Monday, 28 December 2009

New Year's Fizz

It's the time of the year for Champagne. Although we love the stuff, we hardly ever buy it here. It's just too expensive. We would have loved to give you a comparison between different brands, but buying a couple of bottles to test is something our liqour license budget doesn't allow. Therefore, we are going to give you a couple of links to some interesting articles on the subject. You will be able to find some good suggestions and background here:
Most of the major brands are carried by either OUA or African & Eastern, so have a look around. If you're looking for a reasonable, more or less budget Champagne, we would suggest Lanson Black Label Brut. This brand usually offers good value for money. And if you're feeling decadent, why not go for Billecart-Salmon Rosé. It is our favourite rosé Champagne. Quite pricy though, at 50 OMR.

The best option for your budget is probably to skip Champagne altogether and go for a sparkling alternative. There are plenty around, most of them being much cheaper than 'the real thing'. African & Eastern offers the South-African Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel. Ridiculously cheap at 5.900 OMR, and a very decent glass of sparkling wine at that.

Whatever your choice of drink will be on New Year's Eve, we hope you have a splendid evening. And we wish you a very good 2010 with lots of good food and lovely wine.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Modern tradition - The wines of Quinta do Portal

We told you before about our love for port wine. Christmas is a classic opportunity to enjoy some port, and the Taylor's LBV 2003 we suggested earlier may be a good one to enjoy after Christmas dinner. If you wish to spend some serious money on a bottle of port, the Taylor's 20 Year Old Tawny is also a very respectable choice (around 50 OMR at African & Eastern).

While the quality of port is widely recognized, the table wines of the Portuguese Douro Valley are less well known. They deserve better. The wines from this region are beautiful and gaining in quality year after year. Typically, red wines from the Douro are ripe and concentrated with dark fresh fruit, and the whites offer plenty of spice, minerality and (tropical) fruit.

There is only one Douro wine producer available in Oman, which is a pity. Nevertheless, this producer, Quinta do Portal, is interesting enough to give some attention here. It is one of a group of wineries who are at the forefront of the quality explosion of Douro wines in recent years.

Anyone who ever visited the Douro region will appreciate the challenges winemakers face here. The vineyards are extremely steep, as a result of which almost all grapes need to be harvested by hand. The grape varieties are all traditional Portuguese, with names you'll hardly find outside Portugal. Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (which is the same as the Spanish Tempranillo) and Touriga Franca are the most popular ones for both port and wine. Yet, there are also many vineyards with old vines, where a mix of many varieties is planted. It is often unknown which varieties are planted there, many of them being obscure and ancient. These traditional grape varieties (and the large amount of old vines) contribute to the unique taste of Douro wines. In the old days the wines could be a bit rustic (especially whites), but thanks to modern vinification techniques they are now fresh and clean, with plenty of potential.

Quinta do Portal produces a large array of both port and table wines. Only a small selection of these is available through OUA. The Quinta do Portal Douro Branco 2007 is a very good example of a good Douro white. It offers lovely spice and licorice notes, as well as ripe pear and some tropical fruit. It will pare nicely with fish dishes, or even some light meat. It is a pity that its red counterpart, Quinta do Portal Douro Tinto 2003, is a couple of years too old. To give this wine the credit it deserves, you should at least be able to try the 2005 (or younger). Both wines are around 10 OMR, which is on the pricy side. At that price, we would recommend to try the white and wait for a newer vintage of the red. Portal also produces a very good rosé wine, but that is sadly not available here.

OUA also offers two ports from Portal: Fine Tawny and Fine Ruby. Both are basic ports, and although they are quite good in their category, we would love to see some of the better ports on the shelves, such as the Reserve Tawny, or the very nice Late Bottled Vintage.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Food alert - Les Saveurs du Terroir

The guys and girls of Muscat InterContinental are doing a good job in organising interesting theme evenings. Their newest invention is called Saveurs du Terroir. It is aimed at the French (speaking) community, and highlights the regional French cuisine.

There is a Saveurs du Terroir evening every month. The first one was last month, and the second is planned for this coming Tuesday, 15th of December. This month's theme is l'Alsace et sa Choucroute, a three course meal (where sauerkraut is the main attraction of course) costst 25 OMR per person, including a bottle of wine per pair of people.

As far as we're concerned, this is not only interesting for the French, but for everyone who loves the French cuisine.

La Val Alboriño - an update

We've been horribly absent lately. We were busy and away, and then busy again. Our sincere apologies. The coming days will see a number of posts to catch up.

Remember our post on La Val Alboriño, and how disappointed we were? It had mainly to do with the fact that the wine was too old. When we were dining in Restaurant The Edge in Dubai some weeks ago (something we can recommend to anyone who wants to spend a large amount of money on incredibly good food), we were served the 2007 vintage of this wine. It was exactly as we wished the 2006 would be:
This wine from Bodegas La Val is made to reach ultimate freshness. No wood in this wine. The result is a wine that has lovely citrus flavours, the freshness of green apples and a light, spritzy feel. It had weight, but is light at the same time. It's serious fun, so to say.
So if you happen to be in the OUA store, and you stumble across this wine, please do buy a bottle (or two) as long as it's from a recent vintage such as 2007 or 2008. The price is 10.500 OMR, and when the bottle is good, it's worth it.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Our own restaurant awards: Bad Restaurants with Good Reviews

It's a favourite game in Mr. & Mrs. R's household: Guess the Review. Especially the very good reviews of bad restaurants in guides like Oman2Day, Time Out and Oman Explorer are great fun.

Now that the Oman2Day Restaurant Award campaign is in full swing again, we thought of our own award: Oman's worst restaurant with a good review in the guides. We will share our Top 3 with you, and here's the honourable #3:

Time Out is very right in saying that it is "not the food that is the star of the evening" at Trader Vic's, but that doesn't stop them from stating the restaurant "continues to delight diners and drinkers" and "you have all the ingredients for a perfect party." Oman Explorer is just as positive: "Dining here isn't cheap, but for a good night out, it's worth it." We disagree. In our opinion Trader Vic is nothing more than a cattle hall where you pay a premium to have good ingredients wasted. Horrible sauces ruin pieces of prime meat, other dishes are uninspiring, overly salt, and have a special quality of being dry while fat. Thank goodness for the cocktails. You need them to forget the food.

While we are hardly keen on paying another visit to Trader Vic, it is still a decent choice compared to our #2:

According to Oman Explorer, this "award-winning restaurant is ideal for a candlelit dinner for two," and serves "delicious Italian food." Oman2Day urges us to "try the calzone", which we did: a disgusting piece of misery. In all fairness they also state the following: "A very popular place at one time, the restaurant is slowly working its way back in favour." We guess this is an understated way of saying the place is run-down and past its prime. Sad interior, food that makes you cry and a 'wine bar' that's unworthy of the name, O Sole Mio is our proud number 2.

Our #1 left us baffled when we read the reviews after our visit. We ended up in Alauddin Restaurant one evening when we were in desperate need of something to eat after shopping at Home Centre. We ordered some Indian dishes and had a good laugh at the naan bread that looked and tasted as if the chef wiped the sweat of his forehead and kneaded it into the bread. Quite untasty. The rest of the dishes weren't much better (pre-chewed saag paneer anyone?), and we weren't surprised that not many people bothered to find a seat in the seriously dated restaurant. But we were clearly wrong, because according to Oman2Day "there is good reason the company has survived so long," and Oman Explorer tells us that we should "arrive with high expectations of a gastronomic good time (...) a Muscat must." It's a good thing we didn't read this beforehand. Oman Explorer is so convinced by the restaurant's qualities that it states that "you'll be hard pushed to find someone who lives in Muscat and hasn't enjoyed food from Alauddin." Here we are, you found us.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Restaurant Review - Cheese Festival at Musandam Café

We told you before about the Cheese Festival at Muscat InterContinental. It started yesterday, and lasts until the 17th of November. So one week only.

