ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Broken Eastern Promise

A few weeks ago I went along to Craft Beer Rising, not expecting there to be anything much for me, and came away rather pleasantly surprised.

It didn't take long, however, to find the place where there was nothing for me, and that place is Dubai.

So, what's my beef with this fantastic international city; this emerging gulf hub; this centre of Arabian Nightlife... and what is the food and drink like?

Well, it's too hot, too sandy, too crowded, too 'international', too expensive, no pubs. It really is quite a shitty place and now that I've been there I can confidently tell the next recruitment consultant who informs me about 'spectacular job opportunity in Dubai' that 'thanks, but no thanks, I'd rather work on the moon.'

Yeah, I've been off traveling the globe again...

Back when I was at school, the 'United Arab Emirates' was one of the most exotic and remote sounding countries on the map.

'Hmm... can't imagine ever going there', I'd think to myself. It was the unknownest of unknown quantities. A place nobody ever talked about which you only ever saw on maps. Up there with Comoros, Vanuatu and the Federated States of Micronesia.

But that was about a quarter of a century ago. Now the UAE, and Dubai in particular, has become a top destination for business, retail and leisure. And it's because it's been completely manufactured from scratch for an international audience, it's one of the blandest places I've ever been with few redeeming features for people like me who don't like sea, sand or sweltering heat even during ostensibly Winter months.

Add to that the fact that I don't care for stupidly expensive 7-star hotels (anything above 2-3 stars depending on which country you're in is imperceptible overkill) or 'international dining' (which I can have any day of the week in London), and there really is 'nothing for me here'.

Fast Lebanese food in the Mall of Dubai
It's like a big American City has been built in the desert, where everything is miles apart and the roads are 12 lanes wide, but without the redeeming features that big American Cities in America have - a ton of great eateries serving big plates of hearty American food at competitive prices and exciting bars and brewpubs with hoppy, quenching  microbrews.

Drinking beer in Dubai essentially involves going into a dark, smoky hotel bar and paying £7 for a Heineken or Stella Artois. Fuck that.

There's loads of fast food of course, another of the bits of America that I don't pick and choose when I pick and choose which bits like (You can do that in the US - it's the American way!). Dubai has all the bad stuff and very little of the good.

They probably have people who say 'I could care less' when they mean 'I couldn't care less' too. Fuckwits.

I thought Las Vegas was fake and manufactured, but compared to Dubai, it's positively bursting with authentic character, not to mention better food and drink and more things to do.

In the absence of good beer...
Incidentally, with little beer around, the best things to drink in this place - though like everything, not particularly cheap - are fresh fruit juices. Strawberry, Pomegranate, Melon, just about anything you can imagine, plus various juice cocktails. The lovely, refreshing Lemon and Mint juice was a favourite of mine. Like a sort of non-alcoholic Mojito.

But clearly some pleasant fruit juice isn't a good enough reason to go half-way around the world!

And I have to admit that I still don't really know what United Arab Emirtean food actually is, or if it even exists? There's precious little evidence of it in Dubai (the closest things being Lebanese and Iranian restaurants) and I wonder if their indigenous culinary culture has been sacrificed on the altar of bland internationalism.

I did get to try a 'traditional Arabic breakfast' in the Lime Tree Cafe near the Jumeirah mosque, consisting of boiled eggs, labneh - balls of solid goats-cheesy yoghurt - and flatbread, with olive oil, chutney and spices for dipping.

The breakfast of Emirs?
As breakfasts go, it's very much a candidate for the 'glad I've tried it but wouldn't necessarily want to eat it ever again' awards.

They also did chocolate mocha cake and brownie cheesecake, which were nicely indulgent but of course about as Arabic as a bacon martini.

Tourist Crap

So, eating and drinking aside, what is there to do in Dubai? The hoards of people coming in must be there for something besides work, right?

There are the usual holiday tourist-trap evenings which consist of riding over sand-dunes in a 4x4 until you feel sick, riding a camel until you feel sicker, then sitting in the sand for a 'desert feast' before watching a belly dancer and a whirling dervish (presumably until the whirling dervish feels sick!)

The food on this one wasn't bad - sickness notwithstanding - consisting of a shawarma-type kebab to start and a mix of shish kebabs and curries for the main course.

And, importantly, the opportunity to smoke some yummy shisha. One must have some vices, and in this part of the world, spending hours filling your lungs with fruity tobacco in a state of languid contemplation would seem to be the answer. It's very easy to get into the habit of having a pipe every night.

Back in the city away from the deep and sinky sand, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world - for now - but it's an 800 metre-high disappointment.

For a start, the observation deck - branded 'At the Top' is actually only just over half the way up and is only, get this, 17 feet higher than the observation deck at the CN Tower in Toronto.

Wow, a whole 17, count 'em, 17 feet. Life-changing.

Maybe it's a bit picky, but I really was expecting it to be way higher than anything I've ever seen, and it is, but only when you look at it from the ground. (Or indeed when you look up from 'At the Top' and realise that there's still building towering higher than the Shard above you.)

