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.