Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Rawabina, Garhoud, Dubai

The traffic in Satwa can be a nightmare, especially when coming from the other side of the creek, and can be enough to put off a hardened Sidra addict from making the journey. On Friday, the Dubai Marathon took place, meaning that Jumeira Rd and its surroundings were blocked off and gridlock ensued. When I was an air hostess, we were trained to always make alternative arrangements in case of emergency; an example of this being diverting to Abu Dhabi airport if Dubai was closed. I have brought my trolley dolly training into the foodie forum and put this into practice with restaurants, finding alternate destinations in Garhoud as opposed to Jumeirah! As much as I love Sidra, it isn't the most convenient to get to, so the hunt was on for more Lebanese cuisine on the Deira side of the creek. In actual fact, my original plan was to head for the alternate destination La Mia Favola for a steaming plate of Arrabiata, but as they are now closed on a Friday, it was time for a go-around as they say in aviation-speak. Garhoud has a multitude of Lebanese and other Eastern Mediterranean restaurants specialising in the usual suspects Shish Tawuk and Falafel, plus a multitude of sticky, baklava-esque desserts. I rolled up at Rawabina, an opulent take on the Tavuk and Falafel cheap and cheerful snack bar.

At first glance, Rawabina looks as if it's going to be expensive and more Palm than Satwa- velvet rope outside like an exclusive club, gold finish on the furnishings and decor, sweeping opulent staircase and pristine uniformed staff. Appearances can be deceptive and in actual fact, the menu was roughly the same price as Sidra and Al Mallah. After the rubbish service at Central Perk, the staff here were a breath of fresh air- polite, welcoming and acknowledging their customers' requests. Along with the usual Lebanese staples one is accustomed to in Dubai, Rawabina goes the extra mile and asserts its identity as a Jordanian establishment which incorporates the delicacies of its neighbouring countries like Palestine, Syria and of course, Lebanon. Dips garnished with pomegranate seeds, succulent kebabs sprinkled with parsley, desserts dripping in syrup, this was Levantine food at its best. In order to get a good comparison with Sidra and co, I opted for my 2 staple dishes, the Spicy Coriander Potatoes and a Falafel Shawarma. Service wasn't as speedy as its Satwa brothers, but it made for a nice, chilled Friday afternoon extended lunch, meaning I didn't feel rushed out.

The obligatory salad and pickle platter arrived first, which for the main part was crisp, however the tomatoes still had dirt of some description on and the olives were extremely bitter. The potatoes were indeed spicy, but like so many other Lebanese eateries, it fell down due to the fact that the potatoes were more like small, English style 'Chippy chips', greasy and burnt to a crisp. Sidra is still the undefeated champion of Spicy Coriander Potatoes. The Falafel Shawarma was the real star of the show. Instead of being tightly wrapped in paper like most places, it was huge as far as shawarmas go, bursting with flavour and for the finishing touch, appeared to have been toasted in a George Foreman type grill. Full marks for the best cheap-eats presentation here. My carnivorous colleague's Shish Tawuk measured up, the chicken apparently rivalling that of Al Mallah. It didn't go unnoticed though that there was no extra bread served with the meal apart from that on the base of the Tawuk and the one encasing my falafel, but maybe they just don't want to be wasteful like some establishments.

I had to test the potency of the coffee here too as I spotted a proper machine behind the counter, not one of your Nescafe and a kettle jobs. My Americano was of desired potency, but I wasn't keen on the type of coffee used. It tasted more like Turkish coffee as it had more than a hint of cardamon in. While Turkish coffee is meant to be spiced, it didn't quite work with Americano.

Overall, despite a few hiccups, I was impressed with Rawabina, but if I go back, I'll make the effort to get out of my potato and falafel comfort zone and try some of the Jordanian dishes.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Central Perk, Umm Al Sheif St, Jumeira, Dubai

A most un-FRIENDS-ly experience!

Back in the 90s, I was obsessed with Friends. In the days before cheap DVDs and numerous TV channels, I used to tape every episode and watch every episode religiously until the tape snapped. All my pocket money was spent on Friends merchandise, posters, books, you name it and dreamt of visiting Central Perk. Thanks to the show, it encouraged the UK to wake up and smell the coffee and see there was a gap in the market for coffee houses. It's obvious that most of the coffee shops on the UK high street used Central Perk as an inspiration with their massive cups, mismatched crockery and huge comfy couches. An actual Central Perk theme cafe was long overdue. 15 years later, I now watch Friends feeling all nostalgic so you can imagine I felt overjoyed to find a Central Perk branch in suburban Dubai! The main man himself Gunther jetted in to open the place, so my expectations were high....

