicken shawarma platter, halloumi skewers and a chicken kebab sandwich. We had been told that the chicken shawarma sandwich was a regular rolled shawarma but the platter included additional side orders and was bigger. Disappointingly, the meat on the platter had been placed on top of the bread but in such a way that you couldn't actually roll it up as a shawarma and it meant Simon had to eat it with a knife and fork - not quite what he had imagined. All of the mains were delivered lukewarm, particularly the grilled vegetables which turned out to be a corn on the cob, a whole onion (!), a piece of courgette and a piece of aubergine. The prawns themselves really were jumbo-sized and were very good but the baked potato had clearly been sat in a warming oven far too long and was very black and tasteless.

You don't expect to pay a lot for Lebanese food and at Dhs 40-50 for each main course (the prawns were Dhs 68), this held true here. The location is very good as it is right next to the bridge to Dubai Mall and from there you can watch the Dubai Fountain which comes to life at 1pm, 1:30pm and then hourly from (I believe) 6pm. You can't see the entire water display from the bridge but you can see a large part of it and with the Burj Khalifa behind it, you have the perfect 'New Dubai' backdrop. Down near the Fountain is a great place for lunch, especially with visitors, but just make sure to choose a different restaurant or have some drinks and mezze at Zahr El-Laymoun and then move on.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: California Pizza Kitchen, Dubai Mall

In a nutshell: friendly service and good food but not on a par with other places we've been

As the largest mall in the world outside North America, it is understandable that navigating Dubai Mall is not the easiest or quickest thing to do. Luckily they have information points at regular intervals so you can see how to get to where you want to be. We had never been to the ground floor but I'd seen on the mall's website that there was a large number of restaurants on that level and after a rather long walk, we finally reached our destination. Our initial thought was to do a lap of honour around the whole floor to see all the restaurants but we hadn't taken into account the distance this would involve and after getting half way round we decided we were too hungry to go any further and opted for the best new place we'd seen up to that point: the California Pizza Kitchen.

A pizza restaurant may sound a strange choice for someone who doesn't eat wheat but the menu was varied and included various Far Eastern appetisers as well as grilled mains, not just pizza and pasta. We really fancied starting with the Vietnamese spring rolls (I think they actually called them Singaporean) but were informed that they were all pre-made and included raw spring onion and garlic - neither of which I eat. Instead we went for the lettuce wraps, although we were warned that the flavour would be different to usual since they would cook it without any sauce - it turned out all their sauces were pre-made and included garlic. I was very impressed with how my request for no garlic was handled, it was just a shame that a lot of their food is prepared in advance. The lettuce wraps were very good but as with so many places, we were given a pile of filling (chicken, prawn, water chestnut and mushroom) and not enough wraps (just 4 lettuce leaves) so we had to request more. If you order this dish be warned that you will get 8 wraps out of it so it is definitely one to share! I really enjoyed it but had to agree with Simon that the ones at PF Chang's were better, that was perhaps my fault though due to the garlic ban.

For our mains, Simon felt he should try their namesake and went for the Hawaiian pizza which he said was really tasty with a nice soft base. Simon's mum, who is staying with us just now, opted for pasta with rosemary chicken and didn't leave a scrap on the plate - so another successful dish. My steak was cooked perfectly and tasted great; I've found recently in restaurants that the steak has had a really strong flavour as though it had been previously frozen but that was not the case here. The accompaniment of grilled asparagus was delicious and I'll remember to buy the big European asparagus to grill with steak next time I cook it. Sadly, the roast potatoes had been tossed in garlic, although as it turned out I didn't need them anyway as the asparagus was more than enough to go with the steak. They had been so attentive about the garlic with the starter so I don't know what happened with the potatoes.

