You'd think that my life is all about Oscar-winning food experiences. You'd think that I have fabled fish curries and epic meatballs* wherever I go. You'd think that the chefs just know when there's a fryingpan in their midst, and pull magic out of their pantries just for me.
AND, You'd be SO wrong.
(*though on the note of meatballs, I've been shown the light by a fellow foodie and will share a post on those mind blowing meatballs soon.)
No. My life is as much as mixed bag of food experiences as yours is. Take the last two weeks for instance. I've had a couple of bleh experiences. Bleh enough where I really didn’t feel like writing about them. So bleh, that I've swept them under the carpet and tried to pretend like they didn't happen. Bleh to the point that when I finally dragged them back out from under the carpet, I figured it would be really depressing to have three consecutive bleh posts…so for the sustained happiness of my readers and myself and The World At Large (that arguably, doesn’t give two lily winks about my blog), I’m just shoving the blehness that went down on my dinner plate all into one mega post.
But to be excited enough to write about them, I needed to find some twist. Some sort of hook to get myself motivated to spew out the bleh. Some sort of color, vibrance…masala…or in the geeky life of an ex-consultant,
...an x-y scatter plot.
Life is less dismal when you can explain away the blehness on two axes.
A multi-dimensional universe of food experiences oversimplified into two dimensions à la consultant.
The Oversimplified Engineerspleasedonttakethistooseriously Graph Explained. I've plotted how the food tasted, dismal to average to outstanding, on the vertical axis. And my expectations of how good the food should have tasted on the horizontal axis, from crappy expectations to no expectations to super high expectations of the food being yeah baby, da bomb.
The 45-degree critical taste-expectation border (God I never thought I'd talk geometry on this blog. www.iliveinaprotractor.com.) running through the centre of the chart is key. If that kabab tasted exactly as you'd have expected, the experience falls bang on the line. If it trumped your expectations, the experience moves up above the line...and if it were a stale piece of rubbery meat that killed your desire for a melty kabab altogether, then it falls tragically below the line, leaving you scarred with the dreaded bleh aftereffect. The food doesn’t necessarily have to taste bad for it to be below the line – it may actually be quite mediocre or even good, but just nowhere close to what you’d dreamt it to be.
The smiley faces at the four corners are my very technical descriptions of how you'd feel at the extremes. Take mom's gravied mushy cauliflower (which I'm dead positive has a more legitimate name than gravied mushy cauliflower) from last Thursday - it hit my hungry soul just the way I knew it would even before I tasted it. (Sadly, mushy cauliflower doesn't look particularly attractive on camera, so I've saved mom’s creation the ignominy of being photographed.)
The sweetspot to be in is when food falls either high up on the line like the Gado Gado I recently had at Sari Nusa, or better still, above the line. The latter is when I put my fork down and get jittery with excitement to write a post, because something I ate surprised me in a positive face-stuffing way. Which is why when Kabalen (up on the top left of the chart) took my preconceptions of Filipino food and spanked them back to a delicious reality, I spent the next two days hatching my Kabalen post.
But getting to the guys who disappointed me. Broke my heart. And shattered it into little shards. That were washed away into a gigantic pool of bleh.
BIN EID TRADITIONAL RESTAURANT
I had SUCH high hopes for Bin Eid, to the point where I dragged a ton of friends along to try the place. I felt it in my bones that it would be good. But I was so, so wrong.
Our mission was to try all the Emirati specialities they had on the menu. I was so excited about it that I even called the restaurant that afternoon to confirm if they had everything in their kitchen [Dubai restaurants are notorious about not stocking the most special dishes on the menu.] Their response to my questions should have been some indication of the quality of the food: do you have machboos?, do you have thareed?, fareed?, harissa?...the response was "no...no...no...no...we can serve macaroni if you want." But I ignored it, and begged them to pull together their best Emirati goods for us by dinnertime.
To their credit, they did prep it all...but it tasted of...nothing in particular. I'm convinced that some cruel conspiring bandit had raided Bin Eid's spice rack the evening we landed up there. The food was utterly bland, flavourless (which is almost the same as bland, but my disappointment stretched into many synonyms, of which I've given you the two most polite ones), and probably not reflective of how flavourful Emirati food can truly be. Yep, dinner had plunged down way below the critical taste-expectations line.