The layout of Central Perk is pretty much like the fictional one- big comfy couches, faux-French artwork and exposed brickwork. Disappointingly, there was no Phoebe Buffay-style singer in the corner and none of the huge mismatched cups that became a talking point of 1990s interior decorators. However, they did have Central Perk- branded crockery as in the picture above- a nice touch. I sat down and was greeted by the most dour sourpuss I have ever clapped eyes on in Dubai. At first, I thought I was being greeted by Gunther-style comedic surly service but I was wrong. Central Perk's 2 staff on this particular day were grumpy bordering on downright rude. No please, no thankyous, no niceties whatsoever. I gave them a chance, maybe they were just taking a break from the tiresome Dubai standard of saying sir/ma'am after every single word.

The menu was extensive- a little too extensive for such a small coffee shop. Curries, burgers, stirfrys, steamed puddings and wraps filled the 8 page menu, indeed, the menu read like a gourmet paradise but judging from the small kitchen, I sensed this was going to be a case of Jack of all Trades, Master of None. In the name of research, I gave it a go though. I ordered an Indian Vegetable Club Sandwich from Mr Personality and my carnivorous colleague a Square Burger, along with the obligatory Americanos. The Americano passed my stringent test, it was indeed a potent one of the highest order, so I had high hopes for the food.

Half an hour later, my meal still hadn't arrived. Had they actually gone to Spinney's to buy my sandwich? I should have trusted my initial instinct that this place was going to be like Fawlty Towers. Meanwhile, irate diners were coming and going, others tapping their watches impatiently and staring eagerly at the kitchen. After 40 minutes, I plucked up the courage to ask Mr Personality what had happened to my meal. He grunted and proceeded to argue with Mr Personality no 2 in a language I presume was Tagalog. The chef popped his head out and actually looked intimidated, poor guy. Mass discussions ensued, along with an atmosphere you could have cut with a knife. As if by magic, the meals appeared. With a side order of a snarl and a grunt of course.

My sandwich was rather tasty, a combo of spicy potatoes, warm veg and salad, but there's no way it took 45 minutes to prepare. I'd have a bash at making this take on a club sandwich at home actually; as a fan of the occasional chip butty, the idea of putting boiled potatoes on a sandwich is a healthy alternative. The side order of potato wedges were rather grim, they were cold as if they'd been lying round and looked cremated, there was barely any potato on them. The Square Burger was another story. As well as coming with similarly insipid wedges, the burger was one of those from a 5 dirham cheapo frozen box and the bun was square, not the burger. In fact,the burger was inedible, Mc Donald's offerings seemed like gourmet next to this piece of cardboard. The burger was left untouched and a refund was requested. At first, they seemed reluctant to refund us but after little persuasion, we got the money back with a snarl. Upon leaving Central Puke, sorry Perk, not an apology or a 'goodbye' was proffered, and Mr Personality No 2 pushed past us at the door, didn't hold it open or even say excuse me. These are definitely not 'Friends' who'll be there for you when the rain starts to fall.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Al Ijaza, Jumeira Rd, Dubai

Could this be the best juice bar in Dubai?

Jumeira Rd. A small, unassuming snack bar just like many others in suburban Dubai, serving shawarma, shish tavuk and falafel by the bucketload, nestling in the shadow of a souvenir shop displaying lifeless inflatables. Don't be fooled by appearances though, this is Dubai's best kept secret.

