Chrimbo already? The Diva turned away in boredom, her eyelids drooping at the thought of another staid, stuffy table of stodge. Why does everyone need to eat till they drop — only to promptly go on a diet of antacids and weight-loss pills? "We live in the Arab world where the sun shines and one does not need heavy stodgy foods that are not pancreas friendly," she proclaimed haughtily.
Why not something truly innovative, something easy on one’s innards, and something that would set the tone for the New Year? She decided she would set off in search of it herself.
"Bah, humbug," the Caveman was heard muttering as he trailed in her wake.
The Caveman had already replaced his palaeo regimen with a medically necessary gluten-free one, in honour of the festive season — what more could he do?
As always, it turns out the Diva was right. Our intrepid duo was not disappointed: they ate well and continue to be in great spirits ready for the next round of partying as the holiday season arrives.
Well, while Christmas is all about Jesus being born in a manger in Bethlehem, it did originate in the Middle East, so why not a true Arab Christmas?
French chefs Yoann Le Chatton and Christophe Prud’homme of the Al Bustan Rotana put on a three-course spread that had all my taste buds kicking in excellent health.
The salad was a rich riot of colours in the true Christmas spirit. Baby spinach with home-cured sundried tomatoes and Parmesan shavings with gluten-free Melba toast were followed by a marinated and baked red mullet with asparagus and wild mushroom risotto and a fresh tomato and olive oil dressing.
I love local fish and the rolled fillet of red mullet on my plate was fresh, tender and flaky and smelled clean.
Top that with small portions of risotto with the fresh tangy taste of tomatoes and little bits of tender asparagus and I was an ecstatic Diva with very satisfied taste buds.
Then came the Arab style turkey. Both chefs had put a lot of imagination and love into that bird, which was marinated with fresh zatar (wild thyme) between the skin and the flesh sitting on a bed of Iranian zereshk polow accompanied by pumpkin cubes, Brussels sprouts, jacket potatoes and a smooth cranberry sauce… yum yum it sat really well in my tum.
The bitter-nutty flavour of wild thyme makes my taste buds sing. Add to that the tenderness of the turkey breast and al dente pumpkin and sprouts and I was in Christmas heaven. My only complaint to both chefs was the quality of rice used for the polow. American rice has no place in a turkey mince polow because it is flavourless. Naturally, having lived in the east for most of my life I love the aroma and the long tasty grain of good quality basmati even though I can eat only very minute quantities these days.
In general, I avoid more than a slice of turkey. It’s a tough old bird and often at the table resembling nothing so much as cardboard. But a zatar-buttered bird? I flocked to Chef Christophie Prud’homme’s hotel at once.
In the years that he has been in the Middle East, Prud’homme has worked hard to turn out food that is both regionally relevant and on trend, and his Arabian turkey with gluten-free stuffing delivered fantastically on both fronts. After a light salad of baby spinach and home-dried tomatoes, the whole roasted bird came to the table machboos-style on a bed of fruity, spicy Arabian polow. Carved tableside, it was served with turkey jus, traditional Brussels sprouts, pumpkin, baked potatoes and gluten-free stuffing. In a bowl accompanying it was the polow laced with zereshk or Iranian barberries and fine turkey mince.
How does it taste? Surprisingly excellent — the dish has its roots in the Arab world, but Prud’homme has been able to update and modernise it for a contemporary festive table.
The meat, from the heart of the breast, was tender, moist and perfectly seasoned, with the zatar — the herb, not the condiment — beefing up the meat with its broad, peppery flavour. In this variation, it works better with rice than with potatoes, but this may be more of a personal preference. And in what’s a rarity for me, I went back for more turkey, grabbing greedily at the crisp skin with it’s underlay of zatar. I’d recommend this to all home chefs.
Choices, Al Bustan Rotana: 04 282 0000
The H Hotel
For all of those tired, weary Dubai party revellers who don’t have the time or the inclination to slave over a hot stove the Christmas Crate from The H Hotel is the perfect antidote.
For Dh995 (and Dh100 extra for home delivery) one can have a nice intimate lunch for up to 12 persons and that’s exactly what the Caveman and I did. The crate arrived at the Gulf News canteen looking suspiciously like a pirate’s treasure trove and as I opened it to have a sneak peek, the humongous turkey stared me straight in the face and the aroma of the hot food got me singing for lunch.
While the Caveman and I got selective about what we ate from that box of treasures our friends and colleagues dug into its myriad pleasures.
Chicken sausages wrapped in smoky turkey bacon, Brussels sprouts with nutmeg, vichy carrots with acacia honey and cinnamon, double-roasted potatoes with rosemary and garlic and the pièce de résistance, a 10kg slow-roasted juicy American turkey with traditional giblet gravy, chestnut and apple stuffing and spiced cranberry sauce.
In true festive manner, a senior colleague with years of carving experience dished out the turkey in thin tender slices ensuring white and dark meat went to all the right people.
The melt-in-the-mouth turkey and cranberry sauce tickled my fussy palate and the giblets in the gravy were tender too. The stuffing was light and festive with the chestnuts still crunchy.
Then came the sweet goodies: Christmas cookies, all butter luxury mince pies, rich stollen with marzipan filling, a traditional fruit pudding with orange cream and a special diabetic-friendly (agave-sweetened) strawberry dessert just for me. Those H men really know to keep a Diva happy.
I ate the pistachio sponge garnished with strawberries and whipped cream and tried a slice of the stollen. I was not disappointed and I was not stuffed. It was a deliciously nice lunch for me and the Caveman. The rest of our crew of course was happy…. The cookies were amazing, the mince pies deliciously light. Not much to add except although I can’t eat all that I want anymore it cheered my cockles to see them all eat with gusto. Of course, with great food what can one expect?
Getting everything catered is the busy Dubaian’s secret to a great party. Why spend days brining, marinating and roasting when city hotels are only happy to send over a turkey with all the trimmings (plus a few extras) at wallet-friendly prices?
The H Hotel, which sits at the top of Shaikh Zayed Road, sent over a crate of goodies for the EAT team to sample. With prices beginning at Dh695, you certainly get your money’s worth.
We began with the devils on horseback, chicken sausages wrapped in turkey bacon (although since they’re not pork, perhaps they should be angels on horseback instead?) They were rather too dry for my taste — but as the office boy wonder said, it would do excellently with a mulled beverage. If only the canteen would oblige!
On to the turkey and everything else. Why carve when you can get someone else to do the work? Our resident go-to guy clearly knows his way around a breast, for in a few minutes we were all handed plates piled high with the aforementioned bird, honeyed vichy carrots and apple and chestnut stuffing.
And what a turkey it was. Crispy skin and tender meat. The dark leg meat, of course, was the best, but even the breast meat was moist and light and buttery — with calories aplenty, someone said, but Christmas is no time for Grinches. The carrots were good, but it was the nutty, comforting flour-free chestnut and apple stuffing that had me going back.
Also in the crate were a mountain of sweets — but I left those to the Diva.
The H Hotel: 04 501 8888
This outing was a fascinating mix of Franco-Arab cuisine for a Christmas lunch.
The Caveman was a bit skeptical at first that the bird on the dining table would be yellow corn-fed French chicken. “That is so everyday,” he said, “It can hardly be served up as the main course at Christmas.”
Lately, I have my bouts of being a little less divaesque and a trifle patient so I asked him to be a little less Caveman judgemental and a little more adventurous. Well, he certainly was not disappointed.
More about the chicken later! How could I not sing the praises of the first two courses — grilled salmon with grilled Mediterranean vegetables and Aeolian sauce and kibbeh labanieh with white buttered rice?
The gluten-allergic Caveman attacked the salmon in a fit of hungry pique and sang the praises of the Aeolian sauce that was made with fresh cherry tomatoes, olives and capers. It could be excellent as a pasta sauce.
I tried the kibbeh cooked in a yoghurt sauce. I had no expectations as I have eaten the same hundreds of times in hundreds of Levantine restaurants. But lo and behold! This was tender, melt-in-the-mouth, yoghurt-soaked, tangy… simply out of this world.
Louay Al Hindi, the Sous Chef of Zaytoun, said, “The secret is that it is my mother’s recipe.” True enough; Palestinian home cooking can be extremely delicious and this was tops. The kibbehs, which are otherwise deep-fried, are quickly poached in this recipe and then slow cooked to absolute perfection in the yoghurt sauce for about 45 minutes.
Upon goading the Caveman, he tried the kibbeh and was instantly converted. He had never eaten a kibbeh so deliciously tender before either.
Then came the gluten-free roasted yellow corn-fed chicken with sautéed asparagus, cèpes mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, bread pudding and the to-die-for sauce perigeux.
“The French rarely eat turkey and a tender corn-fed chicken with the perfect farce fine or high-end stuffing with a black truffle and duck liver sauce becomes the centrepiece of the Christmas table of a lot of French families,” said Junior Executive Sous Chef Mounssef Ouahdani and Outlet Chef, Alexandre Szkaradkiewicz.
They were absolutely right. The stuffing is made from chicken meat and cream and the sauce takes the roasted chicken juices with duck liver and black truffles and cooked to perfection to make it worthy of Christmas. (Recipe on Page 52).
