Big Chefs @ Riverland.

Istanbul’s hipsters are of a different breed though. Graffiti may be a form of expression but books are a source of inspiration for them. The high-end restaurants in hipster Istanbul seem to have embraced books as a part of their décor. Not just as an afterthought but as a focal point of the entire space.

Big Chefs Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

If you haven’t been to Riverland yet, you are missing out on one of Dubai’s most exiting outdoor destinations. Yes, that is correct, it is a destination in itself. You do not have to be visiting Dubai Parks and Resorts or staying at the mysterious Qasr al Sultan hotel to enjoy what this little French themed village has to offer. I intend to review all of the Riverland restaurants soon but let me kick it all off by the contemporary Turkish eatery, Big Chefs.

I did expect the food here to be of a certain standard (because of the name) but never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined having flashbacks of Sultanahmet and all the eateries in the Beyoglu area of Istanbul. Don’t get me wrong. This restaurant is as modern as they come but so are most of the other new restaurants in traditional ‘old Istanbul’. They have held on to their centuries-old tradition of Turkish warmth and hospitality but they are the amalgamation of posh dining and the hipster movement brewing in the back alleys of old Istanbul.

Istanbul’s hipsters are of a different breed though. Graffiti may be a form of expression but books are a source of inspiration for them. The high-end restaurants in hipster Istanbul seem to have embraced books as a part of their décor. Not just as an afterthought but as a focal point of the entire space. The giant bookshelves at ‘Big Chef’, along with the indoor trees, abundant natural light and luxurious leather seating give an unmistakable Turkish identity to this restaurant.

The food was no different. They launched their redesigned menu about a week ago and Turkish influences can be seen throughout what was otherwise a very international offering. They sell their own Olive Oil and sauces. I found the pomegranate sauce to be particularly interesting. Think of it like a maple syrup but slightly less sweet with an intensely sour flavor which kicks in after a couple of seconds but gives way to the sweet after taste almost immediately. I liked it so much that I ended up taking a bottle home as well!

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Big Chef branded Olive Oil and Pomegranate syrup

Since I am a sucker for looks, I ordered the Lamb Shank because I could just not stop imagining how good it would look on my instagram. Unfortunately, the photos did not come out as great as I expected. I think I was too hungry to get up and sit with the light behind me. Thank God for editing and filters. (Note to self: always eat a little bit at home before going out to take pictures of food)

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Lamb Shank with Barley Risotto at Big Chef

Though the lamb shank itself was tender and nicely cooked, the barley pilaf risotto accompanying it  was pretty ordinary. A less fancy name for it would be ‘boiled barley’. The gravy sauce that was supposed to be served with the dish was nowhere to be found and I was just too hungry to bother asking for it. Overall, I think this dish did ok but that could have been so because I was starving or maybe just because the meat was full of flavor, was really well cooked and was literally falling off the bone. 

The Casarecce pesto rosso (pasta with pink sauce) provided a more, well-rounded experience. The portion was enough to feed a hungry adult and was appropriately creamy and very delicious. The sun-dried tomato provided a nice little zap while the red pesto gave the gorgeous pink colour and a wonderful flavor to the dish.

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Casarecce Pesto Rosso at Big Chef

The home style meatballs were what reminded me of Istanbul the most. This was a classic Turkish meat dish with potatoes. I initially thought that it was modernised by adding caramelised onion and sautéed tomatoes but after doing some research, I learnt that this was exactly how traditional meatballs were cooked and garnished in Turkish homes. 

So drop into Big Chefs whenever you crave authentic Turkish meatballs or some wonderfully pink pasta and if you do, make sure it is at the Riverland branch. It will transport you to the back alleys of Istanbul and the giant bookshelves and ladders will give you a glimpse into the posh restaurants of Beyoglu and Kadikoy.

Ginger and Mint lemonade at Big Chef

Iftar at Lapita Hotel, Dubai Parks and Resorts.

View my food journey on Zomato!