Al Ijaza has been around for 22 years, but the recent indie film 'City of Life' shot a scene here and since then, Google has gone crazy with people looking for the famed cafe. Despite starring in a film, Al Ijaza has kept grounded and not lost sight of where it started, keeping prices affordable and surroundings basic yet charming. It offers the usual staples like shawarma, burger and chips like its rivals, but at an extremely good price (sandwiches for 3 dirhams, shish tavuk 20 dirham with all the trimmings). However, it is not just its food that pulls the crowds in, but its extensive and affordable drinks menu. Previously, I raved on about Al Mallah's Tahiti drink, praising it for its naughty-but-nice mix of fresh fruit and ice cream; Al Ijaza is its stiffest competitor for the Best Juice in Dubai crown. Unlike its contemporaries Costa and Caribou Coffee, Ijaza offers smoothies made from entirely fresh fruit and no concentrates at a starting price of 6 dirham. The menu comprises of Cocktail drinks which have ice cream added to the fruity mix, and Fruit drinks which are nothing but freshly blended fruit bought that morning from Deira Food Souk. I sampled the fresh and zingy strawberry juice, then as I was feeling naughty, went for an indulgent ice cream cocktail. The cocktails have random yet original names, you won't find a pina colada or a Singapore Sling here, but you can guzzle a Twitter, Facebook, Lamborghini or even a Nissan! I settled for a Tahiti (pictured), mainly to see how it compared to its namesake in Al Mallah. Wow. The size pictured is Medium and yes, it was huge and a bargain at 10 dirham. A concoction of melon, strawberry, ice cream, fruit pieces and even cubes of jelly, this was one almighty dessert in a drink! Not only does Ijaza offer these delectable drinks, their dessert menu is a delightful sugar rush, offering massive helpings of Falooda, butterscotch ice cream and the biggest fruit salad I've seen in my life! If there are any world records in juicing, dessert making or even smoothies, Al-Ijaza probably holds them all.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Beirut, 2nd December St, Dubai

Sidra and Al Mallah's biggest competitor- how does it match up?

Back when I lived in Manchester, I made a difficult yet exciting New Year's Resolution to visit every single restaurant in Chinatown. Needless to say, that was one resolution that got broken, not for want of trying though. Every time I visited its hallowed Chinese arch, I would tend to revisit old favourites like Try Thai, plus Chinatown seemed to be sprawling at an alarming rate with more eateries and cafes creeping outwards into its surrounding side streets. Geographical constraints meant that it was difficult to define where Chinatown finished, meaning that there simply wouldn't be enough days in the year (or cash for that matter) to visit every single eaterie. When I moved to Dubai, I contemplated taking on a similar challenge, but where and how? There is no Chinatown here, so that was out of the question. I could perhaps do a curry-related one, but Bur Dubai has so many winding side streets and would be difficult to pin down all the curry houses. Lebanese perhaps? There seemed to be an abundance of Lebanese restaurants. Then I had it. Al Dhiyafa Rd (recently renamed 2nd December St) was to be the focal point of my challenge. A busy high street with an abundance of affordable restaurants of different cuisines, this challenge would certainly be a tasty one!

After raving on about Sidra and slurping fruit cocktails in Al Mallah, it was high time for me to try the third Lebanese eaterie in the street, Beirut. Beirut is directly opposite Sidra and when I have chowed down on coriander-seasoned potatoes, I have often looked across the road at Beirut and wondered how they measured up. Beirut sits on the sunny side of the road which is why I had always defaulted into the shady, secluded Sidra, but as it was a cool day, Beirut got my custom.

First impressions were that the staff didn't seem to be on the ball like their Lebanese counterparts in the street, presenting us with some alluring scratched dinner plates. Beirut did score points for having some colourful pics of their dishes and cocktails in the menu, particularly useful for foreigners who are unsure of the Arabic names, but were the pictures a true representation of the dishes? After seeing the lady behind me order a cocktail, I think not. Her cocktail was flat and presented in a scratched glass reminiscent of student club nights, a far cry from the dazzling concoction on the well-styled photo. At this point, I was tempted to dash across the road to Sidra, but as the old saying goes, don't knock it until you've tried it.

I ordered a plate of Mixed Vegetable Fries and in order to fully compare, a plate of spicy coriander potatoes. The young man who took my order promptly sneezed into his hand- tasty! This was going to be a Fawlty Towers-esque dining experience.

The obligatory plate of mixed pickles and olives were served, looking a bit like the plants on your kitchen windowsill after you've been away for a fortnight. The olives were wrinkled, dehydrated and looked past their best. Even the pigeons would probably turn their beaks up at them. Next to come was the customary bowl of unprepared salad. Full marks for presentation- they were displayed in an 'arty' way but again, zero for freshness. Like the pickles, they were wrinkled and looked like market stall fades; the dirt hadn't been washed off and there was a bonus prize- a rogue chest hair nestling in between the tomatoes! Sidra's salad comes ice cold and is immaculate- this was a disgrace; if these veg were in your fridge at home, they would be straight in the bin.

