Al Fresco dining at SOY, Ibn Batuta

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Ibn Batuta mall was not the kind of place you would specifically go to for a meal. If you were in the mall doing your groceries or whatever, sure why not. At least that is what is what it used to be for me, until recently.

Please don’t get me wrong, It’s not that they ever had a shortage of options. The Batuta  restaurants have a rich variety of cuisines on offer but  still seems like more of a place you visit primarily to shop. If I want to eat at a restaurant in the neighborhood, I would rather go to the Marina or JLT but if the place absolutely has to be in a mall, it would probably be the Marina mall. The most probable reason for that may be – the view.

That is how Dubai has spoilt us. If it doesn’t offer  a view of the water, a park or a beautiful skyscraper, it doesn’t seem that attractive. If it has none of those, the least we have come to expect is a terrace where we can enjoy this beautiful weather or at least some sunlight coming in from panoramic windows overlooking the city. I have become so used to the Dubai life that places without windows or a view make me feel claustrophobic.

How you may wonder has Ibn Batuta Mall become one of my favorite dining out destinations in Dubai? It’s because I have discovered the outdoor dining area which I never knew about earlier. Located at the China court, this is like a an oasis of fun and festivity in the middle of your mundane grocery trip. There are no extra ordinary views of the city or the water but the fact that you can enjoy al fresco dining  in a bustling square surrounded by busy restaurants serving everything from Turkish, Indian, Chinese and Lebanese was enough to arouse my curiosity.

There were a couple of restaurants that seemed interesting but the one we decided to eat at that day was ‘Soy’. One of the reasons we decided to eat  there was because it seemed to be looking down at the all the other restaurants! No seriously, the patio outside Soy was elevated 2 to 3 feet higher than the other restaurants around it. It seemed like the best vantage point for people watching which is our 2nd most favorite thing to do at a restaurant. Yes we are weird like that!

After seating ourselves, I quickly went through the online reviews. Food seemed to be rated higher with a couple of misses here and there but the service seemed appalling. “Good afternoon Sir!” said our waiter, just as we were wondering about the  kind of mess I may have got us into. “How are you doing today?” he said with a smile while placing the menus in front of us. “We are fine, thank you!”  we said in unison, feeling a little embarrassed for forming an opinion which clearly did not seem to be right.

We ordered the diced chicken with cashew nuts and snow peas along with the crispy beef with shredded bell papers  and some brown rice. I will get to the food in a bit but please allow me to say that the fermented black bean chili sauce which accompanied the prawn crackers was the best thing that happened to me that day. It had a course texture, fiery kick and tangy aftertaste so unique that I do not remember the last time I enjoyed a condiment or sauce that much.

We have a habit of ordering the chicken with cashew nut at every Chinese and Thai place we got to. We have been at it for so long and have tried so many different renditions of the dish that we consider ourselves to be specialists of sorts. This particular dish was unique because we never tried it with snow peas before. I expected the peas to come out nice and juicy dotting the plate here and there but there were no peas to be seen. What it did have was whole baby peapods that looked a bit like edamame beans but tasted exactly like peas. The dish was closer to real Chinese than Indo-Chinese but we did not mind that a bit. There were no overwhelming flavors except for those of the lightly salted chicken and cashew gravy along with baby peas. Uniquely different but definitely a winner.

The magic ingredient in the crispy beef was the shredded bell pepper. It added a soft  texture to the hard and chewy beef. When I say chewy I do not mean rubbery. It was still crisp and crackled upon first bite but took a while to chew after that. The sweetness of the bell pepper strips accompanied the beef like they were made for each other.

Chicken cashew nut at Soy

We weren’t too happy with our cocktails. The Mojito was a bit too sweet and the Pina Colada had a bit too much froth and they were both about 100ml short of the drinkable parts. Overall however, our experience was very good. We enjoyed the sun and al-fresco seating  and there were lots of interesting people all around. The food was a 7 out of 10 and the service was good enough to make us go back for more.

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

Ultimate Family brunch at Flow Kitchen. Fairmont, Palm Jumeirah.

we were greeted by Spider Man and a Green dude who looked like he was going to get his ass kicked by Spider Man pretty soon. There was also this other dude who looked like he could be the star of his own comic book but I couldn’t quite remember who he was.

View my food journey on Zomato!