Still full of memories of last year's cheese fest, we made sure to be there the first day. Monsieur Fromagier was happy to see us, and his cheese table looked just as appetising as it did last year. In relation to last year, there was one minor change. The price of the cheese buffet was raised from 10.00 OMR to 15.000 OMR, but it included one free bottle of wine per couple.

The staff of Musandam Café must have listened to our complaints, because this time the complimentary bottle of wine was very decent: a 2005 Barbera d'Asti from Cosseti. A fruity and supple wine.

You can opt to combine the cheese with the regular Musandam buffet. We did not do this, however. We sampled almost every cheese on the table (there were 20+) and enjoyed every bit of it. The fromagier will take very good care of you, once he finds out you are in love with his cheeses. And that will happen. The selection is beautiful. From slightly sweet, soft and creamy goats, to hard mountain cheeses, runny, stinky red bacteria, a mont d'or that could only be eaten with a spoon, and the ripest, most pungent roquefort we've ever seen.

If you are a cheese lover, this event is a must. We will make sure to come back for a second visit this week.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Store Review - Gourmet Station Dubai

We told you about Gourmet Station in Dubai some time ago. We finally managed to visit the store last week.

According to the website of Gourmet Station we could expect deli heaven. The best olive oils, quality foie gras, a wide array of meat and fish and a stunning collection of only the best cheeses.

Can we say we were just the slightest bit disappointed?

Let's, in all fairness, start with the positive notes. The store looks beautiful, and it is great to see so many quality products lined up. From the olive oil of Nuñez de Prado to the chocolates of Valhrona, everything made our mouth water. There's a good selection of tea and coffee as well.

Now where it goes wrong.

The Gourmet Station website says the following:
"...walk right in to over a 100 cheeses that our artisinal cheesemongers have for you"
Ahem, over 100 cheeses? There were five or six. At most. They were good, we have to agree, but it is hardly what you call a serious selection.
"At the cold cuts counter is a delectable range of smoked sausages."
We would have loved some good sausages. They're among the things we miss the most here. But unfortunately, they were not there. None.
"The meat counter at the Gourmet Station is a veritable meat 'fest' with the choicest of fresh meat displayed for the discerning shopper."
Apart from a notification that wagyu burgers could be ordered from the freezer, there was no fresh meat. Not that we would call meat from the freezer 'fresh'... So much for the meat 'fest'.
"For our customers who demand quality and good sourcing, Gourmet Station has an enviable choice of fish from around the globe (...) Fresh octopus, squids, rock lobsters, mussels, cockles, cray fish, scallops, tiger prawns, and a good selection of oysters also crowd our fresh fish counter."
Sounds great. But again, it wasn't there.

What is the matter here? Does Gourmet Station has so little customers that keeping fresh stock is no longer possible? Whas everything sold out by coincidence? Or is it a classic situation of revving up expectations, without being able to live up to them? We are inclined to think it is the latter.

So, the market for a good deli store is still open. Next time we're in the area we will try this place in Abu Dhabi. They promise us the best cheese room in the Middle East. Let's see if it's true.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Wine Review - Jaboulet Gigondas 'Pierre Aiguille' 2006

We felt like drinking a solid autumn wine. It must be our internal system, preconditioned to the European seasons. Autumn storms, falling temperatures and pouring rain all call for dark red, serious wines. A bit silly of course, now the lovely Omani winter weather finally seems to come around, but we couldn't help ourselves. We chose a red wine from the southern-rhône in France: Paul Jaboulet Aîné Gigondas 'Pierre Aiguille' 2006 (OUA – 14.900 OMR).

Gigondas is one of the classic wine appelations in France. The wines are usually robust, spicy and full of dark red fruit. They show similarities to the wines of nearby Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but are less expensive, and therefore good value for money.

OUA stocks several wines from the renowned Rhône producer Paul Jaboulet Aîné, who makes wine all over the region. The house has been around for almost two centuries, and was run as a family business until 2004, when the family decided to sell the business to the Frey's (another famous French wine family, owner of Billecart-Salmon in Champagne and Château La Lagune in Bordeaux). For wine lovers, this take-over was good news, because the spirit seemed to be gone for quite a while, and the wines of Jaboulet hadn't lived up to their reputation since the late 1990's.

The wines of 2006 were the first that were completely made by the new team. Blessed with a very good vintage, the wines make a good impression. The Gigondas 'Pierre Aiguille' is a medium bodied wine, with good fruit (blackcurrant, dark cherries and strawberries), licorice and bay leaf. Its high alcohol level (14,5%) is slightly distracting, but not too much. There is enough stuffing and complexity to make it stand out above the average. It should be capable of ageing for a couple of years, but is also perfectly drinkable now. The price (14.900 OMR) is a bit steep, but compared to other wines locally available, still worth it. It would also be a good choice in a restaurant, as this wine is makes a great combination to strong meat, such as beef tenderloin, or lamb stew.

If you have problems paying this kind of money for a bottle of wine, you could opt for the more affordable Côte du Rhône 'Parallèle 45', which is perfectly acceptable, although a bit on the lean and simple side. Our preference would be to pay a few rials extra. It gives you the sense of autumn, without having to stand the rain. Not so bad, is it?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Restaurant Review - Tuscany

If you would ask us about the biggest bottleneck for restaurants in Muscat, we would answer: Consistency. There is a select group of potentially very good restaurants, but we've had disappointing experiences in each and every one of them.

Tuscany, the uber-kitsch Italian restaurant of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, is perhaps the place where we've seen the largest fluctuations in the quality of food. After a very lackluster dinner some time ago we decided to avoid the restaurant for a while. But recently we heard reports that the kitchen crew is back in form. Time to check.

One of the funniest things about eating in Tuscany is sitting in the slightly higher area, under the 'authentic Italian' dome. The construction of the dome has the strange acoustic effect that sounds at the exact opposite of the dome are amplified to such an extend that you end up eavesdropping on other tables, whether you want it or not. If you ever plan to discuss some private matters over the course of an intimate dinner, we recommend sitting somewhere else.

But what matters is the food, of course. We began with two impressive starters. Marinated scallops with speck, green asparagus and capsicum cream was very satisfying and delicate. This dish always has a risk of the speck overpowering the scallops, but the balance was perfect here. The dish that really stole our hearts was homemade prosciutto of duck breast, with fava bean mousse and balsamic-marinated radicchio. The duck was lovely on its own, but paired with the bitter-acidic radicchio and soft-creamy fava beans it was lifted to great heights. A wonderful explosion of tastes. This was followed by an equally impressive pasta dish: spaghetti with vongole. When prepared to perfection, simplicity becomes art. It's been a long time since we ate such a simple dish that was so full of flavour. Gorgeous.

