Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A foodie in the UAE: Belgian Beer Cafe

On Friday, Sam and I spent date night at the Belgian Beer Cafe (Intercontinental Hotel, Abu Dhabi), an eatery which has been on our "to-try" list for over a year. We actually attempted it several weeks ago on a lovely, uncharacteristically cool evening, but made a last-minute switch to the Italian place next door because the Belgian place doesn't serve food outside; even in the winter months, what a shame!

On the patio you can enjoy a broad array of Belgian ales on tap and munch on tiny bowls of mixed nuts whilst overlooking the yachts in the marina, but if you require further sustenance you'll have to sit inside, where the view from a window seat is reduced by a brightly-lit hallway and a wheelchair ramp. This weekend was pleasant enough that we opted to imbibe pre-dinner Leffes (blond for me, brunette for Sam) outside before heading inside for the main event.

Oof, apologies for the grainy photos - we cannot wait to purchase a new camera!
View of the marina from the patio

By the time we were seated inside our stomachs were grumbling, so we were thankful for the complimentary brown and white rolls, served to us in a paper sack, apparently a Belgian tradition. The closest I've ever been to Belgium is Paris, so I won't attempt to comment on authenticity in this post, but my impression of the bread was, well, unremarkable. If it hadn't been for the unique presentation I would not have remembered eating it (and this after only one beer).

Speaking of which, we ordered another round of drinks. I switched to Shiraz (the ever-reliable Rosemount Estate) in anticipation of steak frites, and Sam experimented with a beer we had never heard of before, Kwak, which in fact looked a little like a science experiment served in a glass beaker held upright by a wooden scaffold. It was deliciously rich yet refreshing, and a recommended pairing for pork, which the menu has in abundance (Muslims beware!).

Good Christians that we are, we were tickled by all of the pork offerings, as they are rare to find in UAE establishments, even in hotels where they are allowed. (Hotel breakfast buffets nearly always serve veal bacon, a sad, jerky-like substitute which is not worth the effort or calories). Sam, again feeling adventurous, and with a bit of prodding from me, I admit, ordered pork belly and black pudding (a mouthwatering delicacy that I encountered while in France), to be served with grilled potatoes and apple mash. We're not big shellfish eaters anyway, but mussels are out of season, so we were not even tempted to order the most traditional of Belgian meals.

"Steak frites" also wasn't offered on the menu, at least not in the format I was expecting, so I went with a close second - strip steak, grilled medium rare, with a side of fries and a green salad. My steak arrived perfectly cooked and tender, but sadly lacking in flavor. The bowl of green peppercorn sauce served on the side merely drowned what little beef flavor there was, so I left it on the side and stuck with healthy doses from the salt and pepper shakers. I wasn't able to confirm but would be willing to wager the beef was Australian. No offense to Aussies, but their cows are no match for ours! (love the wine, though).

The frites were a centerpiece of the table and of the meal, Sam and I fighting over every last one. They were cut thick and crispy outside with fluffy potato centers; neither too dry nor too greasy and well-seasoned, they didn't even require the side of mayonnaise (yet who are we to buck tradition?).

Sam's meal was rather unfortunate. The pork belly was dried out and even burned in spots, with little flavor to speak of, nothing like the tender morsels I've had in the past. The black pudding, too, did not even slightly resemble the dish I'd had in Paris, either in taste or in form. This looked rather like horse droppings, I'm very sorry to have to report. Easy-going Sam ate pretty much every bite anyway, but he paid for it much later that night with an incident, far less dramatic but still reminiscent of our recent trip to Beirut. We suspect there was something less than fresh about his meal.

Even accounting for the shoddy camera work, can you say unappetizing?

We were having a fun date though and weren't ready to leave, so we ordered a chocolate mousse to share. My expectations weren't very high, but I was pleasantly surprised with the dessert. It was understated and tasted as it should, with just the right amount of cream to warrant the name mousse while retaining a clean  Belgian chocolate flavor.

Overall, our impression was mixed. We're glad to have satisfied our curiosity, but given the high prices and questionable pork dish, as well as the oddly-mixed atmosphere (80's pop music piped through the restaurant completely clashed with the wood paneling and brass fixtures that were desperately crying for whimsical accordion), the Belgian Beer Cafe has been permanently crossed off our list. Unless they manage to find a way to serve fries to beer-drinkers on the patio - now that would be worth a return trip!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

One Gulf to another

So the big news...

