La Carnita, Señorita?

Incredible but true, following Weslodge (saloon), Morah aka Byblos, Ting Irie (curated by Toronto’s beloved chef Craig Wong) and Sweet Salvation aka Sweet Jesus (cult Canadian soft ice-cream), another fantastic restaurant has exported from The Six aka Toronto. La Carnita.IMG_7070.JPGStarted as a pop up taqueria (taco stand) in July 2011, it soon expanded into four permanent locations in Toronto and beyond, opening its doors last year in the Gulf’s fanciest city, Dubai. Home to everything street style: cuisine, art, design, beat, beverages, vibe and interiors, which could easily pass for a road corner, La Carnita on the lower level of Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai Marina, fills you with highly positive energy right from the entrance.IMG_7071.JPGPassed giant wooden doors, a big bright screen briefs you on what’s on tonight:

“… When the working day is done,

Girls, they wanna have fun…” A quote from from Cyndi Lauper’s signle back from the 80’s, a perfect intro to Dubai’s beloved and one of a kind “Ladies Nights” with free often unlimited drinks, set menu or nicely discounted dishes, entertainment and dynamic music. La Carnita offered a free flowing high beat by resident DJ Travis accompanied by Margaritas and Sangrias from 8pm to midnight for us, the girlz every Monday night. That’s when I stopped by.

The place visualizes a concept of “you could be anywhere in the world” with its awesome cosmopolitan crew, eye catching design with a few shady elements (cage bars, exposed brick and bulbs), delightful mix of accents, easy going bartenders ready to mix a dream in a glass and to party and the best Mexican street food in town. A tribute to Toronto’s origin, La Carnita serves a Bloody Caesar, hard to find in the Middle East, and first mixed in Canada in 1969 with clam juice as a key ingredient. I love my Caesar crazily spicy with a pickle on a side but don’t you worry La Carnita’s mix is a more traditional beverage paired with a celery stick (AED 50).IMG_7075.JPGFollowing recommendations from Michael, who looked after our table, we opted to start with the “off menu” special beetroot salad with the loveliest and the lightest avocado mousse imaginable. As this place is often referred as “taqueria”, I had to try their house made super crunchy tortilla chips with all kind of dips: guacamole, corn salsa (OMG) and bean cueso (AED 55). Scorpion chicken wings was the last appetizer ordered (AED 58) and they didn’t last long.

From the tacos selection we picked three different single tacos with the intention to split them in half: a very tender short rib (AED 32), exotic tuna ceviche (AED 40) and an absolutely brilliant polo frito with a fried chicken and peanut butter hot sauce (AED 28).

Our main course was inspired by the region’s love for lamb chops. They were served glazed in pomegranate sauce, generously sprinkled with sesame and accompanied with charred lemon (AED 165). Needless to say, they were devoured within minutes. As for dessert, I was impressed by chef Lara Said’s twist on traditional churros, which she turned chocolate with coating them with Oreo cookies crust and intense liquid chocolate (AED 35). Another must try is smooth peanut butter paletas (AED 28).

P.S. Not so many know, but right next to the entrance to La Carnitas there is a secret door leading to a secret bar. If you are looking for an exciting unimaginable adventure – contact Cartel and ask for a code word. There is no other way to get in. I’ve been, I’ve seen and I’m speechless.

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Welcome to the Hotel Cartagena, Darlings ;)

“On a bright desert highway; cool wind in my hair

Zesty smell of mojitos, rising up through the air”…

PB091182.JPGWell, it’s Friday again. Lounging comfortably on the back seat of an Uber, I recklessly hummed along one of the Eagle’s most played song, changing lyrics as it pleased me. I scrolled down my IG feed, stuffing myself with mouth-watering food photography, a habit I developed living in the Middle East. I learned to trust visuals more than reviews, feeling strongly against sloppy looking dishes. Ugly food rarely tastes good, at least here.

The traffic on Sheikh Zayed road made me smile. There were barely any cars and a trip from Dubai Marina to Business Bay took less than 20 minutes. When I finally arrived at JW Marriot Marquis (a typical Dubai high-rise, hard to identify from the distance unless you’ve been in a few times) a smile still froze on my lips in expectation of a great afternoon. I had a table waiting for me at Hotel Cartagena, a Colombian themed restaurant that once delighted me with miniature crunchy and creamy mushroom pies called empanadas. Since then I craved for more.

