Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Temporary Pause

Following the early arrival of my beautiful baby boy, I am taking a break from Bon Appetit! since I won't be going out for many meals for a little while yet. Once he's a bit bigger then, in the words of Arnie, "I'll be back"!!!

In the meantime, he's blowing a kiss to everyone...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dairy- and Wheat-Free Crispies

When you are trying to avoid dairy and starchy grains, it is very hard to make any sort of granola-style bar. Most recipes require butter to bind all the ingredients together, that could be substituted for margarine but ingesting trans-fats from the margarine would be even worse than the butter. My ingenious 'binding' ingredient is dark chocolate. As dark chocolate has no dairy in it and in small amounts it is actually good for your health due to the anti-oxidants it contains, I would say that these crispies count as a healthy snack - of course limited to 1 or 2 a day and not the entire batch in one go since that would be rather too much sugar!

For my crispies I used organic spelt flakes. Spelt is the original wheat before it was selectively bred and modified into modern day wheat. Spelt has approximately one-third the amount of gluten of regular wheat (according to Judy Coles' The Body Talks) - it is the gluten in bread that makes it so light and fluffy so spelt bread is much denser and heavier. Due to the fact that it contains less gluten, spelt is much easier to digest and according to Coles' research most people who are intolerant to wheat can eat spelt with no problems - a food intolerance is of course not the same as an allergy.

Similar to wheat, oats have also been highly modified over time and for those of us suffering from IBS and trying to follow a low-starch diet they are less easy to digest than spelt or rye. The spelt flakes could be substituted for jumbo oat flakes and in that case I would try to get organic ones. Buckwheat flakes are entirely gluten-free but they are tiny little flakes that I don't imagine would work quite as well as the large spelt or oat flakes - if you can't have gluten then it would be worth giving them a try though.

Putting the crispies together is extremely quick and easy, all you need is:
100g dark chocolate
8 tablespoons spelt flakes
4 tablespoons mixed dried fruit (you can buy packets of ready-mixed raisins, sultanas and cranberries)
11 cupcake holders (you may make a few more or less depending on how chocolate-y you want them)

1. Melt the dark chocolate in a glass bowl over a pan of boiling water, once it's melted then take off the heat.
2. Add the flakes and fruit and mix together.
3. Spoon the mixture into the cupcake holders and put in the fridge to go hard.

Voila! Yummy little treats ready in moments.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dubai Restaurant Review: Hatam Restaurant, Ibn Battuta Mall

In a nutshell: rough and ready service, acceptable food ... great bread.

Hatam bills itself as serving 'Original Iranian Food' and if this is what you would find in Iran then you would eat well, although you wouldn't be blown away. At just Dhs 45-60 for a main course, your wallet won't feel the pinch either. Located next to Zyng and Japengo's in Ibn Battuta's China Court, the first thing to strike you when you sit down are the tiled tables which appear rather garish to Western eyes. The menu provides a photo of each item to help you make your choice but the simple layout and plastic feel of the menu was in line with the rather rough and ready feel of the restaurant.

All the staff were friendly and the service was certainly very quick, but nobody except one Indian waiter spoke much English. We were served a plate of herbs and cheese but when I asked what everything was the response of, "It is for you...appetiser" didn't elaborate very much! An Iranian salad is certainly better presented than a Lebanese one (which consists of a plate of uncut salad vegetables) and whilst it was very simple, it was fresh and crispy. The best part was the Iranian bread which is provided on the table free of charge. Closely resembling Indian naan bread, after my first little bite I could not resist eating an entire piece myself - wheat and yeast intolerances notwithstanding, any after effects were well worth this delicious fresh, warm flatbread.

Simon opted for the tikka mix for his meal which consisted of a skewer each of chicken, lamb and hammour marinated in a tikka sauce and served with french fries or rice (don't think the chips are quite the original Iranian food though). Spiced, but not hot, he found the flavour overly-buttery and a bit sickly after a while - this from the man whose favourite Indian meal is Butter Chicken. My grilled shrimp were very dry as they had perhaps been a little overcooked, although I'd rather have them over- than under-cooked of course. Served with rice, this was a very simple meal that could have been delicious but that failed to tickle my tastebuds due to being so dry and chewy.

I won't be eating here again but I may very well go back to buy some takeaway bread to gorge on!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Heritage and Diving Village, Shindagha Area, Dubai

After two previous failed attempts to visit the Heritage and Diving Village in Dubai, we finally made it there this weekend. Located next to Sheikh Saeed's House, there is plenty of parking (free on Friday) and entrance is free but sadly although it does open at 16:30 on Fridays, even by 17:30 it seemed most of the people working there had decided not to turn up for work so it was all a little deserted.