None of the main courses could live up entirely to the expectations set by what we had so far. Lamb loin with fennel and rocket lettuce was pleasant, but a bit high in acidity. A nice, creamy scoop of mashed potatoes would have been most welcome. Beef tenderloin, served with a fontina / eggplant pie, was a beautiful piece of meat. Very tender, and full of taste. We loved the fact that the chef was confident enough to let the meat speak for itself, and not spoil it with an overdose of salt. The fontina / eggplant pie, on the other hand, was rather tasteless.

Desserts were disappointing. A limoncello semifreddo was boring, and whatever taste it had was completely overpowered by the strawberries that were served alongside. A dish of chocolate mousse, chocolate cake and strawberries (again) was better, but not very daring.

Tuscany's wine list offers a good selection, although it would be good to see vintages listed on the menu. This is a problem of almost every restaurant's wine list though.

We were happy to see the chef has indeed regained his form. Keep it up and we'll be back. But we may just skip dessert.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cheese Festival - 10-17 November 2009

Attention cheeseheads, mark these dates in your agenda: from 10 until 17 November the Muscat InterContinental Hotel will host their annual Cheese Festival.

Although this means another visit to the Musandam Restaurant, we strongly recommend a visit to this event. We went last year, and it was a true cheese feast. A fromagier from France is flown in, together with his beautiful collection of cheeses. Forget about Brie Président and Danish Blue for one night, and enjoy true artisan French cheeses.

See you there.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Restaurant Review - Left Bank

Never eat in a hip restaurant. It is a lesson that we learned long ago. There seems to be a negative correlation between level of hipness and quality of food.

Left Bank may well be Muscat's hippest hangout. We understand its appeal. It is quite possibly the only place in Muscat that is not part of a hotel, is licensed to sell alcohol, has a nice atmosphere and has a great outside seating area. We like going there for a drink or two, but have always been disappointed by the food. Even to such an extend, that if people wanted to meet there, we'd make sure we had dinner before, just to avoid the frustration of having to put Left Bank's food into our mouths.

But we felt the restaurant deserved another chance. So we revisited last week. We brought some friends along, in order to be able to try as many dishes from the menu as we could. The starters were a mixed bag. A dish of fried salmon with black olive tapenade tasted alright, but overcooked. Feta and pumpkin salad was very basic, but not all bad; the pumpkin was horribly overcooked and the feta tasted more like yoghurt, but the combination did sort of work, in a twisted way. It went downwards with a fried lump of Goat's Cheese (which could have been alright if it wouldn't have been the only thing on the plate) and Falafel of sweet potatoes with mint sauce. Nothing wrong with the mint sauce, but the falafel were a terrible mistake. Mashed into a glue-like substance, moulded into rounds and fried. This had nothing to do with falafel and tasted more or less like, well, snot.

It didn't improve much with the main courses. The House Salad was nothing more than a pile of green leaves. Hard to do anything wrong there, but hardly exciting either. Fish & Chips are alright, but taste like they've been left on the counter a bit too long before serving. A piece of Salmon Steak was served on beautifully cooked, crispy snow peas and green beans. The salmon itself was overcooked. Again. It was accompanied by a butter/chardonnay sauce, that was overly fat as well as extremely sour, due to an excessive amount of lemon juice. All in all, not a very succesfull dish, although it was not nearly as bad as the Chicken breast, stuffed with ricotta, spinach, turkey bacon and sun-dried tomatoes, served with sautéed potatoes and mushroom cream sauce. Sounds like a lovely mediterranean dish, doesn't it? Although you could wonder what a mushroom sauce has to do with it. Unfortunately, it didn't taste half as sunny as it sounded. It was a mess. The chicken breast was dry, the turkey didn't add any flavour but salt, the sun-dried tomatoes were unrecognizable, and mushrooms added an earthy flavour that was highly unpleasant. We could also moan about the spinach not being part of the stuffing (as promised) but served underneath, but we really don't think it would have mattered. This dish summed up all the reasons why we haven't eaten here for such a long time.

Due to an upcoming menu change, there were not many desserts available. But we could get some crème brûlée outside of the menu. It was a bit too stiff, but not too bad.

We tried it. But we are quite sure that we will never dine in Left Bank again. If food makes you angry, it is better not to eat it. Now that the cooler months are coming in, we will go there for a drink though. Nothing wrong with those.

Monday, 28 September 2009


Beer and Bratwurst. And maybe a Pretzel or two to wash things down. All this in the Hyatt (Rooftop Grill) from October 20th to 29th. We'll be there!

Oktoberfest 2009

Celebrate the introduction of the non-stop flights with Oman Air to Munich and Frankfurt this October at Rooftop Grill House. Ten days filled with German delicacies, traditional beverages and a German band, playing the best of Oktoberfest songs all the way from Munich. Get a taste of Germany at Rooftop Grill House first, before heading to Germany!

From the 20th of October to the 29th of October, the Rooftop Grill House is the place to be. An evening will cost you only R.O. 30.000++ per person and will be filled with entertainment from the Oompah band from Munich, traditional German beverages served by waiters dressed in Lederhosen and Dirndls and a Chef Matz-Momme from Grand Hyatt Berlin showcasing his best German cuisine.

Enjoy an all-inclusive night from October 20 to October 29 at the Oktoberfest with the special menu, unlimited German traditional beverages and many other surprises for R.O. 30.000++ only per person.

Wine Review - Taylor's Late Bottled Vintage Port 2003

We love Port. By far the largest percentage of wines in our cellar is Port, we tend to visit the Portuguese Douro region (where the Port grapes are grown) at least once a year and it's the wine that gives us the most drinking pleasure. Yet, until now we haven't written one word about Port on this blog. How is that possible? Well, frankly there isn't much to write about when it comes to Oman and Port.

It makes us sad to look at the selection of Port wines. OUA stocks the Ports of Cockburn, the producer of the world's best selling port Cockburn Special Reserve. We never liked this Port, but heard they improved the blend, so we will give it another try soon. African & Eastern is even worse. Although they are blessed to have Taylor's Port in their portfolio, they hardly ever seem to have anything in stock. A while ago we found some bottles of Taylor's Late Bottled Vintage 2003, but they had clearly been leaking (perhaps due to heat or poor storage – if you ever see this, don't buy). Some weeks later we saw one good bottle, so bought it.

We understand that Port can be confusing for many people. We can explain the different types here, but that would take some space. Better have a look here if you need some extra information.

Taylor's is one of the world's best producers of Port. Their Vintage Port is highly praised, and the overall quality of the rest of the range isn't bad either. It is a pity therefore that their Late Bottled Vintage (LBV in short – a ruby type Port that is aged in barrel for 4-6 years) is a bit of a letdown. When it comes to LBV, there are two 'religions'. There are those that bottle the Port unfiltered after giving it the minimal time in barrel. This results in a powerful, young Port that is well capable of ageing in bottle. It will throw sediment after some time in bottle. And there are those that believe LBV should be ready for consumption straight after bottling. To reach this, they age the port a bit longer in barrel (usually 5 to 6 years) and filter it before bottling. This is a smoother, more easily accessible type of LBV. It will not improve with bottle age. Taylor uses the latter method. The result is a Port that is often a bit bland, and lacking in character.

That said, the 2003 LBV is not a bad effort. 2003 was a powerhouse vintage. The hot, dry weather led to overconcentrated, jammy wines in many parts of Europe, but didn't do such harm in the Douro, where the vines are used to heat and draught. The wines from 2003 are powerful, full of ripe fruit and with lots of tannins. The 2003 LBV clearly profited from the quality of the vintage. It is fairly structured, with some good dark fruit flavours (cherry, blackberry and blueberry) and a hint of (milk) chocolate. Do drink this slightly cooled (18ºC at most), otherwise the heat from the alcohol will show too much, and it will also display some distracting candied flavours.

