The second they clamped a wristband on to my arm, I knew I was in for a theme-park experience. For a flat fee (Dh150), the tautly attached plastic bracelet allowed me access to every attraction on the buffet at Sezzam's weekend brunch, as long as I was prepared to wait in the queue. The open-plan restaurant near the entrance to Mall of the Emirates was so open that anybody might have wandered in from the early-afternoon heat and started tucking into the cold mezzes (hence the wristbands). But would they really have wanted to?
It was a question I asked myself each time I wandered around the sweeping white counters that curved around the place. At each one, an open kitchen appeared to be in the throes of creating something relatively interesting for those dining a la carte in the vast restaurant. While, away from the action, huddling forlornly and occasionally spattered with sauce or a stray vegetable, a few buffet chafers congregated here and there, next to a sign reading: "These items are part of the buffet." In terms of stating the obvious, it was like hanging a "Danger!" sign around the neck of a hungry tiger. But it was also effective in creating some kind of twisted class system, where those who were willing to pay more per dish were rewarded with fresh, attractive and wholesome-looking items delivered to their tables, while the rest of us poor unfortunate proles were made to scrabble about with oversized spoons in a bunch of mucky bain-maries.
Where most brunches have some kind of rhyme and reason to them (appetisers on one side, desserts on the other) this one was like a 15-year-old's poetry - all over the place and rather difficult to fathom (not to mention a bit embarrassing). It was hard to know where to start, or even if it was worth bothering. Sir Rannulph Fiennes might have had his work cut out getting his bearings in here, and it seemed like you'd need to be a distant relative of Christopher Columbus to discover anything of interest once you sussed out where you were. Nevertheless, I did locate some withered-looking maki rolls in the general vicinity of some other vaguely Asian cuisine, so I started my journey there, although I still wish I hadn't.
The rolls looked like they'd been brought to the restaurant the night before in the chef's pocket. So I immediately abandoned them and headed for the sweet-and-sour fish. It was surprisingly perky alongside the vegetable fried rice with peas and egg. But the Chinese-style roasted chicken was far too dry and the noodles with mixed vegetables oily. I was beginning to sense that the buffet was split up into world cuisines, so I moved on to the Arabic mezze selection, which offered passable tabbouleh, fattoush, moutabel and hummous.
Next there was a grouping of European-style dishes, including pasta and tomato sauce, but I went to investigate the lamb chops, which were fatty and strewn with pale green florets of soggy broccoli. Next to them lay a container full of sliced roast beef that had been lumped in with mashed potato and peas, which after 20 minutes of prodding and probing by all and sundry was so churned up it resembled a toddler's dinner. So I decided to wave farewell to Europe and go in search of India. There I eventually found tender but tired-looking chicken tikka, and tandoori fish that tasted like a misty recollection of fish, its flavour having long since departed.
Then came the embarrassing bit. After wandering around the restaurant like a lost Arctic explorer with a plate full of Indian food, I inadvertently found myself heading for the mall's exit. I wandered too far and almost bumped into a shopper who was browsing the small gourmet food store at the far end of the restaurant. She looked at me as one does when they see somebody ambling through a mall with their lunch on a plate, and I did a swift about-turn and trudged back to my seat. I sat down, and as if to reinforce the theme-park feeling, I watched the winter sport enthusiasts in the adjacent Ski Dubai. Right by the window, a red-faced youth was bouncing down a slope in an inflatable ball, like a gerbil in a plastic exercise runner. He looked almost as daft as I did surrounded by plates of half-eaten food. But like all good theme-park experiences, the food had been merely a diversion.
Kempinski Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, 04 341 3600. Weekend brunch costs Dh150 per person.