Monday, 28 November 2011

La Mia Favola, Garhoud, Dubai

Nespresso and arrabiata- the perfect combination!

Sometimes, I just need a break from the rich curries and exotic meze snacks that make up my diet and need to go back to basics. I see it as cleansing my palate, giving myself a clean slate for my next curry night so I can enjoy it at its fullest. Food I consider 'basics' include anything involving plain unsullied veg, British staples like chips, beans and toasties, and Italian food. Why Italian food, I hear you ask. Well, look how it is made. Mainly plain carbs, be it pizza, pasta or a bread based dish like Bruschetta, Italian food bridges the gap of Mediterranean spice and Western European plain food. Minestrone soup, insalata caprese, antipasti are all tasty dishes but aren't too taxing on the digestive system. It does annoy me sometimes that quite a few restauranteurs hike the prices right up for Italian cuisine and season it with an air of pretentiousness. The Italian kitchen is all about being homely and rustic, not nouvelle cuisine with a whopping price tag. I've spotted a few in Dubai who are of this school; in my mind, the ideal Italian restaurant is from the school of Buca di Bacco, my much missed Italian bolt bolthole in Liverpool which went bust, or Edinburgh's Salvo Caffe; both of which I have previously blogged about with watering tastebuds. Both restaurants offered a great atmosphere at a bargain price but were bursting with Mediterranean flavour. But does such a place exist in Dubai?

As if by magic, I found La Mia Favola. Tucked away in the Garhoud district in the shadows of the Emirates training centre (yes ladies, there is pilot eye candy nearby!), this cafe/restaurant is actually Libyan owned but reeks of Italian authenticity. Garlic and oregano greet you on entering, but not in an intrusive way, interrupted by the smell of fresh Nespresso coffee. The decor is in typical Italian style of reds and greens (or is it a nod to the UAE?) with the obligatory checked table cloths that no Italian restaurant is complete without.

To start, I stuffed my face with a massive plate of garlic bread, one portion being enough to fill 2 or perhaps 3. This was baguette style as opposed to pizza style and was delicious, the right amount of butter which didn't leave my hands greasy. Staying true to my Vindaloo Queen method of eating spicy treats, I ordered Rigatoni Arrabiata, the vindaloo of the pasta world. Fiery chillies and rich tomatoes oozed their way into delightfully fat tubes of rigatoni, the sauce being just right and not swamping the pasta like some eateries I've experienced. I mopped up the rest with my garlic bread which I knowingly saved, and rounded the meal off with a potent Nespresso. At 9 dirham, this must be one of the cheapest restaurant coffees in Dubai. Couple this with their free wi-fi and have a relaxed afternoon curled up on one of their comfy sofas.

For all you bargain hunters, LMF has now introduced a bargainous meal deal- any pizza or pasta plus garlic bread (4 slices), either a Greek or chicken salad and a coke, only 35AED! Who could resist such a deal in this economic climate?

Edited Feb 2012

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Empire Bangalore, Al Qusais, Dubai

The Indians whose USP is blue lemonade!

I was beginning to grow tired of my usual eateries; a bad sign, considering I'd only been in Dubai 10 minutes. I had even gone across to the dark side briefly and ate at a few chain restaurants! To be honest, I think I was suffering from cabin fever as I'd been stuck in a hotel in Al Qusais; a very nice hotel I must add, but a bit far from central Dubai. Hotel food begins to taste samey after a while, and my beloved airport free zone was closed as it was a bank holiday weekend. However, Al Qusais is a hidden gem on Dubai's culinary spectrum, and once you look further than the scruffy buildings and dusty roads, you can find exquisite restaurants for all tastebuds. Enter Empire, the Indian restaurant that took my breath away.

Empire is a bustling hive of activity, reminiscent of the eateries on Manchester's Curry Mile. Although it is marketed as a non-vegetarian restaurant, there are more than enough spicy treats for us veggies. Upon entering the restaurant, the first thing to catch my eye was the massive display of fruit and ice-cream in a rainbow of colours, not just boring vanilla here then! The smell of piquant spices and freshly baked naan filled my lungs as I prepared myself for an Indian feast of Mancunian proportions.