Well I sniggered as the Caveman was forced to eat crow… well no, actually he tucked into the chicken and wished me a Merry Christmas.
Our next adventure was a tasting of Arabian and French food, also in Deira. The Diva wanted a multicultural Christmas and the InterContinental Dubai Festival City collaborated with its sister hotel, the Crowne Plaza at the same venue, to give us one.
First out were the Arabian dishes. I left the kibbeh labanieh to the Diva, since these meat dumplings are made with bulgar wheat, and turned to the fish dish instead. Grilled salmon and Mediterranean vegetables with Aeolian sauce — it doesn’t get more palaeo than that! Thankfully these chefs know that fish is at its best when just cooked, and the salmon is perfectly done — flaky but firm. The sauce it comes with, a mix of tiny berry tomatoes, olives and capers, is inspired by the Aeolian islands off the Italian coast — and is ever so slightly tart, immediately transporting us to Italy. Fish it is at Christmas in the Mediterranean.
Still on the same coast, but more to the West was the next course. Chicken. For Christmas. Yes, really. Chef Szkaradiewicz of the InterContinental’s Bistro Madeleine said good free range corn-fed chicken is often eaten on festive occasions in France, particularly by those looking for alternatives to game or goose. It certainly arrived at the table in festive red and green, paired with asparagus and dressed in cranberries and truffle sauce. The palaeo-perfect chicken was well tender, not overdone at all, and considerably improved by a stuffing of minced chicken and truffle cream. Rich fare all right, but if you don’t eat well at Christmas, when can you? If you fancy a break from all the turkey this season, you know where to head.
Zaytoun, Crowne Plaza Dubai Festival City: 04 701 2222
Bistro Madeleine, InterContinental Dubai Festival City: 04 701 1111
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
Chef Christopher Thompson has put out an amazing menu for Christmas 2013 and the Caveman and I were honoured to eat at his table.
For Dh350 per person he will serve all Christmas diners an amazing three-course meal. However, he gave the Caveman and I the opportunity to (nit) pick the best of what we wanted and away we went on a long ride.
We began with a pumpkin risotto with Pecorino cheese and seasonal mushrooms, which had a nice nutty flavour. The sweetness of the pumpkin adding to the flavour along with the heat of the red chilli garnish.
What came next were pan-seared black tiger shrimps wrapped in beef bacon, served with celeriac purée, black lentil and roasted pumpkin bites. The shrimps were sweet and succulent but I really don’t think beef should be considered bacon as it does nothing to enhance the flavour of the dish.
The surprise of the evening was the two main courses. The olive-stuffed roast pheasant and the Malbec-marinated beef loin roast.
Having weaned myself away from all red meat I enjoyed the pheasant, which had an excellent flavour while the Caveman tucked into the beef loin along with the creamy garlic mashed potatoes. He stayed away from the delicious olive stuffing because of the bread.
I believe the chef wanted to impress this Diabetic Diva and cooked up a really healthy but top of the world dessert just for me.
I was thoroughly impressed and I still fantasise about the double baked peach halves with pistachios, eggs, ginger and small amounts of sugar stuffing.
I could not get how a simple peach could be so fascinatingly delicious but then, as I said earlier, sometimes I have no expectation and usually I end up with a grand bonus.
Here’s wishing a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all our readers.
Remember that good food is still the way to good health. The Caveman and I are the poster children. We have our health problems but we have not stopped eating good healthy food at home and in the number of restaurants that dot the Dubai landscape.
Our last adventure was in New Dubai. Tired by now of turkey, I welcomed Chef Thompson’s suggestion of a roast beef dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House at The Address Dubai Marina.
The Diva, of course, has
sworn off red meat for several years now, and was happy to get the bird — roast pheasant in
this case. I ventured in for a peck: it was perfectly spiced, but a little too done for my liking. The Diva, however, declared it perfect — and who was I to argue with experience?
The beef I couldn’t be happier with. Although at medium it was slightly more done than I like, it was quite excellent. Packed with a deep, savoury flavour, it was the sort of thing most cavemen would be ecstatic to
be served on any festive occasion. The garlic mash it came with rounded out the flavour very well, and I sat back very satisfied indeed.
But there was more to come. Chef Thompson’s dessert was a stunner. Peaches topped with crushed pistachios and only a smidgen of brown sugar, it was close to palaeo-approved and definitely both gluten-free and diabetic-friendly. By caramelising the peaches, Thompson was able to maximise their sweetness, and the pistachios provided a nutty, festive flavour that certainly didn’t leave me missing the more traditional pudding. Do try it at home — it’s worth it.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House, The Address Dubai Marina: 04 454 9538