IMG_1425.JPGI crossed the lobby looking for a ride to the 70thfloor. The elevator featured a clear glass window which kept me glued to the views of the man made islands and the sea. When the doors opened from bright daylight into darkness, I saw her, well them, two gorgeous brunettes dressed for Carnival.

“… There she stood in the doorway; I heard the mission bell…
…Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say…”

PB090871.JPG“Soft drinks or cocktails?” said a voice from above my shoulder. Alrighty, that wasn’t the right line but I swear everything else just screamed “such a lovely place”. I smiled: “Obviously! But first things first…” While Vladimir, the guard of the entrance looked for the right wristband I snuggled between two beauties, taking another epic photograph living up to my reputation 🙂

PB090904.JPGHotel Cartagena greeted me with the charm and cheekiness of a confident host. “This is your table darling, enjoy,” the dazzling smile slowly walked away and my server Vazgen walked in with a basket of rainbow crisps, emerald guacamole and black hummus made of beans and a giant menu. “I’ll be looking after you, welcome to Hotel Cartagena!” I dipped the crisps into the guacamole, generously scooping as much as possible and looked around. This eclectic, extravagant and very visual venue seemed to hold back a few secrets.

PB091172.JPGFirst of all, it was owned by Mysterious Madame B.  Everyone’s heard of hear but no one’s met her. Well, no one except for a rather large number of parrots popping their heads here and there and studying me with their piercing sarcastic eyes. In the middle of the room soaking in early afternoon sun, was a round staircase to the lower non-smoking level. It seemed that lush greenery grew directly from the ceiling cascading in waves above the steps. Right behind my table was a panoramic view partly on Business Bay, Al Khail road, neat looking massive stables and a new residential development partly completed.

PB091189.JPGWhen I turned around there was no empty space left on my table full of starters, empanadas, corn chicharones, tapas, salmon ceviche and spicy tuna served with dark green lettuce wraps. Everything looked so fresh and inviting that I couldn’t resist digging in immediately! At the same time, Zuka, the bartender, mixed my cocktails at the long exotic bar where people gathered in small circles.  To keep us warm and cheery a DJ was engaged and two gorgeous Carnival dancers stormed the scene from time to a time.

PB091119.JPGMy mains were as excellent as the starters but a lot more protein and carb oriented. Rum marinated chicken, smoky lamb chops, giant prawns and sides were all eaten within minutes. My brunch experience was complete with a cup of strong black coffee and sweet dreams in a form of desserts.

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My Top 10 licensed restaurants (part 2, 2018)

Read Part 1 here..