Of those who had come to showcase Emirati heritage was one burqa-clad lady making pancakes over a small stove. With minimal English but great hospitality, she made us each a pancake - 3 pancakes for just Dhs 10. I wasn't 100% convinced of the hygiene of her 'kitchen' but figured eating a pancake burning hot from the oven should be safe...and it was delicious. A word of caution to any tourist though: never photograph a local lady without first asking her permission or you could land yourself in hot water. Luckily, she was more than happy to be photographed. It's actually very rare nowadays to see anyone wearing the burqa (gold coloured mask to cover the face) and you will generally only see it on old ladies in the predominantly local areas. Younger women tend to not cover their face and when they do they are covered with the same thin material as their headscarf - I'm sure it's a lot more comfortable and cooler than the hard burqa mask.

The village has replica stone houses and areesh houses (areesh is made from plaited palm fronds) which I think would normally have housed little shops but these were all locked up. There was an area with a sign 'Bedouin Life' but nobody was there demonstrating the bedouin traditions, perhaps that part is only open at night. Performances of some kind must be staged at certain times because there was a large open area with rows of chairs but there was nobody to ask for information. For children, there were 2 ponies for trotting about on and unlike in many parts of the world where you can find the animals in a very sorry state, these both looked very healthy and well-fed.

Next to the Heritage Village, we entered the Diving Village (also free entrance) but this was even more deserted. When it's in operation I believe that there would be men demonstrating how the pearl industry worked as well as museum-style displays of photos and information on the hazards this profession suffered. According to the displays at the Dubai Museum, some divers could hold their breath for up to 5 minutes while they braved jellyfish and dangerous seas searching for the perfect pearls.

All along the front, looking out on the Creek and the passing dhows (these wooden boats are still a key means of transporting goods between India and Dubai), are a multitude of restaurants that we never knew existed. Although the number of tables and chairs gave the appearance that they were very much aimed at busloads of tourists, on this Friday afternoon there seemed to be a lot of Arab nationals as opposed to tourists so the food is presumably of a good standard. Numerous people seemed to be eating from small table-top BBQs with skewers of meat grilling over the coals; it looked very authentic and interesting. We will need to plan an evening or lunch-time visit next time so we can sample some of the food.

We ended our visit at the house of Obaid Al Thani which is very similar in style to Sheikh Saeed's House but didn't hold the same appeal for us. It is primarily a religious museum with rooms devoted to quotes from the Holy Quran on subjects such as The Creation of the Universe, The Creation of Man etc. Again, entrance was free to the house. The central courtyard was dominated by a stage and seating where we presumed religious lectures or debates must be held. There were a few men working there who I believe would have been happy to explain any questions we might have had about Islam so for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the religious traditions of the UAE, this could be a good place to start.

During the week the villages open at 10, although whether that means all the shops and displays will be open at that time is another matter! Maybe next time we'll try on a Saturday and see if we have better luck.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dubai Restaurant Review: Rainforest Cafe, Dubai Mall

In a nutshell: Very original, fun place to take children, friendly service but mediocre food

Having eaten at the Rainforest Cafe in London many years ago, I was keen to try the one here in Dubai. In terms of original decor and ambiance it can't be faulted with life-size gorillas, a giraffe, a tiger, elephants, a boa constrictor, a crocodile and many more animals artfully hidden amongst the replica rainforest canopy. Every 15 minutes or so a 'rainstorm' would pass through complete with lightning (i.e. flashing lights - don't go here if you are epileptic), the full storm sound effects and all the animals alternating to come 'alive' and make themselves heard. Fun for us adults, fascinating for children I would imagine. One wall of the restaurant is the Dubai Aquarium so you can watch the real sharks, sting rays and thousands of fish swim by during your dinner - there's certainly no excuse for feeling bored as you wait for your meal.

The food was not quite as amazing though, particularly my meal. It took half an hour for our food to arrive which was longer than you would usually expect to wait but they were fairly busy. My mother-in-law's Rasta Pasta was really tasty with the right level of Caribbean spices to give it a kick and tender marinated chicken. Simon's Calypso Chicken was also well-received: half a chicken butterflied flat and covered with a Caribbean sauce accompanied by garlic mash potatoes. Definitely a step up from the Outback Steakhouse we visited a few months ago, but I still got the impression that the food was not of the same level of freshness as would be found at Cafe Havana or Japengo's.

When I initially ordered the 'wild river salmon' (I highly doubt it really was wild salmon) and requested no garlic the waiter said he'd have to check. I thought we were going to be in another California Pizza Kitchen situation where everything is pre-prepared and no changes can be made, luckily we weren't and I was told it could be made without garlic. My salmon was really disappointing and was the toughest, most rubbery piece of fish I have ever eaten. The green beans that came with it were barely cooked and this gave them a very tough texture as well - I usually love my vegetables crisply al dente but tough beans and rubbery fish just didn't work well together. I ordered a side of saffron rice to go with the fish since I didn't think fish and beans would be enough and the rice, although not piping hot, was very nice and turned out to be the best bit of the meal!