I began my feast with a vegetable dosa. Dosas are quite hard to find back home, so for those unfamiliar with them, they are delectable breads the size of a pitta, the consistency halfway between chapati and naan. These dosas came with a chickpea curry and a vegetable curry to be poured on the top. Dosas are messy fun to eat- shove the curry on top and wrap it up like a kebab! Cut it up and eat it like a pizza! The choice is yours, enjoy! After that, I scoured the menu for vindaloo but it was nowhere to be seen, so I settled for the next best thing, Aloo Gobi with pilau and naan. The Aloo Gobi was different to the one back home, it had a creamy consistency which I normally wouldn't entertain (regular readers will know my opinion on korma!) but as it was packed to the brim with massive potatoes and huge blooms of cauliflower, this gave it some oomph. It was unbelievably cheap too, with some curries only costing 10 dirham- bargain!

The drinks menu was a lengthy, fruity read to rival Al Mallah but this time, I went back to basics with lemonade, or so I thought. This was no ordinary 7up, this was home made Blue Lemonade! Despite my curiosity, I neve asked how they achieved such a brilliant shad of blue, but I suspect sherbet had some involvement. The lemonade had a sweet underlying taste of sherbet, reminiscent of Love Hearts and Parma Violets, beautifully harmonising with the acidic lemon to make a memorable cocktail.

I was too full to even contemplate dessert, but I know I'll return, ready to majestic a multiflvoured banana split from Empire's fine window display. Thanks to Empire, I am no longer homesick for English curry, this is the real thing.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

China Times, Jumeirah, Dubai

The quest for Chinese food in Dubai begins!

Coming from the north west of England, I have always been surrounded by top-notch Chinese food and it has become so engrained in my diet, I actually class it as a taste of home. When I am on my travels, a little taste of Chinese food always helps to combat the dreaded homesickness. However, a lot of 'foreign' Chinese doesn't match up to the British taste my tongue is accustomed to and has the opposite effect- I get even more homesick! Some of the worst ones I have had were Spain, Germany and Portugal- salty, bland and no spice whatsoever. How will Dubai's offerings measure up?

My first Chinese I encountered was China Times, situated in the ground floor of one of Jumeirah Road's many mini-malls. (I love these smaller malls, so much more character than the bigger ones). It was a Saturday night and empty, but that didn't deter us from going in as I wanted a quiet night. The restaurant consists of a mix of booths and normal tables, for some reason, I always make a beeline for booths! Guess it reminds me of ice cream parlours or good old fashioned Indian restaurants back home. The decor was 1990s/modern style, bright and airy, minimalist but not too basic, a far cry from the garish red and gold decor that usually flashes before my eyes in a Chinese eaterie.

We were shown to our table by a smiley, efficient waitress who was refreshingly honest and didn't let us order too much, admitting that one portion of jasmine rice could easily feed two and possibly three. I had a fabulous aubergine in a home made honey-based sauce- that too was a generous portion. Admittedly, it was different to any Chinese dish I had back in England, but Vindaloo Queen likes to embrace change! It had a plummy,rich taste which combined with its velvety consistency was a heavenly meal.

Regrettably, I was in a bit of a rush, so I didn't have a chance to sample any more delights from the menu. Around 30 dirham for a main veggie meal, it was considerably cheaper than whipping up a similar creation at home.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Rainforest Cafe, Dubai

Back in the UK, I avoided chain restaurants like the plague. Boring interiors, expensive menus, poor quality and all the ambience of a furniture showroom, chains never did inspire me or stretch my tastebuds to the extreme. As a noob in Dubai, and not knowing where the 'good bits', the 'dodgy bits' and the 'chav tourist bits' were, I spend my first week muddling my way from one mall to the next, trying to dodge hordes of tourists. When I noticed that the Rainforest Cafe was stone empty, I decided to go there, not questioning why there is such an empty restaurant in a jam-packed mall.

The cafe's USP is its rainforest theme- mechanical animals move round the restaurant, fake vegetation surrounds the tables. At first, this seems quite cool, but you and your fellow diners will soon feel like caged animals yourselves, as other curious mallrats peer in at you in this alternative eaterie. The Rainforest is not completely private, which a high-priced restaurant should be, but allows visitors to the Dubai Aquarium to look in at you after they have looked at the sharks. At this point, I felt like asking whether they could pay me for eating there!

