Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A foodie in the UAE: no place for a foodie

You know that phrase “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”? Between Abu Dhabi and Dubai there exist hundreds of restaurants, scores of which are labeled “fine dining” in the local restaurant guides. Yet, with one shining exception, the label seems to apply to the interior design more than the food. Most of the establishments are more suitable to be reviewed in Architectural Digest than Food and Wine, and in fact, the reviews I’ve read in Time Out Abu Dhabi typically spend a paragraph or two describing the décor before food is even mentioned, if at all. Literally, I have read restaurant reviews where they did not mention the taste of the food.

Anyway, not only did Sam plan the aforementioned weekend in Oman, he also surprised me on my actual birthday (which fell on a Wednesday) by taking me to what has been locally lauded as the best French restaurant in Abu Dhabi as well as the most romantic. Isn't he sweet? I promise that what follows in no way reflects how I feel towards Sam, for he was truly thoughtful in his selection.

Here I go with the compulsory paragraph on design -

The room is small but wrapped in windows and has an Old World charm – plush carpets and elaborate draperies in muted blues and gold, accented with opulent chandeliers. The tables are well spaced for intimacy and the whole effect is quite warm and inviting, despite its pompousness. My first impression when we walked through the door is that we were underdressed (I still in my work clothes and Sam in jeans and button-down), and in any other city we probably would have been, but we actually fit in just fine with the other customers. My second impression was the overwhelming sweet aroma of lilies. Remember that.

We were greeted promptly and offered complimentary champagne. How charming! I thought as we toasted each other.

Next we were presented with a tiny glass jigger of nearly clear liquid, announced as “tomato consommé – to cleanse the palette.” We each knocked it back like a shot, and then both fell silent. Yes, but should it taste like cleanser? I wondered. Or perhaps more accurately, like the soapy dishwater left in the sink after soaking a pot used for tomato sauce? Not an auspicious beginning, but I didn’t voice anything yet.

The menu was explained to us in detail by one of the attentive wait staff; Sam decided on the 5-course Chef’s “blind tasting” and I went with the traditional French 4-course tasting. I was warned this would include escargot and frog legs, but as I am an experienced cosmopolitan diner, I said confidently that I could handle it.

While we awaited the first course we received an amuse-bouche, which was a tiny ball of what appeared to be fried polenta on a giant toothpick poised over a puddle of creamy sauce. It might have been interesting had it not been so difficult to eat – the way the ball was mounted you could not dip it in the sauce, so you had to eat the elements separately, using a spoon for the sauce. No matter, because both were equally bland with a greasy, olive-oily aftertaste. Curious. I started to think at this point that someone in back was “playing kitchen,” trying to re-create fanciful touches they’d seen at restaurants abroad without actually knowing how.

My musings were broken by the arrival of my snails. And I call them snails rather than escargot, because in this case they were simply a dozen dark brown snails on a plate, a few of them precariously stuffed into a puff-pastry. De-shelled, yes, and probably boiled. But the presentation made me think I had stumbled upon a snail colony. Tiny streaks of sauce decorating the plate had the unfortunate look of slimy wakes that such critters, had they been alive, might leave behind as they creep about. I admit I am no connoisseur of escargot, but the couple of times I’ve had it the snails have been enveloped in a frothy, buttery cream sauce, disguising much of their reptilian-like features. But these were laid bare, and oh, even writing about them a week later my stomach churns. I ate four of them, regrettably, because I was embarrassed not to give it the old college try. They were sinewy and gritty, and tasted exactly like snails doused in garlic and olive oil.

Sam’s first course was perhaps less “Survivor-esque” but no more enjoyable. The “blind tasting” is supposed to mean that the diner dines blindly, allowing the chef to prepare whatever suits his or her fancy. But we soon joked that perhaps this place interpreted the phrase to mean the chef cooks blindly. This would be the only explanation for the large, pale-pinkish square of what looked like extra-firm tofu and was pronounced to be foie gras. If foie gras were to come in pre-packaged snack cake form, this would be it. And it was the worst combination of blandness and heaviness, so that you felt it sitting in your stomach even though you hadn’t tasted much going down.

My next course was the frog legs, sautéed in a red-wine reduction and topped with microgreens. But again with the overpowering olive-oil! Fortunately with a bit of salt they tasted like chicken. 

Sam’s second course was scallops baked inside green ravioli swimming in an overly-saccharine lime sauce. I wrote about a dining experience this summer during which the chefs challenged our palettes with surprising combinations of flavor. This scallop ravioli may have been a similar attempt at gastronomical experimentation, but the desired effect was not achieved. Sam’s reaction, and mine, was to say “what’s up with the lime?”

Then came the fish course, which was fishy, and you guessed it, tasted like olive oil. Sam’s fish came with what the waiter declared to be “black mashed potato.” Intriguing. Until we determined it was mashed potato that had been blackened by mixing it with briny seaweed. Morimoto might be able to pull this one off, but not so our blind-folded chef.

My fourth course was veal cutlets with mashed potatoes and sweet peas. I’m not a huge fan of veal, but this at least was a decent plate of food. The veal was a tad dry but tender, the potatoes smooth and buttery (and not mixed with anything off-putting), the peas providing fresh bursts of sweetness. Alas, Sam’s fourth course was a roast beef tenderloin, which prepared at “medium-rare” was in fact indistinguishable from old shoe leather. I’ve seen Sam eat a lot of questionable things, and often in large quantities, but this he could not finish.

At this point we had been sitting for three hours and were exhausted from simply trying to stomach the food. But we still had the dessert course to go. The wait staff by now had sensed we were less than thrilled, and one young server even asked specifically why I had not liked the snails. Um, how long is your shift? I wanted to say, but knowing it wasn’t his fault (unless he was doubling as chef, a scenario I have considered as an explanation for this dining fiasco) I simply said I was used to eating them with cream sauce. I wasn’t supposed to get dessert with my meal, but I was brought a very rich chocolate something-or-other, so I think he felt bad.

Apart from the excellent service, the one shining beacon in the evening was Sam’s crème brulee, which was perfectly sweetened and ultra creamy without being heavy. We ate every bite of it, and it helped soothe the nausea that had been hovering in my stomach since the snails.

But then came the bill, and my nausea returned with a side of regret.

As Sam and I reflected on the experience we wondered whether the free alcohol and scent of lilies were attempts to distract us from the fact that the chefs can’t cook. Whatever the case, we now know that reviews published locally can’t always be trusted, which means they can't be trusted. An expensive lesson learned.

Oh, and the name of the restaurant: Bord Eau (no "x"), inside the Shangri La Hotel, Abu Dhabi.


  1. I have laughed out loud all the way through every paragraph! Having experienced the oppulence of hotels and restaurants while there, I could picture the interior of Bord Eau. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to watch the whole thing! Now I know why that expensive buffet the last night I was with you before the airport ride tasted so bland, despite looking good. Thanks for the endorphines!!

  2. I too laughed all the way through this and have to admit that in parts my stomach churned for you! That's why I stick to casual dining places : )

  3. Oh, so sorry!! But I also laughed my way through this. Maybe you should moonlight as a dining critic there... it sounds like Abu Dhabi could use one.

  4. I have read a lot about great (non-fine-dining) Indian restaurants in Abu Dhabi. Fact of Fiction? Great blog, I have really enjoyed meandering around.

  5. With the large Indian population living here I expected to find a lot of good Indian restaurants, but I haven't yet discovered one worth writing about. I'm sure they're out there, as there are countless hole-in-the-wall eateries of all kinds in the UAE, but standards of cleanliness can be a bit iffy. If your stomach can handle "kissing a few toads" in the process you can probably find some real gems.