The menu is quite varied with the usual tex-mex starters that all American restaurants seem to offer, some salads, burgers, pastas, fish and meat mains. Starters were in the Dhs 50 bracket and our mains ranged from Dhs 65-80 but the steaks were all Dhs 100 or more. Fresh fruit juices were almost Dhs 30 (compared to Dhs 23 at most other places) so that's a price they could do with reviewing. Soft drinks are unlimited but in this day and age of obesity and all its health complications surely that is not actually a good thing?! The staff were all very friendly and there was a photographer going to all the tables offering to take photos for you to then buy - we declined. They have a dedicated area for children's birthday parties (minimum 20 children) which could be a great idea depending on the price. You enter and exit through the Rainforest Cafe shop where they sell a variety of stuffed animal toys and other souvenirs - some very cute baby clothes with crazy looking frogs on caught my eye but I resisted the urge to buy.

Based on my meal alone I would have said to avoid the Rainforest Cafe but taking the whole decor as well as the other 2 meals into account, it is worth a visit but don't go with high expectations on the food.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Danat Jebel Dhanna Resort, Abu Dhabi

A pre-baby holiday, we were advised, is a must; since I didn't want to fly anywhere and we had been wanting to visit the Danat Jebel Dhanna Resort (owned by the National Corporation for Tourism and Hotels) for years, we decided this would be the perfect opportunity. Jebel Dhanna lies south of Abu Dhabi, about a 3 hour drive from Dubai. To make a 6 hour round-trip worthwhile we had always thought a minimum of 3 nights would be needed, which explains why we'd never been. Unbeknown to us at the time of booking our mini-holiday, a public holiday was declared on the day we had planned to drive down to the hotel which meant that we gained an extra half day of chill-out time and had a full 4 days away!

The Journey

The hotel's website is sadly lacking a proper map, although the directions turned out to be simple so there is no excuse for not having those directions on the site. They had a link to Google Maps which showed the hotel as lying right in the centre of Abu Dhabi next to the Marina Mall - about 200 km away from the actual hotel!

Driving from Dubai, you take Sheikh Zayed Road and turn off right when you see signs to Tarif (Danat Jebel Dhanna Resort is also signposted). This right turn is actually a fly-over that takes you left so that you go onto a bridge over SZR. You then stay on that road all the time, following signs for Al Sila until you see the hotel signs. A word of warning: there are no street lights and it is only 2 lanes in each direction with a lot of heavy vehicles so I can imagine it would be a bit less pleasant driving that road at night. We had no hold ups as all the trucks amazingly stayed in the right-hand lane and we just had to pull into that lane from time to time to let the usual crazy Abu Dhabi head-light-flashing speedster past.

The total journey from Jebel Ali to the hotel was just over 300 kms, so it took about 3.5 hours with a couple of stops. There is a petrol station after you turn off towards Tarif (100 kms from Jebel Ali) and then they have them about every 80 kms or so along the route. Coming back, the first petrol station we came to was 145kms from the hotel although we had passed a couple on the other side of the road before that. The route is not an interesting one and there is absolutely nothing of interest to see along the way, the most exciting thing we saw was a couple of camels being transported in the back of a pick-up truck.

The Hotel

Although not the most attractively-designed hotel (see later on the Desert Islands Resort, it seems aesthetics aren't too much of a consideration in this area of the UAE), the grounds of the Danat Jebel Dhanna Resort more than made up for the uninspiring exterior.

The beach at the Danat Resort is fantastic. Just to see a stretch of coastline that hasn't been destroyed with offshore developments, such as The Palm, was amazing. In the afternoon with the tide out, we saw people walking out to sea for a good few hundred metres with the water only up to their knees - we would have done it ourselves but the sea was a bit too cold for our liking! Beautiful turquoise water, white sand and little thatched umbrellas and loungers all along the front. It is possible to walk quite a way along the beach past the neighbouring hotel (the Dhafra Beach Hotel, which seemed completely empty) and that was the extent of our daily exercise during our 4 days there.

The hotel has one pool plus a small children's pool - complete with slide. The water was a lovely 30 degrees and had a swim-up bar where you could sit in the water on underwater bar stools. As it is February and the hotel is quite exposed, there was quite a fresh breeze blowing all the time so I have to admit the closest I got to going in the pool was dipping my foot in since I didn't like the idea of getting out all wet and being hit by a cold wind. All around the pool were grassy areas as well as a children's play area and various sports facilities: tennis courts, beach volleyball pitch, beach football pitch and basketball. No excuse for getting bored!

