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Trip 11 -- Ethiopia and Dubai

Message 5: Dubai epilogue: Outrageous

Date: Wed, 26 Mar 2008 17:14:05 -0500
From: Seth Weinstein <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Subject: Dubai epilogue: Outrageous

Rarely does a city blow me away like Dubai. It isn't replete with historic sights or museums or anything like that, but it is a city exploding with commercial activity and construction. It's got compelling markets and a beautiful waterway. It's clean and modern and bustling, and all the signs are in English and Arabic. And boy, did I eat - more about that later.

Dubai is one of the seven United Arab Emirates - the capital is Abu Dhabi, where most of the oil is culled and exported, but the country's main locale for everything else is Dubai. Dubai city sprawls from the northeast to the southwest along the Persian Gulf. The northeasternmost part of the city, cut off from the rest by the Dubai Creek, is where most of the markets are - the famous alleys of the gold souk, the fish and meat markets, and the spice market, to name a few. On the other side of the creek is the main historic district, which includes the textile souk and the medina-like area of Bastakia, and a little further southwest are electronics stores and banks. Beyond that the roads get wider and the distances between points of interest greater, and if you follow the coast for around 15 miles you hit the major resort hotels. Inland are residential and business skyscrapers, including the Mall of the Emirates, with its indoor ski slope, and the almost-completed Burj Dubai, which will probably become the tallest structure in the world at about half a mile high, with around 160 floors.

Outrageous construction is happening all over Dubai. Running out of space on land? OK, let's dredge some sand and build islands in the gulf - whole archipelagos. Three sets of islands shaped like palm trees, with residences, resorts, and all their needs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Islands). A group of three hundred islands shaped like a map of the world (http://www.theworld.ae and http://tinyurl.com/32za5x). Then there's the whole Lagoons complex - a whole city in itself, centered around four protruding, curvaceous towers that look like something out of a Disney fantasy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dubai_Towers_Dubai). And there's the iPod-shaped Pad (http://tinyurl.com/yntua2 and http://thepaddubai.com), which will have revolving living and dining rooms and changing virtual scenery, so you can place yourself anywhere in the world.

Outrageous. And only in Dubai.

Why? Dubai hasn't been all that important for more than 200 years or so. Until the early 20th century, most of the export revolved around pearl diving. Divers typically made 50 dives per day, for around three minutes each - the Dubai Museum exhibits their tortoise-shell nose plugs and the sieves used by merchants to measure the pearls. I just wonder who first figured out that if you dove deep into the ocean and opened an oyster, and that oyster happened to have a sort of tumor, then you'd have something pretty and marketable. (And I hope they had enough horseradish to go with all that oyster meat.)

Pearl diving petered out around 100 years ago, when competition increased from other countries. Then they found oil and started exporting that, and a very liberal customs-tax policy made Dubai's port more attractive than others for trading through the Persian Gulf, and then somebody realized that even though the country was Muslim there might be tourists who would want to come stay in five-star resorts on the beach and drink booze. And there you have the whole history of Dubai, and the reason for the intriguing mix of people and architecture - Arab businesspeople in white national dress, floods of construction workers from India, expats engaging in commerce; and stately mosques alongside modern buildings that stretch the imagination.

Thanks to a good-enough deal by Emirates Airlines' hotel-booking service at the airport, I based myself at the Admiral Plaza Hotel, on Bank Street close to Bastakia and the creek. Bastakia is the only place left in the city that still has traditional architecture - two-story houses with courtyards, topped with natural burlap X-shaped wind towers that caught the breeze and brought it down to the buildings' rooms. Some of the houses have been nicely restored, and many have been turned into art galleries - an art festival was in progress while I was there.

It costs one dirham (28 cents) to cross the creek by abra, traditionally a kind of rowboat, though now they're diesel-powered. The rickety boats fill up with 20 passengers every minute or two and frequently crash into each other as they navigate out of and into the narrow slips. Boats of all sizes line the sides of the creek, some of them loading and unloading goods as they have for centuries, some of them operating as dinner cruises - a much more recent phenomenon.

Dubai may be leagues ahead in the architectural innovation, but it has a long way to go before it becomes a truly world-class city in the modern sense. It doesn't really have a classical-music and theatre scene, in the latter case because there isn't a suitable venue (though one is being built at the Lagoons complex). It has plenty of nightlife, but that is mostly confined to hotels, which are the only places (aside from sports clubs) that are allowed to serve alcohol.

And transportation borders on disaster. I figured out the bus system, which is cheap and usually got me wherever I needed to go - even in the middle of the night - but it requires plenty of patience. The amount of construction means that getting from A to B on foot can involve a long detour. I once found myself on the wrong side of Sheikh Zayed Road - the main (really the only) highway through the city, which runs parallel to the beach a mile or two inland, and it was an hour before I could find my way to the other side. What's even more absurd is that after fighting my way through bulldozers and dirt, and dodging traffic - there aren't always sidewalks - I encountered a pedestrian crossing signal. So you can cross legally, but there's nowhere you can go once you do.

They're installing a subway system, most of which will be above ground, and it can't come soon enough. Frankly, I think they should halt all other construction for a year and make everyone work on the subway, but Dubaians are used to their cars, and most tourists would be more likely to hail one of those private cars that carry people directly from point to point for a metered fare - you know what I mean; it starts with T and it's a four-letter word. There's simply too much land to cover, and they keep creating more land, so it's going to be decades before you can, say, get on a train at the Dubai airport and take it all the way to the Mongolia island within the World archipelago.

I spent one day in Sharjah, the next emirate to the north. It's a much more conservative place - booze is forbidden in the whole emirate - but it is no less infused with commerce and skyscrapers. Sharjah city is also very beautiful, especially the walkway along the Sharjah creek, which affords views of a fountain and a couple of gorgeous mosques. Farther down the creek is Qanat Al Qasba, a peaceful amusement park where families gather in the evenings. As for bustle, Sharjah's got a fish market to rival Dubai's and a livestock market to rival Axum's (though Sharjah's is heavier on the sheep and each merchant has his own pen, so there's no need to drag a wayward creature by the leg), plus vegetable and bird markets. Want to buy a falcon? Emiratis have used falcons to hunt for generations.

Sharjah's primary attraction, for tourists at least, is Heritage Square - a group of a dozen or so museums set in traditional buildings, sort of like Bastakiya. The most interesting-sounding - the calligraphy and Islamic museums - were under renovation, but I got to see a traditional Islamic school, complete with fake chalk glued to the desks and descriptions of the means used to punish problematic students. This started with counseling and warnings; if these weren't enough, lashings were given. Then a student would be tied to a palm tree without shade or water, and as a final step would be held captive in a sort of pillary. I also visited a pearl merchant's house; the patios leading into the rooms were all covered with mats and pillows, where people would gather for tea.

The Sharjah Heritage Museum had some interesting 16th-century fishhook-shaped "coins" and unusual circular stamps, as well as an excellent exhibit on traditional medicine - this included not only the predictable use of herbs to relieve "the hurts" but also branding, sucking blood through a horn, creating splints from bones, and building a bandage with seven lemons to cure tonsilitis. The curators, however, were not as diligent in their editing as Addis Ababa's Ras Hotel - the following is certainly the most unruly sentence I've ever seen in a museum: "The period of popular medicine returns to the ancient times when human beings and a imals [sic - "animals"] know how to profit from nature and its plants in curing their diseases, and getting protection against them some of the interested gave the name of natural medicine to such a period in which inedical [sic - "medical"] treatment had been done by the use of herbs from the pharmacy of the nature that was providing man when he had been taken ill with the necessary medicine available in the from [sic - "form"] of syrups, concoctions, and ointments from these herbs to cure his diseases, to relieve his pains."

Now to the food. Nowhere have I ever power-dined the way I did in Dubai. Everything I had was fantastic, from the $2 lunch thali all the way up to the seafood extravaganza at Burj Al Arab. The series is interesting enough (to fellow foodies, anyway!) for a play-by-play, but for the highlights, look at Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

MONDAY LUNCH - Streetside shawarma sandwich in the textile souk, near the abra station - the perfect way to start my exploration of the historical district.

MONDAY DINNER - Iranian fare at Shabestan. Says the menu: "All edibles are food. Not only the grape but the grape leaf can be eaten." My feelings exactly. This was an exquisite place in the Radisson hotel, with views of the creek and a trio playing soft Persian music. I started with halim bademjan, a puree of eggplant, lamb, and kashk (which is sort of like sour cream), and then moved on to baghalah polo-ba-mahicheh, a leg of lamb with spices and broad beans. The lamb came under a covering of saffron rice and fell off the bone at the faintest tap of a fork - perfect.

Lots of complimentary go-withs arrived as well: a huge plate of fresh vegetables and creamy feta cheese, a bowl of yogurt, and grilled flatbread baked in a dome-shaped oven - at the back of the restaurant I could watch the baker rolling out circles of dough and slapping them onto the sides of the oven, where they hung on the roof, suspended by the heat. I ordered a fruit-and-ice-cream dessert as well, not realizing that a plate of chocolates and peanut brittle was going to arrive as well.

Across the street from my hotel was an Irish bar, but St. Patrick's Day doesn't seem to have caught on yet in Dubai - the place was barely half full when I settled in for a Caffrey's, a creamy beer that is sadly no longer available in the United States.

TUESDAY LUNCH - South Indian thali at Bangalore. I'd been wandering around the markets north of the creek, many of which are Indian-owned. I stumbled upon this excellent lunch thali similar to those I'd had in Bombay - a bunch of metal bowls of spicy vegetarian food, accompanied by rice, spiced crackers (papadam), flatbread (naan), and puffy bread (poori). Whenever the bowls were empty, they were refilled until I was full. I sat there for a while at a table for four, and businesspeople came in and joined me for a hasty lunch, then left quickly. They ate with their right hands, scooping up fistfuls of rice and vegetables and shoving it into their mouths. I still need a utensil!

TUESDAY DINNER - Russian buffet and dance show at Troyka. I'm a fan of those Russian mega-restaurants in Brighton Beach, so I was curious to try Dubai's version. There actually seems to be quite a Russian population around the creek - signs on jewelery and electronics stores are in Russian.

I got to Troyka around 10:00 at night - a little early for the action, actually. Behind me, a group of around 10 was arriving to celebrate a preteen girl's birthday. The restaurant filled up around 10:30, when the entertainment started. Most of the songs were arrangements of American standards arranged for a keyboard and a couple of singers, but occasionally the dancers came on with outrageous white outfits and top hats and performed a little ballet.

And the food? Well, Tuesday was buffet night, so I went for several plates of smoked salmon, giant prawns, and meat in aspic, which were more interesting than the dry chicken and stewy pork mains. I can eat cold seafood for hours, and I did - washing it down with vodka and wine, which were included in the buffet.

WEDNESDAY LUNCH - "Molecular gastronomy" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_gastronomy) 50 floors up at Vu's. This is a popular spot for business lunches, and rightly so, since there are terrific views of the Persian Gulf and of some of Dubai's more aggressive construction sites. I've never seen such a collection of cranes.

Lunch was pork belly with mustard ice cream. Who ever heard of such a thing? They went quite well together, the ice cream providing a sweet, cool complement to the salty pork. Dessert was equally intriguing: a kind of chocolate ganache with powdered olive oil. Who knew you could powder olive oil? This worked too, the white powder adding just a hint of savory to the rich chocolate. There were crumbs of black olives on the side; these I thought were superfluous, taking me back to a salty place that I had already departed.

WEDNESDAY DINNER - The most interesting meal I've ever had: French-Japanese molecular gastronomy at Tang. I was seated on a very tall banquette covered with a checkered print of a pixelated nose and mouth, and the maitre d', who looked a bit like a quirky scientist himself, was thorough in explaining the menu and making suggestions. There were three pages of the menu - raw stuff, cold stuff, and hot stuff - and everything came in either full or tasting portions, so I was able to choose two of the latter from each page and create my own tasting menu. An amuse-bouche arrived - monkfish tempura with a ginger-ale foam. This was just a taste of the oddities that were to follow.

First, the raw stuff: Wagyu beef with what the maitre d' called a "deconstructed Bloody Mary" - a spicy tomato foam covered in a gelatinous film made from vodka. On the side were crumbles of macadamia nuts and charcoaled olives. What a combination of textures! Then bluefin-tuna tartare with kimchi pearls and a sort of meringue-like ball made from sesame. On the side were spring onion and lime. I combined everything together for a concoction that was at once sweet, sour, spicy, creamy, and crunchy.

Then, the cold: foie gras "earth" and foie gras "fifty degrees." The "earth" was cold, a foie gras ice cream, really, with gingerbread and flavors of - wait for it - quinoa, macadamia, chocolate, and chicken! At the suggestion of the maitre d', I mixed everything together, and the result was crunchy and a little overwhelming. The "fifty degrees," cooked at that temperature Celsius, came with eel and prune purees and a kind of raspberry styrofoam. It was just sweet enough.

The maitre d' then brought out a palate cleanser: half a blood orange, into which he injected something that made it fizzy, and then he squeezed it into a glass - fresh orange soda. It was a tiny amount, just enough to get me ready for the main courses.

The duck came with teardrop-shaped cabbage foam, fig powder and fig caviar, aioli-like celeriac, potato swirls, and more foie gras. The cabbage foam was tongue-numbing, the duck and figs were perfect for each other, and the celeriac cooled everything off.

The langoustines required a bit of gimmicky activity on my part, but it wasn't excessive. The large pieces of langoustine were injected with eyedroppers containing pisco sour. As I ate them, I squeezed the pisco sour out of the eyedroppers, for a jolt of alcohol to go with the meaty pink shellfish. Of course this dish had its own sides: yellow ginger marshmallows and girolle (chanterelle) mushrooms.

Of course I had to have dessert, too. "Milk & cookies" contained three little chocolate brownies, chocolate consomme, milk marshmallows, and croissant-flavored ice cream. Again, I was to mix everything together, like cereal, and again, the combination of textures was compelling, not excessive.

That was Tang. Fantastic. Outrageous.

THURSDAY LUNCH - Syrian food at Halab Al Shahba, in Sharjah. I found this place near Heritage Square and opted for the mixed kebabs. Normally I find kebabs dull, but these were wonderfully marinated, and they came with a giant plate of vegetables and creamy hummus. Fresh lemonade was excellently made if a little tangy for the occasion.

THURSDAY DINNER - Moroccan food at Marrakech. First, a bowl of spicy lamb brains, just the right degree of malleable. Then pigeon bastilla, which somehow is hard to find in New York - an appetizer-sized firm pastry filled with pigeon meat, nuts, and eggs and topped with cinnamon and confectioner's sugar. What's more perfect than that? I wasn't even hungry for a main course but felt obliged to try one of the tagines, a prune-and-lamb stew cooked in a pyramidal clay casserole. Three musicians accompanied this meal as well.

FRIDAY BRUNCH - The buffet to end all buffets, XII at the JW Marriott. The UAE being a Muslim country, Friday is the day off, and the tradition is to attend a lavish brunch buffet. Now, for 25 years my favorite buffet has been the Nordic Lodge in southern Rhode Island, with its steamed lobster, filet mignon, and ridiculous array of seafood, fruits, and pastries - and I'd wondered whether anything could ever top it. I made a reservation the day before.

"The buffet starts at noon. What time would you like to come?"

"How about twelve thirty?"

"That's fine. If you want to stay past six, you'll be charged an additional hundred dirhams."

I knew the buffet ran from noon to midnight - hence its name, XII - but I couldn't imagine staying past six. Was he serious?

"Which restaurant would you like to be seated in?"

"The big buffet - you know, the noon-to-midnight one...."

"I'll seat you in Marketplace. It doesn't really matter, because you can go to all three restaurants."

It was true. I was given a wristband that allowed me to go to all of the JW Marriott's brunch restaurants. The Marketplace was the main buffet. Grilled-to-order lobster and emu steaks! Arabic dips! Cheeses, oysters on the half shell, giant prawns, smoked salmon, stuffed grape leaves, grilled hamoor (local grouper), steak. If the Marketplace had been the only buffet, it would have been enough.

But no - I also had access to the German restaurant, Hofbrauhaus. The chef recommended the veal meatloaf; he cooked some up for me with grilled onions, and I added mustard. Then there was spaetzle, some kind of raw cured pork, pork pate, and herring - plus goulash and other stewy items that I would have loved to have tried, but stomach space was at a premium and they didn't quite make the cut!

And finally, there was the Asian restaurant, Bamboo Lagoon. There was sushi and sashimi - not many varieties, but enough to satisfy my craving; I hadn't had sushi in a while. There was a Peking-duck station, where the chef prepared rolls with duck, scallions, and hoisin sauce - other than the prepackaged crepes, this was perfectly satisfying as well. In the main Asian buffet was plenty of cold shellfish, Thai salads, pepper crabs, and other spicy entrees, as well as exotic fruits - rambutans! - and lychee, mango, and sage sorbets. Amazing.

I spent 20 minutes investigating everything before taking any food, and, Bamboo Lagoon being the last I checked out and the farthest from my table, I stocked up first on sashimi and cold lobster, crabs, and prawns. Then I tried the German veal meatloaf and a bunch of other things from Hofbrauhaus, and then I went for a couple of plates from the Marketplace buffet - emu steak, more lobster, smoked salmon, raw oysters. Finding just the right balance between value and craving was difficult - lobster and giant prawns were the best and highest-value options, but I had to get plenty of variety in there. I took it slowly, measuring out small helpings of everything I was interested in. I had more time than stomach space.

Oh yeah, and the buffet also included beverages - wine, beer, margaritas, soft drinks, bottled water. For an extra hundred dirhams I could have had champagne, but it wasn't really worth it for me. The whole buffet with the basic drink selection cost 295 dirhams, or about $80 - a lot for lunch, but a bargain considering the variety and quality I was dealing with.

I exchanged glances with a woman who was eating as aggressively as I was, and she invited me to join her table. Her name was Noemi and she was from the Philippines. Her husband, Steve, was British and was a higher-up at a construction-consulting company - when things start going wrong on construction projects, they're brought in to mediate and resolve. Considering the construction boom, I'd say Steve has plenty of job security. They were seated at a long table of Steve's co-workers.

"The secret is pacing," Steve said. He and Noemi were XII veterans, and he took small plates of food, only every half hour or so. "People come here around noon, and they spend the whole afternoon - that's the day."

"Once we came at one and left at nine thirty," Noemi said. "Come, let's go to the teppanyaki grill."

"The teppanyaki grill?"

I'd missed it the first time around - it was at the back of Bamboo Lagoon. You made up a bowl of prawns, chicken, vegetables, and noodles, and a chef grilled it up for you. Then you added soy sauce or hot sauce.

In respect for the Muslim afternoon prayer times, the last alcohol orders were taken at 3:30, so everyone ordered multiple beverages to get them through until 6:00, if they were staying.

All this is how I found myself full but not stuffed at 3:45, with two glasses of Chardonnay, a daiquiri, a full plate of teppanyaki, and a small plate of sushi in front of me. And I felt great. I kept eating - more prawns, more oysters. If I had one tiny criticism, it was that I had a hankering for eel - but I couldn't really complain.

"It's so much!" I cried to Noemi. She had the buffet down to a science, timing her grilled-to-order lobster to coincide with the conclusion of a lap around the room. I was getting flustered and couldn't figure out what else to have. I was running out of room. What was worth the stomach space at this point?

I returned with another lobster.

The cakes looked predictable and lackluster, but there was a chocolate fountain with marshmallows - perfect for snacking on as I waited for my made-to-order crepes Suzette. Then I had some of the exotic sorbets and fruits from Bamboo Lagoon.

I left at 5:30, after five hours of buffet mania. I was totally stuffed and a little drunk. I staggered out of there and watched other people try to stagger out of there. I let out intermittent moans as I made my way outside, where I sat down for 20 minutes and let my body try to deal with what I had just consumed. I got on the number 3 bus, which was crowded, so I sat in the back stairwell and tried to breathe. I flopped down on my bed at the Admiral Plaza and conked out for three hours.

Totally outrageous.

SATURDAY LUNCH - Seafood at Al Mahara, in Burj Al Arab. I'd considered staying at the Burj (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burj_Al_Arab and http://burj-al-arab.com), which calls itself the world's only seven-star hotel, but I really couldn't justify the cost. You've probably seen pictures of the sail-shaped hotel, the world's tallest - it's Dubai's most famous landmark. If you stay there, you have your choice of being flown from Dubai's airport by helicopter or taking a Rolls-Royce.

