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!


  1. We too like to take visitors to Emirates Palace, but have had mixed experiences for dining. We did new years eve at Mezzaluna and I would say it was very average. The whole atmosphere considering it was NYE was dull and the food was only ok. However, if you like modern Chinese/fusion food then Hakkansan is first class - try it! Now that I would say is worth the money.

  2. "a servant in white gloves should have cut my meat and fed it to me." -- priceless

  3. Congratulations to Ann on all counts!! Michaela still remembers Ann giving her bracelets that she got in Tibet (isn't that right?). I know it was so wonderful to have her there!

  4. it is a good restaurent. <a href="> online food order</a>