“Traditional Christmas fare has become so boring,” declared the Diabetic Diva. The Caveman did not disagree and they decided to trawl Dubai’s restaurants to find an international Christmas feast with a twist.
Well, the main twist in this tale is that the Diva must look for pancreas-friendly food and the Caveman cannot afford to let his gluten allergies drive him and everyone around him nuts. So off they went arguing about whether Christmas should be piscatorial or carnivorous.
The Diva believed she’d win as usual but the caveman had other plans.
Mazina, The Address Dubai Marina
It’s game season at Mazina and true to the game, chef Neeraj Pyandeeandee from Mauritius decided that we bird lovers must delve into his exquisite dish of pan-roasted pigeon with a mixed berry sauce and an onion tart.
The last time I ate pigeon was as a child, when I found frog legs too small and turkey drumsticks too big. Pigeon legs and breast I declare are absolutely the right size for someone who wants to eat small for Christmas dinner.
It tasted good. The mixed berries provided the tang to the savoury pigeon flesh and the shallot purée complemented both. I avoided the beetroot purée as my pancreas don’t like it one little bit.
Earlier during the evening chef Pyandeeandee insisted on an amuse-bouche of foie gras and a tenderloin of duck with asparagus wrapped with crispy duck bacon. I loved it.
Since I had begun my Christmas quest looking to throw tradition out the door, I could not help but feel that the Caveman had a cunning plan to ensure that traditions stayed put.
With this in mind I ensured that my starter at the meal was frothy lobster bisque with lobster ravioli — thus ensuring I had some semblance of control on the goings-on.
I was certainly not disappointed with the bisque and while the Caveman and our companions feasted on partridge, wild boar, salsify and morels along with the grape, a tiny serving of fresh orange and kiwi jelly wrapped it up for me.
I’m sure I noticed the Caveman stick his tongue out at me. Well, he kind of won the fish versus meat argument and I thought of giving him the bird, but I smiled sweetly instead. We will have a fishy Christmas yet, I schemed inside my head and laughed.
Christmas is for the birds. Prehistoric cavemen, of course, ate anything that didn’t move too quickly and simply felling a bird or beast must have been cause for celebration for hominids used to a diet of berries, nuts and nettles.
With big meals having become commonplace over time, chefs are now turning back to medieval delights such as goose, pigeon and game on menus, even here in Dubai.
And what bird could be more representative of the region than pigeon? Squabs, or domesticated pigeons, graced tables in ancient Egypt and regional texts down the ages describe the eating of doves.
Mazina does a fantastic job of its continental-style pan-roasted pigeon breast and confit leg. The Diva’s came with an onion tart, but mine had tiny dots of shallot and beetroot purée instead. The plate was topped with a blackberry and cherry sauce and micro herbs, presented in the garden-on-a-plate effect that is so fashionable nowadays — very apposite for Palaeo nature lovers!
The bird itself was gamier than chicken but just mild enough to please the Diva, and the sharp flavours of the berries had been nicely cooked out. It certainly makes for a different sort of Christmas and, despite a plate piled with salad and a fabulous foie gras starter (with duck bacon — wow!), the meal didn’t leave me stuffed and groaning. “Pigeon is healthy,” declared the Diva. “It flies, so it’s not fat.” Who was I to argue?
I headed to the dessert buffet instead for a platter of fruit.
Christmas Eve dinner Dh250 at Mazina, The Address Dubai Marina: 04 888 3444
Certo, Radisson Blu Hotel, Media City
A coastal Italian Christmas feast was what chef Daniele Capobianco had promised. He honourably kept his word — much to the Caveman’s chagrin I believe. The first course saw a sea bream rose with a saffron sauce and crispy artichokes.
It lacked something, I thought — a hint of lemon or pepper, as I picked through the lobster in the second course avoiding the angel-hair pasta. I was still looking for that oomph factor when the guazzetto with prawns, baby octopus, clams, mussels, sea bream and crayfish arrived.
It was a well-made Mediterranean stew with a splash of fresh tomatoes. Tender, succulent and offering a moment when the eyes, nose and taste buds were all well satisfied; or so I thought.
I glanced at what the gluten-intolerant Caveman had just received. It was a very plain-looking risotto. For a Diva who is not a fan of stodgy food, I reached over with trepidation and picked a forkful — and decided that I would never judge anything by its looks ever again.
I can crow from the rooftops that it really was the best I had ever tasted. Arborio rice, vegetable stock, orange zest, artichoke bits cooked gently — simple and deliciously fresh.
The orange and cinnamon sorbet at the end of the meal crowned that explosively refreshing feel.