Although we would love to see a better display of Port wines in the liqour stores, we don't mind drinking the Taylor's LBV 2003 from time to time. You could do better, but certainly worse as well.

Monday, 14 September 2009

A Moroccan olive oil: Desert Miracle

A while back, we wrote about the difficulty of finding good olive oil in Muscat (see here). You can imagine it brought a smile to our face when we saw a new offering at our local Al Fair. An extra virgin olive oil from Morocco, called Desert Miracle (3.950 OMR for 500ml). It is produced by Atlas Olive Oils, a company that is situated at the foot of, you guessed it, the Atlas mountain range. The company is serious about quality and produces only extra virgin oils. Desert Miracle has a maximum acidity level of 0.2%. Such quality-mindedness is rare and deserves to be praised. This is what the company has to say about it themselves:

At Atlas Olive Oils we guarantee and commit ourselves to produce only extra virgin grade and never a combination of extra virgin olive oil with virgin oil or refined oil. We refuse to produce for outside parties bringing low quality olives to our crushing mill. We are highly concerned about achieving the highest quality standards: we prefer to produce smaller quantities of high end prestigious olive oils rather than large quantities of medium and cheap olive oils (lampante, refined, or only virgin). In this context, our usually maximum acidity is 0.2° level. We use the cold-press method and add no chemicals and almost no heat assistance.

We test our extra virgin olive oil using the Olive Oil Council accredited methods which allow us to select and retain only the highest rated olive oils coming from our own groves. Integrity is the key to our success and only by strictly respecting what is written on the bottle’s label can we keep up with our centenary tradition and authoritativeness that built our reputation. These are the secrets of an ultra-premium extra virgin olive oil that cannot be substituted.

We admit that we never tasted a (good) olive oil from Morocco before, so were excited to see how it was. We were pleasantly surprised. While oils from southern countries can be heavy and cloying, this has a beautiful light golden colour and it smells of fresh cut grass and green apples. To taste it is soft and rich, nutty and slightly peppery. A very good olive oil. If you're looking for a really fresh oil, it may be better to look for something Italian or French, but we do like this fuller style as well. Lovely with some bread and sea salt, but also great to use as dressing for salads or to enhance the taste of your dish.

Our experience is that good products don't last long on the shelves in Muscat. So you'd better hurry to Al Fair and stock up.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Cool down, drink sherry!

A duff housewife's drink. Bought in jugs and consumed by the barrel. Cheap, nasty and utterly uncool. Yes, the Spanish region of Jerez (Sherry in English) did a good job in ruining its own image. Just like German Riesling and Port, Sherry flooded the market with cheap, vile plonk. And when the housewifes lost interest (perhaps shifting to cheap sweet rosé wines), the Sherry region had a problem. Nobody wanted their product, even though there were plenty quality-oriented producers, making some very good wines.

It took some time, but Sherry is working on a comeback. Since a number of years it is impossible to visit a trade tasting and not stumble across a stand of the Sherry Promotion Board, where you will be invited to taste the different varieties, and see how well they combine with food. Sherry wants to position itself as a quality product, a serious wine, more than just an aperitive: good company to food. And it's working. More and more we see sommeliers in quality restaurants suggest a glass of sherry with a certain dish. In the consumer market, it proves to be more difficult to get rid of the bad image, but we think it's just a matter of time before people will embrace this special drink once again.

There are many styles of Sherry, but for now we focus on Fino, the type that is most commonly found. Some short background: Sherry is grown in the Spanish region Andalucia, around three towns, of which Jerez de la Frontèra is the best known. Fino Sherry is made from the grape variety Palomino, and brandy is added after the fermentation to reach an alcohol level of approximately 15,5%. It is always bone dry. A Fino can only be a Fino if a curious natural incident takes place: the forming of a layer of yeast cells on top of the ageing wine. This is called Flor del Vino. The layer of Flor protects the wine from oxidation and gives a special aroma to the wine. After a minimal ageing period of three years the wine can be sold.

In order to create constant quality throughout the years, a special ageing method has been developed, called solera (we mentioned this earlier here). The wines are stored in oak casks, that are stacked in pyramid shapes. The bottom layer consists of the oldest wine, and the top of the youngest. If the company wishes to bottle an amount of sherry, they take this from the bottom layer of casks. The amount that is taken out (never more than one third of the cask), is refilled with the content of the second layer, et cetera.

The two most common brands of Fino Sherry available to us are and Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe (OUA) and Lustau Puerto Solera Reserva (African & Eastern). Both are around 7.000 - 7.500 OMR. Tio Pepe is the world's largest sherry brand, and it is admirable that they manage to keep it of constant, high quality year after year. It is light and delicate, with a distinctive scent of almonds, slightly silty with some fresh apples and a racy, dry finish. The Lustau Puerto Solera is a bit fuller in comparison, though still quite delicate. Also showing plenty of typical nuttiness, combined with silty aromas, some cookie dough, straw and green apples. Very well balanced.

Both Sherries are lovely, and are great as aperitive with some green olives or smoked almonds. But you can also enjoy them with seafood or tapas. One thing is for sure. They are very refreshing, and are a great way to cool down until the temperatures finally come down in about a month's time. Drink them chilled, and feel cool.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Restaurant Review - Tokyo Taro

Muscat is seafood heaven. No doubt about that. Even though there are worrying signs of decreasing numbers of fish in the local waters (due to last year's red tide, and large scale fishing), the quality and quantity is still astonishing. The perfect surroundings for a sushi restaurant. Just leave it to the Japanese to make the best out of our tuna, hammour, kingfish, etc.

Although there are a couple of places that serve sushi (Japengo being the newest addition), Tokyo Taro is Muscat's only truly specialised Japanese restaurant. Its setting is hardly inspiring, inside the run-down Al Falaj Hotel. The interior is basic, but once you step inside, you feel you are in the right place. It is usually filled with Japanese, which we think is a good sign.

Normally, we stick to sushi and sashimi in Tokyo Taro. The quality is unequalled in Oman. Beautiful cuts of fresh fish. Tuna, our favourite, is only available in season. Another good sign. The only thing we don't understand, is why salmon is a regular feature on the sushi menu. It is one of the few non-local items on show, and there have been a few times we weren't sure of its freshness.

You can also order teppanyaki dishes, but we are never really impressed by those. Tokyo Taro excells in raw fish preparations, and that is enough reason to visit the restaurant regularly. It may be Muscat's only Japanese restaurant, but with quality like this, it is all you need.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Restaurant Review - Capri Court

For some reason we can't explain, a large portion of the better restaurants in the city is Italian styled. In the mid-range category we have Come Prima and Tomato, and there are two good high-end Italian restaurants: Tuscany (of which a review will surely follow one day) and Capri Court. You will not hear us complain. The Italian kitchen is arguably one of the richest in the world, and while often based on relatively simple recipes, well-performed dishes can reach astonishing heights. Freshness, purity and quality of ingredients are crucial. But they can also go dangerously wrong, and this night we experienced both.