All the staff we spoke to were very friendly and our waitress was really attentive. The only person who wasn't was the supervisor (we presumed since she was in a shirt, not the uniform) who we asked for our bill as our waitress was busy - 10 minutes later she still hadn't brought the bill. It turns out, she informed our waitress and left her to get it even though she was getting food out for other diners. Working in sections is one thing, but there has to be a little flexibility! I would eat here again but it didn't blow me away because so much of the food is pre-made which makes it a bit limiting for me. If you don't have any food intolerances then this would get a 4/5 but for anyone who would need to ask for something to be kept out of their food, this just doesn't quite hit the mark.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Paul's Cafe, Jumeirah Beach Residence

In a nutshell: Reasonably priced, good food but very manic

After last week's disappointment at Le Pain Quotidien, we decided to give Paul's a try for breakfast over the Eid holiday. We'd been told by friends that it doesn't open until 9 and on arrival a few minutes before then we found it was already filling up outside - seat yourself style since the staff were having their 'pre-onslaught' briefing. Just after 9 the staff flooded out of the doors with each person appearing to have a designated job to do for all the people in their section: hand out cutlery; hand out menus; lay out paper placemats; and start taking orders. All very efficient but it made me feel a bit stressed watching such feverish activity - a chilled out breakfast this was not!

We all opted for the classic breakfast of a hot drink, orange juice, pastry of choice (chocolate croissant for all of us), bread with jam and an omelette with salad. All of that for just Dhs 49, not a bad deal at all. Within about 15 minutes of ordering, our 'cold' plate was delivered with a very skinny baguette split in half and the chocolate croissant. Just as we picked up our croissants to get stuck in, our omelettes arrived! I asked the waiter if he could bring them after we finished our first plate of food but he said if he put them on the side then they'd go cold. Until then it all seemed to be working like clockwork, but that is a real glitch that we felt needed a rethink. Moving our first plate aside - and the tables are very small so that was quite a balancing act - we had no choice but to have the omelette first.

It would be hard to go wrong with an omelette and this was no exception; it was perfectly fluffy and light. One thing I really like at Paul's is their salad dressing but sadly only one piece of my lettuce had any on it, the rest was just plain so that was a shame. The chocolate croissant was fantastic: soft, squidgy and with just the right amount of chocolate inside. Yummy indeed. Not wanting to miss out on what I'd paid for, I decided to have half the baguette and risk the consequences of eating yeast. Even if I'd wanted to eat the whole thing though, my jaw would have prevented me since just the half I had was a major workout for the teeth and I was actually feeling bruised by the end of it. I prefer a less overdone baguette that remains soft and chewy and I can't honestly imagine that anyone else wouldn't feel the same.

Sitting outside looking out towards the sea is always a great benefit in the winter months but Paul's popularity is also its downfall because as you looked at the growing queue to get in, you just didn't feel you could take your time and really enjoy the experience. From the cafe, it's a 2 minute walk to the shoreline but we were shocked and saddened to find that this stretch of coast has been totally destroyed by all the offshore construction. The beach is no longer made up of its natural sand, it has clearly been trucked in and laid there to combat the effect of the erosion. The drop from the top of the 'beach' down to the sea was almost 45 degrees - really sad when I can remember it being a beautiful gradual normal beach just 5 years ago. The water was magnificent blue and still warm despite the dropping temperatures. Another time I think I'll buy a take-away breakfast from Paul's and eat it down on the beach so I can really savour that delicious pain au chocolat and soak up the view of the water.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dubai Hotel Review: Grand Millennium, Al Barsha

In a nutshell: huge rooms, great restaurants but shaded pool area and no beach.

As Club Grand M members we had a voucher for a one night free stay (B&B) at the Grand Millennium Hotel. In addition to the free night, we also had a free bottle of wine for Dante restaurant, a free 30 minutes massage and 25% off any other spa treatment - in addition to the usual discounts we get with the card! The hotel is a business hotel, not a resort, so the pool area is small and it is in the middle of a built-up area so it's not a hotel we would pay to stay at for a weekend but we did have an extremely relaxing time and for a business traveller it would be ideal.


We arrived at 11, hoping we could get an early check-in. We were greeted warmly and offered a welcome drink of fizzy orange juice and cold towels, we were then asked to take a seat while our room was finalised. The lobby was completely deserted so we were surprised that they didn't have rooms ready since it didn't seem they were very busy - turns out they were very full with Formula 1 visitors so all the guests were down at Yas Island. We received our 3rd floor key and were rightly concerned when we got in the lift to find certain floors marked as 'non-smoking floors' - not the 3rd floor though. The minute I opened the bedroom door the smell of old cigarettes hit me so we didn't even enter the room and returned immediately to the reception desk. No matter what you do to try and freshen a room where people have been smoking, that cloying stench just won't go away.