I learned young the way to keep a woman happy is to let her have her way first. She’ll then happily let you have yours.
An early pescatarian win for the Diva would leave her mellow and ready for adventure later on, I figured, and fixed on Certo to execute my plan. Chef Daniele Capobianco says seafood is traditional festive fare in his country, but fish smacks too much of abstemious Fridays in my childhood for me to consider it celebratory food. The Diva, of course, was thrilled. Different folk and all that.
But I was soon expansively allowing for different strokes. The gluten-free artichoke risotto, although not Palaeo, stole the show. It was light, slightly creamy and wonderfully comforting — as if an Italian mama had spent hours slaving away over the stove. If all risotto was cooked like this, Arborio rice would be unaffordable.
The main course, which both of us ate, was nearly as good. Basically a very light stew with six different types of seafood, it was hearty and festive, the contrasting textures ensuring each mouthful was different.
The agave-tinged orange and cinnamon sorbet we were served later was so explosive it can only be described as Christmas in your mouth.
Since I’d abandoned my Palaeo eating plan for the evening — isn’t Christmas the time to do just that? — I pigged out on a platter of Italian cheeses. A wonderfully adventurous end to a novel Christmas meal.
Christmas Eve dinner Dh325 at Certo, Radisson Blu Hotel, Media City: 04 366 9111
Sizzling Wok, Citymax Hotels
An Asian fusion feast with chefs Robin Gomes and Tek Chand was on the Christmas lunch agenda. The offerings were Chinese and I smiled hoping that a large fish gently steamed with ginger and lemon grass would swim by. I did not have to wait too long.
Dumplings, duck and tangerines for luck are the hallmarks of a typical Christian Chinese Christmas and true to tradition we had: a vegetable wonton soup, chicken dim sum, roast-duck-filled crispy spring rolls — and then it came — a whole ginger, lemon grass and garlic steamed fish accompanied by very lightly sautéed asparagus and bok choy.
The fish flakily tender, the vegetables succulent. This time I really stuck my tongue out at the Caveman but he was enjoying the fish too much and ignored that evil smile I reserve especially for him.
In the heart of Bur Dubai, Sizzling Wok makes for a pleasant and budget-friendly Asian Christmas diversion.
I started with a pleasant, clean wonton soup — minus the wonton. The Diva contentedly tucked into duck spring rolls (right) that she declared were beautifully crispy, while I tucked into a plate of stir-fried mixed vegetables.
We tried three mains. The pot roast beef tenderloin came with a nice and spicy Kung Pao sauce, and the roast duck with honey chilli sauce and pineapple was tender with a nice balance of sweet and savoury. Best of all, however, was the steamed hammour, accompanied with a Mandarin sauce of ginger, garlic and soya. Tender, flaky and very nice indeed.
Dessert was the crowd-pleasing brownie with ice cream, or in my case, a plate of fine, fresh fruit.
Nice for a reasonably priced office dinner party.
Christmas Eve dinner Dh99 at Sizzling Wok, Citymax Hotels, Bur Dubai: 04 407 8000
Blue Flame, Jumeirah Creekside, Garhoud
Our goose was cooked four different ways by chef Ruben Rebuffo and the Caveman was over the moon.
“Bird again,” I grimaced, and to ruffle feathers further there was also a whopping turkey tomahawk that literally looked like one. The Caveman rubbed his hands in glee as we dived into our starters.
I got lucky. Mine was line-caught smoked salmon 24/12 with an orange and cream cheese mousse. The hotel cures the salmon for 24 hours and then smokes it for 12 hours in-house, and the care and effort came through in its glorious taste. The orange mousse provided the tang.
The goose then came plated like a piece of art: tender pan-fried goose liver with blueberries, medium rare slices of goose breast with a duck jus, profiteroles stuffed with goose fat confit and goose-fat- flavoured popcorn. Smooth as silk and very pleasing to my taste buds.
The platter pleased all my senses but the pièce de résistance in that mix was the crunchy Brussels sprouts; halved, scooped and stuffed with cabbage and beef bacon... a divine taste that I don’t believe I will ever forget, along with the poached quail egg with the crunchy cover that sat atop my steak tartar amuse-bouche.
The turkey was tender but I left it to the Caveman to devour it with gusto. He, however, avoided the bread and nut stuffing that sat like little people waiting for the tomahawk to drop.
To say that this dinner was special would be an understatement. The hibiscus flower crème brûlée with rose petal clouds and mint jelly caught my eye and I had to taste it. A west meets east fusion dessert to satisfy oriental palates, according to chef Ruben, and I must say his creation, like children of mixed couples, turned out quite divine.
