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.