Eating For Two

I would never have gone to Al Mahara if I had not met Dave.  And so, even though he is at home in California, I spontaneously booked myself alone for lunch since there is no other way to get into the Burj Al Arab to admire at the most luxurious hotel in the world.  And now I will tell him about it.

I took the bus there.  It’s the high art-low art thing.  The world being essentially uniform by now, most tourism of human-inhabited areas is no longer culture tourism but class tourism.  Dave and I tend toward downward class tourism, unlike the British Tourist straw men of the previous entry who go to Málaga to experience what life would be like if they made £15,000 per year more than they actually do, and are frustrated to discover that it’s still frustrating.  For me, however, the highlight of my eclipse day (after the hoopoe) was zigzagging home through a 100% untouristed mud village with the swaggering confidence that a GPS and the waypoint for the waiting tent can inspire.  You can tell class-downward tourists by their always asking how to find the “real” wherever it is we are.  The real Xinjiang: certainly not Grape Valley.  The real Dubai: Deira.  The real Woodside: well I don’t know that there is one.  Our house, I expect.

Upward tourists read the Emirates Duty Free magazine at the very minimum.  That’s where I am blogging from, 34,000 feet over the Arabia-Iraq border which is quite featureless, as it ought to be since the countries, as forward looking democracies allied to the United States, are indistinguishable, like British Columbia and Washington.  But the coordinates posted will be those of the Burj Al Arab.  The lady next to me reading the Duty Free Guide has a Beijing Olympics badge around her neck and is reading a Romanian book. I TOLD you that Dubai is Memphis, and we are all little FedEx packages.  Since she has a badge she might not even be a tourist, she might be some trainer returning home, annoyed that the Chinese gymnasts are even smaller than Nadia Comaneci.

You can take the 8 or 8A bus from the Real Dubai to Burj al Arab for 2 dirham, which is the real 60 cents US.  There is no reason to go by any other means.  A taxi would get there no faster, would cost at least a hundred each way since it’s about 18 km down the beach from the creek; you would have to bother with getting the taxi, you wouldn’t wait in an air conditioned bus shelter which all the bus stands on Jumeira beach are, and when you got there, well, you would still be pulling up in a mere taxi next to the Rolls Royces and Ferraris at the front gate, with the second string sheikhs posing by the cars they’ll never own and taking pictures of their wives with their cell phones.  On the bus, at least you get to see the resort employees before they start smiling.

Tourists can’t just walk into the hotel.  It’s on an island for a start, and before the bridge there’s a “Welcome Center” with a gate.  Beware Welcome Centers.  I’m sure that’s what the CIA labels its secret prison induction areas.  If you approach the gate, a gurkha springs out at you moving FAST and demands your papers.  You cannot go to the hotel without a reservation.

There is nobody in the world who gets in your face like an Indian defending somebody else’s colonial authority, from the humblest postal clerk to the fiercest rent-a-kshatriya.  His most personable act was to give me a brochure describing my options for obtaining a visa to the island.

I hadn’t at that point decided whether to actually go to the restaurant.  I wanted to read the menu first.  But faced with not actually being able to Get The Photo, I retreated to the air con bus shelter on the boulevard, exchanged the Chinese SIM card with the European SIM card, logged in, called the number in the brochure, and obtained an audience for 12:30 when Al Mahara opens for lunch.  This is why the descriptions say “Reservations essential”, not that it’s impossibly popular (though it’s that, too).

Reservation number in hand, I returned to Checkpoint Chakra.  The subaltern’s new demeanor acknowledged that I had purchased three hours of revocable obsequy.

6 men bowed at me as I walked in the door at the Burj Al Arab.  They don’t do anything but just that.  There are other people to handle baggage and limousines and saying welcome.  These are just the bowers.

Why would one go to this restaurant?  It is famous most unconditionally for its in-house aquarium.  A view restaurant, in other words.  Al Mahara was mentioned a while back on the 50 Best Restaurants In the World list sponsored by Pellegrino restaurant-grade bottled water.  They aren’t on the list any more, which may be connected with my receiving Evian when I asked for still water.

If you look up Al Mahara on the Internet, you’ll find a lot of people who are equivocal about it.  I’m another one.  I have a standing question of Rich People, which is, how do you tell if something is worth it, if you have unbounded money?  If Al Mahara is the best restaurant in Dubai, then its costing three times as much as the nearest runner up becomes insignificant as your credit limit tends toward infinity.  But there is a chance that it’s not the best restaurant in Dubai.

It isn’t perfect.  The bread was tough, compared to Flea Street in Menlo Park (where dinner costs a tenth as much.  Well, an eighth.)  Or Urumqi, where a dinner roll from a street vendor costs 14 and a half US pennies and it’s the best thing you ever ate, period.  Al Mahara’s bread was not crusty, it was tough, like it was made more than two hours before lunch opened.  I could really care about this, but, you know, although Olympic judges hopefully don’t take their work home with them to judge their kid’s soccer performance, when they are on they are on, and this is serious so I have to do serious judgmentalism:

Is this a place I would take Dave to?