  1. Weslodge. Weslodge surprises with a minimalistic yet extravagant approach to design that whispers elegance and luxury. The sign on the door says “saloon” but it’s the only clear indication to categorize Weslodge this way. The polished look is accented by a museum-like art collection arranged with a personable touch to create the illusion of home. The importance of detail is evident in the shining crystal glasses, exhibition of occasional eccentrics (skull wall decor, central spider chandeliers and a giant orchid on a red velour sofa). In the past year Weslodge diversified their otherwise steak-oriented menu by introducing dishes unavailable anywhere else in Dubai (try Hamachi). If not for dinner, stop by for arguably the best cocktails in Dubai created by award winning resident mixologist Emilio (try peanut butter infused whisky). Ask for Riona to help you with the menu. She is a true expert and a fun soul.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  1. Hoi An. The Dubai interpretation of Hoi An is very visual with colourful lanterns, framed snapshots of Vietnam, wooden banisters, domesticated palm trees and statues of Buddha. Vibrant lights reflected in panoramic windows add a rather exotic feel to the place. The food is authentic and spiced on demand. Hoi An serves the best pho soup in town and I keep on coming back for a steaming bowl of delicious broth with herbs and chillies on a side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  1. Thiptara is the best Thai restaurant in Dubai with the magical views on Dubai Fountains, Dubai Opera and the tallest tower. Like Asado it’s located at the Palace Downtown where luxury exceeds any expectation but stays within the expected price range for Dubai. Chef Nguyen Thanh performs miracles in the kitchen every night managing her team and a very intense wok station. Pair her papaya salad, green chicken curry and everything cooked in a wok with Sauvignon Black or very dry Riesling and you’ll thank me later.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  1. Waka. Waka has the personality of the amazing chefs who own and run it. Sometimes you can spot them at the bar chatting and mixing Piske Sours, plating a special treat for a guest or showing the Latin moves to the amazed public. The Peruvian theme is noticable all over the place, the food is just incredible and the very relaxed party yet private atmosphere will keep you engaged through the dinner.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  1. Pierre’s Bistro is a new fine dining restaurant with a lovely easy going atmosphere and magical French contemporarily cuisine designed by Chef Pierre Gagner himself. A wonderful mix of bright and soft interior colours sets an appropriate mood for various areas: exotic lush green lounge with DJ booth, energetic bar sparkling with reflections, spotless chrome kitchen with one transparent wall shared with a hall, lovely terrace and less dramatic but still eccentric salon with macaroon like chairs, cheeky paintings and soft light. Despite the appearance the place is not pretentious in any way and neither is the food. It’s light, innovative and delicious in every bite. The dinner usually starts with a freshly baked baguette and French butter. I love to end my experience with the best apple tart I had in my life (ever!). It’s a must try.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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MY TOP 10 LICENSED RESTAURANTS (PART 1, 2018)

The year 2018 was quite challenging for the Dubai food and beverage market. The reasons seem to be obvious considering tough competition, nonstop openings of mega exciting projects, recession, expats outflow, etc. however the struggle is real. The best we could do to support a very unique dining-out culture in the Emirate is letting someone awesome serve us love and happiness in the form of cuisine. Here is a list of the licensed restaurants I love with my full heart and beyond.

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  1. The first is Ting Irie, a vibrant Jamaican restaurant with a personality so many call their go to when blue (including me). A true survivor, Ting Irie has seen its worst and its best since the opening but the amazing team is pushing through harder than ever. The creator of Ting incidentally initiated a Jamaican food craze in Dubai, when jerk chicken all of the sudden turned into a trend appearing on otherwise very settled in terms of spices and flavours menus. The Caribbean cuisine became so hot and sought after because of Ting Irie’s eccentric buzz. Come in for a plate of jerk hummus, chips o’mon burger or some seriously spicy chicken wings (you may need to convince your server you can handle the heat). Did I mention their rum infused cocktails would make you feel like you’re in paradise (here is my review).

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  1. Next is Asado, an Argentinian grill restaurant at the Palace Downtown with strong South American influence. My obsession with Asado started when I met Chef Josefinna, who is a young passionate perfectionist with a warm emotional side shown in her recipes. Chef Josefinna delivers dishes with a selected number of ingredients contributing to a rich taste you will crave after the visit. I certainly do! Asado is one of the most romantic restaurants in Dubai, featuring warm chalet-like interiors and an outdoor terrace with breath taking views of Dubai fountains and the tallest tower (here is my review)

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  1. Ninive is hiding away on a secluded terrace of Emirates Towers drawing allusions to the mysterious hanging gardens of Mesopotamia. Decorated in the best traditions of One Thousand and One Nights, where gold is everybody’s favourite colour, Ninive communicates Arabian luxury and the guest’s comfort as a priority. The menu is created with a deep understanding of the present desire for an unforgettable experience, exclusive food magic at the table and pomegranate seeds. There is no strict definition of Ninive’s cuisine type. It’s noticeably influenced by the Middle East, Persia, South Asia and nearby states, however things aren’t easy. I appreciated their intentional shift from serving a boring spread of stereotypical dishes towards crafting trendy Arabic cuisine to impress and startle (here is my review)

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  1. Vanitas is a beautiful Italian restaurant at Palazzo Versace. At Vanitas the haute couture design is combined with the tastiest ingredients, timeless Italian delicacies and naughty shots of crispy cold limoncello made in-house. Every Tuesday the restaurant turns into Serata di Sapori, a themed night featuring the Italian way of living: great food, great music, great wine and great ambience. I love sipping the night away on their open terrace facing the Creek to the lyrics of “Besame Mucho” by Andrea Bocelli.

