Friday, December 31, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: North Pool Bar and Bussola, Westin Hotel

North Pool Bar: lovely location by the beach, friendly service and very nice food.

Bussola: ridiculous lunch-time prices and poor service.
Avoid this one based on the bad service alone!

My last visit to the Meridien Mina Siyahi complex was a fairly mixed experience but it does provide a good value 'holiday' day, which is just what Simon and I were looking for after the Christmas madness. On this visit we stayed away from the pool where Simon's mother was attacked by a crow last time and planted ourselves firmly by the sea. As the Meridien side of the resort only offers the Horizon pool bar where Kath and I had eaten, we decided to head over to the Westin side for our lunch and see what they had to offer.

Our first stop was Bussola as we had an Entertainer voucher (buy 1 get 1 free) but after sitting down and ordering drinks, we decided to move to the North Pool Bar instead. Bussola operates a strange 2 floor system with only pizzas being served upstairs and only fine dining served downstairs, we had come for dinner once and sat downstairs - some of our party wanted pizza but we were told that was absolutely not allowed! They must use the same kitchen so we thought the attitude was ridiculous, especially as the staff were particularly condescending and unfriendly. Sadly we didn't have a better experience this time. The upstairs was closed so we presumed this meant everything would be available on the downstairs terrace...wrong. Who wants to eat a fine-dining lunch sitting in their swimming costume and pay Dhs 150 or more for it? Initially I thought I'd have a Dhs 70 caprese salad but when I checked, I was told that it was a starter portion and so not enough for a main course. Not only was the entire concept ridiculous for a lunchtime, beach-front restaurant but the staff were very much on their high horses and clearly thought that if you weren't happy to pay over the odds for lunch then you shouldn't bother being there.

Our move to the North Pool Bar was a breath of fresh air as we were warmly welcomed and handed our menus. Prices are still high at around Dhs 70 just for a sandwich and I felt really sorry for all the hotel guests with so little choice of lunch restaurants on-site and such high prices. After my disappointing panini at Carluccio's last week, I thought I'd try again in my search for a mouth-watering tomato and mozarella panini. This time I got what I would call a 'real' panini and it was delicious - a bit soggy at the end that had been enclosed in the cardboard sleeve so not perfect, but still very good. My only small issue was that the chips had a slightly strange taste, perhaps from the oil they had been fried in, so I didn't eat too many of them - a good thing really since I had eaten a fair amount of bread! Simon's club sandwich was excellent and had been cut into small sections similar to Madeleine Cafe, it seems this is the new very useful style for presenting sandwiches.

All in all we had a lovely day but the Bussola experience was very disappointing; they could certainly learn a thing or two about good guest service from the North Pool Bar staff!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Madeleine Cafe, Dubai Mall

In a nutshell: Great location near the Dubai Fountain, good sandwiches but lukewarm 'hot' food plus service was hit and miss

Madeleine Cafe is laid out exactly like a French cafe would be, except this cafe looks over the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountain. Views of the fountain display from here are perfect since you can see the entire spectacle - much better than from Souk Al Bahar where the view can be limited. The outside terrace is bigger than the inside area, which is great in the winter but must drastically reduce their revenue in the summer when the outside won't be used. I liked the look of the menu which offers salads, sandwiches, wholemeal savoury crepes and hot dishes. I also liked the prices - Dhs 36 for a sandwich and Dhs 62 for my duck (confit de canard) which I thought were very reasonable. We found some of the staff efficient and friendly, but others were far less so and certain members of the team seemed to have forgotten how to smile.

We were served a basket of toasted French bread. I always think it's a bad sign when you're served toasted bread since it is almost a certainty the toasting has been used to disguise the fact the bread is stale...and that was just the case here. While it was hot it was fine but once it went cold you could taste that it was completely stale. Not acceptable in a French cafe!

My Mum's chicken sandwich was very nicely presented with the baguette cut into small sections to make it easier to eat - a great idea. Sadly her chips were a little cold so it wasn't surprising then that my confit de canard was all a little cold. Maybe because they used cold plates (although you couldn't put a sandwich and salad on a hot plate) or perhaps it had been plated up and then sat in the kitchen waiting to be brought to us for a while. Using a plastic food cover might help to retain the heat during transfer from kitchen to table - they need to figure something out anyway.

I had specifically requested no garlic or black pepper and when the waiter put down my plate he reiterated that there was no garlic or black pepper. However, he hadn't bothered to actually look at it since the beans were covered in pepper! I called him over and asked him to bring me a dish of beans without pepper and there was no apology, more of a resigned sort of 'whatever' shrug. The duck and roast potatoes were fine (although the duck skin had not been crispened up) but I've had a better confit de canard in Shakespeare's Cafe.