Capri Court is situated in Shangri-La's Al Bandar Hotel, and is the hotel's signature restaurant. Chef de Cuisine Mario Prestigiovanni is in charge since 2008 and has surprised us before with some very well-made dishes. It was a relatively cool evening when we visited and some people dared to sit outside, but we chose the cooler, ultra-stylish dining room.

Looking at the menu we felt a sense of disappointment. There were hardly any changes from our last visit, about a year ago. Why is it that restaurants in Muscat have such a hard time in bringing variety to their menus? Laziness? We don't know how else to explain it.

Mr. R opted to start with minestrone, a classic Italian hearty vegetable soup. We once had a superb version in Gordon Ramsay's Verre Restaurant in Dubai, an experience the chefs of Capri Court couldn't top. The soup was ok, but nothing more than that. Mrs. R's tuna carpaccio fared better. The term carpaccio is actually misleading for this dish. You would expect raw tuna, but it was slow roasted instead. More like roast beef. Nevertheless, it was a fine and delicate dish.

Next came a risotto with porcini and truffles. Oh boy, this was good. The risotto perfectly al dente, the truffles aromatic and savoury, and the porcini earthy and flavourful. Stunning.

Our main was a beef tenderloin, again with truffles, as well as with foie gras. A decadent, and rich dish. But one with some serious defects. First, the accompanying sauce was much too salt, nearly ruining the well cooked meat. Second, the truffle, that was so incredibly aromatic in the risotto was hardly noticeable here. And last, the dish lacked a good potato side. It came with a meagre biscuit, where the rich flavours screamed for a lovely, creamy portion of mashed potatoes. All in all rather unsatisfactory.

From the decent, but pricy wine list, we chose a bottle of Le Stanze 2002 from Poliziano. This wine comes from vineyards near the village of Montepulciano in Tuscany. It's a blend of Cabarnet Sauvignon and Merlot. The 2002 vintage was very difficult in most of Europe, and Italy was no exception. The advantage is that wines from this vintage can be enjoyable a few years earlier than wines from better years such as 2001 and 2004. But the tricky part comes when winemakers try to compensate the mediocre quality of their grapes with excessive use of oak. And that is exactly what happened here. The result is a wine that tastes like, you guessed it, oak. It was priced at 64.500 OMR. Far too much, if you ask us.

The list of deserts looked rather obligatory, so we decided to skip those.

In conclusion, an evening of serious ups and downs. We were rather disappointed with the overall experience, as we were much more positive the last time we visited this restaurant. It seems like the kitchen crew needs a fresh dose of inspiration. The potential is there, as the sublime risotto shows. Please give us more like that.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Oman to become member of "Chaîne des Rôtisseurs"

We were on holiday when this news came out, so many thanks to Friend R. for bringing this to our attention.

The Sultanate of Oman is about to be inaugurated as a member of the worldwide gastronomic association Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. The Chaîne is an "international gastronomic society dedicated to bringing together both professional and non-professional members worldwide, who appreciate and share a mutual interest in cuisine, wine and fine dining."

See this article in The Week of August 25:
The sultanate is soon to become a member of the world famous Chaine des Rôtisseurs, an international gastronomic society with over 25,000 members worldwide.

The inauguration of the Chaine des Rôtisseurs society in Oman will be on November 14. It is dedicated to bringing together professional and non-professional members from around the world who appreciate cuisine and fine dining. “It is an elite society for people involved in gastronomy,” says Dana Sarhan, one of the founding members of the chapter.

Joachim Caula, a master chocolatier and confectionery chef, will be the president of the society in Oman, or the 'Charge de Missions, Bailliage of Oman'. The purpose of bringing the society to Oman is “to spread fine cuisine,” says Caula.

The society holds a number of events including food competitions for young chefs under the age of 27, which can help upcoming chefs with their careers.

It is hoped that the society will highlight the talent of the sultanate's chefs. “Chefs don't really appreciate their work here. Middle Eastern chefs don't have a big domain, but it can change. We can give them a better image”, says Caula.

It is a members-only club and membership is by invitation only.
This may be an important step in bringing the level of gastronomy in the Sultanate to a higher level, something that is very necessary if the country wishes to compete in the international high-end tourism market.

We truly hope the founding of the Omani branch of the society brings a positive impulse towards a more lively gastronomic scene in the country. We will definitely keep a keen and critical eye on the developments. And, of course, we would be honoured to be invited as members.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

PX - Sweet, Sticky, Delicious

We're back from summer break. And although it may be wise to stay away from excess calories for a while (we don't know how you spend your holidays, but you can usually find us in restaurants and local delicatessen shops), we couldn't resist this unusual gem when we saw it.

PX (or Pedro Ximénez in full) isn't a partularly fashionable drink, but we are hooked to it. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to find one of the best wines in this category in our local African & Eastern shop.

Pedro Ximénez is a white grape variety, grown in several parts of the world, but home to southern Spain, where it is mostly found in the DO Montilla-Moriles. Although the grape is also used to make dry white wines, it is most famed for its sweet, fortified wines. After harvest, the grapes are dried in the sun for several days, in order to concentrate the sugar. Next, they are pressed, and after a partial fermentation, alcohol is added, leaving the wine with plenty natural sugars and an alcohol level of 15-17%. Finally the wine is transferred to oak casks, where it undergoes oxidative ageing. The longer it ages, the more concentrated the flavour will be. It is not unusual for PX wines to age for 20 years or more. The result is so mouth-filling and intense, that a single glass is enough to leave you satisfied. Thanks to the oxidative nature of the wine, and the high sugar level, it is no problem to keep an open bottle of PX for weeks or even months, so you don't have to feel guilty for not finishing the bottle in one go. But do remember to keep the bottle in the fridge.

One of Montilla-Moriles' most famed producers is Bodegas Toro Albalá. Their Don PX Gran Reserva is highly praised by the international wine press, year after year. This wine is made from one particular vintage (many of the wines in the region are made with the solera system - more on that later), and the current vintage for sale at African & Eastern is 1979.

If you look at the wine, you wonder how it could ever have been made from white grapes. It most resembles the colour of motor oil: dark brown, turning to black and very viscous. The smell of concentrated raisins, combined with the fresness of mint and (dried) citrus is spellbinding. This freshness is important, because it makes sure that the taste isn't overly sweet or cloying. It is - in fact - drinking remarkably easy, with intense tastes of molasses, raisin, chocolate and a refreshing acidic finish. Great stuff.

Over the years, we have tried numerous vintages of this wine. And although the 1979 is a very good example, it isn't as complex as earlier releases, such as 1975, 1972 and 1971. Fortunately, we found one bottle of the 1971 in between the other bottles. No idea if there is more stock, but we recommend checking it out. It will give you a bit more fruit on the palate, with notably figs and prunes, and a slightly better balance.

And the price? It may surprise you that you can find such a great, 30-year old wine for as little as 11.500 OMR per half bottle. As long as these wonderful wines don't hit the marks with the big public, prices will remain ridiculously low. As a result, you can even find a relative bargain here in Oman, where wine shopping normally is a pain in the wallet.

