The main highlight of my birthday treat to myself was a champagne brunch at one of the most luxurious hotel resorts in Dubai. (ok it was Prosecco, I’m not complaining) It turns out that Friday brunch is the thing to in Dubai. If you’re ever there on a Friday, make sure you find one and go.
See, Dubai is a little like the Vegas of the Gulf, and while alcohol is legal there (unlike in Saudi) it can only be publicly served in hotels. So these brunches, with limitless cocktails, wine, beer and bubbly are where people really let their hair down. I’ve heard stories that some of the more casual places devolve into riotous parties by the end of the three hour brunch tour.
In fact, it was the huge array of brunch options that caused me to spend several days researching and weighing my options. In the end I opted for Al Qasr, located in Al Jumeriah. Three restaurants get together to make the brunch menu, and run from 12:30 to 4:00, slightly longer than the average. Since I wanted to have a chance to try everything without exploding, the longer time was important. The chocolate room didn’t hurt their chances either.
I do not regret my choice in any way.
First, as the taxi drove up, we passed by a beautiful lawn covered in more than a dozen larger than life golden Arabian horses (and some reindeer because it’s Christmas). Then as we pulled up to a beautiful building with traditional Arabic designs and more Arabian horses in the fountain. I spent some time wandering around taking photos before heading in, since I was about 15 minutes early.
When I entered the building, I was completely swept away by the beautiful Christmas decorations that greeted me. I can tell you that there is nothing like spending some time in poor, dirty places to make clean, beautiful, wealthy places seem disproportionately more amazing.
For example, my friend and I while travelling around China, staying in hostels and hiking up mountains were exposed to a wide variety of very … rural amenities. When we took ourselves to a night at the Tang Dynasty theater at a beautiful upscale locale, the bathroom nearly brought us to tears simply because it was bright, clean, private and had warm water to wash up in.
So you can imagine, after living in Tabuk for almost 4 months, working at a school where the toilets haven’t flushed for 8 months, completely unable to clean the dust from my feet or abaya, looking at dreary taupe sand colored everything for nearly the whole time how seeing a huge, beautiful hotel would be awe inspiring.
Even more so that I had been deprived of Christmas celebrations ( having only my own homemade paper ones to try to bring in a little cheer) how seeing soaring, sparkling, bedecked trees under twinkling chandeliers brought equally sparkling tears to my eyes.
I took many more pictures of the building and decorations, little brass camels, antique silver samovar sets, Santa’s sleigh and flying reindeer, and many more things. Those along with the pictures I managed to get of all the buffet displays (before the people started chowing down) are all on the facebook page.
As 12:30 arrived, the staff began to let patrons down the sweeping double staircase to be greeted by a table filled with flutes of pink prosecco and friendly servers handing each guest a brimming bubbling glass.
Escorted, glass in hand, to my table on the patio of MJ’s Steakhouse (one of the three restaurants that blend together at Al Qasr to create the ginormous brunch spread), I passed such an amazing display of chocolates and pastries, as well as a a cheese board that made me wistful at first sight.
I took myself and my camera on a quick tour of the three restaurants and their offerings. In addition to the deserts and cheese that I passed, there was a whole seafood area with a sushi station that could have been a buffet all on its own. There was Indian, Chinese, Italian, French, Creole, eggs and waffles, and some things I didn’t even recognize. All of it cooked or prepared right there in the three gourmet restaurants and served fresh.
There were also buffet drinks stations. There was cognac, beer, a station making lynchburg lemonades, one of mojitos, and one full of fresh coconuts waiting to be cut open and have rum poured into them, and probably some I missed. Just like the food stations, one had simply to walk up and ask for a drink, mixed when you asked so those keeping Halal could know they could have a “virgin” cocktail.
I started at the seafood stations (yes plural). Seafood is one of my favorite categories of food, and I’d eat sushi every day if I could afford it. King crab is a delicacy I rarely eat, not merely because of the price but also because I think it’s crazy that people die catching food in the 21st century. But, there are things to be said for exceptions. Also, steamed mussels, raw oysters, boiled prawns, and sashimi salads were all on one seafood table (and on my plate). And from the sushi table, I focused in on the unagi (smoked eel, and my absolute favorite) and sashimi of salmon, tuna and yellowtail. I should also mention that the pickled ginger was top notch.
Oh and that bright pink and green dish in the corner is lebnah (a kind of soft cream cheese/sour cream thing) with a thin slice of beet, a sliver of fig (which goes great with lebnah as I discovered) and the tiniest most adorable (and sweet/tart) cherry tomato I’ve ever seen.
It should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway, all this seafood was fresh, top quality and really delicious. I’ve had mealy shrimp and chewy mussels before when buffets (especially ones that expect you to be drunk) try to cut corners of the pricey food items, and let me tell you that Al Qasr does no such thing.
My second plate was dedicated to the cheese board. I love cheese. I’m always scouring the cheese ends bin at Whole Foods to find tiny tasty tidbits of some old favorite or some new experience. Cheese, as you may know, is expensive. Even my friends who are fully financially secure treat good cheese as a luxury which they buy in tiny slices and serve with matching fruits and wine.
The cheese board at Al Qasr contained no less than a dozen different types of cheese: cow, goat and sheep; soft and hard, creamy and crumbly, sweet and salty. Sadly, in my eager anticipation of the tastes, I did not record the names. Maybe when someone offers to pay me to be a travel writer or restaurant critic these details will become more of a focus.
In addition to the many fine cheeses, between each was a type of jam or chutney meant to compliment the flavor of the cheese. I picked up these as well, particularly being fond of the mixed berry chutney and the bourbon-bacon-onion jam (I’ll be working on a recipe for that as soon as I’m back where bourbon and bacon are legal).
Beside the cheese board was a bread table with an equally large variety of crisp and soft breads, rolls and crackers to accompany the cheese. I chose a simple pretzel roll as a palate cleanser between cheeses.
A nutritionist once told me that cheese activates the same pleasure receptors as opiates. This day I did not doubt it.
My third plate went after the meats. There was a grilling station that had grilled lamb chops and grilled beef tenderloin (among other things). The lamb was… perfect. Because of the huge amount of dishes to try, I was usually taking only one or two small bites of everything (even those things served in small portions), but the lamb! I enjoyed down to the bone.
The tenderloin was also delicious, and I also found some chicken satay (one of my favorite Indian dishes) and a new kind of curry that involved sweet potatoes, coconut milk and chicken that I dearly hope I will ever see in a restaurant again someday. Oh! and some Peiking duck, which itself is a dish that is not often seen let alone prepared well outside of gourmet restaurants in Beijing. A perfectly soft pancake, moist duck and a piquant sauce.
Along side this plate, I opted to try one of the coconut concoctions. I really like coconut water, which, like so many other things is better fresh than processed in a bottle or can from the store. These young coconuts were cut open that afternoon, and just enough of the coconut water was splashed out to make room for the rum. It might be my new favorite cocktail, but I’m willing to bet its not as cool if you’re not sipping it from the coconut.
I didn’t mean to have a fourth plate before moving on to dessert. In fact, given how beautiful the desert displays were, I was making sure to not stuff myself too full on lunch dishes (hence the one or two bites per dish strategy). However, I passed by a fresh pasta station.
Short of going to a gourmet Italian restaurant or making it at home, one’s chances of enjoying really fresh pasta are far and few between. So I couldn’t pass it up. They had pumpkin, mushroom and spinach fillings for ravioli, and several types of sauce including cream, marinara and I believe a bolognese. I personally chose the pumpkin in cream sauce.
If you’ve never had fresh pasta, and I don’t mean the stuff in the refrigerated section at the grocery store, I mean dough that was rolled out and filled a few minutes before it hits the hot water, you need to put this on your food bucket list today. Most of my life I only ever had dried pasta, and its fine. With a good sauce it can even be wonderful, but that’s really the point. Dried pasta is a vehicle for sauce. While fresh pasta is an amazing food that sauce compliments.
And while I was there, I snagged a tiny dish of bite sized pot roast and mashed potatoes.
I wish I could come close to describing all the food that was there. I inspected and passed over a whole station of “traditional” brunch foods like egg dishes, waffles, muffins and croissants. I walked past giant cast iron skillets filled with something that looked like jambalaya. There was a small infinity of South and East Asian dishes I vaguely recognized but don’t know the names of. I’m pretty sure even with four plates, I only tried less than half the dishes on offer.
After about 2 or 2 1/2 hours of lunching (breaks to digest and sip prosecco between plates), I turned my attention to the dessert tables. I think there were probably 6-8 of these. One area focused entirely on chocolate concoctions made with Lindt chocolate. And the other was more fruit oriented with tarts, pies and fresh fruit.
In a best-for-last strategy I decided to start with the fruit station. Beginning with the white and orange dish and moving clockwise: A coconut pudding with mango sauce, the little orange ball is actually a ball of cream dusted orange resting atop a waffle cone cup filled with raspberry compote, the glass dish contains a mint-chocolate mousse with little crispy decorative bits and a fresh raspberry, a strawberry tart with a cream base and fresh berries, a chocolate caramel macron with gold flecks, the most amazing lemon tart (only thing on the plate that got finished), a mini waffle cone with caramel mousse, some kind of fresh fruit – it was the only one on the table I didn’t recognize so needed to try, it was very tart and a little slimy, and finally a mini soda bottle filled with a fresh strawberry syrup.
This plate went quite well with the mojito I picked up, lest I be remiss in failing to avail myself of a mojito station. The fresh mint and lime flavors complimented the fruit desserts perfectly.
The second dessert plate, and final plate of the three and half hour brunch experience was focused entirely on chocolate. I should point out that while the staff did a great job of making sure that the tables were always full, some of the desserts I saw at the beginning did disappear or get replaced by the time I got to the chocolates. So, if I go again, I’ll be sure to snag anything that particularly catches my eye early on.
Starting at the espresso mug at twelve o’clock an going clockwise:
A tiramisu the bottom layer of which may traditionally be lady fingers, but was dark chocolate cake in this case; a truffle cake lolipop, a pot-de-creme of blissfully creamy milk chocolate, a kind of salted caramel chocolate cream pudding thing (turned out to be my favorite, just lightly salted and a gorgeous blend of caramel and chocolate) with crumbled gingerbread on top; a pistachio chocolate truffle (green); a German torte with a nut filled dark chocolate dense bottom layer and a creamy white chocolate top layer; a white chocolate covered date; some white chocolate with candied ginger painted red and gold.
At six o’clock we have the darkest chocolate cake with deep dark ganache frosting; a little piece of gingerbread drizzled with chocolate; tied for second place with the chocolate bottomed tiramisu is the molten chocolate tart (kept under heat lamps at the buffet to stay warm and gooey); a Lindt truffle cupcake; and in the center a masarpone cream delight with chocolate and fresh berries.
Someone brought me a delightful and much appreciated cup of coffee with fresh steamed milk and options of white and brown sugar cubes (and it looked like good turbinado brown, not the silly repainted stuff). And I moved onto the main patio with a view of the Burj Arab and the boats carrying visitors by in the Al Jumeriah canal system.
The staff were relentlessly polite without being in any way overbearing. Finished plates were removed, but only once one had set them aside or made some other clear signal. Glasses were kept filled. After any dish that involved finger food (like my prawns) a small dish of scented water and a hot towel were provided.
At one point an American gentleman who seemed to be management of some kind (dressed in a white suit instead of a uniform and clearly supervising staff) asked me about my experience at the restaurant and we chatted long enough to connect over both having family in Austin.
And although the food and beverage stations closed at 4pm, many patrons had plates of goodies and a remaining cocktail or two on their tables which we all continued to enjoy for at least another hour as the staff cleaned up and continued to ply us with complimentary water, tea and coffee (common in America, but not elsewhere, so it was a pleasant surprise).
In fact, so relaxed and full of champagne and delicious food were we all, that I met a lovely trio of ladies who entertained me for the rest of the day and well into a fun-filled night, but that is another story.