On our return to the desk, the lady who checked us in was busy so we explained the situation to her colleague. Having worked in the hotel industry, I know that there are people who make a fuss and complain in the hope of getting some sort of freebie. The worst way to handle such a situation is to take a defensive stance because that just puts the guest's back up even more. Sadly, this was the attitude of the staff member we were talking to who turned out to also be the duty manager! We were on a complimentary night so what more free things could we have been asking for anyway? He told us that we were too early for check-in and if we didn't want that room, we would have to wait until after 2pm. We were more than happy to leave our bag with concierge and go up to the pool until later in the afternoon.


Despite being located on the 18th floor, the swimming pool is still overshadowed by the Millennium's twin towers which gives the impression that it's almost an indoor pool as the sun does not reach in at all. There are great views out towards the Palm Jumeirah, less stunning views from the other side of the pool of the construction going on all around! The pool itself is a good size for swimming lengths and was a lovely warm temperature - there's nothing worse for me than an ice-cold pool that you can't bear to even dip a toe into. They also have a jacuzzi that looks out towards the sea in the distance. The area around the pool is small, but it's perfectly adequate considering that it probably doesn't get a huge amount of use. I found the loungers quite hard and uncomfortable though and the piped music around the pool was too loud to let me listen to my i-pod.

The Juzz Bar offers a very nice menu (we later saw that the room service menu was almost identical) although we presumed that the salad with 'bacon tits' was a spelling mistake! We ordered a plate of cold mezze (hummous, babaganoush, tabouleh and stuffed vine leaves) for a pre-lunch snack. Although the waitress was very friendly, she hadn't been trained on all the dishes so didn't know what the dips were served with. As it turned out, they arrived with nothing to dip into them - no vegetable sticks and no bread so we're not sure if that was a mistake by the kitchen or whether this is a fault in the menu. Within 10 minutes the waitress delivered us what we needed and we tucked in. It's years since I had babaganoush (eggplant dip) and I need to remember not to order it again - extremely chargrilled / smoky flavour that neither Simon nor I could stomach. The other items were all very tasty but just as we started to eat, the first rain of the year came down - how typical is that?! Luckily the bar area is sheltered and it was fun to watch the rain splashing down on the pool. We stayed up at the Juzz Bar for a late lunch before heading down for our room key. My grilled prawns with chips and salad was delicious and I was given a very generous number of prawns. Sadly Simon's satay wasn't quite so good - fatty and tough.

The Room

Our voucher was for a standard room but when we walked into our room on the 11th floor we decided we must have been upgraded since it was most definitely a suite. The large bedroom was separated from the living room, which had 2 sofas, a desk, a bar and huge TV. Not only did we have a bathroom but we also had a guest toilet next to the front door. The bedroom itself had a couple of arm chairs in it and was the size I would expect a standard room to be. On checking exactly what type of room we had slept in the next morning I was told that our room had been a normal Superior Room - WOW!

We did have a couple of criticisms, nevertheless. We returned from our evening meal to find that the room had been turned down and our used towels had been removed - but not replaced! Luckily we weren't wanting another shower or that would have been more than a little frustrating. I also can't understand why when the rooming list the attendant has must show there are 2 people in the room, they always just turn down 1 side of the bed, lay out 1 pair of slippers and leave 1 chocolate on the just doesn't make sense to me. In the middle of the night I was half-wakened by the sound of what I thought was rain outside, Simon was fully-wakened and realised the 'rain' was coming from the bathroom. Turns out the AC was leaking and pouring water down on the floor. An AC should only leak if it hasn't been fully maintained because then the pipes get clogged and the condensation from the AC backs up and spills over - the ceiling tiles were all damaged so the problem was clearly not a new one. Bit of maintenance required there. My wonderful husband though...he didn't want to wake me up to tell me the floor was wet but he couldn't sleep properly worrying that I'd go in and slip so when I did eventually get up to the loo he sat up like a shot and warned me to be careful of the water...bless.