We hardly went to restaurants as kids. My father’s idea of a big meal out was to prepare a bigger meal at home. He would bring the chefs home and we would watch them as they prepared a Pakistani feast for the same 30 or 40 people that always showed up. Besides the stuffed lamb and the usual partridge masala, there would be a breakfast counter with halwa (sweet dish made of semolina, almonds and cardamom) chana (chickpea) masala and a guy serving piping hot puris (deep fried flaky bread) straight from the gigantic karrahi (wok).

Well, all that happened in Pakistan at my dad’s old country house and it was in another time. Now Mishal and I can barely fit ourselves into our tiny kitchen (or into any of our old jeans for that matter but that is a completely different subject)  and honestly I am not sure if I even know 30 or 40 people. Even if I did, the thought of 10 kids tearing down my living room and doing jumping jacks on my sofa is a bit concerning to say the least. Thankfully though, that would never be a problem now because I have discovered a magical place where kids can be kids and adults can be kids too; or they can just remain adults. Nobody would judge them.

As we got out of the elevator and turned the corner towards Flow Kitchen, we were greeted by Spider Man and a Green dude who looked like he was going to get his ass kicked by Spider Man pretty soon. There was also this other dude who looked like he could be the star of his own comic book but I couldn’t quite remember who he was. “Welcome to Flow Kitchen” said the usher standing next to the green dude as I snapped back to reality. “Is this your first time here?” “Yes” I said while the kid in the corner did a Skywalker maneuver with his light sabre. “Mr and Mrs Chaudhry, please follow me” she said and we walked into a large hall which was flooded by the light coming in from the gigantic window that looked into the ocean.

Most people seemed like they had either just been to or were about to head out to the beach but there were a couple of people with jackets who seemed just as content and at ease as the guy in yellow flip flops. I without my flip flops and jacket also felt quiet comfortable in the hustle and bustle of what increasingly seemed to resemble a dining room of a Market Hall. There was a cart serving steamed dumplings next to a stand with every possible kind of bread on display.

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Dumplings at Flow Kitchen

Pre cut and pre tossed salads are so old school, so there was a cart that had the most beautiful vegetables on display. You would choose what you want and this lady would peel, chop, toss and season your salad before you could say organic. PS Did you know that rock salts come in 5 flavors including charcoal and vanilla?

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Have your salad cut, chopped, tossed and seasoned in front of your eyes

Some places have totally excluded the breakfast element from their brunches which is quiet sad because brunch is traditionally supposed to be between breakfast and lunch so you should have items from both meals on the menu. Flow Kitchen is as big on breakfast as it is on family. There were sausages, hash browns and beans but the best thing were the eggs. There was a separate stand serving eggs benedict and you could add spinach, chicken, turkey or even roasted pine nuts if you wanted. The yolk was nice and runny just as it should be. There is nothing that offends me more than an overcooked egg.

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Spinach Eggs Benedict with roasted pine nuts
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Tomato Salsa and cheese on garlic bread at the Ultimate Family Brunch

I am still not a fan of the ‘serve a dish from every country’ doctrine that the brunches seem to have adopted in Dubai but I guess it makes sense if they can make it a part of the theme. A family brunch caters to the whole family so it would only be fair to serve all kinds of cuisine. There is always one dish or type of cuisine that stands out at every brunch. It could be a pasta or a sheesh kebab or even the entire seafood menu. I could not find that one dish at the Ultimate family brunch. The Morrocan lamb tagine was as divine as the Italian margarita pizza and the pesto on the baked salmon was as fine as the wasabi in the soy sauce. This was a foodie’s paradise and I did not want to go back home.

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Baked Salmon with pesto crust
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Sushi at Flow Kitchen

Not everyone in the family enjoys the complications of a sophisticated meal and sometimes all you crave is a good burger with lots of ketchup and some mayonnaise. For those fussy eaters, there was a special kids menu which I would have gladly read out to my seven month old milk junkie had she not been so fascinated with the colorful cakes and gummy bears on display. Despite there being so many kids at the restaurant, it was nothing like my father’s old house. There was no one diving head first off the tables, nobody drawing their parent’s faces on the walls and no one following them around and telling them to behave. The chaos had been allowed to flourish in an organised way albeit confined to the perimeter of the adjoining hall. There were two hours worth of activities which included face painting, balloon twisting, a magic show and arts and crafts. Heck there was even a PlayStation for older kids and for adults who refuse to grow up.