I have been doing the Tiki Puka Puka way before Prince Harry and his friends went all Polynesian and much before the London club Mahiki opened up in Dubai. So imagine my excitement when not just one club or restaurant but a whole Polynesian themed resort opened up here. Nestled in the centre of the sprawling Dubai Parks and Resorts and sitting right next to the upcoming six flags theme park is this huge clustered resort complete with tropical landscapes, 2 pools and a lazy river.

Lapita Hotel, Dubai Parks and Resorts
The Polynesian theme extended all the way outside as well.

Our first weekend iftar was supposed to be somewhere else but the AED 150 price tag plus the 2 for 1 offer at http://www.ramadanwithmarriott.com/ was almost too good to be true so in the name of research but mostly because I love to save a buck wherever I can, we headed down to Kalea restaurant at Lapita Hotel to see what a five star 150 AED Iftar buffet looks like.

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The resort was made up of not one gigantic structure but a number of huge Polynesian hut styled buildings connected by thick island foliage and walkways. Both the exteriors and the interiors were covered with dark wood and there was an abundant display of island totems standing proud between the straw ceilings and cane walls. This truly looked like a themed destination where you could unplug from the outside world and laze away a whole weekend like it was 1979. I would not mind going back just to check out the resort. Every little detail had been looked into and Kalea, like the rest of the hotel was no exception.

Iftar at Lapita Hotel
Despite the low price, the restaurant had not really cut corners on the variety of food on display. I did not even bat an eyelid on the absence of seafood. Call me whatever but I will happily trade in the ceviche and sushi for a meat carving station on any day plus I know seafood is always the biggest price factor in a menu and this iftar was price sensitive. With a dedicated Indian corner, Thai corner, Arabic corner, continental dishes, live Saj station and all the salads, desserts and cheeses you could not eat in one day, it was still one of the best value Iftars I have ever been to.

Iftar at Lapita
There were plenty of salads to go around

Not everything however was as good as the tasteful interiors or as abundant as the mounds of food on display. There were 2 things that bothered me quite a bit and it would not be right to not mention them. The first batch of the mixed grill was probably done in a hurry to meet the 7 pm start time consequently reducing the lamb tikkas to burnt charcoal; like the ones you can probably find in the deepest throes of a feral abyss. Black as the night itself but I could tell that they once burned bright, these tikkas. I like my meat a little charred but these were beyond redemption. This kind of set the tone for the rest of the night.

Condiments at the Lapita Iftar
The condiments and chutneys were spot on – the biryani, not so much.

The biryani was seriously under spiced. For some restaurants, biryani is almost an afterthought. An unsophisticated dish of rice and chicken hurriedly put together at the last minute just to check another box. To the other hundreds of thousands of die hard biryani fans all over the world, that is nothing less than an insult. Now that I think of it there was nothing spectacular about the rest of the food either. It was just food, a lot of it.

Saj at the Lapita Iftar
The live Saj station

My most memorable food experience that day was at the live saj station where the gentleman in charge of the shawarmas and saj created a spicy cheese and labneh saj without the customary cucumbers and tomatoes, on my insistence. He accommodated me with a smile despite not having any red chili paste at his station. I think he went to the kitchen or pantry and smuggled some in just for me. The result of course was like a gulp of Fiji while gasping for water in the middle of the Atlantic. Not just this particular gentleman, but the entire service staff on duty that day were holding the place together in the absence of a five star chef in the kitchen.

desserts at the Lapita Iftar
When all fails, there is Sugar!

I have always found staff at resorts to be more chatty than staff at hotels. I don’t know if this is done on purpose to create a particular vibe or if it has just always been a coincidence. The staff at Kalea were no different. Almost every person we interacted with that day went out of his or her way to answer our question/crack a joke/comment on something/help us out. Our waitress for the evening, Janice deserves special mention for ensuring there was a glass of diet coke with a lemon wedge in it every time our drinks were about to finish. We did not even have to look at her; there would just be another diet coke sitting on the table as soon we got done with the first one.

Lapita Dubai Parks and resorts
The Turkish delight was a pretty good way to end the Iftar.