The Jasmine Spa

The spa is located just off the swimming pool area and includes separate male and female steam rooms, saunas, ice fountains (a fountain full of ice and you grab handfuls and rub it on the your skin - sounds more like torture to me), hamams and rasuls. The treatment rooms are in the same area for men and women and, whilst comfortable, you could hear people coming into the locker rooms / toilets from the pool. I was very surprised that we weren't asked to complete a health questionnaire prior to treatment - this is really a minimum requirement so the therapist knows if you have a heart condition, are pregnant, have an injury they need to avoid etc. Of course, most people would mention any potential health issues but I have never been to a spa where they didn't need a signed declaration - as much to protect themselves as you. I have learned not to expect anything spectacular from a hotel spa and this was no exception although it was very relaxing and my neck felt a lot less tense afterwards. Simon's massage was also good but it was a bit too hard and even when he asked for less pressure, it was still a bit too firm.

Food & Beverage

The Belgian Beer Cafe has been open at the Millennium for quite a long time now but we had never been so we decided it was the perfect place for a pre-dinner drink. The restaurant is spread over 2 floors, both quite small areas and I am told they can get very smoky since it seems the Dubai Municipality's ban on smoking in restaurants is not applied here for some reason. We headed up to the roof terrace on the 3rd floor and were impressed with its chilled out vibe, large sofas and multiple separate little areas which would be perfect for a big group. The special offer of the night was 3-for-2 on Hoegaarden beer but Simon doesn't like the stuff and I don't drink beer so we weren't able to take advantage.

Our dinner at Dante was as good as usual but we sat outside for the first time and found that this does mean a slightly less attentive service. If it had been busy outside I'm sure a waiter would have been stationed out there all evening, but with just us and 1 other man we were checked on regularly but getting someone's attention if we needed it outside those times would have meant going inside to get a staff member. Having eaten a large bowl of nuts at the Belgian Beer Cafe, we decided to skip a starter and go straight for the mains. My seabass was tender and although I was concerned the beans had garlic on them, extensive sniffing reassured me they did not! Simon's lamb shank was fabulous, so tender it fell off the bone and it was served with the delicious rich gravy it had been cooked in. Our dessert of sorbets on meringue nests was the perfect light end to the meal. One advantage to sitting outside (other than the great weather just now) is that you can hear the live singer without having to shout to talk over her - as I've said before, I think Dante is just too small a venue for a live singer.

Our final meal at the hotel was breakfast and this is where we realised that the hotel really was full - with tons of people in red ferrari shirts! When we arrived in The Atrium restaurant for the buffet, we were invited to go to the Executive Club on the 12th floor instead since there were no available tables. I don't think the executive floor is accustomed to so many breakfast diners and all the staff seemed to be flapping. As dishes on the buffet finished, nobody was clearing them and bringing out fresh items - there was only 1 waitress who was busy seating people and clearing tables and the manager didn't seem to be helping at all. The spread was very good with the usual array of cereals, fruits, bread, pastries, cold meats and an egg station. I saw a wonderfully assembled plate of scrambled eggs being delivered to a nearby table and Simon then ordered the same so I could get a photo - sadly it never arrived and in the end he decided he'd had enough to eat anyway.

Our total spend for the weekend was only Dhs 580 and that covered lunch, dinner, drinks, a bottle of wine, the night's stay and breakfast - you could easily spend that just on a dinner. The staff didn't blow us away, maybe because they were suddenly very busy after a long quiet spell and so they were struggling to cope but the room and the food were great and we left feeling really relaxed and refreshed. I would get the club membership just to take advantage of the free night but the F&B discounts make it even better value for money (basically 1 person eats free so 50% off if there are 2 of you, 25% if you're a party of 4 etc). To contact Club Grand M, call 04 429 9999.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Barasti Bar, Meridien Mina Siyahi

In a nutshell: Fabulous location, good food but rip-off prices

In a city built along the beach, it always amazes me that there is really only one beach bar/restaurant available. As pretty much the whole coastline has been commandeered by hotels, most seem to have decided to keep the beachside for sunbathers - if I was a hotel guest I would appreciate that but as a local resident it is a real shame. An afternoon spent at Barasti Bar lets you feel that you're almost on holiday and is a real escape from the city but sadly they have capitalised on this fact by charging extremely high prices for their food.