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Macaroons, meringue cookies and gummy bears at the Ultimate Family Brunch

Among the countless dessert options there was a red velvet cake and a decadent chocolate cake that stood out for me but the most popular sweet thing seemed to be the white cupcakes with inverted test tubes stuck on them. The tubes had a raspberry filling which you poured on to the cake. I had to save some room for coconut ice cream (which I had later with warm apple pie) so didn’t really get around to trying it but the theatrics of the tube and the raspberry syrup kept us from slipping into a food coma before we got to the ice cream.

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The tubes have a raspberry filling!

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There are so many things I have not described or spoken about like the warm flaky crust of the Moroccon chicken pie or the fresh Irish oysters on ice but I can’t do it because then this review would never end. What I would like to say is that I had not thought of my father’s old house for a long time. Even less of the 30 or 40 familiar faces that kept showing up at all his grand feasts. That changed yesterday. I thought of my family again and any restaurant that can make you do that has got to be special.

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Fresh Oysters on ice at Flow Kitchen

Flow Kitchen - Fairmont The Palm Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hatam. Persian in a rush.

The blue motif at the centre of the table reminded us of an ‘evil eye’ charm which we received from Tehran as a gift but had also seen being sold on the streets of Istanbul.

Going through the menu was déjà vu all over again. Like Turkish food, Iranian cuisine is dominated by grilled skewers of lamb and chicken so we felt we knew what we were getting into. I am not sure how the two cultures influenced each other so much because the Ottomans and Pesians didn’t really get along that much throughout history. Anyway, it wasn’t just the Turks the menu seemed to be inspired by. While Lebanese influences were apparent in the appetizers (hummus, tabouleh and mutabel were listed) there was also a chicken boti on the menu which is an Indian/Pakistani boneless chicken tikka.

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Iranian Salad consisted of Feta cheese, walnuts, olives and fresh leaves
Thankfully though, most of the menu consisted of authentic Iranian Dishes and we did not order anything that could have interfered with our Iranian experience; well other than the hummus of course. I would have skipped it if I could have had my way but seeing how Mishals eyes lit up upon reading the word hummus, I dared not tell her that it had nothing to do with Persian cuisine.

So the hummus was slightly thinner in consistency compared to the Lebanese kind and had a sharp lemony zing to it. We had ordered the hummus laham (hummus with meat) but it also came with sanober (pine nuts) which would be a completely different kind of hummus at a Lebanese restaurant.

We ordered skewers of lamb and chicken mince kebabs, lamb and chicken tikkas and lamb and chicken yoghurt kebabs. To me, ordering the same things twice seemed like a waste of time but since the only kind of animals Mishal eats are the ones that have feathers on them, as always we had to order the chicken as well.

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Chicken yoghurt kebabs
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Iranian chicken tikka
Compared to Pakistani mince kebabs, these seemed a bit dry to me but they had minimal spices so we could actually taste the meat. It worked great for the lamb but I don’t think you really want to taste the chicken mince unless you are fine with tasting some feathers, chicken fat and maybe a beak as well. Both the lamb and chicken tikkas were also a bit dry to my liking but the yoghurt kebabs made up for that later. Marinated overnight in yoghurt and black pepper, yoghurt kebabs are extremely popular in Southern Iran and we could see why.

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Lamb mince kebab and lamb tikka
The winning dish of the night was the chellow khorosht bamia which was a boneless lamb and okra stew mildly spiced and cooked in a tomato paste. Think of it as a Persian goulash served with white rice. I found the dough (pronounced doug) to be particularly refreshing and highly recommend it. It was a drink made of fresh buttermilk, salt and dried mint.

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Doug – Iranian drink consisting of yoghurt and dried mint leaves
The plastic covered menu was not too classy and took away from the effect they might have desired to achieve.  It might as well have been a  food court joint and and no fancy tables with blue motifs were required. The coloured pictures of the food made a lot of sense though, considering that none of the waiters spoke any Arabic. Service was fast but our orders were mixed up twice (despite the coloured pictures). Not bad for a quick meal if you are at Dubai Mall and provides a good insight into the world of Persian kebabs. Not sure if my craving for authentic Persian cuisine has been satisfied though. I think I will keep looking.

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

Jones the grocer and his factory.

Don’t be fooled by the name. This is not some random bloke selling cabbages and cauliflower at the corner of your street. This is a kitchen factory with a storefront that could humble a department store and a menu that updates faster than Taylor Swift’s boyfriend list. This is a super restaurant if there is ever such a thing; I’m still not sure who Jones is though, neither were any of the 5 waiters I asked – I think it was his day off.