The two things at this iftar that we were thankful for were the kids buffet and the desserts section. There was a separate little area for the fussy eaters which our 8 month old loved. Dua couldn’t have enough of the smiley faced potato cutlets while Mishal and I loved the Umm Ali (Arabic bread pudding). The Gulab Jaman (deep fried spongy balls soaked in rose scented syrup) were kept in a hot dish and I created my own dessert by topping them with soft serve ice cream. So what could have been a lacklustre experience ended up being a 900 word review thanks to the awesome staff and lots of sugar. I recommend that you do visit this restaurant for Iftar. The food may not be way up there yet but the value proposition, service excellence, exotic interiors and plenty of sugar may just make it worth your while.

Kalea Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Dave and his band of Famous People 

After watching Heroes (the TV show), I believed that every human being had a super power. I would ask my friends what their special abilities were and it would make for wonderful evening banter. Those who did not know were of course enlightened by yours truly. I told them to be patient because sooner or later the secret would be revealed. I knew this because that is what I did. I had the ability to identify super heroes and their special gifts. That was my super power.

Dave has some special abilities as well. Besides being the guardian for ‘Devil’s Spit’, a sinful interpretation of barbecue sauce straight from Hell’s Kitchen, he can find special people and identify their super powers. So we are not much different, Dave and I. The only difference is that Dave actually went out and did something about it.

Dave scoured the corners of the Earth to find special people with secret powers and brought them all back to the mystical Land of the River next to Dubai Parks and Resorts. It is there that he set up Famous Dave’s Barbecue restaurant and started to serve racks of lamb and beef short ribs to hungry travellers from far and wide.

OK, so that is not exactly how it happened. Dave did not scour the corners of the globe. All the people with special powers were already in Dubai because of course that is what Dubai is all about. All Dave did had to do was to find them like Professor X and put them to work in the restaurant.

Take Famous Josh for example. When he was in the Philippines, he beat the entire country at chess and was given a 75% scholarship to finish his education because of his special skill. Then there is Famous Miro, also from the Philippines. He was one of the country’s best break dancers and was the lead back up dancer for Mark Herras, a famous singer and celebrity. In short, every single person working on the floor at Famous Dave’s restaurant is already famous for something. How cool is that?

So what happens when you put all these famous people under one roof? Well for one, the service was exceptionally brilliant. Remember my review of Ihop when I spoke about the waiters coming to us like programmed robots and asking if our food was good? That did not happen here. We were left alone to enjoy our food and every time we wanted something, there was a famous guy standing next to us, ready to listen. Since they were all celebrities in their own right, they liked to talk as well but only when we were ready to listen. We got a detailed briefing on the famous sauces and how they were made. My favorite were Dave’s Revenge and Devils Spit while Mishal liked the Texas Pit.

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I had a medium-well 7-oz fillet which was a lean cut steak seasoned with coarse salt, black pepper, cayenne and garlic. It had a wonderful crust which gave way to the juiciest bit of meat you can imagine. As if Dave’s selection of sauces weren’t enough, I asked them to make my steak cheesy and was provided with some extra creamy white sauce on the side. The skin-on potato wedges were crispy on the outside but moist and fleshy all the way through. This ladies and gentlemen, was heaven.

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Mishal’s Jacked-N-Stacked burger was a grilled chicken breast topped with Monteray Jack cheese, stacked with crispy onion rings and slathered with Dave’s rich and sassy sauce in a soft open bun.  The star performers of the night however were the grilled pineapple steaks. I will never be able to look at a pineapple the same way again. For me, the only way to eat a pineapple now would be to season some juicy slices with cayenne pepper and a hint of brown sugar before tossing them on the grill for a touch of sweet heat. The cayenne would start the show with a fiery kick and the caramelised brown sugar would follow to compliment the tart sweetness of the fruit.  Try it the next time you get the bbq going and who knows? You might end up being famous too.

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Famous Dave's Barbecue Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

IHop Outlet Village. Sticking to the pancakes. 

