Monday, 30 March 2009

Restaurant Review - Tomato

Some restaurants just hit a soft spot. It doesn't matter that the food misses a beat here and there, there is something that makes you return time after time. Tomato in the Muscat InterContinental hotel is such a restaurant.

This Italian themed restaurant is pleasantly located in the garden of the hotel, and has a casual, yet elegant feel. Its outside location make it especially pleasant in the cooler months. It's closed in the hottest summer months.

Now, why is this a favourite? Certainly not because of the wine list. There isn't any. Unless you count the short selection of mediocre wines as such. Better stick to beer, unless you're a fan of JP Chenet. The menu isn't spectacular either, but lists a good bunch of well-made classics. The carpaccio is an all time favourite, although Mr. R usually orders this without the annoying pile of mushrooms that comes with it. The mushroom risotto is seriously good, and the pizzas are well-made and thin-crusted.

But there are disappointments too. There are hardly any changes in the menu. And if new dishes appear (as they did not too long ago), they are not always a success. All too often dishes are not in line with the pure and honest Italian kitchen. If you stick to your favourites, you're alright, but if you dare to experiment, you might end up with a less than stellar experience. And it's not exactly cheap either. Expect to pay around 20 to 25 OMR per person (including drinks).

Then why do we keep coming back to Tomato? Simple. It's a nice place to be. The atmosphere is friendly, the service good, the view stunning and the food decent. Don't think about it, and enjoy. That kind of place. And that's just what we're looking for every now and then.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Wine Review - Cune Rioja Crianza 2004/2005

The Rioja is Spain's best known wine region. And while it used to have a reputation of producing very rustic, heavily oaked wines, that more resembled chewing on dead tree bark than drinking a glass of fermented grape juice, it is today (and has always been) a region where beautiful wines are made. Many wineries changed their style to please the palates of an international audience, resulting in more fruity wines, that still kept the unique qualities of Rioja.

A very good example of such a modern wine is Cune Rioja Crianza. We've seen both the 2004 and 2005 vintages on the shelf of OUA recently (at about 7.500 OMR) and both are equally good.

This wine aged in oak for 12 months (the legal minimum for Crianza), what resulted in a lovely combination of dark, ripe fruit (cherries and forest fruit), good freshness and a spicy finish. The use of oak is very moderate, adding a nice touch. Go for the 2005 if you're looking for fresh fruit and a slightly tannic finish, and choose the 2004 if you prefer your wine to be more mellow. The extra year in the bottle has softened the tannins, but also caused the fresh fruit to evolve into more secondary tones (spices, earthy notes).

We'd love to see more wines like this on the shelves, instead of the never ending stream of Autralian fruit bombs. There are plenty good, fresh, affordable wines made in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. Let's get them over here!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Two 'good' coffees

In the coming time we will discuss all major brands of espresso available. In a country that lives in the misconception that Nescafé has anything to do with coffee, and where people will tell you that Costa or Second Cup offer good quality, we see it as our duty to inform you about what good brands are available and where you can buy them.

In this first edition, two coffees that are a little better than others, only because they are either fairtrade or organic. We compared Marks & Spencer Fairtrade Espresso (obviously available at M&S for 2.200 OMR / 250gr.) to the Organic Espresso of Organic House (in Al Masa Mall, 2.790 OMR / 250gr.). We bought both as ground coffee, but you can also buy your coffee in Organic House as whole beans. If you ask, they'll freshly grind it for you.

Industries like coffee, chocolate and tobacco are notorious for exploitation of farmers. That's why we feel it is always better to buy fairtrade, so at least you know the farmers received an honest price for their product. But still, if it's a bad product, there's no sense in buying. Luckily the Marks & Spencer coffee is very nice. It gives a pleasant, slow drip in our espresso machine, which results in a full, but smooth tasting cup of coffee. It could perhaps do with a bit more punch, but that's splitting hairs.

We don't know if Organic House's coffee is fairtrade as well, but at least it's organic, which the M&S is not. The drip here is also good, but unfortunately the taste is not. It is extremely bitter, on the border of undrinkable. Ouch.

