Thursday, March 31, 2011

A foodie in the UAE: BBQ Al Qasr

The Emirates Palace Hotel is one of our favorite places to while away a Saturday, and it's always on the agenda when we have visitors. Aside from being enormously beautiful, it is very easily accessible. Garage parking is complementary, and there are rotating free art exhibits in addition to a permanent Saadiyat Island exhibit. In the massive lobby, you can order coffee or a cocktail at Le Cafe, and lounge as long as you like on plush sofas, reading the paper or people watching, while being serenaded by a harpist or sitar player. It's a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

From our positive experiences in the "low-end" parts of the Emirates Palace, we imagined that the fine dining offerings would be truly spectacular. So, when Sam's little sister, Ann, who had just finished law school and taken the bar exam, came for a visit in early March, we wanted to take her to dinner there to celebrate.

One of the funny things about the Emirates Palace, though, is the lack of online information about its restaurants. In addition to the lobby bar, it has about ten dining establishments that are open to the public (meaning you don't have to be a hotel guest to make a reservation). Each is very briefly described on the Emirates Palace website, but unless you go in person to the reservations desk at the hotel, good luck trying to find out much more.

I'm someone who wants to know as much as possible about a restaurant before I go, especially if I know I'm going to drop big bucks, so it is frustrating not to be able to read multiple reviews of the food, find out about the chef, or at least see a sample menu online. Restaurants here almost never have their own websites, and apart from the occasional Time Out Abu Dhabi review, which typically spends more words on the decor than the food, there is very little additional information to be found via Google (at least in the first page or two of results; I'm only willing to go so far).

I finally emailed the reservations desk at Emirates Palace and asked for a dinner menu for BBQ Al Qasr, which I chose from the list because it's an al fresco venue, only open in winter when it's bearable to sit outside. (Being March, we feel compelled to take as many of these opportunities as possible before we are soon shuttered inside for the duration of the summer months.) I received a prompt and polite email in return, but was told outright that the hotel is not allowed to give out that information. My initial reaction was who in the world do they think they are? What kind of restaurant can't share its menu with prospective diners? But then I became intrigued. I wanted to find out what they were being so mysterious about. So I made a reservation.

The atmosphere was lovely. We were seated in a semi-private, beach bungalow right next to the water, with the smooth voice of the evening's jazz soloist floating lightly through the cool air. The service was impeccable. Our waiter anticipated our needs, even turning on the heat lamp behind me when he noticed me tie my scarf around my neck, and left us wanting for nothing without the slightest bit of pestering.

The food was mostly very good. To an American audience, the BBQ in BBQ Al Qasr would imply ribs, pulled pork and lots of paper napkins, but here it just means the food is cooked on a grill. We all three ordered Caesar salads, steaks and mashed potatoes, paired with Mondavi Cabernet. (Completely boring, I know, but read on and you'll know why we ordered this way.)

As all Caesar salads go in this region (and I've sampled many trying to find the exception), it was bland and unmemorable. The garlic mashed potatoes were really tasty, due to what must have been a full stick of butter per serving. The steak, labeled on the menu as US-raised Angus, was a bit gristly in parts but perfectly cooked, and it had an intense meaty flavor that I have missed since being in Abu Dhabi. [Side note: Most beef here seems to be imported from Australia, and it's hard to describe, but it tastes different from US beef...less beefy. I don't know if it's simply what I'm used to or if US beef it is truly superior. Australian readers, feel free to pipe in - I'd be curious to know your thoughts on the subject.]

As for the prices, they stung! We told Ann to order whatever she wanted, but she sweetly ordered the least expensive options available, as did we. Even with only one glass of wine apiece, still we managed to rack up a small fortune. Considering the solid but overall uninspired cuisine, for what they charged, a servant in white gloves should have cut my meat and fed it to me. I know it's the Emirates Palace, and possibly the only hotel in Abu Dhabi serving US beef, but in my mind no establishment has the right to such price gouging unless they are able to deliver food so good it causes your eyes to close involuntarily. The only eye-closing at our table was due to wincing at the bill. And in the end, I don't even have a theory as to why they wouldn't email me a menu.

Ah, well. It was a really fun time, and Ann's accomplishments are certainly deserving of every dirham spent. She's also about to get married, so we'll be away for the next couple of weeks traveling to Colorado for the wedding, with a three-night stopover in London and two nights in San Antonio to see my family.

Here's our Annie, the law school graduate and bride-to-be!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Door-to-door carpets

Recently, our next-door neighbor invited us over to meet "Jalal, the carpet guy," an Emirati carpet dealer with a growing reputation among Abu Dhabi western expats for providing fair prices on authentic handmade carpets, whom she had invited to make a presentation to her friends. Though he has a shop in Sharjah's Central Market, more famously known as the Blue Souk, he has developed an entrepreneurial strategy of driving directly to his customers' homes (by appointment), his car filled to the brim with carpets of all sizes. I don't know if this is a typical practice for carpet dealers, but it was an unusual sight for us to see two Emiratis, dressed in pristinely white, perfectly pressed kanduras, unloading stack after stack of carpets into our hallway.

I'm not sure who said it, maybe it was even me, but at some point in the evening the observation "this feels like a Tupperware party" left a mental imprint. A motley group was squeezed into a living room, munching on crudités and sipping wine, listening to a twenty minute presentation about differences in origin (Afghani versus Persian versus Kashmiri), materials (silk versus wool versus kilm), and patterns (medalion, geometric, hunting, etc), followed by a tutorial on how to distinguish handmade from factory made, and how to spot differences in quality. It was pretty thorough, and by the end we were itching to start sifting through the colorful stacks in the hallway.

At last, Jalal and his assistant proceeded to lay out each and every carpet they brought, explaining the heritage, design and colors of each one. He told us to shout if we saw one we liked, and he'd set it aside for further inspection at the end. He also offered to come back with more carpets if we weren't satisfied with the evening's selection.

Though we found most of the carpets to be beautiful, Sam and I were looking for something very specific and set up a private appointment for the following evening. True to his word, Jalal arrived right on time with several more carpets based on the colors and dimensions we wanted. He allowed us to place one after another in the actual spot where it would potentially live, patiently standing aside as we debated the merits of each, until we found a perfect match. Our decision was unanimous...a silk/cotton blend from Kashmir, which is just about the softest material I've ever felt against my bare feet. Not having to drive anywhere, and being certain of the fit before buying, made it the most hassle-free shopping experience I've ever had. If only I could shop for shoes this way!

Going back to the Tupperware-party analogy, my neighbor told me that after we all left on the first evening, Jalal promised her a discount on future purchases based on his total earnings from the group, and left her with a hostess gift (a camel bag). Thankfully, this is where the similarities ended, as he did not proceed to recruit her to sell carpets (if you've been to direct-sale/multi-level marketing parties, you'll know this is hot on the agenda).

Jalal doesn't advertise, so his emergence into the Abu Dhabi market is purely by word of mouth. If you're interested, his company is Al Dar Carpets. His selection and customer service are top-notch.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A case for corruption?

When American politicians or foreign policy pundits analyze the activities of Muslim-majority countries, one point mentioned repeatedly is the pervasive corruption among the ruling elite. One oft cited example: Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s penchant for awarding top government positions to his friends and extended family. For many, this behavior in a Third World country is most likely not a surprise, yet it is not restricted to impoverished and quasi failed states. Here in the UAE, with a per capita GDP among the highest in the world, Shannon and I have encountered "corruption" in a few interesting ways.

During our first weeks in Abu Dhabi back in 2009, we had the great pleasure of navigating the corridors of bureaucracy in order to get our residence visas and work permits, driver’s licenses, and liquor license (yes you’re supposed to have one in order to purchase alcohol). On more than one occasion, our visa officer, assigned by Shannon’s company to act as our liaison in these transactions, walked us to the front of a long line in whatever government office we happened to be in and spoke animatedly in Arabic with the official behind the counter. Suddenly, our paperwork would be stamped as approved, and we would be on our way.

Seeing our bemusement and slight embarrassment for cutting in line, our liaison explained with a smile that he had “wasta.” It’s an Arabic term, and one of Shannon’s colleagues explained it as a sort of social bank account where deposits are made in the form of family status and influence, and withdrawals in the form of favors and deference. Those who don’t have the right family name can earn wasta by showing loyalty or doing favors for those who do. So, for example, a person with AED 50,000 worth of speeding tickets that has suddenly been reduced to AED 500, or whose job application gets moved to the top of the stack, has wasta.

As you might imagine, wasta plays a prominent role in the selection of personnel in the government ministries as well. After having some conversations with some expat friends who had lived here for a while, I learned that many positions in the various state ministries here are often assigned according to an individual’s standing in the tribal hierarchy (in Abu Dhabi’s case, the Bani Yas tribe). Hearing this offended my American sensibilities, which consider the use of public office for personal ends, or preferential treatment based upon one’s name, to be anathema when compared with a system of rules and merit. It seemed like, well, corruption.

At least that was how I felt until I read an article by Lawrence Rosen, in the Spring 2010 issue of The American Interest, that helped to shed a different light on the issue for me. Entitled, “Understanding Corruption” the article explores the differing cultural definitions of corruption held in some parts of the Muslim-majority world, as opposed to those typically held in America (and the West in general). Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, people in this part of the world have a different conception of corruption than the one more commonly held in the West.

Rosen writes:
Corruption is the failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence. Theirs is a world in which the defining feature of a man is that he has formed a web of indebtedness, a network of obligations that prove his capacity to maneuver in a world of relentless uncertainty. It is a world in which the separation of impersonal institutions from personal attachments is very scarce. Failure to service such attachments is thus regarded as not only stupid but corrupt. 

So, whereas Americans might conceive corruption as a lack of deference to individual qualifications, societies similar to the UAE would conceive of corruption as a lack of deference to communal relationships. This is not to say that Americans don’t appreciate family or that Emiratis don’t laud personal productivity, because they both do. However, their hierarchies of value differ. To illustrate, think about the standard greeting among Americans: "How are you?" Or better, "What's up?" In this exchange, the initiator often doesn't expect, or even care, to receive a real answer. Contrast this with the standard greeting among Arabs: "Salaam Alaykum" (translated "peace be upon you"). By invoking peace upon the other person, the initiator expects peace to be invoked on his behalf (in the form of "Wa Alaykum Asalaam", or "And upon you be peace"). If the person doesn't respond in kind, it is a direct affront.

I now find it easier to understand this mindset, but I still have reservations. Rosen points out that while this reciprocal back-scratching model seems to function in smaller communities, where everyone knows each other and all exist in relations of mutual indebtedness, it is not as easily applied in large, urban, and now globalized environments, where familiar life long relationships are replaced with impersonal ones more transactional in nature. What’s the use of bribing a clerk if he doesn’t know you and thus will likely never need help from you?

The danger, then, is for this to evolve into a system that does not serve to promote social bonds, where favors are expected for those with wasta but are no longer mutually beneficial for giver as well as receiver. The extreme logical conclusion is that the marginalized members of society, those who have become powerless to operate effectively within the structured order, might decide collectively that they want to change the now-corrupt system. And of course, this has been one of the primary motivations for the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Libya.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A foodie in the UAE: this foodie went to France

My dining experiences since arriving in the UAE have been, shall we say, less than thrilling. Horrifying, at times, but rarely thrilling. Two birthdays in a row Sam took me to different French restaurants that both turned out to be disappointments. (In hindsight, compared with the second experience, the first was pretty decent.)

So, for a starved foodie about to reach the gastronomical promised land, I was a little more than excited to be on my way to France. As someone who loves to read about others' experiences with food, it has been impossible to avoid catching the mania surrounding French cuisine. In fact, it has been built up so high in the foodie biographies and blogs I've devoured over the years that there was a little red light flashing in the recesses of my mind, warning me not to be disappointed.

But I wasn't.

After living in the UAE, a land where all bread, no matter what kind, mysteriously becomes stale an hour after baking, the bread of France was manna for my foodie soul. It was a key player in nearly every meal.

As an afternoon snack, a six-cheese panini and a glass of red wine—

For breakfast each morning, a freshly-baked baguette, toasted and slathered in salted butter and honey (It seems like a caricature to show a French person carrying a baguette under his arm, but honest to God, every 10th person on the street was carrying a baguette under his arm)—

Or, at any time of day, a flaky, buttery croissant punctuated with intense bursts of fine French chocolate (not pictured, sorry). After a particularly sublime croissant on our first afternoon, bought on a whim from Le Boulanger de Monge, I think I shall spend the rest of my life trying to find its equal.

Next on the list of delights: all things made creamy by whatever magic the French work with milk...

Cream of carrot soup - I never knew carrots could be this good! (of course, the artisanal bacon doesn't hurt)—

Blue cheese that looked a bit funky but melted like butter in my mouth with only the most pleasing tang—

Pineapple and caramel panna cotta that must have been strained by angels to turn out so heavenly—

And, oh my, the chocolate!

Milk chocolate soup poured over pink praline ice cream (you can't see the soup here, but the smile says it all)—

At tea time, Laduree's macarons (not only chocolate, but salted caramel, pistachio, and raspberry, yum!) and champagne—

And at brunch, hot dark chocolate, poured thick at Cafe de Flore on Boulevard Saint Germain, with just the right amount of sweetness—

Which followed our eggs, cooked two ways, with ham and cheese, perfect, perfect—

It's a wonder I didn't come home a couple of dress sizes larger, but after three days of eating this way I did start to falter a bit. For my first course on our final evening, I couldn't help it, I asked for this—

Which better prepared me to eat my next course, delicate pieces of chicken and morels swimming happily in a white wine cream sauce—

As I eyed my sister's meal, consisting of whipped potatoes topped with a delicacy new to us, black pudding, which tasted like someone had gathered up and broiled the bits of stray meat and juicy drippings after slow-roasting a particularly flavorful pig. Served with a sweet apple compote to offset the saltiness of the pork, it was a highlight of the evening—

And to finish up, profiteroles, which I blissfully plunged one by one into their warm chocolate bath—

It's not that all French cooking is perfectly executed; we did have an edible but rather underwhelming steak frites at a brasserie around the corner from our apartment one rainy evening. And right in the middle of a fantastic meal on our first night, we ran into a surprisingly dry slab of roast duck, despite a broth so rich and flavorful I wanted to drink it—

But the difference is that the ingredients used in French cooking are simply superior to what I've found most anywhere else. The French possess an obvious respect for the bounty of the earth and an appreciation for the variety of flavors and textures that are possible when foods are carefully and creatively cultivated. With even the most basic staples (grain, milk, eggs, cocoa, grapes), they manipulate foods into so many forms that the palate could never be bored.

To anyone fortunate enough to be heading to Paris, my advice for happy eating, especially if you don't speak French, is to plan ahead. It is overwhelming to face down the innumerable restaurants there and figure out which one to patronize, especially if you are already hungry, which can lead to hasty decision making (hence our steak frites letdown). Also, there are various idiosyncrasies to keep in mind, like many places being closed during prime weekend dining hours, or not being at the address listed online, or having a phone reservation system which is only in French, that will pose challenges to your spontaneity. Before heading out, research a few food blogs (Try David Lebovitz or Paris by Mouth), make a list of promising candidates organized by neighborhood, and figure out the hours and exact location of each establishment. Call ahead where possible, and always have backups.

As for recommendations, my favorite finds were the planned Les Papilles in the 5th, cute as a button, and home of the carrot soup, blue cheese, and panna cotta shown above, and the unplanned Le Chardenoux in the 11th), proudly but unpretentiously serving the black pudding, chocolate soup, and profiteroles. Both bistros were cozy and inviting, with soulful food and great wine at reasonable prices. Bon appetit!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

To Paris, with Lisa

Just before I moved overseas, my sister gave me this necklace, identical to one she bought for herself, as a symbol of our plan to meet next in Paris, which is conveniently located about half way between San Antonio and Abu Dhabi.

We had anticipated, and were absolutely correct, that being ten time zones apart would be the most difficult aspect of my move. Though we have lived in different cities our entire adult lives, we've never been more than one hour off, and we've always managed several visits a year. So, among the many adjustments as an expat, one was downgrading to about an hour of phone time with Lisa each month rather than our usual several hours each week, and harder still was coming to terms with the fact that we would see each other only once, maybe twice, a year.