As soon as you enter Ihop, there is a sign that says ‘we have sold xxxx gallons of orange juice’. Don’t remember the amount but it seemed like an achievement by any standards

If you haven’t been to the newly built Outlet Village mall near Riverland yet, I suggest you plan a visit. It has fewer stores and is smaller than the Outlet Mall on Alain Road but still has some decent brands and offers that might make your trip worthwhile. Sacoor brothers had a buy get 1 get 2 offer on all shirts on the day we went! It has a decent selection of new restaurants,  some of which I hope to try before long but it also has a PF Chang’s and an Ihop.

As soon as you enter Ihop, there is a sign that says ‘we have sold xxxx gallons of orange juice’. Don’t remember the amount but it seemed like an achievement by any standards especially after reading the fact that their OJ is freshly squeezed (unlike the US where they use Tropicana)

The service was almost a little too good. Three different people asked us if our food was fine at 3 different times during our meal. At one point, I had mushroom sauce dribbling from my mouth and another time I almost shot out a cherry tomato on the guys face but at all 3 times, our mouths were full of food (OK, there were no cherry tomatoes with our meal but you get the point). Word of advice here, please coordinate amongst yourself as to whose responsibility it is to ask the customer if they enjoyed their meal (because 3 times is a bit of an overkill) and maybe ask them once after they are done enjoying the meal…not when they are trying to do it and their mouths are full of food. In fact, if you see me again, don’t ask at all. I promise I will let you know.

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We ordered the IHop supreme burger (which was thick beef burger topped with caramelised onions and cheddar cheese) and the mushroom chicken (which was a saute`ed chicken scaloppini in a creamy mushroom sauce.Both our dishes hit the spot and were devoured within 1o minutes (would have been faster had we not been interrupted several times). The scaloppini did not depend on the mushroom sauce for its flavour and tasted good on its own as well. It came with a side of mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli which went well together.. The burger was a bit overdone for my liking and nobody asked me how I wanted it. There was an option to choose a side but they just assumed I wanted french fries. I called the waiter back and asked him if my onion rings and burger were done and for a while he went into hypovolemic shock before running towards the kitchen window while shouting, “cancel french fries table 2”. Anyway, the burger was good and it went well with my onion rings. We washed it all down with never ending jugs of brewed ice tea which I highly recommend.

I wish we had stopped here. I wish we had asked for the bill or even if we absolutely had to have dessert, asked for a pancake (which are pretty good here) and be done with it, but we just had to order something we had not tried before. Hence, the words that follow.

So for dessert, we ordered the banana, peanut butter and chocolate – double dipped brioche French toast. Quiet a mouthful isn’t it? Yes this was one dish. Looked pretty fancy too but essentially it was just 3 pieces of thick bread fried and dipped in a weak vanilla batter with almost no sugar and topped with 5 pieces of diced bananas and the slightest drizzle of peanut butter sauce. All for 60 dirhams; you would be better of buying a McFlurry or six instead. I know the zero sugar almost no flavour thing works with the pancakes because Ihop provides 4 types of free syrup to go with it (and I absolutely love their butter pecan syrup) but a french toast is not a pancake. It is thick (even more so if you use brioche bread) and unless it has some flavour of it’s own, it wont matter how much syrup you smear it with, it just wont work. Also, I think there should have been banana slices between each of the 3 toasts. I don’t think 5 diced pieces were enough especially when the name of the dessert started with the word ‘banana’ and there was absolutely no banana flavour in the bread whatsoever.

So overall, it was an average experience. I would probably still go back there if I am craving a quick pancake but would not in any case ever be ordering the French Toast.

IHOP Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Irish Village Riverland. Cead Mile Failte (a hundred thousand welcome)

Ireland was never cold, wet or foreign for me. It was warm, mostly sunny and familiar. It was our hangout when we were chilling out, our office when we were working, headquarters when we were planning a night out and our hideout when we were bunking class. For all the kids who went to college in Garhoud during the late 90s and early 2000s, the Irish Village was a large part of growing up. It was our own slice of paradise complete with greasy food, chilled drinks and good company.