It may take a bit longer before we trained off all those holiday pounds, but we couldn't possibly stop drinking PX. It just tastes too good.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Our favourite coffees

Time Out Dubai gives some welcome attention to Raw Coffee Company. Of course, we already knew they were very good, but it is difficult to get hold of their coffee in Muscat, unless you are willing to order by mail. So here is a top 5 of our favourite alternatives (all are espresso blends):
  1. Caffé Vergnano - As far as we know, this is only available at the counter of the Caffé Vergnano Coffeeshop in Al Khuwair. It's worth the drive to get a couple of tins though. Lovely dense flavour, strong and dark, but with a smooth edge. We love it. (3.300 OMR for 250gr.)
  2. Marks & Spencer's Fairtrade - We wrote about this coffee before. It doesn't quite match the flavour intensity of Caffé Vergnano, but still a very good cup of coffee, and being fairtrade is a big plus as well. (2.200 OMR for 225gr.)
  3. Waitrose Italian Espresso - Fairly new in Al Fair's range, this coffee is a welcome addition to the scene. It may not reach the heights of our top 2, but being available in more than one outlet counts for something as well. (2.650 OMR for 250gr.)
  4. Illy - It may well be the best coffee of this bunch. Incredibly concentrated, strong, with flavours of dark chocolate and a bitter yet balanced finish. It doesn't make our top 3 for two reasons: 1, it's only available Illy Coffeeshops (we only know one in MSQ) and 2, it's very expensive. (4.500 OMR for 250gr.)
  5. Lavazza - Frankly, we don't like this coffee as much as the others. It is ground quite coarse, what causes it to drip too fast in our machine. The result is a watered down taste. Still decent though, and the fact that it is usually available when we can't find any of the others, is a plus. (Available in different stores, various prices but usually around 2.000 OMR for 250gr.)

Monday, 29 June 2009

Restaurant Review - Come Prima

It's been years since we had last been to Come Prima, the Italian-styled restaurant of Muscat's Crowne Plaza Hotel. We didn't even live in Oman yet, but were guests in the hotel. We remembered the food being decent, but nothing special. The atmosphere wasn't anything special either. It resembled a dressed-up classroom. At best.

What a surprise when we walked through the doors of the restaurant this week. Come Prima is completely revamped and now boasts a modern, sleek look. Very nice. The friendly staff serves a plate with a tasty variety of breads, accompanied by tapenade and olive oil.

It is impossible not to compare this restaurant with Tomato, the terrace restaurant of the InterContinental Hotel. Both are Italian-styled, and both are (more or less) in the same price range. So let's compare: Tomato is very nicely situated, but Come Prima has outside seating with a beautiful view (both are closed during the hot summer months), Come Prima serves better bread, and has an attractive wine list, something Tomato lacks. And most important: the food at Come Prima is much better.

We start with a carpaccio of bresaola, which is served with rocket salad, and parmesan cheese. It's seasoning is perfect in its simplicity: some good olive oil, lemon juice and fresh pepper. A dish that is true to Italian heritage. Pure and simple food, that gets its flavour from good ingredients. No unnecessary stuff on your plate. Where Tomato's carpaccio is spoiled by a big pile of mushrooms, this only gives you what you need. And that's more than enough. Mrs. R enjoys a dish of seared scallops with porcini and red wine reduction. A nice set of flavours, but a little high on salt. This is probably due to the fact that the scallops were salted before they went into the pan. Not only concentrates this the salty flavour, it also withdraws the juice from the scallops, making them drier than they should be. Still, it is a fine dish.

Mr. R tests one of the pasta dishes (open ravioli, with scampis, squid and tomatoes, served with bisque), and Mrs. R tries the loin of lamb with a crust of basil and pine nuts, served with green asparagus. The ravioli is divine. Lovely, ultrathin sheets of pasta, with a good dose of seafood. The star of the dish is the bisque. Strong, concentrated and packed with flavour. It could easily be too much to handle if there weren't a couple of tomatoes and some leaves of basil to add freshness. Mrs. R's lamb is seared to perfection, and the dish would have been a winner if the asparagus weren't overcooked and if the jus would have had a bit more character.

Although we were pretty stuffed at this point, we couldn't leave without dessert. The Tiramisu is another winner, and bodes better than the Crème Brûlée, which suffers from an overly thick sugar crust. But thenagain, who would actually want to order a French dessert in an Italian restaurant?

Coffee is on the house. A very nice gesture, but even without this, we were already won over by the Italian charm of Come Prima.

From the well-sorted wine list, we drank a Muscadet Sèvre et Maine 2006, from Chéreau Carré. A fresh and affordable white from the French Loire Valley (18.000 OMR on the wine list). There are many mediocre, acidic wines from this region, but this is a good example. The wine shows some pretty fresh citrus fruit, and is slightly silty and spicy.

It is clear. Come Prima wins hand down from Tomato. And we will be sure to come back in the cooler months. A dinner on the balcony looks very tempting. A good glass of wine, a great view and a true taste of Italy. We can't wait.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Restaurant Review - Musandam Café (Provencal Week)

Anyone who has ever been to the Provence will remember the beautiful fields, filled with lavender, the aromas of fresh herbs and lovely, old villages, where you can have eat wonderful regional dishes accompanied by vast amounts of cheap, enjoyable wine. A good idea, therefore, to bring a bit of Provencal spirit to Muscat.

This week, the French Embassy and the Muscat InterContinental Hotel organised a Provencal Week, including a Provencal Theme Menu in Musandam Café. Michelin-starred, and Provence-based chef Daniel Hebet was asked to compose a five-course menu (14.000 OMR per person, including one bottle of wine per couple).

It is impossible to feel anything close to a Provencal spirit if you walk into Musandam Café, InterContinental's buffet restaurant. At best, it has the atmosphere of the coffee room of an elderly home. The (complimentary) wine didn't help to get in the mood either. A bottle each of lukewarm white and rosé awaited us. The white, although simple and too old (it was from 2005), was quaffable, but the rosé was a disgrace. It was from 2004, which is about three to four years too old for almost any rosé, and certainly for a simple Vin de Pays d'Oc. Brown in colour, and tasting of rust, this was undrinkable. When asking for a red alternative, we were presented with a J.P. Chenet. Now, we wouldn't expect anything other than simple wine as a complimentary bottle with a menu of this price. And there's nothing wrong with that. But J.P. Chenet!? Surely, they could have done better than that?

It was clear that this evening wouldn't be remembered for its wine, so let's move on to the food. The starter of chickpea soup, infused with lemon oil was a nice surprise. Creamy, yet fresh and light, thanks to the lemon. The second dish, terrine of rabbit with green olive tapenade, pesto and anchovy paste, showed a nice combination. Sadly, it was served too cold, which muted the flavours, and the rabbit could have been more tender. Still, quite nice, and certainly better than the main course: grilled tuna steak, sauteed onions, olive oil mashed potatoes and a light tomato cream. It's not that there's anything plain wrong with the dish, it's just a bit tasteless. The tuna had hardly seen a pan, which we liked, but not all members of our group agreed. Worse, it was short on taste, and therefore easily overpowered by the onions. The fact that Mrs. R found a chunk of the dark, bitter part of the tuna steak on her plate, didn't do any good either. The tomato cream was possibly the best part of the dish. Nice an pure, and a good match with the fish. Cheese consisted of a tasty piece of chevre, accompanied by some sprigs of thyme (rosemary according to the menu) and caramelized garlic. Just like the rabbit, this was served too cold, but very nice otherwise.

Dessert had the best surprise in store: a tasty strawberry, coated with candied sugar, tasted both delicate and lucious. It came together with a well-made crème brûlée.