I was looking forward to seeing the menu as I thought it would be as vibrant and exotic as the decor. Nope. Completely bog-standard offerings were served up, reminiscent of a 'two for a fiver' meal deal in a grotty pub back in Blighty. Veggie options were rare, but I managed to find one- oh, how grateful I was! A limp ciabatta with a layer of mayo and some bits of supposedly fresh grilled veg, served with some chips. This non-feast was about £8- a rip off for what was essentially a chip butty. The carnivores could enjoy some processed chicken with more chips, or even a selection of fishy delicacies- a bit inappropriate, considering the view from the restaurant is the world's largest fish tank.

The only plus point to this dismal experience was the friendly staff. I suppose they pity any diners who are so foolish to part with their cash and buy an overpriced, substandard Subway, which is what you're doing if you eat at this overhyped tourist trap. I declare R*inforest C*fe a profanity for all food lovers!

Sidra, Dubai

Another taste of Lebanon in Al Dhiyafa Road

My quest for the perfect Lebanese experience in Dubai continues along Al Dhiyafa Rd, where the bright lights of Sidra call me to try their tasty morsels. What delights was I going to discover this time? Shall I be set in my ways and order falafel for the umpteenth time, or shall I be brave and order something with an unrecognisable name? Luckily, I am building up an extensive vocabulary of Lebanese dishes thanks to the takeaway menu from Labneh wa Zaatar and trusty Google.

As I entered Sidra, I had yet another flashback of my student years when I pounded Berlin's immigrant quarter in search of the perfect veggie kebab. The sweet smell of strawberry shisha combined with a distinctive Levantine spicy smell brought me right back to my wild years. I instantly knew this would be a place where I'd be spending many a Dubai dinner in the years to come. Sidra has a beautiful mural painted on the wall of a Mediterranean coastline, the other walls being glass. For those cooler days, you can soak up the atmosphere outside in a simple but effective garden which somehow minimises the noise of the traffic.

I received a warm welcome from the staff, along with a plate of pickles, olives, labneh and fresh out the oven pittas. Delish. As I perused the menu, I knew it was going to be another difficult choice as there were so many delectable options to pick from. After much deliberation, I chose 'Potatoes with coriander', a predictable Falafel Sandwich and some Halloumi while my carnivorous colleagues settled with the Shish Tawuk as per usual. In a similar vein to Al Mallah, Sidra also do a fine selection of fresh juices so I sampled a home made lemonade. The drinks here are slightly more expensive than Al Mallah but are tasty nonetheless, the lemonade perking me up from the tiring heat.

My potatoes arrived and words couldn't describe how moreish they were! Despite being advertised as plain old potatoes with coriander, they were also fantastically spicy and, unlike Al Mallah, they were boiled as opposed to fried. Fans of Bombay Aloo and Patatas Bravas will undoubtedly love these spicy morsels. The Halloumi was a perfect rubbery yet chewy consistency, exactly like Halloumi should be. Finally, the falafel sandwich was one of the best my keen tastebuds had ever sampled, not too dry like some of the European ones, not dripping with sauce like some of the British ones. This was the right combination of falafel, hummus, pickled turnip and tabbouleh- it was like a mini meze in one neatly packed wrap!

The desserts looked pretty delicious with my old fave Banana Split on the menu, but I was stuffed to the gills after my feast, so I settled on settling my stomach with a Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is the holy grail of potent coffees for me- more exciting than espresso, more fragrant than any artificial concoction that St*rbucks can come up with. The blend of coffee and cardamom make for the perfect, dessert in a cup experience.

Al Mallah, Dubai

Authentic Eastern atmosphere in glitzy Dubai!

The media tends to paint a distorted picture of Dubai. People who have never been seem to think it is some glitzy, overpriced playground full of expensive hotels, faceless chain restaurants and tourist tack. These people have either a) never been outside Europe and read the papers too much or b) have been to Dubai once as a package tourist and never strayed from the concrete jungle that is The Palm. I compare it to going to Manchester and only seeing the Printworks, or Edinburgh and not straying from Leith, you get my drift. What I'm saying is that it's great to explore, to go to the older, more developed parts of the city where 'normal' people and not just celebs live.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a severe lack of Emirati cuisine here but fear not, Arabic food is still in abundance with the city's numerous Lebanese restaurants!