A few years ago Barasti was just a small bar looking out over the sea, it has since been hugely expanded and now covers 3 floors - on a Friday night the downstairs section attracts the mini-skirt and high-heels brigade so we stayed around the swimming pool upstairs where it's more casual. From our rattan sofa we were able to soak up the view of the yachts on the shimmering water, the sun slowly setting and turning the sky orange and a very strange constant fall of parachutists landing on a strip out to sea - does that happen every Friday? I have no idea! What would be perfect would be if I could include a photo of our view but I completely forgot to take one...I was clearly too wrapped up in just absorbing the atmosphere.

We decided a tapas plate would be a good starter for the 4 of us to share; at Dhs 190 for 6 plates it seemed quite pricey but we needed something to nibble at. When I went to the bar to order the 6 plates we wanted, I was informed that the Dhs 190 offer is the 'chef's choice' of plates - why? It made no sense. Not wanting to end up with items we didn't like, I ordered each plate individually (Dhs 35 a plate). My understanding from the menu was that each plate would have 4 pieces - perfect for the 4 of us - but as it turned out there were only 3. Sharing a pork rib or a chicken wing is not the easiest thing to do! Everything was excellent (pork ribs with a slight BBQ kick, tender calamari, chili chicken wings that weren't too spicy, vegetable spring rolls and 'popcorn shrimp' which were just breadcrumbed shrimp) but I think Dhs 20-25 a plate would be a much fairer price and would encourage people to order a few more.

There is a Dhs 75 Friday Arabic buffet serving lamb kofta, beef kebabs and chicken kebabs accompanied by Lebanese salad and bread. It looked alright but Lebanese salad isn't the most amazing thing in the world (just chopped vegetables for you to make your own salad really) and Arabic bread has yeast in it so I'm still trying to avoid yeast where possible. We all decided just to order off the menu: pizza, a burger, pork ribs and seabass for me. A steak and chips at Barasti is Dhs 170!!! At M's Bistro in Meridien Dubai you can get a fantastic steak with side orders for under Dhs 100 so I was really shocked at such an extortionate price. My seabass was nicely tender but there was barely enough potato and squash served with it and they could certainly do to be a bit more generous with the accompaniments.

Overall, location-wise Barasti can't be faulted and the quality of the food was very good. It's just a shame that they are capitalising on their position to overcharge for the food.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Le Pain Quotidien, The Walk JBR

In a nutshell: lovely croissants but appallingly disorganised service and quite pricey.

The Dubai weather is finally improving to a level where eating outside for breakfast or dinner (still too hot for lunch) is a real pleasure. We decided to make the most of this and head down to The Walk for breakfast with my brother. None of us being familiar with the restaurants down there, we agreed to meet at a central point on the presumption that we could just walk along and find loads of choice. Unfortunately for us we headed down The Walk (with the beach on our left side) and it turns out there are no restaurants down that way!! Heading back up, and by now getting a bit more than hungry since it was 10am, we wanted to stop at the first place we saw. The first place we came to was Caffe Roma, a very good value breakfast buffet but we have eaten there before and saw cockroaches crawling around the cereal - yuck! We then arrived at Le Pain Quotidien (or PQ as they've shortened it to) and decided that was far enough.

PQ has a large outside area but this was sadly full and would have required a 20 minute wait or more. We elected to sit inside - by the time we left that was also full to capacity. The menu for breakfast was extensive but lacked the set menus that give such good value for money. There were some pastry menus which included a basket of bread, pastries, coffee and juice but there was no cooked breakfast menu. You would think the price of a cooked breakfast would perhaps include a hot drink, toast and juice but not here - each item would be charged separately. Later on, we walked past Paul's cafe and for AED 49 you could have a bread and pastry basket, orange juice, tea / coffee and an omelette with salad - now that is good value.

I was trying to be good and not have yeast so thought that maybe it was time to give eggs another go (I've been off them now for 3 months so it's time I try one and see how my stomach reacts). I really fancied the eggs benedict with smoked salmon and spinach but didn't want a poached egg, knowing they must have a ready prepared dish of scrambled egg in the kitchen (and if they didn't, they're not hard to make) I asked to have eggs benedict with scrambled egg instead. I was told that no special requests could be made during busy times!!! Excuse me? Yes, they were busy but why put out so many tables if you then can't cope with that many diners?! Ridiculous.

During our breakfast we must have been served by about 4 different waiters. There didn't seem to be any system whatsoever so we had items brought to us by one waiter and then brought again by another! Very poor management - they had plenty of staff and if each waiter was given his or her own section to manage then operations would go a lot more smoothly and efficiently. When I complained about the terrible service, I was told it was because it was busy. I've eaten at cafes that were at least as big and busy in France and where there were considerably less staff without any issues whatsoever, it all comes down to management...or the lack of.

Despite the service issues, the food we had was very good. Struan had a granola parfait which was layers of yoghurt, granola and fruit - he said it was delicious. We all had a chocolate croissant (I need to check but I don't think croissants have yeast in them) which were very nice - soft and squidgy just as they should be, although we had to send them back to be warmed up. In terms of food quality, PQ does deliver, but the management need to seriously work on the service quality.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Dean & DeLuca, Dubai Mall

In a nutshell: great view out to Dubai Fountain and Burj Khalifa, small menu but great food

Dean & DeLuca is a bakery-cafe-gourmet food shop all rolled into one. The floor to ceiling windows give fabulous views outside but for some reason I totally forgot to take a photo! The downside of having such large windows is that at lunch-time it makes it pretty toasty inside - and that from the girl who is never without a cardigan on when she's inside in the A/C. The menu is limited to breakfast, salads, sandwiches and cakes but sometimes it's good to not have to read through page after page of menu items. Once you've finished eating you can browse the rows of pastas, sauces, soups, biscuits, teas, coffees and more in the gourmet shop section or buy some bread and pastries to take home with you.

Simon's chicken tikka wrap had been grilled like a panini which gave it a great look and flavour. The tortilla wrap itself was quite thin which meant that when you ate it you could really taste the filling and didn't get a great mouthful of dough. The level of spiciness was perfect for him, but I couldn't have eaten a whole wrap since it was just a little bit too piquant for my delicate taste buds. The accompanying side salad was very small, but then there was salad in the wrap itself and the chips were perfectly cooked so as not to be too greasy.

I opted for a healthy salad of prawn, mango and avocado. There was a good variety of lettuce leaves as well as tomatoes and beans so it was very well balanced. After the lycee and pineapple prawns of the day before, I was really getting into the combination of fruit, veg and protein. The only small complaint against the salad was that the dressing was very lemon-y and so quite sour sometimes; the lemon bias is probably because of the prawns but I think it could have done to be toned down a bit. Apart from that...delicious and a big thumbs up.

When we were there it was very busy with a steady turnover of tables. Despite this, the staff didn't come across as stressed and were attentive and friendly throughout. Their uniform is akin to a chef's outfit so I'm not sure if they all multi-task as front and back of house - would certainly make their jobs more varied and interesting! Someone at a table near us was having a very late breakfast of pancakes with berries, and I have to say they looked delicious - wheat, milk and eggs but I still have a feeling I will have to try them one day.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Noodle Factory, Marina Mall

In a nutshell: good food at reasonable prices

I had never heard of Noodle Factory until we ate at the Marina Mall branch and then the next day I saw another one at Dubai Mall, so they seem to be expanding. I liked the bright layout with white tables and purple chair coverings; they weren't very busy on the Friday lunchtime we visited but then Marina Mall itself doesn't seem to be terribly popular. They have copied the Noodle House idea of having a notepad to tick off the items you want, but they also have a proper menu so you can read a description of what each item is and see photos. The notepad seemed a bit pointless except to give the staff less to do! As a mall-based Chinese restaurant, I would choose PF Chang's over Noodle Factory since their food seemed healthier but not having that option, Noodle Factory is definitely worth a try.