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  1. Blacksmith is a true hidden gem of a restaurant I keep on coming back to. Located in the deepest corner of Dubai Marina, originally it intended to be a neighbourhood joint, a get together American smoke house, but the reputation of Blacksmith’s addictive smoky chicken wings spread way beyond. Apart from the wings (sooo good), their short rib is another highlight-delight. Served on a large plate with crunchy coleslaw and rich in texture cooked black beans, this dish is enough for three or four (I usually take away left overs for a heavenly sandwich the next day). The selection of music is focused around American rock’n’roll, soul and country, which is an ideal combination with food and beverages at Blacksmith (here is my review).

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Weslodge Dubai, behind the famous yellow doors

Born in Toronto in the summer of 2012, a tavern with an impressive, old fashion bar and a concept of elevated casual cuisine featuring responsibly sourced meat, it was only a matter of time before Weslodge went international. Two years ago the model moved across the ocean, landing on the 68thfloor of one of the tallest hotels in the world. As it often happens, apart from the name, values and careful approach to sourcing people and ingredients, Weslodge in Dubai seems to surpass its predecessor, opening its door to savvy crowds with great effect.IMG_6479.JPGLet’s be frank. This place is fancy. Fancier than most restaurants in DIFC (a financial district known for high-end establishments), Weslodge surprises with a minimalistic yet extravagant approach to design that whispers elegance and luxury. The sign on the door says “saloon” but it’s the only clear indication to categorize Weslodge this way. My first impression of royal hunting cabin quickly disappeared after a closer look at the soft sofas neatly arranged for the comfort of guests.PB242258.JPGWarm spotlight works perfectly with rather classy walls presenting a combination of two solid paints: beige and dark green. The polished look is accented by a museum-like art collection arranged with a personable touch to create the illusion of home. The importance of detail is evident in the shining crystal glasses, exhibition of occasional eccentrics (skull wall decor, central spider chandeliers and a giant orchid on a red velour sofa).IMG_6478.JPGWhat you see from the entrance is a long wooden bar with a reflective surface and many tempting tall bar stools. The simple décor is augmented with liqueurs, spirits and incredible bartender, Emilio. Emilio is not so simple either. With a proven record of success in mixology, an award wining cocktail menu and expressive jewellery, he is a real character and an attention magnet. Guests seat at the bar just for a chance to interact. Attracted to charismatic personalities, I couldn’t pass by without a chat and needless to say, I ended up with a cocktail in each hand and a secret recipe for homemade jalapeno jam.PB242247.JPGMoving from the bar into the dimmed dining zone, I was stunned by the view. The whole of downtown Dubai was right in front of me sparkling in night beauty. The full moon rose over Burj Khalifa, softly reflecting in its mirrored panels. The traffic looked rather fun and easy going, pouring slowly from one street to another and changing colours from white to red as it turned. I was able to see all the way to the horizon and a bit beyond into the darkness of the never-ending sky. It was difficult to overt my gaze from this majestic scene. It was finally Riona who got my attention.

PB242307.JPGBorn and raised in South Africa, Riona moved to Dubai a few years ago and is a Weslodge veteran. Apart from detailed knowledge of the dishes, Riona is a confident public speaker and keeps an eagle eye on her guests, ready to cheer with a joke or help with a recommendation. I was lucky to get both. While we studied the sharing menu, Riona suggested the following must-tries: Mediterranean sea bass ceviche with pickled watermelon, deep fried calamari with slices of crispy lemon and spicy chilly, roasted cauliflower with curry leaves resting on a bed of almond paste, and obviously the steak.