I loved the open concept floor plan and the huge windows which were letting in copious amounts of light. There was so much activity around that it almost felt like an airport departure lounge with some people grabbing a bite before a flight, some picking up last minute duty free and others talking as if they had another 10 hours to kill.

All the cool kids seemed to be having breakfast (despite it being 1 pm). I would have as well if only had I not done the boiled egg ritual that morning. While I curiously tried to decipher the ingredients of what seemed like eggs on toast on the table 3 inches next to mine (I am creepy like that), Mishal seemed to be eyeing a gentleman who was struggling with his eggs benedict. Anyway, upon agreeing to return for breakfast later since it seemed to be the ‘in’ thing to do, Mishal ordered the seared Chilean sea bass with soba noodles and I went for the grilled Atlantic salmon on homemade babaganoush.

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I will get to the food in a bit but first I have to tell you of the most spectacular discovery we made that day. The drinks menu was a bit confusing and our poor waiter could not answer any of my questions. First of all, nobody knew what a ‘fever tree’ was. I asked to see someone who would know since it came in 6 flavours and my wife was about to order one but apparently the only person who could answer that question was not available (could have been Jones himself). Mishal being the adventurous soul that she is still went ahead and asked for an elderflower tonic fever tree anyway but settled for a bitter lemon fever tree later since the former was out of stock. (I think Fever Tree is just the name of the brand but somebody please tell the waiters that)

I was fascinated by a drink that was listed in the sparkling organic juice section. Never had I in my life been presented with the opportunity to sample organic cola juice straight from the mountains of Kilimanjaro. Where the cola fruit was plucked out of mother nature’s bosom and flown to this Dubai super factory in a chartered airplane so that it could be lovingly disassembled to separate the juice from the pod. They must be doing huge volumes though, how else could they justify selling something so rare, precious and ‘organic’ for AED21 per 250 ml bottle.

Anyway, now on to the food. I can safely say that my grilled salmon  was among the best I have ever had. It is amazing how seafood tastes different when it is fresh (or as fresh as it could possibly be after travelling 12000 odd kms from the Atlantic Ocean to Safa). There was a generous slab of fresh salmon that was grilled to perfection on my plate but I couldn’t help noticing Mishal’s sea bass which was served in a bowl that could also have been used to serve ramen but instead came with the most good looking pan seared sea bass that was covered with sesame seeds and laid on a bed of seaweed and bok choy drenched in yuzu ponzu.

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The crunch of the thin salmon skin was the perfect compliment to it’s creamy flesh and it seemed to be the only thing that held the fish from immediately melting in my mouth. That along with the feta and olive tomato salad ensured that we kept conversation to a minimum while I devoured the fish.

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The sea bass however is what we couldn’t stop talking about that evening and the morning after. The nori (seaweed) added a smoky aroma to the dish while the yozu ponzu dressing added a savory, sweet and citrusy zest to it. The cashews seemed to be strategically placed in the bowl to clean the palate and prepare for the next flavor. All this sat atop aromatic soba noodles and every single bite was a melange of different flavors and textures. The sea bass itself might have been from South America but the dish itself was undoubtedly from the land of the rising sun.

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For dessert we had the salted caramel tart which was the best way to end the meal because our taste buds kept jumping between sugar and salt. We also had the chocolate cheesecake which reiterated the notion that fresh good quality ingredients are the difference between a good and a supercaligragillisticexpiaidocius meal.

PS That cola juice….

Yasir Chaudhry.

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Jones The Grocer Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Aegean Vibe, Balearic Beats & a Middle Eastern Flair. La Cala.

“Bass emanating from Blue Marlin pulsated down my spine after bouncing off the rock island across the water. That felt pretty Balearic to me!”

If you are looking to party on a Friday afternoon, maybe Blue Marlin (just 300 steps away) would be a better destination. If however, you want to kick back, listen to some tropical house between conversation, enjoy the sunset while sipping on sangria and get to know some of the people on the table next to yours (and on the table next to that) La Cala is the place to be at.

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Dubai has so many water front restaurants, bars and clubs that I sometimes have a little trouble telling one apart from the other. While there may be another explanation for my selective amnesia but one of the reasons all the Nikkis, Nasimis and Edens  look similar is because they strive to be so. (Eden has now closed down to make room for a new joint called El Chiringuito but it still looks like Eden) They are all targeting the same clientele and they all want to be perceived as the ultimate luxury beach destination. La Cala does not want to play that game.