What a fucking rip-off.

Oh, and if you're visiting the Burj Khalifa, be sure to allow plenty of time. There's a metro station called 'Dubai Mall / Burj Khalifa', but actually getting to the tower necessitates a walk of about half a mile along airport-style moving walkways to reach the mall, and then at least the same distance again through the mall - the biggest in the world, naturally - to get to the 'At the Top' entrance.

Not really at the top!
It's an irony that the tower could fall over in any direction and the station purportedly serving it would be completely uncrushed.

Given that most people visiting will be tourists and will already have coped with long walkway-walks at the chamber of aviation horrors that is Dubai Airport, the whole experience just seems appallingly designed.

Imagine if 'Leicester Square' station was on the South Bank and we forced tourists to walk over a massive bridge to get where they thought they already were? Of course, we wouldn't do that because even Transport for London aren't that savagely cruel.

Oh, man!

We went on a (long) day-trip out to Musandam in Oman to grab another country, hopefully one a little more capable of keeping it real, but I can honestly say that I've seen very little of Oman, given that the trip consisted of a long drive out of Dubai through fairly boring desert plains, a long wait at the border, and then several hours on a boat.

Yep, a boat, in the sea, with the sun shining, with ample opportunities for soulless identikit tourists from Scandinavia to dive into the water, ride banana boats, swim out to a manky sandy beach and generally act like cunts. With a tour guide who was nothing to do with our small party shouting things in Swedish.

It's the kind of 'excursion' I thought I'd bid goodbye too when I stopped going on package holidays to Spain and Greece. I'm just not into that sort of thing at all, and felt it gave nothing of the flavour of the country. It could've been any boat in any vaguely hot, beachy place anywhere in the world.

Omani boat-food
I sat in the shade in a bad mood, moaning to myself until they served a strange buffet, consisting of some decent barbecued fish, a couple of passable curries, some horrible, oily chips (based on a sample of one chip) and a weird sausage dish that tasted like the sausages out of Heinz beans and sausages.

There was enough fish and curry left for me to have seconds, but the Swedes in their trunks polished off the manky chips at the first pass.

Then the fishing lines came out and the Scandinavian tour guide started dancing. Oh joy...

Take heart

I learned an interesting lesson at the Naranj Iranian restaurant, which does a fine line in shisha and various kebabby plates at a reasonable price for central Dubai.

The kofte-style kebab was alright, but less spiced than you'll typically find in kebab places in Britain, but the really interesting revelation was the skewers of liver and heart.

Shish and Shisha. And kofte.
I often have mixed grill type meals in Lebanese/Turkish restaurants and this usually includes a few bits of liver, which is fine, but I wasn't sure about the heart component.

But, it was a taste I recognised immediately, and after eating a couple of chunks, I worked out that lamb shish kebabs, sold up and down the UK very frequently contain pieces of heart.

It's the only explanation. If you've ever noticed that sometimes in your shish kebab certain bits taste slightly offally and have a different texture... the reason is that this is heart, and it's nothing to be squeamish about at all.

And if I've learned nothing else from my trip to Dubai, this is something worth knowing (and you can probably use it to shock or surprise folks).

Spoiling the Unspoiled

Doha, capital of Qatar, still mercifully retains some of it's character as an Arabic state, though this won't last for long.

They're building a metropolis at an alarming rate and within a decade the place will be just another Dubai.

Shawarma in Doha

For now, a transitional Doha still feels properly Arabic, which is nice. Most of the people wear the traditional dress, there are bustling souks where you can buy spices, silks and caged animals, and the streets are filled with open pavement cafes with everyone smoking - yes, fruity shisha.

There is more Arabic food than in Dubai, and it's cheaper, and it's better. Win-win-win.

The Al Bandar restaurant in the centre of old Doha near the souks served a good, authentic shawarma, let down only by the dark, tarry tamarind sauce which seems peculiar to the region.

Follow one of those with a strawberry or watermelon shisha and maybe, just maybe, you have an inhabitable reality - at least for a short time.

The fruit juice cocktails are a bit more experimental here too? Anyone for a Banana Vimto?

When all else fails, have a smoke
I think it really was just a banana, smushed up and topped up with Vimto!

Being more traditionally Arabic, it's even harder to find alcohol here than in Dubai, but to be honest it's really not worth bothering given that if you did find somewhere to drink it would be no great shakes (sheikhs?) anyway. Better to stick with juice and shisha unless you're an alcoholic!

We only had the one night in Doha, but I liked the place a lot more than Dubai, and I hope that it keeps some of its identity as the area develops, though I fear it might all be swept up in the name of commerce.

I'm in no hurry to return to the Middle East though, and the first thing I wanted to do when we landed back at Heathrow was to find a pub and have some proper beer.

Which, of course, I did! Just a shame there's nowhere I can do to have loads of great beer and smoke shisha all night...

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