The verdict is clear. We will be buying more Marks & Spencer, and leave Organic House to others with a preference for bitter. Next, we'll review a coffee that's both organic and fairtrade. The question is: will it be any good? Stay tuned.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Buying alert: Prunotto Barolo Bussia 1999

A great deal at OUA. For some reason, they've discounted their complete stock of Prunotto Barolo Bussia 1999 from roughly 40 OMR to 19.500 OMR! Agreed, that's still a good sum for a bottle of wine, but this one is worth it.

Prunotto is one of the leading producers of Barolo, and Bussia is one of the prime vineyards in the region. At ten years of age, this wine is still a youngster. It will drink nicely if you give it some time in the decanter, but can also age for many more years.

If you decide to buy a bottle and open it sometime soon, consider serving it with dinner. Dark, earthy flavours work best. We paired it with a red wine poached tenderloin steak, with a variety of sautéed mushrooms. A very nice combination.

So, run to your nearest OUA store and buy all you can. But please be so kind to leave a few bottles for us.

A forgettable white wine

When Mrs. R stumbled across an Italian white wine called Riff, with a pretty drawing of fossils on the label, she was immediately interested. As a geologist and wine lover, she is always on the lookout for winemakers that share her passion for soil. When Mr. R saw that the wine was made by Alois Lageder, who is perhaps Northern Italy's most gifted winemaker, expectations were set high.

It ended in utter disappointment. Frankly, the wine tasted of nothing. It was alcoholic and heavy on the nose, and bland and bitter tasting. A bad bottle? We don't think so; it didn't taste off, just boring.

How can this be? Mr. R decided to do a little research and found the following in a press release: "This top value Pinot Grigio reflects the expertise of acclaimed winegrower Alois Lageder, and the wines he selected from vineyard sources in the "Tre Venezie" (Alto Adige, Trentino and Veneto) (...) The vineyard sources for most of this Pinot Grigio contains a substantial amount of dolomite limestone."

Ah, so this is merely a mass-product from a wide range of vineyards, and the limestone soils (where those lovely fossils can be found) only make up a part of the blend. No wonder. We were fooled. Someone thought of a nice looking label to sell a mass-product. Nothing wrong with that, but not what we were looking for.

For the record: if you're interested, you can buy this Riff Pinot Grigio from Alois Lageder at your local OUA shop. We forgot what the price was. Just as we're trying to forget the rest of it.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Wine Bar Review: Oscar's Vine Society Dubai

We love buying guides like Oman2Day and Time Out and browsing through their restaurant section. Perhaps you've noticed, but these guides are incredibly positive about almost every restaurant. A review for McDonalds is completely exchangable with one of Tuscany. But still, if these guides claim a restaurant or bar to be their favourite, we tend to believe them. That's why we visited Oscar's Vine Society when we were in Dubai.

This bar, located in the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road, has a low key feel to it, with wine barrels transformed into tables. There is a decent selection of wines by the glass, a couple of special wines offered by the bottle and a small menu for dinner. We started with a very good plate of cold cuts, and two glasses of white wine. A lovely, refreshing glass of Schloss Vollrads Riesling Kabinett and a bit more serious full bodied sauvignon blanc from Sancerre by Pascal Jolivet.

So far so good.

Time to order a bottle of red wine. We opted for a bottle of Chasse-Spleen, a magnificent Cru Bourgeois from Moulis in Bordeaux, but sadly it was out of stock. And here the difficulties began. The setup of the wine menu is good, with short descriptions per wine, so you don't need extensive wine knowledge in order to make a choice. But apparently the knowledge of the staff doesn't exceed the write-ups in the menu either. Our request for an equally good bottle of Bordeaux (preferably with a bit of age on it to avoid a tannin overdose) resulted in an utterly comic parade of bottles that were brought too the table. We got there in the end, but it took some effort.

