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.