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If we list the facts, nothing seems to be going for La Cala on paper. It is far from civilisation, cramped for space and a bit limited on the menu. All of this nevertheless, is what gives this place its unique charm. Beach clubs are so 2010, unless of course they are in another city and you can make a daycation out of it. Well La Cala is technically in another city but it is still not more than 20 minutes away from Dubai which makes it a perfect destination and even more so because they have their own discount code for Careem.
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It is also as I mentioned earlier, quiet small. I never thought I would use this word to describe a beach club in Dubai but its size makes La Cala incredibly ‘cute’. When everything is so grand and glamorous around you, it is such a refreshing change to be at a venue that is so intimate and personal. Where the tables are almost intruding into each other’s space and you have no option but to say hello to the strangers next to you.
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The last brunch I went to had so many items on the menu that I had barely gone through half before getting tired. Of the half that I did try, some left a lasting impression while others were just forgettable. At La Cala’s brunch, almost everything on the carefully curated menu left a mark. Standout winner for me was the sashimi with wasabi and ginger. Some of the starters also stirred up nostalgia. I remembered the sun setting over the Greek Island of Mykonos as I nibbled on some pita and burrata (I know it’s Italian, but still!) The feast was marketed as a Balearic Brunch but it kept bringing back memories of Mykonos and Santorini. The only time I felt a bit like being back in Ibiza was while strolling down the jetty. Bass emanating from Blue Marlin pulsated down my spine after bouncing off the rock island across the water. That felt pretty Balearic to me!
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It could easily have been the fried tomato on my plate or perhaps the Greek Salad that led my mind to associate this venue with the Aegean Islands but I think it was the venue itself that made me feel that way. Spread over 3 levels, La Cala is actually built on a hill which is such a Greek thing to do, plus the intimate vibe and personal touch was definitely more Mykonos than Ibiza. So I wont be surprised if they start calling this the Aegean Brunch one day!
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As the sun began to set, the rustic Aegean charm of La Cala gave way to a festive feeling that is so distinctive of Dubai and its brunches. As it got closer to the end, almost everyone was either dancing or bobbing their heads to the music, cameras were flashing and selfies were being uploaded and there were unquestionably no more strangers around.

La Cala 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

Built to not last. Times of Arabia.

…It was a soulless angry stare which said “I hate you and I could destroy you but…

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me. I believe in second chances though. To err is to human and everyone deserves an opportunity to improve upon or correct a mistake they may have made. That was perhaps at the back of my head when I walked into the Times of Arabia restaurant in Dubai Mall after having had a completely forgettable meal coupled with some second-rate service at their Madinat Jumeirah branch.

That may not be the complete truth. I do believe in second chances but not in the service or f&b industries. There are just too many good people out there doing a good job waiting for that first chance; which they may never get because somebody with a gaudy restaurant in a fancy location would be stealing their business despite their sub-standard service.

I had wandered into the Dubai Mall restaurant because it just happened to be there. I had guests from out of town who were starving after having had to walk the whole day while I made sure that we explored everything there was to see in the massive mall.

This was in December, at the peak of tourist season but the ‘Times of Arabia’ was quiet empty. That seemed like a good thing at the time because we did not feel like waiting to be seated. We were greeted by a hostess/seating supervisor who was busy talking to someone on the phone. She raised her finger while briefly making eye contact with me while she jotted something down on a paper. My guests had a good day and we started talking about their shopping and the dancing fountains while we waited. The hostess put her phone down and gestured the beautiful young woman standing beside us to follow her in. While we stood there wondering what had just happened because we were clearly first in line (if there was such a thing) the beautiful woman’s diamond earrings unashamedly danced past us. Her lingering fragrance only giving way to the self-assured musky scent of her older companion as he walked past us as well.

All this happened very fast and I don’t think there was enough time to process anything. We were hungry and tired and the restaurant was 97% empty. So we had to wait a couple of more minutes. What else could go wrong?