I arrived via the number 8A bus and walked up to the entrance gate - in order to go in, you have to have hotel or meal reservations, or you have to pay a hefty (redeemable) entrance fee. They called for a golf buggy to take me across the bridge to the hotel, but I preferred to walk it instead - let's take our time, people!

The inside is opulent, sure, but I'm not sure it's seven-star opulence - indeed, the lobby is mentally manageable; I never gasped or had the sense I couldn't take it all in; neither did I feel the need, or the desire, to hang out all day there. There's a fountain flanked by escalators, which lead to the lobby and the world's tallest atrium, which contains another fountain. Around the lobby are high-end jewelry stores and restaurants, and at the front is a bar area with a piano (would they hire me?). Way at the back, a vertigo-inducing elevator leads up to one of the hotel's restaurants and the Skyview Bar. I rode the elevator up and down - there are great views of the Palm islands.

Al Mahara is usually reached via a gimmicky simulated submarine ride. It was under renovation, which didn't bother me, so I entered by walking through the garish glittery tunnel. Seating is around an enormous cylindrical aquarium, so I had the pleasure of spending my meal watching brightly colored saltwater fish swim around, along with the occasional shark and eel - a leopard moray eel, according to the helpful fish-identification booklet I was given. The seats were comfortable but have weird circular armrests, which made all the diners look like they were in wheelchairs. I was taken care of by the whole crew of waiters, who addressed me as Mr. Weinstein, but primarily I was waited on by Mel, a pianist from the Philippines.

Bread arrived: a roll with bits of salmon, squid-ink bread topped with parmesan, celery bread. I ordered a red Sancerre, which had hints of licorice and berries. I opted for the four-course set menu - a choice of cold starters, soups, hot starters, and mains.

I started with rabbit-foie gras terrine, which was so tender it flaked off like fish; it came with a brioche and grapes. Next came lobster bisque: Mel brought a bowl containing a single lobster ravioli. Into that he poured the bisque and saffron foam, which was excessively pungent going in but tasted perfect with the bisque. As for the ravioli, the lobster inside was bold and flavorful; it was just the right amount.

For my hot starter, I was trying to choose between the red mullet with lentil cassoulet and lemon zest and the king prawns Thermidor with micro leaf salad. At one waiter's recommendation, I went for the prawns. There were two, quite large, with perfect flavor. Even the "micro leaves" were astoundingly fragrant - sage? I couldn't tell.

My main course, the seafood pot-a-feu, was similarly fantastic and similarly fragrant. Mel brought a bowl containing scallops, sea bass, lobster, a prawn, and mussels and added a saffron veloute. They were the most beautiful mussels I'd ever seen - perfectly geometric. The scallop was impossibly perfect - firm yet malleable, flavorful but not fishy. The saffron sauce added just enough zest to bring out the flavors, without overwhelming the taste and texture of the seafood.

I passed on the desserts, whose descriptions didn't tantalize me, and took the bus farther out to the One&Only Royal Mirage for a final sunset drink overlooking the Persian Gulf. Boy, there's a lot of construction over there. I must have counted 40 cranes. The Palm Jumeirah, one of the sets of palm-shaped islands, is right nearby, and it's in various stages of completion - some buildings are finished and occupied, some are in mid-construction, and then there's newly created land ready for groundbreaking. There are already highways out there, and they're already busy, though there doesn't seem to be bus service yet.

I took a bus back into town and had one final walk along the creek and through Bastakia.

SATURDAY DINNER - Streetside shawarma sandwich and freshly squeezed grape juice. I figured I might as well end the way I began in Dubai, I wasn't that hungry after Al Mahara, and I didn't have much time anyway before catching my flight home.

As I left the shawarma stand, I did a double-take: The next restaurant over was called the Lalibela Cafe. I'd heard there was Ethiopian food in Dubai but I didn't expect to stumble on it, and what a coincidence that it happened moments before the end of this trip. There was plenty of activity on the street and it was dinnertime, but the restaurant was empty except for someone making preparations in the kitchen and someone playing the video game Space Invaders. It was a pretty place, with the traditional basket-like mesob tables for dining.

I hope the Lalibela Cafe lasts. I have a feeling I'll try it sometime.