The food didn't fare much better. Mr. R felt heroic and ordered andouillette, which tasted like, well, andouillette. Completely his own fault of course, although it seems a bit risky to place this on a menu with no more than four main course choices. Mrs. R ordered one of her favourites, a classic steak tartar. When made well, this raw meat dish is a delicasy, but Oscar's cook thought it would be a good idea to murder the taste with an overdose of gherkins and capers. An acidic mess. We asked for a new plate, only meat this time, as we didn't trust the cook to go easy on the gherkins. It didn't work. Instead of gherkins and capers, the cook happily sprayed the meat with an abundace of vinegar.

Conclusion: don't burn your palate on a main dish and stick to cold cuts or a cheese plate. Don't expect any real wine knowledge in this wine bar, but enjoy a glass or two from the standard selection. If this is the best wine bar of Dubai (as Time out suggests) we would be very disappointed, but we wouldn't mind spending some time here a next time in Dubai.

But we will also continue our search for a wine bar that we can call our favourite. And we will let Time Out know when we found it.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Wine Review - Feyles Barbaresco Riserva 1997

A rather hedonistic wine review this time. At 20.600 OMR the Feyles Barbaresco Riserva 1997 is by no means cheap. But as true wine lovers we were very happy to see this wine on the shelves of African & Eastern. Why? Well, it is always fun to try a wine with some age on it, and this could just be in its perfect drinking window.

Wines from Barbaresco (a small village near Barolo in the Italian Piedmont area) are made from the Nebbiolo grape. This grape variety shares some characteristics with Pinot Noir, mainly its lack of colour and earthy flavours. Good nebbiolo wines have an impressive ageing capability, and can be very tannic and hard when young. Feyles is a small, but well regarded producer, that makes wines meant to age for a long time. The wines are very classic in character: not fruit driven, but with lots of secondary notes and strong tannins. They are best enjoyed with food.

So how is this particular wine? It looks deep rusty brown/red, and is initially quite funky on the nose. But this blows off quickly. Lots of earthy aromas, porcini, and fresh forest ground, as well as coffee and some forest fruit. This is a dense and concentrated wine. Lovely dried blueberries, some balsamic and currant notes, again earthy, and a long, spicy, tannic finish. On initial taste (without food) it came across as a bit old, but the combination with food really lifted the wine up a great deal. It juvenated it, and made it more complete and complex. Lovely wine: enjoy with a very good meal. And at 12 years of age, this is perfect for drinking now.

So, if you have a special occasion, or if you need a good excuse to finish your monthly liquor budget, head over to African & Eastern and buy this wine. It's a great wine and certainly worth its money.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Review: Taste of Dubai

As promised, we will give you our impressions of the Tastes of Dubai festival, that was held last weekend.

In short: if you like food and wine, and like to get to know more about restaurants and all kinds of culinary products, this festival is a must-visit for you.

The idea is simple: you gather a number of restaurants and let them offer samples of a starter, main course and dessert. You add a couple of tents where wine tastings, and cooking masterclasses are held, and finally, you give importers and producers of culinary products the chance to promote their goods. Put all this in a relaxed setting, and you have Taste of Dubai.

This was the second edition of the festival. The word had spread fast, because there was a nice crowd on Thursday evening. As a result the wine tastings were all fully booked at the beginning of the evening, and many of the masterclasses faced a full tent. It looks like there is room for growth next year!

And how was the food? Well, there were some very nice dishes, but especially main courses didn't quite live up to the usual standards of e.g. Gordon Ramsay's Verre or Gary Rhodes' Mezzanine. Of course, it isn't easy to cook high level dishes at such a fast pace, in what probably is a less than ideal kitchen, but still... if it is meant as advertising for the restaurant it should be good. Are there other things to moan about? Sure. The organisation could have made it clearer that bars closed at 11.30PM, so we (and many others) could have gotten rid of our coupons before that time. But other than that this festival is a joy to visit, and a very good way to learn of new products and places. Make sure you don't miss it in 2010!

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Vinegar: Mas Portell Moscatel

We don't know why, but for some reason it's incredibly difficult to find good vinegar in Muscat. Sure, there's your apple vinegar (horrible!) and your cheap balsamic (enriched with all kinds of artificial flavouring), but those don't make us particularly happy. We were very pleasantly surprised, therefore, when we stumbled upon a Moscatel Vinegar. At Lulu, nonetheless!