My coriander potatoes were a cholesterol filled nightmare. Soaked in oil and tasted like they had been fried, left and deep fried again, these were a recipe for heartburn. The coriander had all but disappeared, the spice tasted like a bit of chilli powder sprinkled on as an afterthought. Goodness, I was going to need the Rennies. The piece de resistance came, the Mixed Vegetable Fries, another cholesterol special. Now, I bet you're reading this thinking the clue is in the name, but it is possible to have something fried without it drowning in a gulf of grease! As you can see from the pic, it contained aubergines, courgette, cauliflower and garlic, but I could barely taste these beautiful legumes. All I could taste was grease, oil, fat- call it what you want, if I would have closed my eyes, I would have thought I was in a low- rent chippy on Southport Prom. Tahini was my saviour here as I doused the veg in the lovely sesame sauce, however, it didn't rescue the meal. As I tentatively nibbled the deep fried cauliflower, I decided to cut my losses and stop eating this meal for the sake of it. I can still taste the grease now.

To round off this unpleasant meal, let me leave you with a couple of observations. Beirut actually charges 2dhs per person for bread while its neighbours give it for free. Also, that bowl of disgusting veg with the body hair in? The poor folk on the table behind me got served exactly the same bowl, albeit with a few lettuce leaves on the top to garnish. How many people were going to lay their hands on the infamous bowl of unwashed veg after us? See you soon, Sidra!

W Grill, Wafi Centre,Oud Metha, Dubai

Opulent steak house suitable for vegetarians

The Wafi Centre never fails to impress me. Unlike the other malls in Dubai, this complex is restaurant-centric rather than all about the shops, and Starbucks aside, it contains mainly its own branded restaurants rather than international chains. For those unfamiliar with the Oud Metha district, Wafi is an Egyptian- themed complex, its iconic pyramids making an impression on Dubai's skyline. The newest restaurant on site is W-Grill, a steakhouse with an elegant twist- get all your preconceived ideas of Berni Inn and Aberdeen Angus Steak House out of your head now!

W offers a choice of indoor and outdoor seating, the outdoor seating offering ample views of the famous Wafi light show and not to mention busloads of bewildered tourists looking round in amazement. The indoor seating is the best for savouring the full-on glitz of the restaurant with its Vegas-style chandeliers (plus it's nearer to the buffet!) I was welcomed warmly by W's host, who talked me through the menu and wine list. When I explained I was teetotal, he ensured I was mixed up a bespoke mocktail based on the Mojito. At 30 dhs for a Mocktail, it wasn't the cheapest place in Dubai, plus it was rather watery. For the rest of the evening, I stuck with water.

I passed on the starter as I hate trying a new place and being too full to enjoy the main, so I opted for Seven Vegetables Couscous (pictured) and unlimited visits to the salad bar. The Couscous was fresh, fluffy and packed with veg, it didn't cross my mind to count if there were actually seven vegetables present. My only complaints were it was a tad salty so had to have a Rennie that night, and there was no taste of Harissa present despite saying so on the menu. Harissa is known for its fiery, potent taste so it seems strange that it was omitted or even forgotten from the meal. The salad bar on the other hand was a foodie's paradise. Whatever your palate, there was something there for everyone, a combination of popular mezes, cheeses and salads from the Mediterranean and the Orient. Lebanese favourites like Tabouleh and Mutabal were present, along with Greek Salad, Buffalo Mozzarella salad plus voluptuous aubergines and more. Certain carnivorous delights like steak and grills include the salad bar for free.

Unbelievably, I managed to make some room for the dessert buffet- yes, you heard right, a dessert buffet. At approx 40dhs for all you can eat, the dessert buffet offers more treats than the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. From shot glasses filled with tiramisu to Martini glasses with trifle in, the chefs have really unleashed their creative sides and used their imagination by turning simple desserts into artwork. Small creme brûlées topped with strawberries and petite chocolate cakes complete the beautiful dessert landscape. The secret to perfection lies in the fact that they have used bite size morsels of normally stodgy desserts which enables the diner to let their tastebuds go into overdrive and properly enjoy each cake. For those not wanting to be so sinful, there is more than enough fresh fruit on offer too.

I rounded up the dinner in my usual way, with a potent coffee which didn't fail to disappoint.