x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Don't date in the dark

This Valentine's Day, know your costs before requesting the bill.

Romance need not be an expensive endeavour: visitors view the art on exhibit at the Emirates Palace, an ideal place for a date.
Romance need not be an expensive endeavour: visitors view the art on exhibit at the Emirates Palace, an ideal place for a date.

While I know little about the finer things in life, I do understand the importance of faking it. In anticipation of Valentine's Day, I took two people out on budget-conscious dates: one to the splendour and riches of the Emirates Palace, and the other to a tiny, cheap and delicious Thai restaurant called Asian Garden. I saw how each place added up, both in terms of cost and impressiveness. And I learnt that the trick to impressing someone at either locale was to know what you're talking about, or at least to convincingly act as if you do.

The Emirates Palace, the most opulent place in town, and host to a variety of accessible cultural events, is an evening in itself. Being a traditionalist, I met my first date at the door, wearing my favourite dress and carrying only Dh250 in cash. We were set for a night at the palace. If things went awry - say my date wanted the lobster or even a second bottle of water - I'd be washing gold-plated dishes. I had flashes of how the night would end: either holding hands on a romantic stroll past the fountains or that special moment when you gaze into your date's adoring eyes, smile gently and say: "I'm a little short, could you give me Dh50?"

The plan was to visit the free art exhibit on display in Gallery One, "Emirati Expressions", wander around the surrounding hallways making small talk over the ancient artefacts for sale, and slowly make our way down to the first floor for a romantic dinner at Diwan L'Auberge, the Lebanese restaurant. For those who visited the Picasso exhibit last year, Gallery One had been redone for the present exhibit. The rooms have been knocked down to build a long, solitary, black passage with mirrors at the far end. With a vastly different atmosphere, the space suited the contemporary art, and it was as much a part of dinner conversation as the works themselves.

The evening's tone had been set. Part of having a strict budget is knowing your restaurant. Although I had never eaten at Diwan L'Auberge, it had more mezze than mains, and I knew its atmosphere was romantic and private. Cutting back on expenses years ago, I threw out the starter, soup, entree, dessert model. It's outdated. Inventive appetisers are far more interesting than the typical mixed grill. I hoped my date would tire before reaching the costly entrees at the back of the menu.

I was right. In the end my date suggested we order a few and share everything. With appetiser prices averaging Dh30-60, the tab added up. We ordered four mezzahs and a bottle of water. The food was delicate and diverse, and the portions sizeable, but it totalled something near Dh220, and I broke into a bit of a nervous sweat when the waiter brandished a dessert menu. My date declined and suggested we head upstairs to the cafe and split a slice of cake. Who would've foreseen a simple piece of confectionery would be the death of a blossoming relationship?

As I was brainstorming ways to dissuade my date having cake and eating it too, without having to hint that perhaps they didn't need the extra calories, the staff of Diwan L'Auberge set down a complimentary fruit plate. It was an act of providence that allowed me to exit the Emirates Palace with my dignity and cab fare in hand. The next night, I attempted to woo yet another unsuspecting suitor, this time taking them to the bustling block behind El Dorado Cinema on Elektra, full of Thai and Indian restaurants and Chinese grocers.

Date two fit all the same criteria: a restaurant with delicious food, an interesting locale and the optional cultural add-on of a Bollywood film afterwards. I applied all the same rules as the night before. We strolled through the neighbourhood, shared dishes, and I made recommendations from the menu, steering away from the whole grilled duck in favour of many small dishes. The place, Asian Garden, was bright, cosy, played Thai karaoke hits and was packed with Asian expats. While less inherently romantic, the quality of the food and the humble authenticity of the restaurant impressed my date and I felt something of a relief at being able to splurge out and suggest we each order our own salads.

While both were lovely evenings, I imagine the solution to cheap dates lies somewhere between the two. I would prefer to dine at the out-of-the-way restaurants and finish the night off with a stroll down the Corniche and through the palace. If that doesn't pan out, I suppose I can start asking my dates to split the check, or just cook dinner. And they say romance is dead. mdetrie@thenational.ae