This Spanish vinegar is made from the Moscatel grape, which normally produces very aromatic, full white wines, that can reach phenomonal sweetness levels. The grape works very well for vinegar too. Many producers let their vinegar age for a number of years, to reach a more concentrated and complex flavour. These can get pretty expensive. A cheaper option is to add a bit of concentrated grape juice to the base vinegar. This adds a touch of sweetness and body, and it is exactly what the people of Mas Portell have done. Not as good as an aged vinegar of course, but perfect for daily use.

The Mas Portell Moscatel Vinegar is available at Lulu for 2.090 OMR per bottle (500ml). A very reasonable price for a good product. Now all we can do is hope that Lulu keeps it in stock...

Monday, 9 March 2009

Where to buy: Vanilla

The sweet and fragrant aroma of vanilla is much loved in kitchens all around the world. And Oman is no exception to that. You'll find a wide variety of vanilla-based products in the local supermarkets, from vanilla sugar to essence. These may be ok products, but your tiramisu or crème brûlée tastes so much better if you use the real thing!

Adding a vanilla pod to your dish gives wonderful flavours to it. We admit, they're not cheap, but very much worth the money. A food-crazy chef friend of us isn't satisfied if it isn't Tahitian vanilla (or was that Haïtian? Well, never mind...), but we'll do with whatever we can lay our hands on. And there's the catch: fresh vanilla pods are nowhere to be found in Muscat. Why is this? Are they so incredibly difficult to come by? Or are modern cooks just lazy? We don't know, but we decided to start a quest for vanilla. And we found it! A couple of months ago Al Fair had a small stock of two brands: Waitrose's and Schwartz Chef's. Both are fine to use, especially since there is nothing else around.

Last time we checked at our local Al Fair, both were already sold out, but do ask for it. You might get lucky.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Wine Review - Dr. L Riesling 2006

We will try to give you a regular update on interesting wines we tasted, either bought from one of the off-licenses in town or ordered from a restaurant wine list.

The warm Middle-Eastern climate screams for light, crisp, refreshing white wines. Germany is arguably the best producer of this type of wines, and the Riesling grape (which is widely planted throughout Germany) is capable of producing a wide variety of tastes, suiting almost every palate.

While Germany has a history of producing masses of cheap (semi-)sweet wine, many producers have been making great quality wines for decades. Dr. Loosen is one of them. This family-owned business from the Mosel area has been around for over 200 years, and they produce everything from racy, dry whites to supersweet and complex dessert wines. The Dr. L bottling is meant as an entry level wine, and is mainly made for the American market. The grapes for this wine are not sourced from Loosen's own vineyards, but bought in from several growers in the region.

The wine has very nice, clean fruity flavours, and is semi-sweet in character. Some floral aromas complete the profile. Although a nice wine, the sweetness is a bit too pronounced, which makes it rather one-dimensional. It could do with some more mineral freshness. This wine will probably work well with spicy (Thai) food. The alcohol level is 8,5%, so you can easily have a glass or two in the sun without feeling too buzzy.

You can buy this wine at African & Eastern for 6.200 OMR. A good price for a decent wine, but we will continue our search for a German Riesling with a bit more character and freshness. Recommended though, if you like your wines in the style that the Germans call 'lieblich'.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Taste of Dubai

From 11 to 14 March you'll have the chance to sample the culinary delights of Dubai at the Taste of Dubai Festival 2009. A large number of restaurants will present samples of their menus, and gourmet food producers will give you the option to try their products before you buy. Moreover, a number of workshops and tastings is organised, such as winetastings, a workshop by celebrity chef Gary Rhodes and much more.

It sounds like culinary heaven. Will it really be that good...? Mr. & Mrs. R are going to find out. We will torture ourselves with the long drive from Muscat to Dubai, and report back to you afterwards. What were the absolute highlights and what could be missed. And most important: should you have been there? We'll let you know.


Welcome to our all new weblog! We will keep you up-to-date on all our experiences in the world of food and drinks, including periodic restaurant and wine reviews, quests for the best products like olive oil, vinegar, etc. etc. If you consider yourself to be a foodie, make sure to check out this page regularly!