So, was it a success? Yes and No. InterContinental deserves praise for organising these kinds of events. They bring liveliness to the culinary scene, and that's desperately needed in Muscat. But at the same time, it could be so much better. With just a little bit more care for detail, the overall level of the experience could be much higher. Keep up the good work, but keep improving!

Monday, 15 June 2009

Provencal food in Muscat InterContinental

From the 17th to the 24th of June the Muscat InterContinental Hotel hosts a Provencal and Côte d'Azur theme week. Next to a painting exhibition, there will be a Provence Culinary Week in the Musandam Café, supervised by the French Michelin-starred chef Daniel Hebet. Hopefully his dishes will make us forget about the hardly uplifiting surroundings of the Musandam Café. We will, of course, pay a visit and report back.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The wines of Musar - a special treat

We promised you here to give a bit of extra attention to the wines of Château Musar. So here we go.

Château Musar is the best known wine estate from Lebanon, and belongs to the top worldwide. The story of Musar is closely related to both ancient as recent history. Although the estate was founded in the 1930's, Lebanese winemaking goes back much further; there are even references to be found in the old testament of the Bible. The country's wine region is the Bekaa Valley, an area that had much to suffer during the days of the civil war, and where the current situation is quite unstable as well. However difficult the situation, the Hochar family, who owns Château Musar, never stopped producing wine. A miracle in itself. Click here for a very interesting article about the history of Musar and its wines.

The estate's top wine is simply called Château Musar. A red, white and rosé is made. We tested the red and white. These wines are very different from others in the sense that they are typically not fruit-driven, but very structured and built for the long haul. Both are usually only released 7 or 8 years after the harvest, and are capable of ageing much longer.

The Château Musar Blanc 1999 we drank recently (OUA - 12.300 OMR) was very a-typical, golden in colour, with tones of dried citrus, butter, nuts, cookie dough and spices (star aniseed, cloves, bay leave). It will never be a crowd-pleaser, but if you are interested in thinking out of the box, you will certainly find it interesting. Do drink with food though.

The current vintage of Château Musar Rouge is also 1999 (OUA - 18.500 OMR). It is a medium-bodied red, with an earthy, spicy profile, filled with dark fruit and oriental spices. Although, supple, it is by no means easy, and will be able to age graciously. Some time ago we also tasted the 1995 Rouge (not available in stores here) and it was a completely different beast: a very thick, almost agressive nose, with lots of acidic red fruit and prunes. To taste it was a bit nervous, with lots of acidity, redcurrant, and tobacco notes. A difficult wine. Of the two, the 1999 will be easier to win the hearts of people.

Musar also produces a more affordable wine, designated as Cuvée. We tried the Cuvée Rouge 2004. None of Musar's reds are deeply coloured, and neither is this. Although this wine is made from Cabarnet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault (all grapes that are able of producing very concentrated wines), it is more akin to a Pinot Noir in both colour and scent. It has a beautiful nose of red- and blackcurrant and forest floor. It is light-bodied, buth full of flavour. There is plenty of ripe fruit, nice acidity and a peppery tannic finish. At 5.200 OMR (OUA) this is great value.

Knowing that much of the Lebanese culture is about food, it will come as no surprise that all of these wines perform best at the dinner table. But the Cuvée Rouge will also do fine on its own. You might want to try it slightly chilled, to ensure optimal freshness.

The wines of Château Musar are relatively widely available here, both in stores and restaurants. A good excuse to give them a try sometime soon. They deserve your attention.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Balsamic with a twist

Dates are undoubtly Oman's greatest gastronomic gift. The minute we arrived in Oman, several people made it very clear to us that dates are important to the Omani and that Omani dates are the best. And don't try to start an argument about that. We know now that they were right. Omani dates are lovely, and at this time of year we'll start to see the fresh dates again. They are a treat.

Dates can be found almost anywhere, and there even is a true Date Gourmet Shop in the Oasis at the Sea mall in Shatti, called Bateel. Granted, it is not Omani of origin, but they sell nice stuff nevertheless. They sell dates, of course, but also a range of date-inspired products. One of those is a Date Balsamic Vinegar. There are two versions, a 6-year old and a 10-year old. Both are fine vinegars. Syrupy and sweet, with singing acidity. The 10-year old version is a bit thicker and more complex, but the difference isn't enormous. These are not vinegars that you will use any day of the week. For one, they are simply to thick to use on your average salad. But try a drop with some Parmesan (the real one!) It's a great combination. You can also use it to complete a fine dish. The 6-year old costs 5.000 OMR per bottle (100ml). Not exactly cheap, but good balsamic always comes at a price.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Restaurant Review - The Beach Restaurant

It is quite possibly Muscat's most beautiful hotel: The Chedi. Understated, luxurious, with an overwhelming sense of serenity and exclusivity. And while it lacks the dramatic setting of the Barr al Jissah Resort and Al Bustan Hotel, the location of The Beach Restaurant -smack on the beach- isn't too fussy either.

This isn't our first visit to The Beach Restaurant, we've been before and liked it better than The Restaurant, the flagship restaurant of the hotel, where we found the level of cooking to be very variable. Our previous visit to The Beach was in January. It was a little disappointing to see that the menu hadn't changed since.

The amuse, a delicate small bisque of scampi, was full of flavour and well-made. A good start. Mrs. R chose a starter of grilled cuttlefish, fresh citrus fruit and coriander, a dish that looked and tasted like it came straight out of a Jamie Oliver book. Nothing wrong with that, but you'd expect a bit more from a restaurant at this level. Mr. R's lobster risotto, with slices of vacuum cooked lobster tail was very nice. The risotto could have done with slightly less cream, but other than that it was a treat. As mains we chose steamed turbot and lobster ravioli, served with preserved lemon and fresh tomatoes and line caught seabass with seared foie gras. The seabass was slightly overcooked, which made it just a tad dry. A pity, because in its essence it was a fine dish. Beautiful, flavourful fish, accompanied by the slightly bitter foie gras and a creamy, fresh sauce that added a touch of acidity. Mrs. R's turbot could also have done with a minute less in the pan. Again a very nice combination. Fresh, with the lobster adding some body to the dish.

Our choice of wine was a bottle of Chateau Musar White Wine 1999 from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon (38.000 OMR from the wine list). A very a-typical white wine, golden in colour, with tones of dried citrus, butter, nuts, cookie dough and spices (star aniseed, cloves, bay leave). We'll pay some more attention to the wines of Musar in a seperate topic, as they surely deserve that.

Nothing from the dessert list made our mouths water, so we decided to skip that.

Pricing is somewhat more friendly than Barr al Jissah's Sultanah. You could do three courses with a glass of house wine for about 35.000 OMR. In terms of quality we felt it wasn't that much below Sultanah. Well made dishes that won't be competing for a Michelin star, but will give you a good deal of pleasure. And an after dinner walk through the Chedi garden is absolutely priceless.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Wine Review - Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay 2006

Unlike most white wines, some actually can handle a bit of bottle age. The wines of the Australian producer Leeuwin Estate are a good example of this. They made Australian wine history with their Art Series, stunning wines that receive high marks year after year.

The Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay is a somewhat more affordable alternative (11.900 OMR at African & Eastern). Although still a serious sum of money for a bottle of wine, this is definitely worth it. The growing season of 2006 was cool for Australian standards, and this resulted in a very exciting mix of fresh citrus fruit, combined with the lush character of the Chardonnay grape, moderately aged on wood. Tropical fruits, Asian spices (notably cinnamon and aniseed) and a touch of vanilla make this a perfect wine at the dinner table. We combined it with a dish of pan-seared mackarel, served with baked potatoes and a roasted bell-pepper mousse. The wine is serious and rich, and could handle the strong flavours of the dish with ease.