We were eventually summoned by the hostess. My guests followed her towards the inner section of the restaurant while I stopped just short of the entrance because I saw a table that I liked (which was of course empty). As my guests were about to be seated, I went in and asked them if they would rather sit outside. They readily agreed and we all looked towards the hostess who stared back at us like Edward Cullen stared at Jacob after he had seen him kissing Bella. It was a soulless angry stare which said “I hate you and I could destroy you but I won’t do it because I am not allowed to”. Then she said two words – “not allowed”. “Not allowed by whom” I asked her. “Not allowed by management”, she said abruptly. I tried to ask her to reconsider or talk to the ‘management’ but she just repeated the same two words several times. “Not allowed” she said. At this point, I feared that this was a magic chant of some sort and if we did not concede, she would banish our souls to some abysmal dungeon below the restaurant. We almost agreed to be seated wherever she saw fit while being secretly in awe of the restaurants theme and its ability to transport us to some far off fantasy land where mystical creatures had suddenly come to life.

After getting the table we desired, we ordered our hearts out but the food that followed was once again forgettable and the service cataclysmic. A part of me felt really sorry for the owners of the restaurant. They had spent so much money on this huge place but there is no excuse for negligence and I knew the staff were going to destroy it sooner or later. Someone told me last week that the restaurant has shut down permanently. I hope everyone involved learnt a thing or two that may help them do a better job in the future. On a parting note, I would like to say that not everything about our visit was terrible. There was a tanoura dancer who was passionate about his job and was giving 100%. He was quiet entertaining and did manage to bring a smile to our faces.

Times of Arabia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday Rendezvous @ Giardino. Palazzo Versace Dubai. 

..having driven past this replica of an Italian palace earlier, I felt that the fashion powerhouse had thrown all its might behind the Palazzo.

This brunch did not need a theme or ‘creative’ name to stand out in the clutter – It had us at Friday. It was after all being held at one of the only two Versace hotels in the world and having driven past this replica of an Italian palace earlier, I felt that the fashion powerhouse had thrown all its might behind the Palazzo. If only they had chosen a location which was a little less off the beaten track, this restaurant would have been packed – in fact it would have been bursting at it’s seam. 
 
The Palazzo Versace truly is a neoclassical masterpiece and it’s majestic architecture draws inspiration from 16th century Italia. For a moment, the high ceilings, marble floors, mosaic walls, designer furnishings and gold accents made me feel like I was a guest at Tony Montana’s mansion. I am pretty sure I heard Al Pacino saying “First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the woman” in his unmistakable Tony Montana accent somewhere in the hallways. It could just as easily have been Casa Casuarina, the Miami mansion outside which Gianni Versace was shot but this over the top, opulent, Versace wonderland would not be at home as it is in Dubai in any other city in the world. 

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We were greeted upon arrival with a fresh ginger and apple drink with fizz and surprisingly, nobody asked us for any money. I agree that I have not been to every one of the two thousand seven hundred & fifty three Friday brunches that Dubai has to offer but I am also pretty sure that there has never been a brunch where I have not been asked to pay before I eat. I do not know how many people had skipped paying the bill before this became the norm in Dubai but considering the amount of liquor that is consumed at these brunches I think I understand why this had to be done. The Giardino brunch at the Palazzo Versace though, is all about class. Nobody runs away without paying the bill here. It is a classy joint that welcomes classy guests. The rest line up to choose and pay for their packages at the other Friday brunches. 
 
An original Versace print adorned the uniforms, table mats and everywhere else possible. It was a bright vivid green which along with the white walls and ample sunlight flooding through the alfresco terrace recreated the atmosphere of Palazzos, where the bright internal court was the informal space to meet, dine and enjoy the weather. 
 
One thing that really stood out was the service. We requested to move to a bigger table and it was taken care of within 2 minutes. The waiter even helped carry some of our stuff (Yes we Pakistanis don’t travel light…even to a brunch) and before I knew it one of the chefs at the live cooking stations was teaching me the correct pronunciation for gnocchi. If you do not know, gnocchi are soft dough dumplings which in this case were stuffed with pesto and paired with aubergine and mozzarella. Not sure about Gianni (high calories and all), but Tony would absolutely have killed for this dish. 

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It had far too many dishes for me to mention but the oysters, live lobster and dessert selection were truly worthy of an Italian palace. I did wonder why they had an Indian food station but realized that this was marketed as an international brunch and that’s what it was trying to be. I only wish it had not. I only wish it had stuck to its Italian roots and seafood but most of the other top 10 brunches want to include a little bit of everything too.. it is the land of excess after all. 
 
I don’t think it matters if they all end up having the same menu anyway, Tony Montana only roams the hallways outside Giardino. 

Giardino - Palazzo Versace Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato