Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Dubai Deli: Milk & Honey

A good article in Time Out Dubai this week. They discuss the Deli Supermarket Milk & Honey, located on the Palm Jumeirah.

Now that Gourmet Station has apparently closed its doors (hardly surprising given our lackluster experience), it is good to see another venue for buying delicatessen. We can't tell you yet if it's any good, but we will check it out soon.

In the meantime, check out the full article on the Time Out website.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Muscat dining scene, what to do to fight boredom?

It's a bit limited, wouldn't you agree? The Muscat dining scene we mean. There is probably around a handful of high end restaurants, the odd interesting mid-priced place, but mostly unenventful grill houses, chain restaurants and burger joints. Granted, it's easy to find a real good Indian meal for next to nothing, but we would like a bit more variety. More liveliness. It would be good to see more interesting restaurants opening. La Brasserie in Muttrah looked like a very welcome addition, but failed to impress us so far (a review will follow after a next visit). Ubhar (in Bareeq al Shatti) has an interesting concept, but is extremely lonely in its sort.

So why isn't more happening? In our opinion there are a number of reasons. In no particular order, and without having done any scientific study on the subject:

1. Hotel chains
Most fine dining restaurants are located in the four and five star hotels, since they are the proud owners of a liquor license. A logical situation, but also one that prevents adventurous culinary things from happening. Although there is certainly enough talent among the hotel chefs, the restaurant concepts of the hotels do not always allow it to show. Tuscany and Capri Court, to give just two random examples, are good restaurants, but we can't help but think they would be much better if their chefs had to fight for their reputation as independent restaurateurs, instead of working within the safe hotel environment. The InterContinental, to give another example, has a highly talented and motivated crew, but lacks the restaurant to give them a podium.

2. Lack of culinary culture
We know what we're talking about here. Our home country doesn't exactly have the French or Italian gastronomical heritage to fall back on. Just 25 years ago, there wasn't much to do in the restaurants of our cities. Yet, that has rapidly changed. Increased standard of living, education of chefs and more demanding guests are just a number of reasons for the giant leap in quality. The current situation in Oman is very much comparable to that of Northern Europe some 25-30 years ago. So it may just be a question of time. It is good to see that the hospitality academies are trying to educate young Omani chefs, but it will take time before they reach a high level. Meanwhile, the average Omani doesn't seem to have a huge interest in gastronomy, least of all in their own Arabic cuisine. Countries like Syria and Lebanon have a bustling dining scene, where traditional dishes are held in high regard. Either modernised or traditional, the level of cooking is much higher than can be seen here. We are afraid it is lack of interest, and the average Omani would rather eat a Big Mac. A saddening thought.

3. The difficulties of setting up a business
We have a huge respect for anyone who makes the effort to start a new business. Starting something new is always incredibly difficult. And we realise it is nearly impossible to start your own fine dining restaurant in Oman, outside of a hotel, and with liquor license. There is a clear reason why licensed restaurants outside hotels are mostly owned by big companies. Otherwise they couldn't exist. And serving your scallops without a glass of Chablis is just a lot less attractive for your guests. So what do you do if you want to start your restaurant business in Oman? Right, you get hold of a franchise license of a chain that has well proven itself and you go for the easy money. Or you take the well paved road of offering pasta, burgers, kebabs and steaks. Can't go wrong with that one!

Taken these factors into account, our best hope for new and exciting restaurants are new hotel openings. That looks rather bleak at the moment, thanks to the economic downturn. The hotels in The Wave are delayed until around 2013, and the Four Seasons and other Jebel Sifah hotels will open from 2012 on. We don't know what the current status is on the ambitious plans for the InterContinental hotel, and the Bausher Fort Hotel (see the Omran webpage for this), but we fear those are long term projects as well. Maybe the Royal Opera House and its surrounding area will bring us something new. Let's hope so.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Restaurant Review: Wasabi Sushi

We told you before about our love for sushi. We were happy, therefore, to find Wasabi Sushi, a relative newcomer in the Muscat dining scene. It's located in the Bareeq al Shatti Mall, and has been open for some two months.

The small, trendy looking restaurant specialises in sushi rolls. Next to that it offers some sashimi, a couple of salads and miso soup. That's all. The choice in sushi rolls is quite big though, and we don't mind a limited menu. In fact, we prefer it to those 'a little bit of everything' menu's such as the one at Japengo.

The food at Wasabi Sushi looks as trendy as the interior. And it's not bad. The tiger roll hoso maki is a tasty roll with tempura prawn as main ingredient. Tuna sashimi is served on ice. A nice touch, although the fish needed a bit of warming up on the plate to let its flavour come out. There are also some less succesful creations. The california roll tastes rather bland and the nigiri's (rice lumps with a piece of fish on top) are made with too much rice, as a cause of which the taste of the fish gets lost.

The quality of the fish is good, but there is hardly a local fish to be found on the menu. Tuna being the exception. Many of the dishes are made with eel (which is nearly extinct and should be avoided altogether), salmon, prawns and surimi (listed on the menu as 'crab'). It would have been so much better to see fish like hammour and kingfish on the list. A missed opportunity in our opinion. A last critical note: for a restaurant that carries wasabi in its name, they supplied us with precious little bits of the stuff. Granted, we like our food a bit spicy, but we can't recall that we ever needed to ask for three extra portions in any other sushi restaurant.

But even if we take all this into account, we're still quite positive about Wasabi Sushi. Overall, the food is quite tasty. Not mindblowing, and it doesn't come close to the quality of Tokyo Taro, but it's a nice place to eat if you fancy a bite in between shopping or on your way to some place. Sushi never comes dead cheap, but with a bill of 27.000 OMR for two, including one drink each, Wasabi Sushi is relatively affordable. The restaurant isn't licensed. We hope it survives, the night we visited there were more waiters around than guests. It deserves better.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

A grain of salt...

We just returned from a long (and we like to think well deserved) holiday. Our usual practise is to bring back as many items as we can, that are difficult to find in Muscat. A few bottles of special wine are always included, but olive oil, (balsamic) vinegar, cheese and sausages are also favourites.

This time we filled our bags with foie gras (we are well aware of the controversial nature of this, but we can't stop eating it), different kinds of dried mushrooms, truffle oil and salt. Salt? Yes, salt. Fleur de Sel to be precise. This is the salt that is gained from salt pans. While the sea water dampens in those pans, a thin crust forms on top. This layer is hand harvested. It has a very fine structure, and is said to be the most delicate of all salts. Sounds snobbish to you? It might be, but we really like the taste of this salt. And because it is notoriously difficult to find here, we thought it would be a good idea to bring back a small stock.

On a short visit to the Qurum Carrefour we noticed a large stack of.... yes you guessed it, fleur de sel. Slightly grumpy, because we could have used valuable baggage space for something else, we loaded some more into our cart. You never know how long stock lasts. So if you want to try this special salt, hurry to Carrefour and buy some. But do us a favour please. Use it where you can taste it, and don't waste it on boiling your potatoes!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Wine Review - Chateau Mont-Redon Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2006

It may well be one of the most traditional wine regions in France: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Its wines are renowned for their ability to age for decades; they are dark, full and tannic. And they aren't cheap.

If you are looking for a good example of a classic, ageworthy Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Château de Beaucastel is a great example. OUA just might have some in stock, but don't expect them to come cheap. It may be a better idea to buy some in France and bring them back with you.

A number of Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers make wines that are made in a more fruitforward, accessible style. These have less structure and depth, but their great advantage is that they are more enjoyable when young. A good example of this style is the wine is Château Mont-Redon 2006. It is relatively affordable (13.900 OMR at African & Eastern), yet has a bit more to offer than your usual daily drinker. Dark coloured, with lovely dark cherries and plum, supported by a medium tannic backbone, with spices and licorice on the finish. Don't drink it too cool, as some less enjoyable green flavours come to the front. This is great with a leg of lamb. This is not a wine to age for decades, but if you have a wine fridge (and patience) you could try to save a bottle or two to drink in the coming 5 years.

Château Mont-Redon also produces a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Once we've tasted that wine, we will report back here.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Wine Review: The fine value of Villa Maria

Winemaking is relatively new to New Zealand. It is therefore quite a remarkable accomplishment that the Sauvignon Blanc wines from this country are ranked among the best in the world.

In their short history of winemaking (New Zealand has only been seriously producing wine since the 1960's), the country wisely avoided the mistake of bigger brother Australia, of producing masses of cheap bulk wine, that harm the overall reputation of the country. New Zealand's moderate climate lends itself perfectly to the production of white wines, but in recent years the country's reds (especially Pinot Noir) have also gained in popularity.

Villa Maria is a family owned winery, that manages a number of vineyards in different regions of the country. They produce a diverse range of wines, and are known for their constant quality. The white wines in the Private Bin range offer very fine value. The Riesling 2008 (6.900 OMR) is supple and fruity, and although it has some residual sugar, doesn't come across as off-dry. It offers a tad more body than German rieslings, but is by no means heavy. We are also fans of the Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, but haven't seen it in stores here. It seems that only the Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc is available (8.900 OMR). While a very good wine, we don't feel it offers enough extra stuffing to choose it over the Private Bin.

These wines are available at African & Eastern. They also carry a Chardonnay Private Bin, a rosé and red, neither of which we have tasted so far.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Our favourite cheap eats

We have been horribly absent of late, we realise that. To make up for that we'll give you three of our favourite cheap eats. Exclusive dining is fun, but sometimes it is just as satisfying to find restaurants where you find extremely good value for money, or just a good meal at a bargain. None of the following restaurants will win any michelin stars, but they do represent fine value.

Al Ziyara, MSQ
This is a popular hang-out with the Omani and expat youngsters alike, but we go there for the cheap, but tasty Lebanese food. Although neighbouring Kargeen may look better, we feel the mezze at Al Ziyara taste better. We especially like the kibbeh. They also offer very good shisha. A full meal including drinks and shisha shouldn't set you back more than 5 or 6 OMR. And that's much better than Kargeen as well.

Saravanaa Bahvan, Ruwi
Situated on Ruwi Street, this vegetarian Indian restaurant is always busy. And rightfully so. The dosa's are particularly in favour, and may well be the best in town. The extensive menu also offers enough other treats to choose from. For a mere 3 OMR (including drinks) you can expect to leave fully satisfied. The restaurant may have a bit more of a fast food feel than, let's say, Woodlands, but the food certainly isn't any less. Perhaps even better.

Turkish Palace, Al Mawaleh
When we just moved to Oman, this was our regular neighbourhood hangout. We don't live in the area anymore, but we still have good memories of the food in Turkish Palace. Located next to the Markaz Al Bahja mall, this restaurant offers both outside and inside dining. The outside area is bordering a car park, for that truly cosy local experience. The food makes up for the surroundings however. The mezze are all good, but we always made sure to leave a bit of appetite for the grilled kebabs in yoghurt. Feel-good-food. We slightly prefer the food at this restaurant to that of Muscat favourite Turkish House, but there's nothing wrong with that place either. Expect to pay about 5 OMR for food and drinks at Turkish Palace.

We will post some more restaurants in due time. Meanwhile, if you have some favourite cheap places of your own, please let us know. We are always looking forward to trying some new addresses.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Pasta week in Capri Court

Vincenzo Spinozi, one of Italy's finest pasta makers, is coming to town. From 21 to 27 February he will present a special menu in Shangri La's Capri Court Restaurant. This is what the press release had to say:
"From 21 to 27 February 2010, Capri Court restaurant at Shangri La's Barr al Jissah Resort and Spa will welcome the legendary Italian pasta maker, Vincenzo Spinosi, who will bring a touch of Italian flair as he presents a special à la carte menu of mouth-watering dishes prepared with his signature brand of hand-made egg-based pasta. The 'Prince of Pasta' will be joined by guest chef Mauro Taufer from Hotel Excelcior in Venice."
Spinosi's pasta has quite a reputation throughout the world, and initiatives like these need encouragement, so we will be there to taste the action. The menu is only served during dinner times. For reservations, contact the hotel at 24776565.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Wine review - Pascal Jolivet

We haven't done a study on the subject, but it wouldn't surprise us if Sauvignon Blanc is the world's most popular grape. You see it all over the world, from New Zealand to Chili, and throughout the whole of Europe. Wines from the Sauvignon Blanc grape comes in many styles, depending on climate, soil and style of wine making.

The source of the grape is France, where its fame started in the Loire region. Wines from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé are famed for their complexity, and dry yet fruity character.

Pascal Jolivet is an interesting winemaker in this region. He believes in making wines true to the character of the vineyard and climatic conditions. Sound logical, but it is more difficult than you'd think. Jolivet's wines are all aged on stainless steel, so not a single piece of wood in the wines. His wines are characterised by a certain sense of restraint, combined with an impressive array of subtle, but intense flavours.

He produces several ranges of wines, but at our local OUA shop we only ever found the wines simly called Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. They are not cheap, both cost close to 20 OMR. But if you're willing to spend this amount of money on a bottle of wine, you'll be rewarded. The wines are by no means simple. They need a bit of work to be appreciated. The Pouilly Fumé is a bit fuller and extravagant, compared to the Sancerre, which is slightly more elegant and racy. Both have their distinct qualities and are equally good.

The current vintage of these wines would be 2008, but we only saw 2006 and 2007 on the shelves. Normally we wouldn't advice buying wines of older vintages, but in this case it's ok. These wines can deal with some bottle age, it even adds some complexity.

If you want something a bit more special than your everyday quaff, or if you're in need of a last minute Valentine's Day wine, go ahead and buy some of this.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Two serious foodie events coming up

We were pretty pleased with the Taste of Dubai festival last year, so we're more than happy to recommend this year's edition to you. It will be held from 17 to 20 March 2010 at Dubai Media City. The lay out will be pretty much the same as last year: local restaurants have the opportunity to present small dishes, and there are a number of special events, such as wine tastings and cooking master classes by renowned chefs. For more information and booking of tickets: look here.

Another promising event takes place in Abu Dhabi. From 5 to 19 February the city is the scene of Gourmet Abu Dhabi; two weeks full of culinary delight. The organisers of Gourmet Abu Dhabi did a great job in putting together a tantalising programme. Several michelin-starred chefs are flown in, with 3-starred Alain Passard and Régis Marcon as showstoppers. You can choose to follow masterclasses by the chefs or attend one of the dinners. Some of those are accompanied by wine tastings of prestigious domains, such as Egon Müller, Pio Cesare and Paul Jaboulet Ainé. Their winemakers will be there as well. If you ever needed an excuse to visit Abu Dhabi, this is it. More information can be found here.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Restaurant Review - Vue by Shannon Bennett

We have been planning a review of Vue by Shannon Bennett for quite some time now, as it is –without a doubt– Muscat’s best restaurant.

Our last visit to the restaurant was the fourth since its opening last year. We must say that our best experience was during an evening that Shannon Bennett himself was present, but chef Josh Lewis does a very good job at keeping up Bennett’s reputation. The level is constantly high, and although we may have one or two things to complain about, these are minor details.

Vue is not cheap. A seven course menu gourmand will set you back 40 OMR. But it has a lot to offer in return. First and foremost, Vue is the only restaurant in Muscat that employs truly knowledgeable staff. Sommelier Brigid Hoskins is a delight for wine lovers and the serving staff is well educated and confident. Those who want to spend less have the choice of a five course dinner (28 OMR) or choosing three courses from the limited menu. The menu changes frequently.

We like the way Vue handles its ingredients: fish is sourced from the Muttrah souq and herbs and (some) vegetables are home-grown. All this shows care and love for produce.

Wines aren’t cheap either, and this is something that troubles us a bit more. While it must be said that Vue puts a big effort into offering a large selection of wines (some of which are especially flown in for the restaurant), prices of those that are commonly available in Oman are also many times higher than in other restaurants around the city. You have to search hard to find a good deal on the wine list. Probably the best option for your wallet is to let Mrs. Hoskins choose wine pairings to your menu. Her choices are impeccable.

On to the food. All dishes are prepared with care and thought out in great detail. We particularly enjoyed the truffle and wild mushroom risotto with tarragon paste. It is rich and generous, but well balanced thanks to the fresh spiciness of the tarragon. A scallop packed in shellfish bisque jelly offers a funny and tasty gimmick, but is in visual spectacle outclassed by a ‘cigar’ filled with foie gras mousse, and with smoky chocolate crust. We saw this trick before, when it was served as dessert (and filled with chocolate instead of liver), but it is still a feast for the eye. It tastes good as well, but the foie gras is a bit light for the smoky chocolate, which tends to overpower slightly. The next two courses are highlights. Kingfish with a cheesy bread crust, on parsley purée, served with red wine reduction is a stunning combination. Where we were critical about Bait al Bahr’s way of handling fish, this dish shows how contrasting flavours can still produce a stunning dish. The cheese crust gave body to the fish, which made it capable of standing up to the red wine reduction. This, in turn, had enough acidity to lift the flavours and the parsley purée added a lovely bitter spicy contrast. A perfect dish? It would have been if the fish hadn’t been slightly overcooked. Not yet dry, but just too far. The main course is stunning is well: breast and leg of pigeon on carrot purée with a selection of baby vegetables. The pigeon is perfectly cooked, the breast tender and juicy, and the leg prepared as confit. They form a lovely, smooth combination of flavours with the carrot purée and baby vegetables. Is everything perfect? Nearly. Several components in different courses could have done with less salt. The stock of the risotto and scallop, as well as the sauce accompanying the pigeon were all too salt. A minor detail.

After a good piece of pont l’évêque cheese follows a lovely dessert with several small treats of which ginger ice cream and camomile mousse make the biggest impression. Original flavours and truly delicious.

We were glad to see a large selection of digestives, ranging from Cognacs and Whiskies to Vintage Port, all offered by the glass.

The final bill is best paid with your eyes closed. But it doesn’t matter really. Dining at Vue makes us happy. We enjoy the knowledge and enthusiasm of the staff, and have great fun eating food that is clearly prepared with love. On top of that, it is very, very good. A Muscat Must.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Restaurant Review - Bait al Bahr

We love fish. Given Oman's incredible richness in seafood, it is surprising to see only a small number of specialised seafood restaurants. Sure, there are numerous grill restaurants that will serve you cremated kingfish, but that's not what we mean.

One of the few is Bait al Bahr, on the beach of Shangri La's Barr al Jissah Resort. Our last visit to this restaurant was almost a year ago. Our best recollection of that evening was the platter of fresh seafood; a wonderful collection of raw mussels, clams, oysters etc. on ice. Combined with a fresh white wine, life could hardly be better.

But we also remember disappointing main courses: overcooked tuna and a confusing dish with koffer made that we left with a double feeling. About time for a second visit. It was quite disheartening to see that the menu hadn't changed in a year's time. A restaurant with a limited menu, such as Bait al Bahr, should be able to offer their guests something new every once in a while, don't you think?

We didn't like the look of the catch of the day, which –quite frankly– looked like the catch of a couple of days before, so decided to order some dishes of the menu. Mr. R's prawn cocktail with three types of dressing was refreshing and fine. Mrs. R was less pleased with her starter of grilled scallop on a spicy mango salad. The sweet mango completely swept away the mild sweetness of the scallops, leaving only a salty and smoky grilled flavour. Not bad per se, but a pity of those beautiful scallops. They were –we must add– perfectly grilled.

Mrs. R decided to give the main course of Omani koffer, with harissa and fried parsnip a second chance, while Mr. R chose baked hammour with zatar crust. We can be short here: we disliked both. One of the delights of fish is that it is perfect to create light dishes, delicate and refined. These were heavy and filling. It seems the chef tried to create meat dishes out of fish. You'd wonder why.

The wine we drank with the food was good. A lovely crisp and dry Riesling by the Alsatian top producer Hugel. The high end wines of this producer belong to the best in the world, and while their entry level wines are nowhere near as good, they do provide a good introduction to the wines of the Alsace and offer fair value for money. The wines of Hugel are available through African & Eastern.

Luckily, desserts saved dinner from ending in complete disappointment. Date pudding, with caramel pecan nut ice cream tasted very nice, although the date pudding wasn't technically a pudding but a cake (and tasted more of chocolate than date, oh well, at least it tasted good). Mrs. R was very happy with her vanilla pannacotta, with pink grapefruit jelly and rhubarb granite, which was very refreshing, although perhaps overly sweet.

Service was fast. Too fast. It took the staff less than an hour to serve us three courses, including coffee and tea. A bit of time in between courses wouldn't have hurt at all.

We are still not convinced by Bait al Bahr. As a true seafood restaurant it is disappointing. We would rather spend some extra money and go to The Beach Restaurant or choose one of the fish dishes in Come Prima. But for a fresh seafood platter and a glass of wine this place is perfect. Ideally, we'd enjoy sundown in Bait al Bahr and then continue our dinner somewhere else. A pity the restaurant only opens at 7PM.