x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A bad restaurant experience can make my blood boil

A recent meal at one of Abu Dhabi's most popular eateries had left me with enormous frustration over the restaurant's role in the community and its effect on the perception of fine dining in this city.

Based on recent experiences, I'd bet that the worst restaurant in the world is rammed on a Friday night. A couple of days ago, I ate a dinner I'd been anticipating for years. I had booked it months before, and the restaurant was so crowded that I had trouble finding my friends through the crowd of disdainful hipsters. We shouted greetings and our voices disappeared into the void behind us, where a table was crammed with barely legal college students celebrating a 21st birthday. The restaurant's reputation for an approach to food that is anything but trendy, novel or affected now precedes it. I regretted the reservation.

But I didn't regret the dinner. We had a great time, although it could have been ruined if we'd let it. None of the food was definitively bad - although to say I could have cooked all of it is not exactly high praise. Of course, a restaurant isn't only judged by its food, but also by its value, service and how solidly it delivers on promises.

The sweetbreads and the cauliflower soup with snails were fine. The skate, the hake, the mussels and the roast lamb were forgettable. The roast bone marrow was as wonderful as roasted marrow can be, though for that I'm less indebted to the kitchen than to the cow that yielded it. The service was a complete disaster: distracted, dismissive and uninformed, the waitress was excruciating to communicate with. I had flashbacks of a similarly disappointing meal at a charcuterie house where our vegan waitress, unable to help us navigate the extensive menu, steered us meekly toward her favourite salad, a pathetic little dish.

Another thing London happens to have, aside from popular substandard restaurants, is a Chinatown. I love walking through Chinatown in any city, stopping for dim sum and staring at the Peking roast ducks that hang in windows. Peking duck is one of my greatest joys, with its sticky, crispy, sweet and salty skin. Traditionally, the duck is carved tableside and served in three courses: first, the skin is sliced thin and served with a dipping sauce, then the meat is sliced and folded by those eating it into steamed pancakes with cucumber, spring onion and hoisin sauce and, finally, the carcass and any remaining meat can be wrapped up to bring home or used to make a broth that can be served at the very end. Whole Peking ducks are an ordinary takeaway item. And they're a real treat.

Throughout yesterday's stroll through Chinatown, I had some surprisingly vitriolic thoughts about another recent dinner, this one at one of Abu Dhabi's most popular restaurants. The meal had left me with enormous frustration over the restaurant's role in the community and its effect on the perception of fine dining in this city. It was also the only restaurant experience I have had in years that left me feeling genuinely angry with no easy way to laugh myself out of it.

The restaurant serves an overpriced Peking duck (Dh1,900 - quite a mark-up on the price for the same dish on the restaurant's American, European and Indian menus). Orders must be placed 24 hours in advance - or so the menu says. I'm cynical. It seems logical to me that a place brazen enough to charge such prices has already considered the benefits of obsequious platitudes, such as how an exception will be made just this once, for you, if you happen to be someone interested in ordering the duck without having considered the 24-hour policy.

To assure that the diner gets full mileage out of feeling either special or stupid for considering the duck, there's an off-the-menu option of the same dish (sans caviar) for half the price - an option that has been well-documented online and circulated by word of mouth, but which the staff still inexplicably insist on treating as a myth, making a great ceremony out of checking with management to ensure that such an adjustment can be made - just for you, of course, because you're so special.

Most amazing to me is the refusal to wrap leftovers to go - an arbitrary policy which appeared, after some prodding, to be more an issue of aesthetics than liability. I resent the idea that any diner at any restaurant requires an unsolicited education in aesthetics. Besides, any restaurant that offers carry-out is treading a fine line with the argument that it simply doesn't have anything in which to package leftovers. Who are you kidding? It's a duck carcass - not a croquembouche. Throw it in some aluminium foil and call it a day, divas.

And then there was the dang million-dollar duck, which was not served in courses, nor carved tableside - and which was sent out already drowned in hoisin sauce, wrapped in the pancakes (making it impossible to correct the seasoning) and topped with a thick slice of kumquat. We were offered 16 little wrapped parcels of duck followed by a plate of soggy skin - and that was it. We ordered the duck in an attempt to satisfy the restaurant's minimum check policy and ended up held hostage by it. We were cheerily told to take all the time with the duck that we needed. I wanted to rip off the tablecloth and walk out with it - and everything on it. Of course, it could be argued that anyone foolish enough to pay that kind of money for duck deserves what he gets. But that's not the issue here. There are many good reasons why a person might want to bring leftovers home - economy is only one of them. Equating extravagance with waste is the tip of the iceberg, and it's a slippery slope the whole way down.

For me, part of being passionate about dining means reacting to the whole spectrum of experiences, from extraordinarily good through extraordinarily bad. There are times when the food and the ambience can make or break a meal. The restaurant and its food are factors, especially if they're the reason you're there to begin with. But I've learnt not to underestimate the power of a sense of humour - except when I do.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico.


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