Drum roll please....

Sam and I are moving back to the States! Two months from today, actually. Destination? Tallahassee, Florida. Located on the northeast shore of the Gulf of Mexico (about 20 miles inland), Tallahassee is the state capital and home to two major universities, which brings me to the reason we are moving: Sam has been accepted into a doctoral program in Islamic Studies at Florida State University, which has been the long-term plan and is finally happening!

Those of you who knew us before we were bloggers likely know this news already, and (hopefully) view it as a good thing because it means we'll soon be able to tell you our stories in person, and maybe even engage in a two-way conversation (imagine that!). But it seems that the majority of you are people whom we've never met face to face. In the past week alone we've had visits from 23 countries, spanning 5 continents! (Not that we're stalking you; StatCounter just happens to keep this data.) And we have come to know more about our readers because many of you have left comments, sent emails asking for expat or travel advice, or even re-posted our entries on your own blogs.

In a place where I often felt isolated, whether because I had a hard time finding like-minded individuals or because it was simply too hot to venture outdoors, these interactions have helped me feel connected to a larger community. And I have hesitated making this announcement (we've known since January), not because you're going to miss this blog so terribly, but because I'm going to miss you!

But I suppose if we're moving away from Abu Dhabi we can't exactly be "Finding" it anymore, and sooner or later this blog has to end. Even if I start a new one, which I probably will because it's become a way of life for me (Sam can go either way, but I pretty much think in blog now), the content that drew most readers to Finding Abu Dhabi, via Google or other means, is definitely going to change, and that means many will stop being interested. It's to be expected, but kind of hard not to feel sad about, even as I look forward to new possibilities.

For those of you who plan to stick with us until the bittersweet end, we plan to keep posting as long as there are relevant topics, but we foresee things winding down by early fall. And then what? Sam will be busy with school and pursuing his dream, and I will hopefully be starting a new job before too long. But I'll also be looking for something new to write about. Any ideas??

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beirut or bust! (pt. II)

Yesterday's post was the one I wanted to write about Beirut, and all of it was true, but it wasn't the whole story. As we learned on our trip to Oxford last month, sometimes travel doesn't go as planned, and as I learned in Beirut, sometimes it just disappoints.

Day 1 was a feast for the senses. We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and immediately went walking in our neighborhood and along the Corniche. We ended up at the Manara Palace Cafe, where we spent the remainder of the evening eating hummus and kibba, drinking mint tea and smoking narghile, listening to waves pound intensely on the rocks, soaking in the cool, salty air, and watching the sunset. If this day was any indication, the trip was going swimmingly.

But Day 2, Sam's birthday, we awoke at 5 am to a loud clashing. Once I realized in my groggy haze that it was not the call to prayer, nor was it an air raid, but ordinary thunder, I quickly fell back asleep. But when we went down for breakfast later that morning, we learned that a storm system had hunkered down right above us, and that we should expect heavy rain all day long. This dampened our plans but not our spirits. We bought an umbrella and went to town, determined to see as much as possible.

Sam in front of the Martyr's Statue in downtown Beirut, captured during a brief break from the rain

It was an odd-feeling day, though, as if the city had been drained of energy. We found the streets nearly deserted, our map inadequate, and most establishments closed, and after a lot of wandering around didn't feel like we had seen much of anything. We redeemed the day somewhat with dinner at a cozy little university pub called Ferdinand, tucked away on Ghandi Street in Hamra, followed by a spontaneous stop in Gustav, a locally owned bakery. Learning it was Sam's birthday and our first time in Beirut, the owners/bakers gave us free black forest cake, complete with birthday candle for Sam (as pictured in part I).

And then there was Day 3. It started inauspiciously enough with a quick Continental breakfast at our hotel followed by a bargaining session with several taxi drivers for a ride to Byblos.

Quick aside: we discovered a whole new kind of driving experience in Beirut. As in Cairo and Kathmandu, lane divisions and traffic lights are merely suggestions, and car horns are a sort of local language; but unlike any other city we've been to yet, there are rules about cars-for-hire that are unwritten but very important:

First, if you say the word "taxi" to a driver, you imply that you want a solo ride to a destination and are willing to pay double, maybe triple, for it. If you instead use the word "service", it means the driver is free to pick up additional passengers along the way, possibly slowing you down but allowing you to pay much less. Second, you must bargain before getting in the car (there are no meters) or you may pay through the nose or die trying not to. And lastly, if you look like a tourist, you will automatically be charged way more than a local for the same ride, no matter how hard you bargain. Locals will advise you not to spend more than 7000 Lebanese Pounds for a ride across town (a bit under $5), but we found this impossible to negotiate while keeping our dignity. We were literally kicked out of one cab and jumped out of a couple others!

We finally found our driver, who turned out to be a delightful older gentleman who was completely enamored with his country and eager to show us as much as possible. He talked us into visiting Jeita on the way to Byblos, saying we had plenty of time and that it was a "very important" site for us to see (for an extra fee, of course). But we were happy for the chance to experience at least the foothills of the Lebanese mountains, and found the Grotto beautiful, although not terribly different from the Natural Bridge Caverns in Texas. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take photographs so you'll have to imagine it (or go to their website).

Next, the driver dropped us off in Byblos, and we immediately went in search of lunch. My stomach was feeling a little uneasy, so I figured a good meal would get me back on track. We went to highly-recommended Locanda a la Granda, an Italian-influenced Lebanese restaurant, and ate on a lovely terrace overlooking the Crusader castle to our left and the Mediterranean to our right.

We started with sweet crab cakes and a huge salad, which was a creative variation of the traditional fattoush (bread salad), and finished with tagliatelle pasta with a roquefort, honey, and walnut sauce.

A few bites into our main course my stomach really began hurting. And despite two visits to the bathroom over the next hour the pain only intensified. I tried to ignore it, and agreed to go with Sam to explore the Crusader castle and Roman ruins, but just as we entered the outer walls a wave of nausea washed over me.

Walking up the gently-sloping path to the castle, I'm looking a bit sluggish.

Not sure what to do, as we were far from any indoor plumbing, I just sat down. Sam stood nearby, talking me through a new game plan. After a few minutes I decided to risk the journey back to the restaurant where we ate lunch so I could wait out whatever this was inside its facilities. The restroom there was private and tastefully decorated, and if you're going to be kneeling in front of a toilet, it makes it less awful if the floor is clean. [I'm sure the management would have appreciated this strategy, but I really didn't care at this point.]

Sam led me by the arm at a snail's pace back toward the entrance of the castle, but after twenty yards or so I suddenly found myself retching the entire contents of my stomach, which was mostly fattoush, into the most strategically-placed trashcan I've ever encountered. I honestly think it appeared out of thin air! Also, for whatever reason, even though it was a Saturday during tourist season, there was no one around, praise be to God.

Oh, except for Sam, my dear husband, who faithfully held my sweater with one hand and captured my shining moment with the other. Isn't he sweet?

After composing myself (which Sam also documented) and leaving the scene of the crime, I spent the next two hours sitting on a secluded rock outside, in a most picturesque setting, deciding whether there would be a repeat performance.

Finally, we determined I was far enough out of the woods to make the drive back to Beirut. No bargaining this time; we took the first offer we found. Once again, if you're looking for a silver lining, God sent us a devil of a driver, a blessing because he shaved 30 minutes off our 90-minute trip with his brazenness. He didn't say a word the whole time, and we didn't mention my ailment, but he drove as if he knew I might be sick in his car.

After a fitful night's sleep, Day 4 consisted of me holding my stomach and groaning, flipping repeatedly through 200 mostly non-English, mostly sports channels on satellite TV (though catching portions of Annie Hall, Jerry McGuire dubbed in French, and The Colbert Report), writing postcards, dozing in and out, trying to eat a cracker, and promptly throwing it up. I sent Sam out to enjoy our remaining hours (it was a gorgeous day, and his birthday trip after all), and he came back to collect me for our late afternoon flight. By takeoff I was on the mend, and slept the entire way home (another blessing, as I was not looking forward to that flight).

The only pic we got together - in the terminal waiting for our flight back to Abu Dhabi

I'm still not sure what it was. Food poisoning or water parasites seem unlikely, as Sam and I had eaten all the same foods and drank only bottled water, so I guess it was a 24-hour bug. Who knows? I may even have gotten it had we stayed home in Abu Dhabi this weekend. Regardless, it was probably inevitable after a dozen trips that one of us would have a vomiting story, so I suppose I won't hold it against Beirut. I may even give it another shot some day. However, I'm not eating fattoush again anytime soon.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Beirut or bust! (pt. I)

Beirut has been at the top of our list of cities to visit while living in the Middle East, especially for Sam, as it has just about everything a person interested in history, religion, architecture, urbanism, food and pop culture could ever want. We were all set to go last November, with flights and hotel booked, but because of a sudden spike in political instability at that time we switched at the last minute to Istanbul; not a bad trade, but one that left us all the more determined to see Beirut.

Despite all the turmoil in surrounding areas, Beirut has been calm lately, so this past weekend for Sam's birthday, we finally touched down on Lebanese soil. It was a quick, four-day trip, but we managed to tour American University of Beirut (AUB) and the surrounding district of Hamra, stroll the waterfront a couple of times, visit the major landmarks of the downtown area, and wander aimlessly through the narrow, Parisian-style streets of Gemmayzeh, popping into cafes, restaurants and pubs at every opportunity.

We also made it outside the city to the mountain region of Jeita, visiting the much-acclaimed Grotto (caverns), in the running to become one of the new seven wonders of the world. And we ventured even further north to the coastal town of Byblos (known to Arabs as Jbail), an ancient city dating back as early as 7000 BC, which has been inhabited and influenced by pretty much every major empire (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, etc, etc). Once a major port of the Mediterranean Sea, it is now a sleepy fishing village by day and trendy jet-setter destination by night, not to mention an archaeologist's dream.

Our photos are inadequate (many thanks to our temporary cheapo replacement camera), but hopefully will give you a glimpse of the raw beauty we found. Beirut is war-torn and beleaguered, but is a place determined to rebuild. Amidst rubble and shell-shocked reminders of the Lebanese Civil War are numerous development projects, including designer shopping centers, car dealerships and condominiums. 

And this will seem stereotypical, but literally, day or night, in cafes and parking lots, we spotted groups of locals spontaneously dancing to traditional ditties that seemed to be pumped into the atmosphere wherever we went. So many were eager to speak with us about their food and culture, their political views, or simply to practice their English. Despite a history marked by terror and tragedy, the Lebanese are full of life and looking for ways of expressing it.

AUB's campus - Spanish-mission style, built on rolling hills filled with lush cedars and flowering trees, all overlooking the Mediterranean, simply stunning!--

 Entire neighborhoods being renovated.--

Roman ruins in the middle of downtown.--

In Gemmayzeh, quaint streets lined with colorful old buildings,-- 

punctuated by bombed-out homes and peeling facades.--

A 12th-century Crusader castle, in Byblos,--

with its views of the village and ancient ruins, not to mention the Mediterranean.--

Looking back toward Beirut,--

where we and the fishermen enjoyed the Corniche by day--

and by night.--

Not a bad way to spend a birthday!--

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A foodie in the UAE: ode to Sam, part deux

Anyone who read Sam’s birthday blog from last year knows that I think pretty highly of my husband’s many upstanding qualities. This year, inspired by a recent comment from his sister, I thought I’d dig a little deeper, and show you just how perfect he is for me...


and out,



and night,

for richer,

for poorer,

with chopsticks,

and sticky fingers;

the man loves to eat, and I love him for it!

Happy 34th birthday to my partner in crime.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Between "the help" and a hard place

I had an epiphany this weekend that, short of being transported back in time, I doubt I could have understood without having lived in the UAE for a while.

It happened while watching the British television series, Downton Abbey, which portrays early twentieth-century life for a noble family and their servants on a sprawling country estate. In the second episode, a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley, who grew up as a middle-class doctor's son, is invited to live at the estate because it appears he will be the next heir to the family fortune.

Upon arrival, Matthew is overwhelmed by the slew of servants waiting to greet him. And then he is assigned a personal valet, a man several years older than himself, to wait on him hand and foot. The young heir-apparent proceeds to spend the first several days mildly annoyed that this man is always hovering, trying to help him put on his coat, pick out his clothes, and pour his tea. He repeatedly brushes the valet aside, saying "No need, I can handle it," and laments to his mother that he does not wish to be changed by his new-found station in life.