Don't hesitate to buy this wine if you find it. All you need is a good ocassion to open a bottle. The good thing is, it can still do with a bit of time in bottle, so there is no rush whatsoever.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Gourmet in Dubai

An interesting article in Time Out Dubai this week, featuring a list of gourmet delis in the city. The newly opened Gourmet Station in the Oasis Centre is a definite must to check out. This food market offers a variety of fresh food and fine products, such as balsamic vinegars, and the famous Spanish olive oils of Núñez de Prado. It appears they don't do any mail orders or home delivery outside of Dubai, so we just have to plan another Dubai visit...

And seeing that this is a project of the Landmark group (who also own Centrepoint, E-Max and others), it might just show up in Muscat in due time. We can always hope, can't we?

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Olive Oil Problem

It seems so simple. You grow olives, press them, and there you have it: olive oil. Utterly delicious in its simplicity.

But there are some complicating factors. First of all: not all olive oil is equal. There is cold pressed oil, warm pressed oil or refined oil, there's extra virgin or regular, and don't forget all kinds of fantasy names, such as 'mild', 'light', 'wok' etc. On the one hand, olive oil is an honest, agricultural product, but on the other hand it is big business, led by multinationals who do their best to market their products as 'authentic' and 'rural'.

The consequences are confusing. Do you really believe your Italian olive oil is made from olives that were grown in Italy? Think again. They are most likely from Spain. Well, then Spanish olive oil must definitely be made from Spanish olives, right? Wrong. Tunesia or Algeria probably. It's all about marketing and commercial interest. And all this is only mildly bad if you consider that there's massive fraud going on with the quality labels.

The key in the production of olive oil is managing the acidity level. The lower the better. Oils with an acidity level below 0,8% are allowed to be called extra virgin. These oils are made from the first, cold pressing of the olive oil, which gives the highest quality. After this pressing, it is possible to get more oil out of the olive by heating the pulp. This gives oil in various quality levels, varying from decent cooking oil, to oil so acidic it is not fit for human consumption.

There are many honest producers, who make very good extra virgin oils, and sell them as such. But there are also plenty companies who aim to make a bit more money, and they have a tendency of blending regular olive oil with extra virgin, in order to have a larger volume with an acidity level (just) under 0,8%. And there are even companies who refine the poorest qualities and sell them as regular olive oil (either blended or on its own). And the difficulty is that it is almost impossible for you, as consumer, to know whether you buy an authentic product or a fake.

There are some helpful guidelines though:
  • Look for a seal of origin (such as the Italian DOP label). If the oil has such a label, you can be sure that the product is tested and approved by the local authorities, and is from the region is says to be.
  • See if you can find the acidity level on the label. For instance, if an olive oil has 0,2-0,4% acidity you can be sure it's authentic
  • Avoid the 'big boys', such as Pons, Bertolli and all buyers' own brands (BOB) unless they have a very clear seal of origin.
  • Taste the difference. Once you've found an authentic, good quality extra virgin oil, compare it to one of the big brand fakes. You'll taste the difference immediately, and it won't be difficult to understand why we're making such a fuss out of this.
It must be said that the choice of extra virgin olive oils isn't big in Oman, but you can find a couple if you try. Here are some recommendations:
  • Al Fair used to carry a Waitrose BOB called A drizzle of Umbria that was of decent quality. Nice and grassy, although slightly bland. The price was a huge drawback though, as it was around 11 OMR for a small bottle. They recently replaced this brand with a new Waitrose BOB, which is slightly cheaper. We haven't tried it yet.
  • Organic House sells a Tuscan extra virgin oil, made by Lucini. It is organic (of course) and costs 8.800 OMR for 500ml. We weren't really enthusiastic about the taste, as it was mainly bitter and hot, but this could have something to do with the fact that it was a 2007 bottling. A fresher bottle may be better.
  • Not available in Oman (as far as we know), but by far the best olive oils we found in the area, are those of Goccia di Sole, a co-operative from Puglia (Italy) that produces a very good range of extra virgin oils, both organic and non-organic. Although the organic oil is very good as well, our favourite is the non-organic Goccia di Sole DOP Terra di Bari. A truly classy olive oil, grassy and nutty, with a refreshing, slightly bitter bite. We bought this in Dubai, where the producer has a stand close to the entrance of Ikea. Or have a look at the website of the distributor, they may do mail orders. If we're not mistaken, the price was around 6 OMR for a 500ml bottle (but that could just as well been a 750ml bottle).
If you buy any of these, remember: olive oil quickly goes bad due to heat or light. So always store unopened bottles in a dark and cool place.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Restaurant Review - Pavo Real

The urge for indulgement can just as easily be followed by an irresistable yearning for comfort food. Before we moved to Muscat, we had a favourite take-away pizzeria near to our home. They served a wide range of pizzas and pastas, of which we always chose the same: a calzone piccante for Mrs. R and a pizza quattro formaggi for Mr. R. You knew exactly what you got. No surprises, no need for thinking. Easy. Great.

Every now and then we have this urge for comfort food. After a hard day at work, a weekend in the desert, or at the end of a hot and sweaty day. Pavo Real, in MSQ's shopping centre, is usually our favourite pick for such ocassions. Granted, you have to tolerate the hideous live music, but even that grows on you after a while. The Mexican fare is uncomplicated, and quite tasty.

But we have to be honest here. Pavo Real is not really about food. It's about pitchers of margharita and pints of beer. The fajita burritos and chicken enchiladas are merely meant to trigger your thirst, and they do a good job at that. We usually stick to burritos, enchiladas and fajitas, but the menu also offers steaks, seafood and other dishes. We don't care for those. We want to know what we get. Easy. Great. We don't quite know if the comfort is coming from the food or from the mean margharitas, but it works anyway, and that's what counts.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Wine Review - La Val Albariño 2006

This will not be a positive review. And while it sometimes feels good to burn a wine down for being plain bad, in this case we regret it. Why? We really hoped that this particular wine would be lovely, because it is of the kind that you don't see much in Oman and has the potential of being great.

All the ingredients were there. The La Val is made from the Albariño grape, which is widely planted in the Spanish Rias Baixas region. Albariño makes some seriously good wines. They are refreshing, fruity and perfect company to fish and hot weather. In Northern Portugal they call the grape Alvarinho, and those are equally good.

This wine from Bodegas La Val is made to reach ultimate freshness. No wood in this wine. The result is a wine that has lovely citrus flavours, the freshness of green apples and a light, spritzy feel. It had weight, but is light at the same time. It's serious fun, so to say.

So, then what's wrong with the wine? Well, it's the age. The bottles that are currently on OUA's shelves, are from 2006, whereas 2007 has long hit the market, and the wines from 2008 are just about to be released. Wines that are made in this style, are not meant to age. If they grow too old the fruit disappears, only to be replaced with (apple) acidity. The spritz is gone as well. The result? A disjointed, tired wine.

This wine should have been in the discount bins a year ago, but we still had to pay the full 10.500 OMR. That's a lot of money for a not-so-good wine. Unfortunately, we see this all too often. Beware when buying white wines, and make sure that you buy only the youngest vintages. That might just save you from a disappointment.