Following on from my previous review, I was starting to become addicted to Lebanese food and needed to see what else was on offer in the world of Tabbouleh and co. I found myself on the bustling Al Dhiyafa Road which is slowly finding a place in my heart and becoming a firm must-see on my culinary itinerary. Like Manchester's (in)famous Curry Mile, restaurants compete cheek by jowl for custom, a colourful melting pot of cultures and cuisines. Thankfully, there is no hard sell like its Mancunian brother so the atmosphere is somewhat more relaxed. Like a moth to a lightbulb, I found myself drawn to Al Mallah which apparently is one of the original restaurants on the street. You cannot miss this culinary gem with its green fluorescent lighting, rotating chickens and delicious smells of spice wafting your way. As I sat at its outdoor seating area, the whole atmosphere of the place brought back memories of childhood trips to Turkey, where I gorged on lamb kebabs (I ate meat then!) and supped freshly squeezed orange juice, the throngs of people, the buzz of the traffic and the faint background 'Arabesque' music adding to the ambience.

The menu is worth a read before one automatically defaults to the standard chicken kebab or falafel shawarma. Sure, these Lebanese standards are available, but so are many other treats. Why not create a meze for yourself like I did? I ordered the spicy potatoes and a huge bowl of Mutabal and some labneh (of course), which when combined with the basket of pittas, fresh vegetables and pickle tray is more than enough to satisfy me. The Mutabal was rich and velvety, the pickles fresh, the salad crisp. In addition, I got my greens from a gigantic bowl of Tabouleh (pictured). My only minor complaint was that the spicy potatoes were a tad greasy and tasted more like chips, not what I was expecting. Nonetheless, they were lovely! My meat eating acquaintances filled their faces on shish tawuk, apparently 'the freshest chicken in this street or possibly in Dubai' according to them.

The best part of the Al Mallah experience comes at dessert time. They have an extensive list of fresh juice dessert drinks which are possibly the cheapest on the street. They come in 4 sizes from small to XL; I went for the Medium which was gigantic! The drinks have unusual names, some after celebrities- Charles and Diana feature on the list, along with footballers from the past like Maradona and Pele. I wonder when this list was last updated and when the Camilla or Beckham will be on the menu! I chose the Tahiti drink, which was a fresh strawberry juice mixed with banana, pineapple, strawberry and pear pieces topped with vanilla ice cream. Decadent yet healthy at the same time, I will definitely be working my way through this drinks menu!

The night drew to a close and as we were bade goodnight by the friendly staff, I was already Facebooking my friends to tell them all about the legendary Tahiti experience. Al Mallah, you have the Midas touch.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Labneh wa Zaatar, Deira, Dubai

Back in my murky past, I had an addiction. When I say my murky past, I mean my decadent student days in Germany. Germany was a different place back in the day; before it was invaded by budget airlines, tourists were few and foodie bargains were aplenty! I used to eat out every single day as this was cheaper than shoving something in the microwave (plus the German supermarkets are notoriously awful). Pizza was 3 euro, a curry 4 euro and my addiction was only 2 euro, sometimes 50 cents depending on the competition in the area. Yes, you guessed it. My addiction was Falafel. Now, Germany has a massive Turkish population who used to peddle Falafel, strange considering that falafel is not native to Turkey. However, if you delve closer into the snack bar scene, you will find the Turks are facing stiff competition from their Lebanese brothers! The Lebanese took my falafel addiction to the next level, as they knew how to deliver the perfect chick pea patty. Sprinkled with tabbouleh, doused in houmous or wrapped in a pitta alongside the marvellous halloumi, the Lebanese won my heart every time.
That addiction was about to be awakened with my discovery of Lebanese restaurants all over Dubai.

Lebanese food is MASSIVE here. Brits, think the blanket coverage of curry houses and Chinese restaurants in Blighty, I'm talking such a massive scale. The first Beirut bombshell I came across was the fabulous Labneh wa Zaatar in Deira, so good I can't keep out of there!

You're probably wondering what the name means. Labneh wa Zaatar is a scrumptious soft cheese (think Philadelphia mixed with yogurt) garnished with a thyme-based spice mix. This is delicious spread on pitta or as a dip with crudités. All meals, no matter how small, are served with some complimentary Labneh, pittas, mixed pickles and olives to start. (I later found out this is the norm in Dubai's Lebanese eateries- talk about fab customer service!) The cold drinks are a bargain 3dhs, or if you want to splash out, try a freshly blended fruit juice at around 16dhs. Highly recommended is the mint lemonade, a zingy, refreshing home made concoction which complements the spicy food well.