~ Clockwise: Harees, Fish Machboos, Boukharian Rice with Chicken, Mutton Machboos ~
For instance, after many years of eating Indian-style harees, or haleem made by mom's magical hands, this gelatinous expanse of gluey ground meat and wheat left me cold and untouched...and missing mom, who was at home just five kilometres, but I suddenly violently missed her. I'd tell you something about the three types of rice variants hitting the table, but the fact is, I'm having trouble recollecting the tastes in my mouth even after repeatedly tasting them to differentiate them at the table. It was a collossal feast of unspectacular rice with mediocre meat and fibrous chicken and I-dont-remember-you fish.
The Fareed Lamb made an attempt at redeeming the dinner, with tender lamb chops sprawled out on a bed of bread soaked heavy with gravy. I love the texture of melty gravy-soaked bread, I really do. BUT, if not for my vigorous salt-shaking improvisation, this dish would have been quite tasteless too.
~ Fareed Lamb ~
The cabbage and vine-leaf rolled dolmas stuffed with mildly spiced rice went down better with everyone. In comparison to everything else we'd ingested, anything with a remote degree of taste was sure to have a hallelujah, there shall be flavour! reaction, to the point where we ordered a second plate. But would I come back all the way for the dolmas? Hell no.
~ Dolmas ~
...and I don't think I'd come back for the exotic sounding Fuqa either, which were really just stale chewy munchkins with an almost dried up oasis of sugary syrup.
Munchkins Fuqa ~
SARAVANAA BHOJAN SHALA
Saravanaa Bhojan Shala has a name that sounds suspiciously like the famed dosa place, Saravana Bhavan in Karama. I presume this is Marina’s attempt at recreating dosas for those poor souls who’re many traffic jams away from the best dosa houses of old Dubai.
My drug of choice in most dosa places is the very basic, but also very telling, plain paper dosa. The length of the dosa, the crispiness, the thickness, the smooth finish on the dosa curvature, the fermented rice flour and lentil aftertaste – are all exposed in their most basic form. No cheese nor onions nor potatoes nor any other stuffing are lurking about to distract you from the raw quality of the dosa. The key is to have something that is delicate and airy, that will crumble apart within milliseconds of jaw contact.
~ Plain Paper Dosa ~
Saravana almost got it right. Almost. Save for one, fatal mistake. The paper dosa, the light angelic sheet of rice flour that I was supposed to tear off and dunk into my sambar, was…oily. It’s that ick feeling you get when someone spills oil on the papers on your workdesk, leaving them translucent with grease. It was heartbreakingly oily. Stomach-cringingly oily. Oily to the obnoxious point that I just couldn’t look past it. They’d killed that delicate dosa experience for me, dragging it way below the taste-expectation line. And it didn’t improve matters that the sambar and chutneys were mediocre at best, forgettable at worst.
Nice try Marina, but no cigar.
We had advocates of Saravana’s ghee roast masala dosa as well.
~ Ghee Roast Masala Dosa ~
Not my dosa of choice. I’m very much a paper dosa minimalist, stretching up to a greasy rava dosa only once every one or two years. But at least this one tasted like what I expected – full of ghee. I read after-the-fact that it also has cheese infused in the batter, because of course, bastardizing a dosa with blobs of ghee isn't enough in the first place. But nevertheless, the one and only one bite I took of this ghee cheesy dosa did meet my mediocre expectations of what it should have been, halfway up my dotted taste-expectations line. I'll even go so far as to admit it made a few ghee-lovers on the table very happy.
~ Clockwise: Fried Chilli Vegetable, Gobi 65, Paneer 65 ~
I’ll hand it to Saravanaa that two of their deep-fried starters really revved up my tastebuds in a way that I wasn’t quite prepared for – the gobi 65, and the fried chilli vegetable, with once-healthy greens that had been rendered totally devoid of any nutritive value but full of irresistible deep-fried crunch. But back to reality, the paneer 65 was...bleh. When I left, the above-the-line piles of crunch had all but faded from my mind and all that lingered was the dreary disappointment of an oily paper dosa.
The sum total of everything I tasted that evening at Saravana Bhojan Shala equated to:
2 starters x solidly above the line + 1 starter x bleh + 1 ghee roast x mediocre on the line + 1 paper dosa x wha the ...@#@@#@@! =
AL HARA CAFETERIA
After my frantic hunt for the exceedingly intriguing Disco Tea, only to end up with a cup of everyday cardamom milk tea brilliantly branded by some foxy Keralite, many of you suggested that I steer towards Al Hara for a more eventful brew. I hunted down Al Hara (thank you Alex and Sapphire for the straightforward directions through a jungle called Karama) and landed up at a cafeteria that looked like a closet in comparison to the Palace which had served me my first cup of Disco tea.
Once again, Al Hara’s Disco tea did *not* set off teatime fireworks. I gargled the tea about my tongue, swished it from side to side, puckered up my lips and repeatedly smacked them together as though I were sampling an expensive aged wine [actually, being a teetotaler, I have no clue how one tastes wine. But I figure that my swishing and puckering could have provided nothing but joy and amusement to the tea-drinking bachelors seated beside me on the one cramped table that comprised Al Hara’s porch].
No matter how I tasted it, it was just an ordinary, million in a million, cup of tea.
~ Al Hara's Disco Tea ~
...and slightly below the line, since even though my last experience of Disco tea had made me somewhat cynical, I still had this faint glimmering hope of a magic tea potion after hearing rave reviews about Al Hara.
The Disco Sandwich didn’t push my experience back up to the line either, though it did have a creative and not unpleasant cabbage crunch featuring prominently in the center.
~ Al Hara's Disco Sandwich ~
But if you forced me to pick, I’d opt for the Palace’s bun-made version over Hara’s grilled and buttered slices of toast. Here’s the key difference: Palace Cafeteria actually Panini-presses down the entire sandwich, letting the cheese and tomato sauce and omelet all squish together in warm and intimate sandwich glory. On the other hand, Al Hara stacks but doesn’t squish. The omelet, ketchup, cabbage and cheese are all layered up on one grilled slice of toast, and then slammed down with another slice of toast. And that's it, no final hot squish to bring it all together. It’s equivalent to one of those quick air kisses that don’t really create the same connection between two people as an all-out bear hug would. The ingredients just end up playing somewhat solo – you may have one bite that’s more of a cabbagely crunch, followed by another bite with a more prominent tomato ketchup squirt, followed by a loud puff of butter. It didn’t all come together quite the way Palace’s Disco Sandwich had.
I’m overanalyzing, I know I am. But the point is, once again, I quickly inhaled my tea and sandwich in anticipation of a more exciting meal to follow. [PS. For you Disco Chai historians out there, I badgered the gruff and mocking owner to find out when Al Hara opened its doors. He threw the year 1998 at me, which if I were to take his claim seriously, makes Al Hara far younger than the thirty year old Palace Cafeteria. In the battle of Disco Chai authenticity, the Palace came first and Al Hara…hit the dance floor way later.]
And there you have it. From plate to graph. An x-y graph that was the geeky source of inspiration. That prompted me to say in a trillion words what could have been said in a hundred. That gave my disconnected experiences some semblance of a totally false and contrived link. That gave me a reassuringly technical way to explain away the bleh.
That brought out the true consultant in me.
Bin Eid Traditional Restaurant
Phone : +971 (4) 267 2828
Al Khaleej Road
[Directions from Shk Zayed: After Maktoum bridge, take the second underpass from your left (going towards Abu Hail). After the underpass, drive straight down the road (you will see Middle East Stationary on your right), crossing all traffic lights until you reach the Deira Corniche (same road as Hyatt Regency). At this point, you can either take a left or right – take a right and drive down the road, you should see the restaurant on your right less than 1km later.]
Saravanaa Bhojan Shala
Phone : +971 (4) 451 2525
Marina Pearl Building, Behind RAK.
[Drive past Marina Mall, past the metro stop and Al Maya Lals. Turn right before the RAK building, and then take another right. The restaurant will be on your right.]
2nd location at Discovery Gardens [+971 (4) 425 5700]
Al Hara Cafeteria
[Take a right after the Pizza Hut opposite Bur Juman, the next left, and another right. Al Hara will be on your right at the corner, right across from the parking lot]