We developed a few coping mechanisms, some working better than others. Thinking a mutual culinary experience would be a fun way to connect, we thought we'd choose one Julia Child recipe each month to cook simultaneously. But this turned out to be a bust after it dawned on us that my dinner time is her breakfast, and by the way, who besides Julie Powell, has the time to complete even one recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking? Julia forgot to mention her cookbook was not only for the "Servantless Cook" but the "Jobless Cook".

Another strategy was to create a Twitter feed reserved for each other's eyes only. I must say, this was a stroke of genius that came after a year of frustration over not being able to share mundane daily details with Lisa. There is a sense that our precious phone calls should be reserved for more substantive topics, but through Twitter, she can tell me that she just sneezed 100 times in a row, and I can tell her that I finally found fresh sage at the store, and we can both read at our convenience and relax that we don't have to save up and remember all of our random thoughts when we finally see each other again.

But for me, the idea of Paris has been the most important. The "City of Light" has been just that - a shining beacon among dark days of missing her. It was a place that neither of us had been but both had always wanted to visit. It was a place that seemed designed for sisters who love food and beauty and exploring urban areas. And it was something that would make much less sense if I still lived in the States. I guess we could have gone to Paris together, but meeting there sounds so much more glamorous!

Unfortunately, bad timing with work and finances, and just life in general got in the way, and the trip kept getting pushed off until we had both begun to accept it might have been just a pipe dream.

Then, a few months ago, Lisa called and said How does February sound?

Cold, I thought, but perfect!

It turns out she had been invited to style hair at Paris Fashion Week. It wasn't a guaranteed gig, but if she could find her way there and present herself when the time was right, she would probably get to participate. For a hair stylist and salon owner, this is one of the ultimate opportunities of a career, so Lisa decided to go for it, cleared her schedule for two weeks and rented an apartment in Paris. We made a plan that I would meet her there a few days early so we could get her settled in and have some time to play before Fashion Week frenzy began. We booked our flights in December, and this helped me get through yet another Christmas without her. It was really happening.

Dream. Come. True.

And just like a dream, it was over in a flash. Here are some favorite moments--

Seeing our apartment for the first time (it's the second balcony up on the right), which was even nicer than expected, in a cute and not at all touristy neighborhood near the Sorbonne.--

Going out on the balcony in the quiet of Saturday morning, and finding the quaint little square below nearly deserted--

Navigating Paris on the Metro - and the startling but funny memory of watching the doors to the train close with Lisa inside and me outside (we were reunited at the next stop)--

Enjoying the brilliant colors of the flower shops dotting the city streets - such a contrast to the gray, overcast skies--

Catching my first full glimpse of the Notre Dame--

Turning the corner off an empty side street and having my line of sight completely and unexpectedly filled by the Eiffel Tower. No longer just a trinket around my neck, but the real thing, up close and personal--

Visiting the Louvre - so beautiful--

And seeing Lisa's smile after getting her turn to photograph the Mona Lisa--

Finally, eating the most amazing meals, mostly consisting of bread, butter, cheese, wine, and chocolate! (More on this to come in the next post). This last picture below represents one of my most contented moments of the trip, as I realized everything had fallen precisely into place, but even better than I had plotted. After a long day of sightseeing, we had dolled up for dinner and then traipsed all over town in our dresses and uncomfortable shoes looking for a renowned restaurant that turned out to be closed, and then looking for a backup restaurant, which also turned out to be closed (being closed on the weekends is very big for Parisians).

Cold, slightly cranky, with stomachs beginning to growl, we found ourselves in an unfamiliar neighborhood, with no iPhone service and no idea where to eat. But then, we spotted a warm light coming from the end of an alleyway, which turned out to be an open restaurant with an open table, where the waiters were uncommonly friendly and the food was exquisite. (We found out later that we had stumbled upon the highly rated bistro of celebrity chef, Cyril Lignac, without even knowing it. I love when that happens!)

It was my last night in Paris, and a perfect one.

And it turns out, more than one dream came true in Paris - a couple of days after I left, Lisa was called up for Fashion Week duty and has since been busy styling for Nina Ricci, John Paul Gaultier, Lanvin, and Sonia Rykiel (shameless name-dropping, I know, but I'm so proud!).