I pushed the boat out and created a monster meze for myself; stuffed vine leaves, tabouleh, a falafel sandwich and a huge vessel of Foul Medames. The vine leaves, like in most places in the middle east, were served cold. I am used to eating them warm as I like the contrast between a hot vine leaf dunked in tzatziki or hummus straight from the fridge. However, they were still scrumptious in all their herby glory. The portion size is huge here, one Tabouleh is definitely enough for two. Yum, this place is food heaven.

With its informal atmosphere, friendly staff and choice of seating areas, I would wholeheartedly recommend this cosy, chilled restaurant. If you're staying in one of the area's hotels and are bored with their faceless, overpriced restaurants, pop over to LwaZ (as those in the know call it!) where you'll be sure of a warm welcome and fabulous food.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Emirates Business Class Experience

A foodie fantasy from start to finish!

Air travel ain't what it used to be. The glamour, glitz and professional service seems to have been replaced by chavs in tracksuits munching Pringles- and that's just the stewardesses! Budget travel has helped quality airlines like Emirates retain a little bit more prestige and make it a covetable product, meaning people like me who crave old-school air travel can appreciate the mile-high life in the 21st century.
The Emirates package is one of decadence, luxury and gives the passenger the feeling of being spoilt rotten. Well, that's how I felt.

I was so happy when it was announced that my flight was to be 4 hours delayed as it meant 7 hours in the executive lounge at Manchester. The journey for my tastebuds began immediately with beautifully potent coffee along with a biscuit selection. Unfortunately, I had to decline the breakfast-type dishes due to overindulgence at the Radisson in the morning. I was soon hungry again though as lunchtime ticked round, the smells of Arabian cuisine wafting through to tempt me. In the lounge, there is a dedicated dining area but there are no qualms if you want to eat dinner on your lap in a comfy seat, watching the planes as if they're an episode of Corrie! The choice of dishes were amazing- being the eclectic foodie I am, I started with some traditional Arabic meze like Falafel, Tabouleh and Mutabul (the aubergine dip I rave about at the Armenian Taverna, Manchester!) and moved on to a bit of Italian (tomato and mozzarella ravioli). To freshen things up, I raided the salad bar for some rocket infused salad. Little did I know, this would be my staple diet for probably the rest of my Dubai life as you will see in later blogposts.... For the non-veggies and less adventurous folk, there were also the options of a homemade steak pie with a beautiful flaky crust and artily-presented fish and chips (no grease or newspaper for these bad boys!)

There were still four hours to kill, so I stretched my legs and mooched around the terminal, observing the great unwashed bemoaning their Boots meal deals and queuing at C*sta only to be served by a rude jobsworth youth. Scenes like that made me grateful for business class. I'd seen enough so I went back to the lounge for a raid on the desserts.I chose the healthy option of pears soaked in rosewater which tasted like a funkier type of Turkish Delight; definitely full of Eastern promise. Other desserts included scones with clotted cream and a decadent chocolate pudding.

The flight was absolutely amazing and represented everything that air travel should be- luxury, finesse, excellent customer service and a home-from-home feeling. The telltale hum of instant coffee, chicken soup and cheesy Pringles pertaining to Sleazyjet wasn't to be sniffed, instead the air was filled with the smell of quality. With my own in-seat minibar (with MANGO JUICE- fab!) and the cabin crew serving me a bottomless reservoir of coffee, I was in heaven. Forget Dubai, this flight was set to be a foodie tour in itself! The meal consisted of stuffed vine leaves, German bread rolls (can this GET any more tailor made to me?)and a pepper stuffed with pasta- and that was just the starter. After this spread, there was barely any room for the main, but I devoured the pasta dish anyway. Dessert was more semi-potent coffee (minus points for EK there, but at least it wasn't instant- take note EZY!) and a doorstopper slab of cheesecake. Bloated, I settled back to watch more in flight movies, aware of the fact that Belgian chocs had just been placed next to me.

A business flight isn't complete without a trip to the inflight bar, which is what I squeezed in just before landing. After getting a specially mixed teetotal cocktail, I sat back and what caught my eye? Yes, more food: this time a big plate of Baklava and other Middle Eastern syrupy bundles of sin. I couldn't possibly indulge in another dessert...could I?

After this culinary extravaganza, I landed in Dubai with one aim. To change Emirates' slogan to 'Fly Emirates: Your tastebuds will thank you.' Now, I actually cannot wait to leave DXB so I can indulge again! Emirates, thank you for restoring my faith in 21st century air travel.