The reason Dave might not absolutely have to come here is that he can imagine it.  I would insist on returning with him to an unimaginable place, like Pagan, though I hear they’ve wrecked it.  This is the other thing that you must say about any place, after you’re done saying “The weather is never like this,” which is more true now than traditionally and the first one is true also.

You can’t imagine El Bulli.  You can’t imagine the squid at the Basque stand up bar just south of the Arboretum in Seattle.  You can’t imagine my mother’s recipe for breakfast cereal, which is too bad, because she never wrote it down before she died and my father nor I could never get it right.

But you can imagine Al Mahara and by doing so you can save $300 a head.

Imagine the 4th best restaurant on the Peninsula, somewhere between Viognier and 231 Ellsworth, that you enter through the 4th most garish casino in Macau, no witty suggestions, sorry, as we only bothered to peek into one.  Scaled to 400%.  And when you get inside (the submarine seems to have been dispensed with — google various older blogs mentioning the submarine) you are seated directly next to one of the Big Tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  (also gone are the dress code, the no photos rule, and the no kids rule.  Maybe it is just that I was there at lunch instead of spending 2000 dirham on dinner.)

That’s Al Mahara.

The food is very, very, good.  The ambiance is friggin weird.  I love the aquarium.  Every species has the right to observe its kind being eaten.  They are proud of their aquarium.  They give you a souvenir book, to keep, defining the major fishes.  Unlike in China, you aren’t eating what’s on display; although one of the large fishes is a kind of grouper much consumed in the Persian Gulf.  Most are psychedelic reef fish.

Then there is the muzak, well, the heck with that.

Then there are the mirrored ceilings.  They are about 15 feet up I guess and they do let you see what other people are eating which is a big clue in restaurants.  Unfortunately I was the first seating so that did me no good but I was able to spy and see how the sheikh’s wives eat while wearing a chador.

The woman with the newspapers: In Asturias, Dave and I ate at a rural destination restaurant.  If it hadn’t been a destination nobody would have ever found it.  All the food was done up to way beyond the nines, and we had to take photos of all of it, but there was a gent at another table who sat there reading a newspaper and eating one 20 Euro amuse bouche after another with no more attention than if he were eating Kellogg’s corn flakes out of the box at breakfast.

So imagine my surprise when a, I guess in the old days she would have been called a cigarette girl, came through the house offering me a newspaper to read, in case the delicately fashioned culinary creations and the floor to double height ceiling aquarium with full color reef fish and the Russian mobsters, Saudi princes, Japanese tour group (why didn’t Eclipse City go to such restaurants?), and aging money-is-the-consolation-prize Eurotrash were not enough eye candy to go with the flavor delights.

What ever happened to Cigarette girls?  Not only China is largely non smoking, so is Dubai.  It’s nice but what about the hegemony of it all, to say nothing of the population implications?

I should mention the menu.

5 breads including one with salmon enclosed and one which was lavash coated with nori shreds.

Smoked eel and foie gras terrine under a maroon gel, the plate garnished with radishes that had currants heaped upon them; and a streak of jam defining them visually.  At this point I was still adhering to the no photos rule I had read about, so imagine this.  But other people were flashing with their cell phones.  Maybe the rule was made for taking pictures of desert celebrities and their escorts.  Basically even looking at an unrelated woman in the hard core Bedouin culture is the moral equivalent of Gary Glitter’s up-skirt Flickr page in the Enlightened West.

Fresh green pea gazpacho (blanched to bring out the color) with pomelo cells, red pepper bits, and pink rose petals, croutons glued to the side with creme fraiche or cream cheese.  It was exceptionally mild.  Maybe it is some local milk preparation.

Dover sole, a hefty portion broiled under a cheese crust, with sides of mushroom sauce and a kind of duxelles cannolo rolled in a soft crepe.  The fish was perfectly done by restaurant standards but overdone by the standards of sashimi eaters.  At La Ciccia in San Francisco which is a place you MUST GO despite its having no aquarium, we had a discussion about this.  The chef there said he wouldn’t roast the fish so much the next time we came in.

Al Mahara’s cannoli need to be made prettier. Mine looked like the Turkish cigarette-pastry but bigger and softer and when you cut it the filling comes out the end, looking like nothing so much as the output of the gesture a butcher makes when beginning the preparation for use of the intestines of a freshly slaughtered pig, which, even if it weren’t a pig, and this weren’t Islam, still isn’t what you want to think about at dinner.

7 petit fours including one raspberry ball made with champagne which the waiter announced like a wakeup call so that it could be left aside by the most observant, but the champagne left no impression on the taste.  The rest were delicate to indistinct, an opera cake, some caramel flavored things, a truffle glued to a disk of chocolate, another chocolate square under a vacuum formed fruit dust.

Orange juice and two waters.  Billed as three waters.  It’s the desert, water is the luxury item, though, they were less than at the French Laundry, take that, Pellegrino.  I could have ordered wine but didn’t.

I ate everything because one ought to and it was all good and the waiter brought me an additional set of petit fours in case I was hungry but I sent it back.  We were just being polite.  Al Mahara is known for large portions.  The waiter actually suggested I get three courses instead of four.  How many places are classy enough to suggest you purchase less of anything?

Joe Bob says, check it out.