Al Hambra Al Qasr Madinat Jumeirah Tel: 04 366 8888 Average price for two: Dh770 In the classic British situation comedy series Fawlty Towers, a Spanish waiter by the name of Manuel is depicted as a confused, muddle-headed and largely incompetent simpleton. He is routinely being corrected, reprimanded and even abused by John Cleese's Basil Fawlty character for his catastrophic shenanigans, and rarely does he learn his lesson. Of course, the five-star Al Qasr at Dubai's Madinat complex is a million miles away from the fictitious Torquay hotel. But after our first few moments at Al Hambra, I was concerned that our evening would descend into farce.
Despite arriving on time, as per our reservation, we were apologetically informed that our table was not ready yet. We were ushered to the tapas bar area, where we didn't mind waiting a short while with a couple of fresh and fruity non-alcoholic sangrias. About 10 minutes passed before a charming waitress with a wide, warm smile asked us if we'd like to be shown to our table. We did like, but when we got there only one place had been set. A few confused glances and a flurry of table-laying later, we were seated at last - but our drinks remained up at the bar for a further five minutes. It was little things like this - and the fact that our bread and butter arrived mere seconds before our starters - that made us wonder whether the staff had been to the Manuel Institute of Hapless Hospitality. But a few reassuring words from the manager (who was thankfully nothing like Basil Fawlty) helped to allay our fears before our first few tastes of what Al Hambra does best: the food.
The Special Tapas Al Hambra was as vast as it was varied. The garlic prawns were torrentially juicy, the piquillo peppers were sweet and soft, and the Spanish omelette was a hearty portion of fluffy egg and chunky potatoes. Next to some beautifully tender calamares fritos was a melt-in-the-mouth chicken croquette; and to top it all off was a shot glass of cooling classic gazpacho. If we'd known the tapas selection would be so comprehensive, I'd probably have passed up on the cold garlic soup with crispy Menorquin cheese, which was a little on the bland side.
There was no such insipidity where the galicia paella was concerned. The immense mound of fragrant saffron rice revealed a choice haul of hunky seafood, from fat, moist prawns and large fleshy mussels, to tender squid and soft, meaty lobster. It was as good as any paella we'd had in the UAE, but there was a disappointing absence of any socarrat, the deeply flavoursome caramelised crust that often gets stuck to the bottom of the pan. Although the giant paella was meant for two (which may account for the hefty Dh300 price tag), I ordered the Avila oxtail stew in the name of research and sheer gluttony. Although the manager had warned me that the dish was very glutinous, I found the moist pink meat to be riotously sticky, but just right next to the crisp baby vegetables and fluffy roasted potato with garlic.
A long gap ensued between our mains and our desserts. While I was imagining what ludicrous Manuel-style calamities might be occurring in the kitchen, the live music performed by an accomplished duo muffled the crashing pans and smashing plates in my mind. But soon it was the sound of my dining partner enthusing about the "amazing" chocolate fondant that filled my ears. The crumbly cocoa case was oozing with warm chocolate magma that cooled next to a scoop of invigorating orange ice cream.
While I was consoling myself with second prize, a fairly ordinary Santiago tart with almonds and berries, I decided that despite the occasional lapse in service, the food at Al Hambra would be a credit to any hotel in the world. And especially in Torquay.