We were initially checked into a twin-bedded room. Our last holiday before we become sleep-deprived and we were given separate beds, what is that all about?! We headed off to the pool for some lunch while they got us a king-sized bedroom ready. Both of the rooms (twin and king) were a similar generous size with great views out onto the gardens and beach. The bathroom didn't have a separate bath and shower but I found the bath was the perfect size for me to lay back and doze off in every afternoon. There was a DVD player but we had forgotten to bring any DVDs and the hotel charged Dhs 50 to rent 2 DVDs! I think that is what you would call a total rip-off.

The only disappointing thing in the room was the mattress - a cheap foam one that was fairly rock hard, not the high-end sprung mattress you would expect to find in a 5 star hotel. I requested some sort of padding to soften the mattress and an even lower-quality camping foam mattress was laid on top leaving me a good few inches higher than Simon in bed! From one extreme to the other, this one was so soft that I sunk into it and the next morning the dip I had created was still visible half an hour after I got out of bed. For our last night, I decided the harder mattress was the lesser of two evils.

The Food

Danat Jebel Dhanna Resort is not where you would come for a gastronomic experience. It offers an all-day dining buffet restaurant, a lobby lounge, a pool menu and an Italian restaurant. We got the distinct impression that most of the tourists (predominantly German and Scandinavian it seemed) were on all-inclusive packages since they seemed to eat all their meals at the buffet. The pool, lobby lounge and room service menus all offered exactly the same food and whilst the standard of food wasn't bad, the choice was very limited and after 3 lunches and dinners I had eaten everything that interested me.

The breakfast was excellent, although no pork is served and chicken sausages and veal bacon just don't cut it as far as I'm concerned. The offering was fairly standard of a hotel in the UAE with fresh fruits, tinned fruits, yoghurts, cereals, salad items, smoked fish, eggs, baked beans, grilled tomatoes, porridge, pancakes, waffles and pastries. It's recommended to "breakfast like a king" and I would say I successfully ticked that box every day!

Lunch at the pool consisted of sandwiches (I tried a panini but it was the grilled bread and cold cheese and tomato story again), satay (my no pepper request didn't get through though and the satay was coated in black pepper), noodles (which were tasty but a bit more chilli-infused than expected) and fajitas (served more like a shawarma than the traditional fajita style). All entirely edible and acceptable but nothing that had any 'wow factor'. There were also no tables and chairs set up so we had to eat sitting on our loungers which I generally find a less than ideal way to eat a meal.

Dinner is what gave us the most eyebrow-raising moments though. We saw that the Italian restaurant was closed on Saturdays so decided to eat there the first 2 nights. Unfortunately we weren't warned that the restaurant was tiny and that bookings were essential. The restaurant is called Zaitoun (olive in Arabic) which would make sense if it was an Arabic or Meditteranean restaurant, the menu was 100% Italian though so Olivio would really be a more appropriate name. My impression was that it maybe used to be an Arabic restaurant and the hotel then decided Italian would suit its guests better. The decor was certainly Arabic with low tables and chairs all around the fringes and only about 5 normal dining tables in the middle. The last thing I want to do when I'm eating a 'fine dining' meal is sit down to eat it at a coffee table!

When we got to Zaitoun on Thursday evening we were told that it was fully booked and only the low tables were available but since all the people eating at those tables looked very uncomfortable, we didn't want to chance it. We asked if anyone was about to leave and we could wait but the waiter said everyone had just started. On the way out we saw the manager and told him we thought the design of the restaurant was appalling; he didn't seem too bothered about it but did say that a request for changing the low tables for high tables was sitting with the management. We had a look at the buffet but, not being in the best of moods, I didn't like the look of anything as the chefs seemed to have gone to town with the black pepper. Five minutes after leaving Zaitoun, we saw a group who had been eating there crossing the lobby - a fantastic waitress in the Lobby Lounge checked for us and confirmed there was now a free table! When we returned to the restaurant, there was no apology for telling us the group had just started when they were clearly just finishing and it actually seemed like the waiter and manager didn't even remember us!

The second night provided even more shocks when we heard a group of 4 ladies next to us complaining that they'd been waiting over 1 hour for their meal. We expected something elaborate to come out of the kitchen for them but it was just pizzas...and they were stone cold. Thankfully our experience of the food was very good on both occasions. Simon stuck to Italian favourites of beef carpaccio and pasta the first night with caprese salad and lasagne the second one. I stayed clear of the wheat and had only salmon the first night (after all the fiasco we didn't sit down to eat until 9pm) but made up for it with calamari, veal escalopes and chocolate fondant the next night. Sadly the service wasn't on a par with the food, although it could hardly be expected when the manager seemed to have no interest whatsoever.

There was a great camaraderie amongst the diners in Zaitoun on the Friday night when a group of European hotel guests who were eating in the private dining room of the restaurant decided they were sick of their crying child. Did they take him up to bed? No, they put him outside their dining room and closed the door so that the rest of us could listen to him wailing instead! Everyone started laughing at such an unbelievable thing happening and one lady asked the waiter to go and tell the child's parents that they would have to take him back in with them. The father didn't look amused at having his dinner disturbed!