We can tell you this: book now or miss out on the Christmas meal everyone in Dubai is going to be at. Since the Jumeirah Creekside opened this year, Blue Flame has won kudos in gourmand circles for its fantastic steaks and fine tableside service.
Although on the wrong side of the creek — and hard to get to for someone who doesn’t know Maktoum Bridge’s various exits — the journey is worth making if it’s a night of fireworks you want at an approachable price point.
Once seated on the outdoor terrace, I left the Diva to her fish and went with the truffle-cured carpaccio. Served with frozen gorgonzola mousse and a poached pear, it was melt-in-the-mouth soft, a bite and a little hit of flavour before it was gone. The Diva came back for a second taste — and a third.
My main course was goose, cooked four ways. Why have one dinner when you can have four? First was a lovely crispy confit of goose leg served with a goose lard profiterole. That may sound fat and gloppy, but Chef de Cuisine Ruben Rebuffo works the lard so it has the texture of soft cream. Also on the plate was a fork-tender veal rasher-poached goose breast on a velvety pumpkin purée. Number three was heavenly, sinful foie gras, paired with a stunning berry chutney — a sort of climax within a climax. Rounding out the course was goose popcorn, basically little more than popcorn dipped in goose fat — unusual and slightly chewy but definitely adventurous.
The best bit on the plate, though, were the tiny Brussels sprouts, which, stuffed with minced beef and cabbage, reveal their true nature only once you bite into them.
A beautiful combination of textures and flavours, its memory remains with me weeks later. It was such a brilliant meal, I opened up more than I should have, telling the Diva things I’m normally circumspect about. Oh well. The way to a man’s innermost thoughts is through his stomach.
Christmas Eve à la carte menu at Blue Flame, Jumeirah Creekside, Garhoud: 04 230 8580
Spectrum on One, Fairmont Dubai
Chef Colin Kasel is a kind man. He actually allowed two long-haired strangers into his kitchen for a hands-on lesson in cooking a Christmas turkey without the extra brining, sugar, butter or gluten.
A hairy experience for any chef I thought, but he set us to work straight away.
Quality roasted turkey with fresh herbs and aromatic veggies. The stuffing here was baked outside the bird and I could have killed the Caveman for insisting on gluten-free bread. However, in the end chef Kasel’s slow-cooked caramelised onions (1.5 hours in olive oil), a few sprigs of sage and thyme, naturally sweetened cranberries and beaten eggs gently baked in the oven until it formed a crisp top, turned what I considered could be a mouthful of sawdust into a tasty side dish for the tender slices of slow-cooked turkey.
Add to that rocket leaves with an almond vinaigrette topped with potato-flour-coated and deep-fried sweetbread (poached well in advance) and I began to enjoy it. Sweetened with orange juice and a hint of organic honey the vinaigrette also served as a good sauce for the slices of white meat on my plate.
Dessert was a flourless chocolate cake made lovingly by chef Nouel. It was warm, frosted with ganache and red berries and truly, festively delicious.
Merry Christmas everyone and may your birds be as tender and delicious as ours were.
Having done the rounds of the city, it was time to talk turkey. The Anglo-American tradition of turkey dominates Christmas tables and at the start of our food tour, I’d turned down suggestions from several of the city’s finest restaurants who suggested we try their roast turkey. Between all those polite refusals and doing my best to ignore the Diva’s absurd notion that fish was a perfectly acceptable Christmas dinner, I finally gave in when the folk at the Fairmont Dubai suggested the festive cliché. What swung the argument in favour of their Canadian Christmas Eve dinner is the fact that the chain has catered for diners with special needs for some years now, rolling out macrobiotic and diabetic menus long before everyone else.
The kitchen at Spectrum on One restaurant is very public indeed and as the Diva and others watched, I liberally greased up a bird’s insides, ably directed by a more experienced man. The more butter you use the better the results, chef Kasel explained — as I found out afterwards.
At the table, the bird stunned me into silence. Beautifully presented with a roundel of stuffing, I ate with my eyes before digging into the moist, tender flesh and savouring the taut, firm skin. Just mildly seasoned with an occasional tarty hint from the cranberries, I was left, paradoxically, both completely satisfied and craving more.
Could anything top that experience? The flourless chocolate cake came close. I ate mine clean, without ganache and frosting, accompanied only by a little orange jelly and a sprig of mint. With black coffee, it was an almost excellent affair.
So what did I take away from the experience? One lesson: gluten-free stuffing is quite simply terrible. The Diva was incensed. But never mind — as Tiny Tim said, Merry Christmas to us all!
Chrismas Eve dinner Dh295 at Spectrum on One, Fairmont Dubai: 04 311 8316