For a cake and coffee watching the water display, this is a great place to go. Even for a sandwich, my Mum said it was really tasty. Don't go here for a main meal though or if you have been warned.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Sezzam, Mall of the Emirates

In a nutshell: great view onto Ski Dubai, varied menu and good food.

The restaurants around Ski Dubai are a great place to sit in the run up to Christmas so you can look at the snow and imagine (for a short while) that you're having a White Christmas. When my friend and I arrived at Sezzam, not only was there the snow but Santa and his helpers were also there singing Christmas carols! A great atmosphere, although (not to sound like Scrooge) we were glad when they stopped singing because their microphones amplified the sound so much it was hard for us to talk.

Sezzam, although located in the mall, is actually officially one of the Kempinski Hotel's restaurants. That means they are able to serve alcohol - they have a black curtain across the 'alcohol' section so that non-drinkers can't be offended. The restaurant is laid out with various open kitchens including a Chinese one with roasted ducks hanging up, an Indian one with a tandoor oven and an Italian one with a pizza oven. The menu is suitably varied to include all these cuisines and prices are fairly standard with main courses in the Dhs 60-80 range. On a Friday they have a brunch and over this festive period we were advised there was a buffet option, but it was easier to order a la carte and stay glued next to the window - especially since my friend's baby was fascinated by the sight of the winter wonderland.

I initially fancied the Peking Duck but they only offer a half duck and I thought that might be a bit too much just for me so I ordered the duck fried rice instead. I could have had my usual grilled fish with chips and veg but in a restaurant offering more variety I decided to have something different. The portion was generous and the no garlic and black pepper request had been followed, however, there was a bit too much onion in the rice for me and the fat and skin had been left on the duck but they weren't crispy so needed to be pulled off. I also felt that the amount of vegetables mixed into the rice could have been a bit more generous - I don't count onion as a vegetable! Despite the small niggles, it did taste very nice and my friend really enjoyed her vegetarian Indian dishes. Another time I wouldn't have the duck fried rice, if I go with Simon then he can share the pancakes with me. The staff were all friendly and service was efficient although I think our waiter was quite new since his English was still quite stilted.

The good sign at the end of the meal was that my friend, who had never been there before, said she would definitely need to take her husband back there to try it...phew!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Carluccio's, Dubai Marina Mall

In a nutshell: disappointing panini but friendly service

Carluccio's at Dubai Marina Mall offers seating inside the restaurant as well as 'outside' in what is basically a corridor with huge windows looking out onto the Marina. The Noodle House next door has seating truly outside along the promenade and we couldn't work out why Carluccio's hasn't done the same. Our table in the corridor wasn't too draughty but there was a table next to us with sofa-style seating and during our 30 minutes there, 3 separate groups of people sat down there and then moved because it was too cold. Inside was a bit cramped, although it was warmer. At the entrance there is also a small food shop area where you can buy olive oils, biscuits, pastas and sauces but I didn't see anything within my budget of about Dhs 100 that was really suitable for giving as a Christmas present - there was a lovely set of oils in a wooden box for closer to Dhs 200 though.

Although I'm not supposed to eat yeast and I try to avoid too much starch - especially wheat - I have been really craving a panini. When I saw the mozarella and tomato panini on the menu it brought back memories of the countless ones I've eaten in France and I just had to order it. If I had been being good, I could have ordered from a small selection of salads or a good range of main courses that included lamb, beef, chicken and fish - they also have pasta but no pizza. Unfortunately, my stomach ruled over my brain. Had the panini been the amazing sandwich I was expecting then I wouldn't have been concerned about my lapse...sadly it was really disappointing and so didn't justify the potential IBS flare-up.

All the amazing panini I have had have been made with a soft, rather thin long roll that is pressed into the panini-machine so the bread grills and the food inside gets hot with any cheese melting deliciously. Carluccio's idea of a panini was a rather thick ciabatta-style bread which they grilled and then added the filling to. The sandwich had not been squashed down in the panini-machine and the filling was cold inside the lukewarm bread. It had been cut in two halves so I ate one half and then sent the other half back to be 'properly panini-ed' - the second half was a lot better than the cold first half but it still wasn't as it should be.

This is the Carluccio's panini:

This is how a panini should really look - my mouth just waters looking at this:

Having said all that, Simon had a tuna panini and he really enjoyed it. If you took it just as a sandwich, then it was perfectly acceptable but since it was supposed to be a panini I was left completely disappointed with my panini craving still unsatisfied. The staff were all very friendly though and the prices were standard for this type of cafe so I will give Carluccio's a second chance and try one of their main course items one day, but never again their panini!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Trials & Tribulations of Cooking Christmas Dinner

The below photo is of me at 4 years old having apparently eaten my entire birthday cake myself! This is exactly how I was feeling at the end of a 5 course pre-Christmas dinner I made this week for my family as my sister, Lucy, and her boyfriend, Jamie, were here for just 1 night en-route to the UK. The mammoth dinner is also my excuse for my lack of postings this week...not much of an excuse I agree, but I'm sticking to it.

I have cooked for large groups of people in the past, but I've always kept it simple. Christmas dinner has to be special though and I wanted to make it something to really remember. As a result it ended up requiring a huge amount of planning, preparation and exhaustion! I had an hour by hour chart up on the fridge of what I needed to do to make sure everything would be ready on time and I got started at 7:30 on the morning of the big day. Prior to that, the shopping alone had taken 2 days since I couldn't get everything I wanted in the one supermarket. I also thought it would be really nice for everyone to have a memento to take home with them so I had typed up the menu and made red menu cards - with a childhood photo of each person stuck on in the place of name cards. Sourcing all the photos had started a good 6 weeks ago and it was well worth it since it gave everyone a great laugh.

Last year I had done a Christmas dinner in November (a more simple one) during a fleeting visit from Lucy and as a result had to use a frozen turkey since fresh ones weren't available. This year I automatically planned to buy a frozen turkey and it wasn't until the day after the dinner that it struck me that I could have bought a fresh one. Just for the record: frozen turkeys are an absolute pain in the derriere! Last year's 5kg turkey had defrosted quite quickly and easily but this year's 8kg bird seemed to take forever and I practically got frostbite trying to get the bags of innards out from inside it - with a frozen turkey they bag up the offal and it's stored inside the turkey since some people like to eat it...that does not include me and those tricky bags went straight in the bin.

With the dinner planned for Wednesday night, my trusty sous-chef (my husband Simon) had to work which left me to prepare everything myself. For our starter I had planned a plate of small bites: a melba toast with smoked salmon (smoked salmon's a tradition in Jamie's family); a skewer of prawn & pineapple (prawn cocktail is Simon's family tradition so this was a twist on that) and finally a skewer of mozarella & tomato with basil out of my balcony garden. I bought fresh prawns on the morning of the dinner and cooked them in sweet chilli sauce since I'm not happy to eat cold, previously frozen, pre-cooked prawns as I'm pregnant (news flash for those not aware of that fact!) They were all easy to assemble - and they did taste delicious - but of course they required a fair bit of advance work. I also made a tomato soup (using my Granny's recipe) for the second course; again, buying tinned soup would have made my day a lot easier but I had set my bar high and wanted everything to be as fresh and homemade as possible. I only have myself to blame for all the work! I served this in a small mug so everyone wouldn't get too full before the main event and it was just the perfect size.

Now for the main course. Having a standard small oven, I had bought a combination microwave a few months ago so I could use that as an oven when necessary. The problem with a microwave oven that's used as a convection oven is that once you have pre-heated it and set the timer, you can't then increase the time (or not as far as I'm aware anyway). The roasted beetroot and honeyed parsnips & carrots were in the microwave-convection oven, which inconveniently turned itself off about 10 minutes before everything else was quite ready. No problem...I just pressed for the convection to start again and the 'pre-heating' sign flashed up. Ten minutes later, with a slight acrid smell in the air I opened the microwave door to find that my gorgeous beetroot was blackened to a crisp! I was so annoyed I could have screamed but didn't want to ruin the evening so I had to bite my lip, stamp my feet and carry on. Luckily I had a back-up of peas and sweetcorn just in case - clearly, I know myself well.

The beetroot was thankfully the only casualty of the evening and the turkey turned out perfectly; I cooked it for 5 hours but it could have probably done with only 4.5 hours - that is actually what my Mum had recommended to me but in my infinite wisdom I didn't want to risk it not being cooked enough rather than listen to the woman who has been cooking turkeys for 30 years! The honeyed parsnips & carrots survived the microwave, the sprouts with chestnuts were very well-received (so many people don't really like sprouts but these were tiny baby ones and were very sweet), the pigs in blankets had been made with real sausages (not cocktail ones) and everyone agreed mine were far more tasty and whilst I think some people were a bit dubious about the wild rice, cranberry and sausage meat stuffing (I didn't stuff the turkey, just cooked the stuffing separately), it was declared really delicious - thank you, Choithram's Good Taste magazine. The only big mistake was that I completely forgot to take a photo! I must have been so wrapped up in getting tucked into my plateful that it slipped my mind. At least I remembered in time to photograph the turkey before it was totally carved up.

Dessert was Nigella Lawson mincemeat puffs with a choice of vanilla ice-cream, custard (tinned, I wasn't going so far as to make that from scratch) or home-made passion-fruit sorbet (Jamie Oliver recipe). There was also a fruit salad but I forgot about that until well after we'd finished eating and I saw it tucked away in the back of the fridge! The mincemeat puffs were not quite what they should have been since I used more puff pastry than the recipe called for (I could only buy 500g packs, not 375g ones) and I didn't have a square cutter so had guessed at the size of each puff which means they turned out about twice the size they should have been with half the amount of mincemeat they should have had. Still, everyone ate their large square of puff pastry with a hint of mincemeat spices and they weren't too bad! I have to say, though, that my puff pastry ones were a lot lighter than the Mr. Kipling shortcrust pastry ones I served up to my friends on Friday - his also had too much pastry and not enough filling which was very disappointing. Finally, with coffee and tea, I served my homemade chocolate dates and After Eights to anyone who could fit anything else in.

A fantastic evening with my wonderful family (only my older sister and her family were missing) but I think next year I'll leave it to Mum who always seems to pull it off in a far more relaxed way - I suppose that's what 30 years of practice does for you. Roll on her dinner on Saturday...yum yum yum.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

At The Top - The World's Tallest Tower

At 828 metres, the Burj Khalifa is currently the world's tallest tower - how soon it will be surpassed remains to be seen. On the 124th floor they have created an observation deck so that visitors can see Dubai from a previously impossible perspective. Although Simon's mum is not keen on heights, she felt that she shouldn't miss the opportunity to experience this new Dubai icon. Book online through the Burj's website and a ticket will only cost you Dhs 100 (Dhs 75 for children) but buy it on the day at the ticketing office and you will pay four times the price - a steep (no pun intended) Dhs 400. The only problem with booking online is that you can book 48 hours to 30 days ahead - not on the day you want to go up. With Dubai's notorious dusty, hazy days this means that you could find minimal visibility on the day you've booked for - and I believe that tickets are non-refundable. Luckily on our visit there wasn't too much haze in the sky.

Access to At The Top is through Dubai Mall, with a 65 metre travelator (flat escalator) transporting you through a tunnel from one building to the other. Very futuristic. We found the whole process very well-organised and smooth since each half hour time slot has a fixed number of tickets available and this avoids any huge queues or over-crowding. The only time we had to queue was for the lifts but even then a video of the construction of the Burj is shown to keep you distracted. You would expect that a lift ride up 124 floors would take at least 5 minutes but the Burj has unbelievably fast lifts that get you up there in just 60 seconds! I was worried I'd feel a bit sick going so fast, like one of those fairground rides that shoot you up at high speed, but I felt nothing at all except my ears pop at about 30 floors. I did feel very sorry for the lift attendants who have to spend the entire day inside that black box shooting up and down with group after group of visitors - the ones we had were very cheerful though so maybe they rotate positions with other 'ground staff'.

The two most striking things when you look at Dubai from up high (even from the 50th floor of Emirates Towers) is the amount of empty space and the barrenness. With so much spare land, why have all these destructive artificial palms and islands been created? Very sad. Driving around gives you the impression that Dubai is really green but put that into perspective from the sky and you see that Dubai is brown, brown, brown. On a clear day you can apparently see up to 95km but we could just about see to the Burj Al Arab Hotel which is no more than 30km away (I think). It seems that going up to watch the sunset is very popular, but as the sun sets in the direction of Burj Al Arab then this does make taking photos a bit tricky. The main observation floor is enclosed but there is an outside balcony - the sides are enclosed with glass so there's no chance of falling over! I liked the fact that the glass wall around the balcony had gaps in the glass so that you could take photos without any reflections although Simon did question the safety if someone accidently dropped something wouldn't want anything landing on your head that had just fallen 124 floors!

I would certainly recommend At The Top to anyone who hasn't been up before. Maybe in 5 years I'll go up again to take photos and compare the changes but I wouldn't go again in the short term since it's really a case of 'been there, seen that'. There is a small gift shop on the observation floor and a much bigger one downstairs as you leave but I wanted to get a fridge magnet, which is unfortunately not something they are selling yet - a tacky gold bag I could have easily got, but not a simple magnet.

Dubai Restaurant Review: Karat, The Address, Dubai Mall

In a nutshell: Great value, fantastic afternoon tea with wonderful sandwiches.

Many people think that you should go to the Burj Al Arab for the ultimate afternoon tea, personally I think it's over-priced and I find the Burj ostentatious and garish - although the views down the coast are spectacular. Next in line for great afternoon tea has to be the Ritz-Carlton which offers a more refined experience in its fabulous wood-beamed lobby lounge, although a full afternoon tea is quite expensive (about Dhs 165 last time I went). When I heard rave reviews about The Address' afternoon tea, priced at just Dhs 125, I decided that would be the perfect place for Simon and I to take our mothers whilst his was here on holiday...and it was.

All The Address hotels offer the same afternoon tea, I'm told, but we went to the Dubai Mall (not Downtown) one. Getting into the hotel when you exit Sheikh Zayed Road from the Jebel Ali direction is quite circuitous and not particularly well sign-posted and even once we got inside we had to ask how to get to the lobby since the hotel is a rather strange shape and you can't see the reception as you walk in. We finally found Karat and immediately felt more relaxed as the calm, relaxing vibe of hushed voices and the large comfy armchairs in shades of beige, gold and cream worked their charm on us. We had to laugh at the wall paintings though: rather than being hung on the walls, they were all stood on a shelf that wrapped round the room and were balanced against the wall. Maybe this is the new thing in interior design, but to us it just looked like they were waiting to be put up - I should have asked about it but got so wrapped up in our food that I forgot.

The staff were all very friendly and our waitress was happy to explain how they run their afternoon tea and to recommend teas from the vast menu (all freshly brewed from leaves - no tea bags in sight). Many places bring out a cake stand with all the food (scones, sandwiches and cakes) placed on the various tiers but The Address serves it as separate course: scones, then sandwiches, then cakes and finally chocolates. Tea is unlimited but coffee is limited to only one cup. I ordered a caffeine-free tea which I really didn't like and so I shared Simon's good old English Breakfast tea. It's always worth trying new things, but often it's the tried and tested ones that still come out on top.

The scone course was delicious and included not just 2 scones (no fruit scones though, which I adore) but also a small brioche and 3 madeleines. The pinnacle of this course was the passion-fruit jam...absolutely delicious. Jam can be a bit too sweet for me sometimes but this had a wonderful sharpness to it and I couldn't get enough of it. The sandwiches then arrived in a presentation box and what a presentation! Bite-sized toasts with various toppings: quail's egg, roast beef, tuna, turkey and tomato with a cheese mousse. The most impressive was the cucumber which was a thin strip of cucumber wrapped around thin layers of bread interlaid with cream cheese...I won't be trying to replicate it at home that's for certain! The most original was a light, crunchy falafel on a tiny Arabic bread. The fact that each sandwich was so small meant you weren't over-faced and you were able to enjoy the different flavours without feeling stuffed full of bread.

The subsequent two courses were both wonderful but slightly too sweet for me. The cakes included 3 different small pieces of cake and the chocolates were not only chocolate cake and home-made chocolates, but also baclava, pistachio cake, a fruit tart, macarens and a chocolate eclair. We all agreed that it would make more sense to have the sandwiches first and then the scones since going from sweet to savoury and then back to sweet seemed rather the wrong way round. When we arrived our waitress had said that we could have the meal in any order we wanted though, so next time I'll ask for the sandwiches first. In fact, what I'm already planning to ask is whether I can have 2 rounds of sandwiches, then the scones and then just the fruit tart - not sure that will be possible since their pricing is based on the set menu but it can't hurt to ask.

There is something so civilised about going out for tea and we love to do it when we have visitors. Karat was so delicious, such good value and very chilled out...we will most definitely go back.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Baking Scones: A Comedy of Errors

When I was last back in the UK, my Granny made the most delicious wholemeal scones. Having a hunkering for them, I asked her to send me the recipe so I could make them myself. A straightforward recipe, I thought they would be a breeze to make...then Fate stepped in to make my attempt so much more 'interesting' than it should have been!

Firstly the wholemeal flour. I presumed I could buy it anywhere...wrong. I'd been to the Organic Cafe & Food Shop in the morning but didn't bother looking at their flours since I planned to buy it at the normal supermarket. The only wholemeal flour Choithram's had was made by a local company (Jenan) and I didn't get the feeling that it would be the highest quality flour in the world so off I drove to Spinneys (just 5 minutes away) to find that they didn't have any wholemeal at all. After an emergency call to Simon to go to the Organic Shop and buy me my flour on his way home, he arrived home with self-raising wholemeal flour and assured me that was all they had had. Last time I was shopping in LuLu I had seen they stocked a huge range of flours so yesterday I made the 30 minute journey in the hope they would have normal wholemeal flour. All they had was strong wholemeal bread flour. After verifying with my Mum I learned the self-raising would be better than the strong bread flour...30 minutes back home again to use the flour that I already had. A great start! One bright thing was that LuLu had the black treacle I needed whereas neither of the other 2 supermarkets had it.

I carefully measured out all the dry ingredients and followed the instructions to "rub the butter into the flour until it forms fine crumbs". Sounded so easy, but with butter straight out of the fridge it was anything but. Once that was finally done, I added the other dry ingredients and then the milk. I think that after all my driving around and then faffing around rubbing the butter and flour together I must have been a bit tired because where it was written '1/2 pint of milk' I read '1 pint of milk'. It's not hard to imagine what adding twice the amount of liquid did to my dough - it was more like a pancake batter but it was only when the recipe said to roll the dough into a ball that I cottoned on to the fact that I had made a rather large mistake! What to do? Double all the dry ingredients and make twice as many scones or throw the first batch in the bin and start again? With the air turning blue, I poured the whole lot in the bin and set off to the supermarket to buy more milk.

Second time around, I'd left the butter out of the fridge so the 'rubbing' was much easier and quicker and this time I added the correct amount of liquid. After trying to stir it with a wooden spoon I realised that only using my hands would do the job properly. Now, I am not very tall and my kitchen units are a standard height which are fine for chopping veg but when it comes to getting your hands in a big glass bowl and mixing a dough...I had to stand on my tip-toes to reach in, was covered in flour and all I could think was, "I am never making b****y scones ever again". With the dough finally kneaded together, rolled out and scones cut out, I put them in the oven and waited for them to cook.

Fifteen minutes later with the smell of freshly baked scones in my nose, I cut one open, lathered on my jam and took a bite...of heaven. Yes, absolutely delicious!! All the effort to get to that point undoubtedly added to the flavour and I decided that it had been worth it and I will most certainly make them again. Next time I'll be sure to have the butter at room temperature, will never again mistake 1/2 and 1 pint and I realised that once the ingredients were roughly mixed I could have tipped them out of the bowl onto the worktop and kneaded it on it will be a breeze when I come to make them again (hopefully not tempting Fate!)

I was given the ingredients in imperial so I've put the metric equivalents in brackets
1 lb (450g) wholemeal flour
2 oz (50g) butter
1/2 tsp salt
2 oz (50g) caster sugar
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tbsp black treacle
Half pint (275ml) milk - approximate, add slowly and check consistency (as I typed this I realised that I actually didn't use enough milk since I misread - again! - my equivalent chart and I put 225ml of milk instead of 275ml, but they still turned out perfectly fine)

If you get self-raising wholemeal flour then add an additional 1/4 tsp baking powder

1. Preheat oven to 190 degrees (fan assisted oven)
2. Rub butter into flour until it forms fine crumbs
3. Add other dry ingredients
4. Mix milk and treacle (it may help to warm them both slightly, especially the treacle)
5. Make a well in the flour and slowly pour in the liquid, mixing as you go until you can form it into a ball
6. Flour your worktop and lay the ball of dough down to roll out to about 1cm thick (or a bit thicker if you prefer)
7. Cut out your scones (I used a 4.5cm cutter and got about 36 scones but if you use a bigger cutter then there will of course be less scones)
8. Put scones on lightly greased baking tray and cook for about 15-20 minutes

Try to resist eating them all at once!!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Rhodes' Mezzanine, Grosvenor House

In a nutshell: fantastic service, wonderful complimentary additions, fabulous food but very pricey.

This is the first 5/5 score in quite a long time and Rhodes' Mezzanine at Grosvenor House Dubai most definitely deserves it. As you approach the restaurant doors to find them being thrown open for you by a smiling hostess, you enter a red & white world of space and refinement. Some fine dining restaurants can feel stuffy, but Mezzanine's minimalist, modern decor ensures that you feel you are in a funky, not fusty venue. As, presumably, the only 19:30 booking of the night, the hostess greeted us by name and we were offered the choice of having a drink in the lounge or heading straight to our table. Although the sofas and armchairs of the lounge looked inviting, we decided to go for our table and found that we were the only diners. Luckily, as the night progressed the restaurant filled up to about 2/3 capacity; the private dining area within Mezzanine was also in use by a large group (great for their privacy and for us to not be disturbed by the chatter of a large table of people).

The Mezzanine menu is very small (I think there were just 8 starters, 8 mains and 8 desserts) so if you are particularly fussy then it would be worth calling ahead to check on the menu before visiting. Thankfully the three of us all love fish as the vast majority of the items were fish based. The waiter informed me that the menu changes every 3 months and the new menu launches tomorrow (6 December) with Gary Rhodes himself arriving on the 16th December to work on next year's menu. A great touch that I've not seen in Dubai before, was that all allergy information was included on the menu - unfortunately for me every dish included dairy but I decided not to worry about it for one night! I'm sure that a lot of the dairy was actually the sauces rather than the dishes themselves and that they could have conjured up alternatives if I'd asked. Another fantastic idea is that in addition to the main menu, there is a 'taster menu' which offers smaller portions of certain items from the full menu. I ordered the smaller portions and they were full portions for my appetite - I was so full at the end that I couldn't even face dessert.

Whilst we were perusing the menu, the first of 3 complimentary courses was delivered to our table: bite-sized Scotch eggs (using quail eggs), foie gras on ginger toast and hot gouda cheese between 2 filo pastry layers. Foie gras is not something I would normally eat, but in a tiny portion it was edible and the eggs and cheese were both delicious. After we had ordered, the 2nd complimentary course arrived: tomato soup in a small china cup - not red tomato soup, though, this was a pale pinky-white colour with a huge head of foam. It was just enough to exclaim at the fabulous flavour without being too much to make us question whether ordering a starter had been a bad idea. The 3rd complimentary course came at the end of the meal and included small chocolates (quite usual in a fine dining restaurant) as well as tiny scones with jam and cream (not usual but totally yummy) - I just wish I had had room to eat them, I only managed half a scone!

I started my meal with a delicious, creamy scallop soup. When my bowl was placed in front of me there was a nest of leeks with a large scallop on top but no liquid - the soup was then poured over the scallop from a jug...impressive presentation. Simon's crab lasagne (see above photo) was also very snazzily presented with delicate pasta layers and a generous amount of fresh crab. Kath's salmon plate had sounded like it would be a huge dish but it was actually very manageable and provided a fantastic range of flavours and textures: a small cup of crab bisque, layers of salmon in the form of a terrine and a small piece of grilled salmon.

My John Dory main course was meant to be served on a bed of mushrooms but the waiter informed me that these were marinated in garlic, instead I opted for the salmon accompaniment of crushed potatoes and peas. It was a fabulous dish and I think the change to peas and potato was maybe even better than the official mushrooms would have been! As the original dish wasn't served with any potato, I had ordered a side of creamed potatoes and the 3 of us did each need just that little bit of extra potato or we would have been left with fish and nothing to eat with it. Simon and Kath both chose the Red Mullet which was also beautifully presented and full of flavour.

I couldn't face eating a dessert but decided a single scoop of rhubarb sorbet (an original flavour that was very tasty) would just cleanse my palate - and we weren't charged for it. Kath went for the British Plate which consisted of a small bread & butter pudding, a jam roly-poly and a sticky toffee pudding! Simon's rhubarb souffle was perfectly risen and once laid in front of him, the waiter cut into the top and poured the custard into the middle...divine.

The staff at Mezzanine are excellent; very attentive without being over-bearing, knowledgeable about the menu and friendly. Our only other visit to Mezzanine was over 5 years ago and when we left the waiter said he hoped we wouldn't wait so long to come back next time. Such great service and food does come at a price our case just over Dhs 400 a head. Wine by the glass is very pricey at Dhs 50-60 a glass and my small side order of potato was Dhs 50. On the main menu, starters are over Dhs 100 and mains are close to Dhs 200 whilst on the taster menu the starters are around the Dhs 60 mark and mains about Dhs 130 or so. Worthwhile for a special occasion, but not somewhere we would go too frequently. I'm already planning our return anniversary in March perhaps?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chilling Out at Meridien Mina Siyahi

With my mother-in-law, Kath, staying, it was decided that a day relaxing at a beach resort would be a great change from our apartment building's large but freezing swimming pool. 'Buy 1 get 1 free' voucher from The Entertainer in hand (Dhs 175 for both of us), we set off for our day of sun, sea and sand at the Meridien Mina Siyahi. The voucher was only valid Sunday-Wednesday which meant that Simon couldn't come, but I made sure to call him once we were lying on our loungers looking out to sea just so he wouldn't feel left out!

The Meridien has 2 swimming pools as well as a long beach, sadly one of the pools seems to have been permanently barricaded off since it lies within the Barasti Bar area. I think you can also use the pool at the adjoining sister property, The Westin, but we didn't investigate that. We spent the morning on the beach and the afternoon by the pool - although we wished we'd stayed down on the sand since the Meridien has a serious problem with crows around the pool. Crows are scavengers and they feed on rubbish and carrion...they are a very bad sign that there is a lack of cleanliness and it seems they are becoming more and more common in Dubai. These crows were not just huge ugly vicious-looking things, they weren't afraid of humans at all and one actually landed on Kath's head!! Apparently the Burj Al Arab has resident falcons that fly around the hotel to keep other birds away - the Meridien needs to do something like that because a line up of 10 black crows along the loungers next to me was not conducive to me relaxing in the slightest. One positive point was that the pool was heated to the perfect temperature for me and I was able to get in without it taking my breath away.

The beach along the front of the two resorts is huge and we saw hundreds of fish of varying sizes as we walked along the shore. As with all the Dubai coast, the natural beach has been lost and so it is all trucked-in sand which then creates a much harder surface - luckily the gradient drop down to the sea is not like the one we found on the public beach near Paul's though (earlier review)! I found the lounger mattresses quite thin and uncomfortable but that didn't stop me from being able to drop off to sleep for a good hour. Lying on the beach you look out onto the Palm Jumeirah and the Atlantis Hotel, gone are the days when a day on the beach meant seeing nothing but sea all the way to the horizon. We could have had an active day of banana boating, kayaking or water-skiing but that all sounded like too much hard work so we watched other people out on the water instead.

The beachside menu is the same as the poolside menu, and it was exactly the same menu as when I was last at the hotel...nine months ago. A revamp of the menu would certainly not go amiss. I felt sorry for the hotel guests because there wasn't a huge variety of options and if I was staying there for a week I wouldn't be impressed. Also, the prices were very high for a pool menu - Dhs 115 for seabass. Are they mad?? Kath ordered the mezze platter but this only came with Arabic bread and we had to pay extra for vegetable sticks to dip in the hummous, moutaboul and tabbouleh. I had grilled salmon served with sweet potato puree and a side salad, all very nice although the salad dressing was a little too strong on the mustard for my taste. I would have preferred a salad but the choice was limited and nothing appealed. Although it was a good lunch, I have had much better (and cheaper) at other hotels such as the Hilton Jumeirah Beach and the Meridien Al Aqah.

Simon and I are planning to spend Boxing Day at the Meridien Mina Siyahi because it is great value to feel like you're on holiday for the day, the pool is lovely and the sea is great. We'll just make sure to not sit on the pool loungers and we'll try to find somewhere else to eat our lunch.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Blackberry Crisp

Desserts are a bit tricky for me since I'm not supposed to eat eggs, dairy or wheat and it seems that almost all desserts include those. With my family coming for dinner, and not wanting to give them fruit salad for the hundredth time, I decided to make an effort to find a dessert I could actually eat. Finally I resolved that a little bit of butter wouldn't kill me and selected this Blackberry Crisp recipe from Nigella Lawson's book, Nigella Express. I suppose the butter could have been substituted with margarine but with everything I've read about the transfats in margarine causing heart disease and clogging your arteries, I thought butter was the lesser of the two evils!

This blackberry crisp is so easy to make and tasted gorgeous. I used frozen fruit since the fresh variety were so expensive - of course I defrosted the berries before preparing the dish since I knew there would be a lot of liquid released as they defrosted and I didn't want the topping flooded with juice. Although the name is blackberry crisp, I mixed blackberries and raspberries to add a bit more variety. As I don't have any normal flour in my house, I used spelt flour instead and again it didn't seem to make any difference to the taste. The one thing I did forget to do was take a photo of my finished this is Nigella's photo, although mine really did look very similar.

Try it, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

125g butter
60g jumbo oats
40g flaked almonds
30g sunflower seeds
70g flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (or ginger if you prefer)
75g soft light brown sugar
500g blackberries
50g caster sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees / gas mark 6.
2. Melt the butter in a pan and put aside.
3. Combine the oats, almonds, sunflower seeds, flour, cinnamon and brown sugar in a bowl.
4. Tip the berries into a wide, shallow baking dish (about 750ml capacity), sprinkle the caster sugar over them and tumble them about to mix.
5. Stir the melted butter into the dry oat mixture and spoon it on top of the berries - you don't need to fully cover them.
6. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes and serve with ice-cream.