We did eat at the buffet on our last night and it actually wasn't bad. The salads were varied, there was a choice of mains including fish, chicken, lamb, beef plus a roast lamb leg and there were pancakes and other cakes for dessert. However, the price was extremely high compared to what you would pay in Dubai: Dhs 190 inclusive of 1 soft drink! The food prices throughout the hotel were sky high since everything quoted on the menu then had 16% tax and service added - it has been about 10 years since Dubai started to print the actual prices so that you know exactly what you are paying for an item and I can't understand why this hasn't filtered through to the rest of the UAE. A prime example was the steak at Zaitoun - Dhs 200 plus 16%...I nearly fell off my chair! Beer was Dhs 32 plus 16% and the measure wasn't even a pint but somewhere a bit less.

The Area

On our second day we headed out to see if there were any other restaurants around that might not be so pricey and to have a bit of variety. In a word...NO. We thought Jebel Dhanna was a small town but when we reached a security gate with soldiers carrying machine guns and a big 'Criticial National Infrastructure' sign we realised that the area is a major oil zone. From within the resort this wasn't obvious until the last day which had no haze and we could see about 30 kms down the coast to a huge docking platform for oil tanker ships to pick up oil / gas - the pristine water at the beach certainly gave no hint we were in the middle of an oil field.

The next day we drove over to the main town of Ruwais, hoping this might offer something a little bit cultural. It didn't. The complex has been built purely to house those people working in the area's oil industry and consisted of what seemed like hundreds of villas, townhouses and apartment buildings. We found the central market which consisted of a supermarket (with the grumpiest cashier I've ever come across) as well as a shop selling cassette tapes - I didn't know cassettes were even still getting made! A posting to Ruwais would certainly be classified as a hard-ship posting anyway.

I didn't take any photos since there have been a number of cases reported in the papers recently of tourists in Abu Dhabi being arrested for taking photos where they aren't supposed to! They had a genuine excuse, as far as I could read, since in other countries taking photos of palaces is not a criminal offence - but apparently it is in Abu Dhabi so be warned! With armed guards on lookout points all around the area I had a sneaking suspicion that photography would definitely not be allowed here.

There is a petrol station in Ruwais so if you don't have enough fuel to make it the 145 kms to the next one, fuel up here after you leave the hotel.

Sir Bani Yas Island

Visiting Sir Bani Yas Island was my main motivation for wanting to come down to Jebel Dhanna. Sir Bani Yas is a nature reserve established by the late Sheikh Zayed and until recently, outside the Royal Family, only guests of the Danat resort could get access to visit the island. There is now an Anantara hotel, Desert Islands Resort, on the island itself but guests of the Danat resort are still allowed to visit at a cost of Dhs 250 per person.

We were escorted to the Sir Bani Yas ferry terminal, 16 kms from the hotel, where we boarded a speed boat to make the 20 minute crossing to Sir Bani Yas (on the way back we were in a standard passenger ferry-style craft). Once on the island, our group of 6 was met by a Scottish guide who took us on our tour in an African safari-style open-sided jeep. We had expected quite a small island but discovered that it is actually 87 km square - about the same size as Barbados. The island is home to giraffes, sand and mountain gazelles, eland, red deer, oryx, other types of antelope / deer, ostriches, hyenas and cheetahs. With the exception of the ostriches and hyenas, we managed to see all the animal species on the reserve. Although not native to Arabia, the cheetahs are used as a natural control on the gazelle population which numbers over 12,000.

Although a nature reserve, Sir Bani Yas is certainly not an eco-friendly island. Fresh water is piped over to the island from the desalination plant on the mainland and is used to irrigate the entire island which would otherwise be completely barren. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of water that must be used for all the trees, shrubs and grass planted to feed the animals and give them shade - plus for the thousands of animals to drink. The tour lasted about 1.5 hours with the cheetahs and giraffes definitely being the highlights for me.

We hopped on the Desert Islands Resort shuttle bus to have lunch at the hotel before heading back to our car for the drive home to Dubai. We expected the hotel to be a few minutes away from the arrival dock but it was a 20 minute drive to another part of the island and as the resort came into view we were really disappointed to see quite an eyesore. On a nature reserve we would have expected a very low rise development built to blend in but this was 4 storeys high with green roof tiles! Certainly cheaper to build but a real shame in this day and age for any architect to design such a building.

Despite its exterior, the interior of the resort was a very traditional Arabian style and the pool area outside was gorgeous. All the staff we met were excellent and a step above those at the Danat resort, as would be expected from an international hotel chain of this calibre. The one thing that I would have been really upset about if I was a guest at the Desert Islands Resort was the beach. The resort has been built on reclaimed land which we couldn't understand considering the vast empty spaces of the island and this meant that their beach could not compare to the beautiful natural beach at the Danat Resort. We were pleasantly surprised to find the food prices at the Desert Islands were cheaper than at the Danat though and I succumbed to temptation and had a delicious steak sandwich.


Although we had a really relaxing 4 days, Simon and I both felt that from Dubai it would be better to head to Al Aqah on the East Coast for a long weekend than drive all the way down to Jebel Dhanna. Al Aqah has 4 or 5 hotels now with each one offering 2 or 3 restaurants so there is much more choice for eating out, plus the food prices are cheaper. At just a 2-2.5 hour drive through the mountains it also offers a far more interesting and quicker journey. All the animals on Sir Bani Yas can be found at the Arabian Wildlife Centre on the Sharjah-Dhaid Road and a trip to the AWC is only 1 hour from Dubai, or can be made en-route to Al Aqah. You don't get driven around in a safari jeep since it's more of an open-air zoo, but to drive 3 hours plus the boat transfer doesn't really add up to a good idea in my mind if the whole reason to go to Jebel Dhanna would be to visit Sir Bani Yas.

For people living in Abu Dhabi, Jebel Dhanna is only 2 hours away and the pristine beach would make a weekend break worthwhile. I would definitely choose the Danat Resort over the Desert Islands Resort though since the beach is so much better and the price extremely lower (Dhs 700 B&B per night versus Dhs 1,350 B&B per night). To get to the AWC from Abu Dhabi would be a long drive and since there is nothing similar on offer in Abu Dhabi, visiting Sir Bani Yas Island would make sense - although Al Ain Zoo also has similar animals to marvel at and is closer.

I've waited years to go to Jebel Dhanna and am glad that we finally made the trip, despite the few hiccups we encountered. We don't regret having gone since we had a lovely few days away, but we won't be returning since it just doesn't trump other locations within the UAE for the perfect weekend break.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Delicious Dips

Laying out a tasty dip with vegetable sticks, crisps and pita bread for guests to enjoy before dinner is an easy way to get out of making a starter and a great social way to start the evening. I find that most shop-bought dips have ingredients that I either can't eat (garlic etc) or don't like. Plus, the question is always in my mind whether there is any real nutritional value in something that has so many chemical preservatives in it that it can be kept unopened in the cupboard for up to a year! Here are 2 dips that are extremely easy to make, require minimal ingredients and create that wow factor for your guests with little effort from you.

Avocado Dip
The easiest one of all, all you need is:
1 ripe avocado
3 cherry tomatoes
Juice from half a lemon
Handful of parsley, finely chopped
Pinch of salt and pepper (I don't put pepper!)

1. Mash the avocado in a bowl
2. Dice the tomatoes and stir into the avocado
3. Add salt and pepper
4. Add lemon juice and mix well
5. Stir in finely chopped parsley
6. If you don't eat it immediately, store it in the fridge

You can add cream cheese (Philadelphia) to make the dip go further and you would mix this into the avocado before adding the tomatoes.
To make it more of a Mexican-style Guacamole, you can also add finely chopped chilli peppers to give it a real kick.

It takes minutes to dish out this fabulous-tasting dip. One thing to bear in mind is that this should be made as close to your guests arriving as possible since avocado does go brown quite quickly. If you keep the avocado stone in the dip and keep it covered then this should help stop it browning so quickly.


I've seen recipes for hummus that have huge long lists of ingredients and so I always thought this was quite complicated to make. That was until I found a recipe for it in a book called 'Just Four Ingredients' by Joanna Farrow and I realised that actually this is another very simple dip to make. It is a little more effort than avocado dip because you end up with more washing up but the chick peas make this is a nutritious, high protein snack and living in the Middle East it seems wrong not to be able to whip together this quintessential Arabian dish.

400g tin of chick peas - Chick peas don't appeal to me as they are, but in hummus they are fabulous
4 tbsp tahini paste (sesame seed paste)
Juice of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves (of course I never put these in and it tastes just as good without them)
Half tsp paprika to give it a slight kick - more if you want it spicier
Salt to taste

1. Drain the chick peas thoroughly and blend in a food processor with the garlic
2. Add the tahini paste to the chick peas and blend
3. Add the lemon juice and blend to a smooth paste - if it is still quite solid then add 1 tbsp olive oil or cold water at a time until the consistency is thick but smooth
4. Stir in the paprika and salt
5. Serve at room temperature with some paprika and sesame seeds sprinkled on top for presentation

A fantastic addition to the traditional hummus above is to add roasted bell peppers after you mix in the tahini paste. You can use any colour but red peppers will give a lovely red colour to the dip and they are higher in vitamin C than yellow or orange peppers. The juice from the peppers will also help give you the perfect hummus consistency. Cook them before you start making the hummus so they have time to cool down a bit.

1. Cut the pepper into slices
2. Heat olive oil in a pan over high heat then add the pepper slices
3. Cover the peppers but keep shaking the pan so they don't stick
4. Cook for about 10 minutes until the peppers look a bit char-grilled but are soft
5. Let them cool slightly before adding them to the hummus

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Beef Wellington with Red Wine Jus

The origins of the name Beef Wellington seem to have been lost in time although the various ideas include: it was the Duke of Wellington's favourite dish; it was first made for a dinner reception in Wellington, New Zealand; and a variety of others. I was concerned this could be a bit fiddly to make and that it wouldn't live up to Ainsley Harriott's claims of 'Meals in Minutes' but I was pleased to find that I was wrong. Very easy to make, quick to put together and once you pop it in the oven then you're free to chill out for half an hour...perfect.

The actual recipe contains chicken liver pate but I left this out since pate is not something I would ever choose to eat. Despite this omission, Simon declared Beef Wellington a 10/10 and this is definitely a meal that I will be making for a dinner party at some point - impressive for guests and low-stress for me (plus they can be prepared in advance and popped in the oven once the guests arrive). The only thing I need to work on is my presentation since my parcels didn't turn out looking quite as good as Ainsley's, so it's a scan of his photo below - not mine!

50g unsalted butter
2 tbsps olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed (I of course left these out!)
225g flat / button mushrooms, finely diced
10g dried porcini mushrooms (I left these out too but if you're using them then soak them in boiling water for 20 mins, then drain and finely dice)
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
4 fillet steaks (around 150g each and about 2.5cm thick)
100g smooth chicken liver pate
250g ready-made puff pastry
Plain flour for dusting
1 large egg, beaten
175ml red wine

1. Pre-heat oven to 220 degrees (425 degrees fahrenheit / gas mark 7).
2. Melt half the butter with half the oil and add the onion, garlic and mushrooms. Saute for 10 mins until tender and liquid has all evaporated.
3. Stir parsley into cooked mushrooms, tip everything into a bowl and leave to cool.
4. Season the steaks, wipe out the pan used for the mushrooms and heat it until hot. Once hot, add the remaining oil and sear the steaks on both sides.
5. Leave the steaks to cool. Don't wash the pan because you need it later with the meat juices in it!
6. Cut the pastry into 4 pieces and roll out each piece on a floured surface to about 20cm square. I had ready-rolled pastry and just cut the piece in half for my 2 steaks.
7. Brush the edges of the pastry with the beaten egg.
8. Divide the mushroom mixture between the 4 squares.
9. Spread pate over each steak and place the steak on top of the mushrooms, pate side down.
10. Bring up the 2 opposite corners of pastry to overlap over the steak and seal together. Repeat with the other 2 corners and ensure all edges are sealed. Brush with the beaten egg.
11. Place on a pre-heated non-stick baking sheet and bake in the oven for 25 mins for medium-rare and 5 mins extra depending how well done you want the steak (mine cooked for 40 mins). I was concerned that I hadn't 'pricked' the pastry for steam to escape but this proved not to be an issue and as the oven is so hot, the pastry didn't get soggy on the bottom - which had been my other concern.

What I don't understand when I look at Ainsley's picture, though, is that it shows the mushrooms on top of the steak whereas the recipe has the steak on top of the mushrooms! To get this same presentation, when you put the parcels on the baking tray you would need to put the side with the pastry edges on the bottom - simply turning it over once it's cooked wouldn't work because the bottom won't be crispy like the top. My parcels had the mushrooms under the steak and they tasted delicious in any case.

To make the red wine jus:
1. Place the frying pan used to cook the mushrooms and steaks on the heat.
2. Pour in the wine and simmer to reduce by two-thirds.
3. Stir in the remaining butter (or you could stir in some cream, or do like I did and add nothing else) and season.

Serve it with whatever takes your fancy. Ainsley recommends broccoli, I had broccoli as well as other veg and a small baked potato each. I have a feeling I'll be making this again very soon!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bang Bang Chicken

Simon came home last night to find no dinner being cooked and no piles of dishes waiting for him to wash...had I decided on a take-away? No, I'd made Bang Bang Chicken which is served cold so that meant I'd been able to get it all finished and dishes done long before he arrived - I'm now worried this may become one of his most-requested dinners!

I have no idea where the name of this dish comes from and it could be made with any meat or tofu, not just chicken. According to the recipe, this is a dish to make when you have leftover cold chicken - since I didn't have any, I marinated very finely sliced chicken strips and cooked them before letting them go cold. The vegetables are really just salad so that's easy enough to prepare in advance and the rice noodles take minutes to cook and then you leave them to go cold too. The recipe offers a choice of 2 dressings (peanut and sesame) but I only made the peanut dressing - which was absolutely delicious. Both sauces are included below although I can't vouch for the sesame one and since it sounds quite peppery, I have no plans to make it.

