All in good taste?
Taste of Dubai is one of a series of festivals franchised in cities around the world. To quote the blurb ‘where the host city’s most acclaimed restaurants and chefs gather in a stunning venue to present their signature dishes to thousands of ‘foodie’ visitors.’ In reality this means the restaurants with enough cash to afford to exhibit usually with a ‘celebrity endorsement’. The almost complete lack of owner-run restaurants and home-grown talent in the fine dining sector means that ‘Taste of Dubai’ could be a slight misnomer. However, it’s a major food-focussed gathering that, in this its fifth year attracted the public in droves to eat, drink and sit around listening to music in a tranquil, green space surrounded by steel and glass buildings. Actually, not that tranquil once the crowds of record numbers streamed in over three days but the sense of enjoyment and relaxation was palpable. The atmosphere was positively chilled – even at temperatures of 29 C.
In addition to the restaurants there are chefs’ demonstrations in two open venues. In the Miele theatre, you can sign up to cook along with on of the many celebrity or local chefs and I was lucky enough to be in a session with my food hero Giorgio Locatelli. After Vineet Bhatia’s demo, the cooking stations were quickly cleared and restocked with equipment and ingredients. A man with a hoover started vacuuming as Giorgio and his team arrived. Giorgio looked with amusement at the cloud of mosquitos hovering under the bright lights directly over his work surface. “Who’s gonna want to cook there?” he asked ruefully, grabbed the hoover attachment and proceeded to decimate the flying insect population.
I had watched Giorgio cook twice before (here and here) and tasted his wonderful food that is memorable for its simplicity and flavour so I was delighted to hear we’d be making risotto alla marinara (seafood risotto). Maybe I’d be able to get a bit closer to making the perfect risotto.
We steamed open some clams in some fish stock, sautéed the soffrito (of onion, celery and carrot), toasted the rice (the tostatura) and then poured in the first ladleful of stock. “You should be able to hear it scream” said Giorgio and came round to check and nodded his approval as the stock hissed upon hitting the hot rice, “Keep it boiling, boiling, boiling.” he advised.
“Whatever you do, don’t add the calamari till the very end, because if you do it’ll end up like rubber”. Hoots of laughter from one team at the back as they had jumped the gun with the calamari. Once we’d plated up the risotto, Giorgio came round to taste each one. I held up the plate keeping everything crossed! “Fantastic!” he exclaimed. We received a certificate at the end but this approval was enough for me. I had a spring in my step all weekend.
The recipe we followed was similar to the one in Giorgio’s book Made in Sicily with a slightly simpler method of preparing the seafood and the addition of cold butter at the end.
I’ll let some pictures do most of the talking for the rest of the festival:
I found Gary Rhodes completely absorbed in reading his own cookery book. He was miles away for about 5 minutes but had the good grace to laugh when I confessed that I’d caught him. He’s ‘hands-on’ and spends a lot of the time in the kitchen while at Taste of Dubai.
I got caught taking pictures of the ingredients prior to Aldo Zilli’s demo and the compère made me come back up to take an aerial view (red-faced). Aldo made a kind of bouillabaise with rouille (fish stew with red pepper sauce) and some prawn and calamari skewers on griddled aubergine. He had a good patter and the aromas were wonderful but it all looked a bit slap-dash to me. Call me biased, but there was none of Giorgio’s finesse. He invited some 5-year-old twins up to answer some questions:,
Aldo : “Who does the cooking in your house?”
Twin: “Our nanny.”
Truly a taste of Dubai!
It took a whole weekend of tasting (me and KP joint effort) for me to find something that knocked the socks off my taste buds:
South Indian style lamb korma with saffron pulao from Indego by Vineet Too bland and creamy for KP’s taste
Lamb, carrot and cracked coriander from Table 9 Nice morsels of fragrant, tender shredded lamb and KP scoffed the lot. As chefs who are based in Dubai and making a brave effort at trying to do something different, it was great to see Scott Price and Nick Alvis present. Scott reminded me to try their cookery school soon.
Churrasco style beef with Peruvian rice and tomato rocoto salsa from Toro Toro Nicely cooked steak but second place to….
Churrasco de chorizo (a marinated, spiral cut with garlic, parsley and olive oil served with a humita) from Gaucho This was freshly cooked on the outside grill. Flecked with green; salty, fresh and garlicky all at the same time. The humita was a mix of smoked corn, some purèed, some whole kernels, all wrapped in a little leaf.
Black Cod Yuzu Miso from Nobu While I loved the contrast in textures and the soft, yielding black cod, the sauce was too overpowering for this tiny piece of fish. For me it was the Japanese equivalent of drowning something in ketchup (sorry if this view is sacrilegious to those that worship at the temple of Nobu). I presume the portion of fish would be larger in the restaurant itself countering the imbalance.
Iced berries from The Ivy These and the next dish were served as free, tasting-spoons (more of this kind of sampling please). I don’t like cold things very much so would never have tried them so was pleasantly surprised by how good these berries in a rich vanilla sauce were.
Bang bang chicken from The Ivy I think this is a strange thing to put on the Ivy menu but it was a pleasant combination of crunchy veg and creamy peanut sauce.
Vanilla panna cotta with pineapple and passionfruit coulis from Rhodes Mezzanine Not quite wobbly enough for my tastes (but that’s splitting hairs), the coulis was deliciously cooling and sharp on a hot day. I know the pineapple was fresh but in the coulis it had a tinned quality about it making the whole thing like a grown-up version of a dessert my Mum would have made for childhood birthday parties. This is a good thing.
Chocolate brownie from Rivington Grill Recreating dishes from the restaurant in temporary kitchens must be a challenge but there is no excuse for how dry and slightly dusty tasting this brownie was. The very small serving of ‘Devonshire clotted cream’ (my tip is to head over the border and get Rodda’s from Cornwall) was not enough to compensate. Regretfully chose this over the moister-sounding banana brownie from Mango Tree.
Fish and chips from Rivington Grill In my defense I held out and this was the last thing I ate on Saturday night. Crisp batter, creamy, flakey cod, homemade tartare sauce and a mushy pea puree – not rocket science but very satisfying. Fresh cod (not possible here) and hand cut chips would be the only improvements.
Ravioli di castagne e patate, tartufo nero pregiato (homemade chestnut and potato ravioli with buttered black truffle) from Ronda Locatelli Again, I left this to the last night feeling I was perhaps a bit biased towards this restaurant and should try something else. This had me trying to scoop up every last drop of the trufflely butter with a plastic fork, if there hadn’t been a crowd I would have licked the plate. Earthy, soft and comforting, it was like eating a gastronomic equivalent of the forest floor.
The Miele Cookery School was a highlight of the event for me. You could watch the chefs in action from the sidelines and all I witnessed were really hands-on, giving as much guidance as they could. It was great to see parents and children cooking together.
I met Sid from Spontaneous Euphoria selling her homemade cookies and biscuits (she’s a cupcake queen) and tasted fabulous ginger and basil-infused cold brew coffee with the Raw team. It was good to see some small and artisan businesses – it would be great to see more next year.
There was a constant queue at Rivington Grill – almost a pastiche of British food (they were serving cockles too)! Ketchup and Sarsons!
From a shaky start five years ago, Taste of Dubai has carved a place for itself in the calendar. It would be great to have some low-key, artisan-led, grass-roots events to counter-balance the five-star mania. Taste of Dubai is just part of the picture of the diverse range of food this city has to offer. It was a breath of fresh air to see some smaller businesses with good products there but it would be great to see a lot more. A warning to restaurants too – we notice those that serve the same menu year after year! So here’s to some surprises in 2013….because, yes, I’ll be back. Do you fancy coming next year?
For a full list of the restaurants visit the Taste of Dubai site.