Downtown Abbey servants

Finally, after Matthew tells the valet he doesn't need help with his cuff links, the following exchange takes place (paraphrased from memory)–

Matthew: "Surely you have better things to do?"

Valet: "This is my job, sir."

Matthew: "Well it seems a very silly occupation for a grown man."


In the same episode, Matthew tells the master of the estate, Lord Crawley, that he has no need for a valet, and Lord Crawley wisely replies, "Would you deny a man his livelihood?"

Double ouch.

Now, I have a hard time allowing people do things for me that I can easily do for myself, such as bagging my groceries, or finding my size of jeans on the rack in a clothing store, and I feel even more strongly disinclined if I'm not expected to pay for the service. I doubt I'd ever say it to a person's face, but I would probably feel similarly to Matthew Crawley if there was a servant in my room trying to help me put on my earrings in the morning. I would assume it a waste of her time and talents.

Living in Abu Dhabi, I have been faced with comparable scenarios on numerous occasions. Essentially, this is a caste-based society where certain nationalities are paid pittances to serve and dote on other certain nationalities, and tipping is not required nor expected. It is a place where the laws and customs of the land have not left much room for social mobility. At times, it feels a bit like England in 1912.

For example, there is a team of grown men at my office, all of South Asian descent, who are employed as custodians, for all intents and purposes. They clean the bathrooms, empty the waste baskets, and refill the copier paper, all respectable jobs that need doing. However, I have more than once heard them referred to as "boys" by my colleagues, who seem to think nothing of calling them in to fetch their tea or take their inter-office mail down the hall to the drop-box. As an American, it recalls an entire history of injustice that we've worked hard to overcome, and leaves me feeling queasy.

Just last week I was leaving work carrying my laptop, purse, and a large box; awkward, but manageable. But at the front door one of the aforementioned custodians offered to take the box and carry it the short distance to my car. I thanked him, but I would not let him take it. He insisted, even reaching for the box, but I insisted more firmly. My response was instinctive, and reflected a desire to demonstrate that I view him as someone of worth, who shouldn't have to bother with such trivial tasks on my behalf. But perhaps, like the Crawley heir, I was communicating quite the opposite.

So how does a person who is not in a position of power keep from perpetuating a system of prejudice, without "denying a man his livelihood"?

I don't know yet.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Responding to the death of an enemy

Two of my friends posted quotes on their Facebook pages in response to the news of Osama bin Laden's demise. A high school friend quoted Mark Twain:
‎"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."
Mark Twain

I responded with a thumbs up.

A few hours later, a friend from grad school quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Again, I clicked the "Like" button.

These two contradictory statements precisely summarize my own conflicting emotions. When I was a child I had a pen pal who was a prisoner on death row. Many years later, after many denied appeals, he was finally executed. During this time I thought long and hard about my own beliefs on the topic, and ultimately decided that I could not condone the death penalty. It's complicated, I know, but ultimately my decision came down to the possibility of human error in judgment, and the capacity of every human to be reformed, not to mention the sanctity of life. People should be held responsible for their crimes, yes. They should be restrained from committing further crimes, yes. But I felt strongly that the path toward healing comes by way of reconciliation, not reciprocity.

Sam will be the first to point out to me all of the distinctions between the execution of a criminal tried in a court of peers and the killing of an enemy combatant. So don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the killing of bin Laden is equivalent to administering the death penalty; it's not. And though I don't agree with the death penalty as a policy in the U.S., I'm also not saying that there is never a time to take a human life. There are too many variables to make such a blanket statement. But if I'm to be consistent with my own convictions about how I should respond when wronged, should I not instinctively feel remorse about bin Laden's death? But instead, my first reaction was more akin to Twain's sentiments.

Reflecting further, I realize that this is my first time to be on the side of the victim of a severe crime, finally seeing the perpetrator punished. Like all Americans of a certain age, I will never forget the images of 9/11, the rage and fear and grief they made me feel. Though we weren't all there in person, we were all assaulted that day. So while I understand, and initially joined in, the collective sigh of relief and vague sense of pleasure that he is gone from the earth, I am saddened by this response (and frankly a bit ashamed of some barbaric displays of elation I'm witnessing from others in the media). I still believe in the idea of love driving out hate that was so eloquently expressed by King; my goal is to be able to feel this way too, and behave accordingly.