We weren't overly hungry so decided to go for 2 starters (about AED 25 each) and then 1 main course (about AED 50 each). I asked the waiter if the duck rolls were duck pancakes and he said they were - what they actually turned out to be was duck spring rolls...fried. They tasted nice but for me it was too much pastry and not enough filling - I had one and left the rest to Simon. The steamed prawn dimsum were very good, no different to anywhere else though. I had loved the sound of the sweet & sour prawns with lycee and pineapple but when it arrived I was disappointed to see there were no lycees! I asked the waiter why they were missing and it turns out the chef had forgotten, so we were brought a separate bowl with the lycees cooked in the sweet & sour sauce. Very tasty although the prawns had been lightly battered before tossing in the sauce, I know that's the traditional way to do it but I do prefer the unbattered variety. My one gripe was that, yet again, only expensive imported Italian water was available - why do they do that??!!

A lot of my reviews recently have been Far Eastern restaurants so I think it's quite clear what my favourite cuisine is! I do need to move away to the food from other parts of the world though - next time...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Szechuan Palace, Ramada Hotel Al Barsha

In a nutshell: Fantastic value for money set menu with good but not mind-blowing food.
3/5 (but 5/5 for value)

It can be a bit awkward finding the building you want in the tower block area of Al Barsha but luckily that's not the case with the Ramada Chelsea Hotel Al Barsha, which is right opposite the Emirates Bank building. The hotel has 5 outlets and we had opted for the Chinese restaurant, Szechuan Palace. The decor was the usual dark wood and red that most Chinese restaurants seem to go for, they could just do with a bit more artwork or something to absorb sound because it was quite echo-y. In addition to the main body of the restaurant, they have 2 private rooms and since we were a party of 7 we had booked one of them. There is a risk sometimes with a private area that you could be forgotten, but we had very attentive service the entire evening as our banquet rolled through.

Szechuan Palace offers an a la carte as well as set menu option. Everything that's on the set menu plus a few more items are available a la carte, they also offer a steamboat which is the only restaurant I've been to with that on the menu. A steamboat is a Chinese fondue where you cook your meat and veg in little baskets in a pot of stock and then at the end you have a really flavoursome soup to finish off with. We went for the set menu which included unlimited house beverages - at AED 129 per person it really is value that is rare in Dubai. The drinks included bottles of Stella and Becks, so not just pints of cheap and nasty beer, as well as wine and the usual spirits.

There was a choice of 4 soups, 8 appetisers, 8 main courses and 4 desserts. You weren't limited to one item from each course, though, and could have as much of anything as you wanted. Everything is cooked to order, which I always prefer since you never know how long buffet food has been out for and what bugs might be breeding away in the warm, damp atmosphere! There is a distinct Indian influence though, with all food categorised as Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian (i.e. includes meat). Our one comment to the manager was that the food should be served in hot dishes and that the plates provided to diners should also be hot since we found it did go cold quickly and when you have loads of dishes on the Lazy Susan for everyone to help themselves, they need to stay warm.

I started with a wonton soup which had lots of fresh vegetables in but the stock itself was very bland. We had numerous appetisers to share, including spring rolls, mixed mushrooms, crispy lamb and crispy chicken. All the appetisers were fried so although they were tasty, I couldn't eat a huge amount since I tend to feel a bit nauseous when I have too much greasy food. The mains then arrived and I took a little bit of everything since we couldn't remember what they all were. The Chinese vegetables and the stir-fry chicken were both very nice but I couldn't eat the beef as it had a very strong flavour, I actually thought it was lamb - nobody else seemed to have an issue with it but I quite literally could not swallow it. Of all the courses, I was least impressed with the main dishes although everyone else really enjoyed them. The choices for dessert included a date pancake (pancake with mashed dates in the middle), creme caramel and fried bananas. I had seen lycees on the main menu and they were happy to give me that instead of the set menu options; tinned lycees but still very nice.

In terms of the food, it was perfectly adequate but it just didn't come up to the standards I've found in other places - most recently at PF Chang's. In terms of cost, though, it is amazing value since a drink alone is around AED 30-35 and during a 4 course meal you can drink considerably more than 4 drinks which pretty much means your meal is free! Even if you're not wanting a boozy night, a 4 course meal in most other places would cost in the region of AED 200 plus any drinks so whichever way you look at it, your money is being well spent. I fancy returning to try the steamboat - I'll avoid the beef this time though!