In ancient Ireland, hospitality was decreed by law. Welcoming a stranger was an enforced cultural norm and if anyone refused to be hospitable, they could be reprimanded for it. This old practice has left a cultural imprint on the Irish as they recognised the advantages that come with a friendly and outgoing personality and giving strangers a warm welcome. It is a little less common to talk to strangers in Dubai but I think this tradition lives on in the Irish Village. Despite being the introvert that I am, the number of people I have striked up a conversation with in the IV is astounding. I guess there was something in the narrow cobbled streets and old world charm of the place that brought about a change in me; plus I always believed that when in the Village, do as the Irish.

My trips to the village became less frequent after I moved to the other end of town so imagine my excitement when I found out that a brand new IV had been set up at Riverland. This magical place lies before the Legoland entrance at Dubai Parks and Resorts, the Middle Easts, largest theme park destination. I have a feeling I will be returning there many times as there is much to explore and share.

Not taking the outdoors section (or the village terrace) into account (of which Riverland has 250000 square feet of), IV2 is at least 3 times bigger than IV1. It is spread over two floors and in case you have had too much of a good time and are unable to find the stairs, it also has a private elevator. It is essentially the same wooden pub with original Irish memorabilia albeit a little more character because of the high ceilings and lights. The menu options seem to have been reduced for some reason. The panini melts are no longer here and since the only meat (besides all kinds of sea creatures) that Mishal eats is chicken, we noticed that most of the chicken dishes had also been cut out.


I know that a panini or a parmesan chicken breast are not representative of Irish food but then, neither are sitting in the sun and sipping on a Guinness while you feed the ducks representative of your typical afternoon out in Ireland. Besides, I know that the greasy stuff here is great and we always polish a plate of onion rings while we wait for our food. The problem here is that the paninis at IV are good and so is the parmesan chicken breast. I tried to look for the sea bass which I know is very good as well but sadly that too had been cut out. So we ordered a grilled salmon with dill mustard sauce and a brocolli and cashew nut stir fry. The fish was done nicely. Ever so slightly charred on the outside and juicy on the inside though I am pretty sure it was not caught from the river outside. Let’s just say that it had done its fair bit of travelling from Norwegian (or maybe Irish) farms and had stopped along for pictures along the scenic route before it ended up in the chefs kitchen in IV2. Speaking of which, please do try the salmon at any of the Ikea restaurants. It flies business class straight from the farm to the chef’s kitchen every day.

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I do end up ordering something stupid every time I am out but its not because I like to torture myself or ruin my night out, I just like to see how much the chef can push the limits and go out of his/her comfort zone. So please do not judge this kitchen based on my experience with the next dish. First rule of any stir fry is, you add the chicken or meat and after it is half cooked (or even more) you add the vegetables or you just stir fry the chicken and the veggies separately. My broccoli and cashew nut stir fry however was done the other way round. To be fair, it was done in the exact same way it said so on the menu. Broccoli florets, green chili and onion combined with Chinese noodles and light soy sauce. Topped with roasted cashew nuts. Add organic chicken. If only the chef had not literally followed that exact order and added the chicken earlier – this dish would have been a lot more edible because I would probably not have been able to smell the chicken. To mask the smell however, a larger than usual amount of sweet Thai sauce had been added to the dish as an afterthought. It failed to cover up the smell but did end up making the dish (how should I put this delicately) a little too sweet for my liking. Once again, I love the food at the IV1 and it would be unfair to judge the IV2 kitchen based on this dish but I also believe that if it is on your menu, it is your job to do it well.

There are two things however that nobody does better than the Irish and those are smiles and Guinness and both of those are in abundance at the Irish Village in Riverland. Today is St. Patrick’s day, the one day that everyone except the Scottish becomes Irish (The Scottish are always just Scottish). The IV had a bit of Green everywhere last night and I was told that there was a big celebration planned for today. So if you are still indecisive about tonight, head over to Riverland and make it a weekend!

The Irish Village Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato