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.