Easy to prepare, very easy to throw together and the best bit is the total lack of dishes at the end of the meal!

If you have cold chicken in the fridge, just finely shred it and leave it in the fridge until it's time to plate it up.
If you don't have any cold meat, very finely slice your chicken breasts (about 150g per person) and marinate for at least 30 minutes in:
2 tbsp soya sauce
1 tbsp rice wine
1 tsp sesame oil
Stir-fry the chicken on high heat until it's coloured on all sides (this will only take a few minutes since it's so thinly sliced) and then leave in a bowl to cool before putting away in the fridge for later.

You can use whatever style of noodles you prefer (egg, rice, bean) but I used rice noodles.
Put the rice noodles (however many portions you need) in a pan with a little salt, cover with boiling water and put on the pan lid.
10 minutes later, drain the noodles, cut them into shorter lengths of about 8 cm, toss with a little sesame oil and leave to cool before putting away in the fridge.

Cut cucumber and sweet pepper (capsicum) into 5 cm strips - remove the seeds from the cucumber.
Toss the vegetables in a bowl with a little salt, cover and keep in the fridge.

Peanut Dressing
Combine the following in a food processor:
2 large tbsp smooth peanut butter
1 tsp light soya sauce
1.5 tbsps brown sugar
2 tsps rice vinegar
1 tbsp rice wine
1 dessert spoon sesame oil
3 cm piece of ginger, cut into smaller pieces
1 tsp chilli sauce
2.5 tbsps chicken stock
1 spring onion (optional - I didn't put any in because I forgot to buy them!)
Blend into a smooth paste - add water if it's too thick - and pour into a sauce boat. Keep at room temperature.

Sesame Dressing
3 garlic cloves
2 cm piece of ginger (cut into smaller pieces)
0.5 tsp chilli sauce
3 tbsps toasted sesame paste
2 tbsps sesame oil
2.5 tbsps light soy sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp rice wine
1 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsps chicken stock
0.25 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
Cook the peppercorns over a medium heat for 7-8 minutes then crush them to a powder once they are slightly cooled.
Combine all other ingredients in a food processor and blend to smooth paste, add the peppercorn powder and then transfer to a sauce boat and keep at room temperature.

Plating Up
On each plate, lay a bed of noodles with the vegetables on top and then add the chicken.
Scatter sliced spring onions over the chicken (optional).
Provide the sauces for each person to add as much as they would like.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dubai Restaurant Review: Stefano's, Green Community

In a nutshell: acceptable food, acceptable service but high main course prices

I was really pleased to see a new restaurant had opened within walking distance of our house at Green Community, so we headed over to Stefano's for a relaxed Friday lunch. Unfortunately we weren't blown away by the experience and I wouldn't go back simply because there are better options available within the Community.

Whilst the menu was varied and included all the items you would expect from an Italian restaurant, the prices were similar to those charged at Cucina in the Marriott. This raises serious questions about their market research - in terms of decor, location, service and the fact you can get alcoholic drinks, Cucina wins hands down. The main course prices at Stefano's were actually higher than many of Cucina's prices and their pizza prices were higher than the Pastamania restaurant inside The Market (a 2 minute walk away). Sadly for Stefano's, I really can't see them surviving for long unless they reduce their prices because why pay more for a similar or inferior product?

Although it's not their fault, the artificial lake that they face never appears to get cleaned and right outside their restaurant is where all the scum and dirt seems to accumulate - on the day of our visit we couldn't smell anything but I've walked past before and had to hold my breath from the stench of foul water. They do have indoor seating as well as next to the water so there would be an escape on a bad day. We sat outside at a table covered with a Mediterranean-inspired red and white tablecloth but I felt they really needed to invest in some fly zapper machines because, especially with the stagnant water so close, we were quite bothered by the flies.

I had seen they offered paninis and had decided to indulge myself and have one - that was until I checked with the waiter how they made them and he said they grill the bread but the filling is cold. Is that how a panini is made in Italy? It certainly is not how it's made anywhere in France and that is the panini experience I am still looking for! I ordered a caprese salad instead and whilst it was nicely presented and tasted as it should, there was nothing special about it - I could have made the exact same dish at home myself. At Cucina's the caprese salad is accompanied by an avocado mousse and it is those sort of touches that really make a restaurant meal stand out. Simon had a penne bolognese which he said was very nice but nothing outstanding.

We left with our appetites satisfied but with a feeling of disappointment over the experience. I asked for a comment card when we paid the bill but was told they didn't have any. A restaurant that doesn't actively encourage guest feedback should be concerned - as a side note, I had an email thanking me for my positive article from the Bocadillo manager last week after I had left a comment card with the Bon Appetit! web address, now that is customer service! The staff at Stefano's were friendly but again, there was no 'wow' factor that would make you think that eating at Stefano's was a more enjoyable experience to eating at Cucina.