The food created by head chef Abdi was absolutely exceptional and was accented by fresh and often surprising ingredients. The watermelon in the ceviche was a simple touch that turned the originally Peruvian dish into an unknown delicious mystery. Sliced and deep fried lemon in the calamari made me wonder why it wasn’t an independent plate on its own. The steak, served with zesty green salsa and truffle butter, was all crunchy top and juicy middle. I was so blown away by the taste and the presentation that I insisted on meeting the chef. Luckily he made one of his usual rounds and I barely stopped myself from hugging him.PB242415.JPGMy evening ended up with Death by Chocolate (dessert), paired with a very unique cocktail based on peanut butter infused whiskey. I left full, happy and unsurprisingly craving more.PB242435.JPG

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A perfect catch

They say life is like a sea of fish, you never know what your going to catch. Well, whenever needed certainty I go to the The Fish House at Dubai Festival City’s Intercontinental Hotel.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis cosy restaurant with charming pastel coloured furniture, copper lamps, a school of metallic fishies on the wall, themed décor with an Emirati touch, partly open kitchen with giant counters filled with the catch of the day and a colourful bar in the corner, is a bit idyllic. I loved it!
P4180136.JPGOn arrival the coolest looking crew with top model hair greeted me with dazzling smiles. I smiled in return, boosting my karma with a year’s worth of positivity and followed my host to my table (I always reserve a table even during the week to assure I get the best one in the house). First thing I noticed was the display of today’s catch arranged nicely on giant ice cubes, resembling one at the market (but not fishy). Nothing revealed its speciality except a few ornaments. I loved that!
P4180378.JPGA weather glitch for the last couple of days delayed the arrival of humid nights and I was so pleased to stretch the springtime by sitting on a beautiful terrace outside. A cool breeze gently rushed out every time sliding doors opened or closed adding an extra pleasant feeling to the experience, and when I thought it was time to order a show had started. The show was a mix of visual and vocal extravaganza, which created the atmosphere of a Wonderland on the waterfront.  It was also a perfect background for all related Instagram photography and stories. I loved that! P4180199.JPGAfter a quick consultation with Daria, who immediately impressed me with soft communication skills but very sharp service, I knew what I wanted. “Grilled octopus, shrimp cocktail, sea bass cooked in a coat of salt and arguably a dessert,” I announced my selection in less than 30 seconds and slouched in the chair in anticipation of a deliciously relaxing evening. A few minutes later when starters arrived following a complimentary dish of incredible fried sardines, I loved what I saw!P4180221.JPGThe sardines were rich and crunchy. A very generous serving of a grilled smoky octopus paired with delicately sweet pumpkin puree could easily pass for a main course, as could the shrimp cocktail. Shrimps ranging from tiny to giant were served soaked in a horseradish sauce and sprinkled with crunchy bits and a few extras on the side.

Done with appetisers, I anxiously awaited my sea bass. Daria rolled it in on a big open cart and the next couple of minutes were well spent watching my fish being striped off its coat and bones. What a great delicacy it was; tender and fragrant. Feeling pleasantly full, I still craved something sweet and what followed had greatly surprised my taste buds and me. Intrigued? Ask Daria 🙂P4180399.JPG

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The Artisan

The random question: “What is your favourite cuisine?” often lands with the most probable answer: “It’s Italian.” A table booked at an Italian restaurant is considered a safe choice, particularly when talking business or meeting people with unknown preferences. Another reason to love cucina Italiana is the variety of amazing desserts paired with intensively fragrant espresso offered at the end of the evening.

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The stereotype of mainstream Italian cuisine being pizzas and pastas in the mind of occasional restaurantgoers is being challenged by Michelin star chefs and savvy foodies who travel the world in a search for exclusivity. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered a fantastic place with authentic and experimental dishes right downtown.

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The Artisan restaurant isn’t easy to find. Hidden away from the beaten track of the DIFC fancy dining, experience it’s located in Daman Tower, ten minutes walk from the stock exchange or a few minutes drive from Dubai Mall. If not for my friend’s recommendation, I would never ever find my way to this place. First pleasant surprise was free valet or self-parking with plenty of spots available.

P3250007.JPG A lift took me to the next level above retail, then a short walk through the door to the open space and there I was. The entrances, surrounded by a lush garden, lead into an open dining area accented with art and vintage looking mirrors. Dimmed lights contributed to a rather intimate atmosphere supported by home-like white tablecloths and wooden feel to the whole design. The greeting on arrival was short but very warm resulting in me being escorted to my table in a matter of seconds. Once seated, a very knowledgeable Evgeni was ready to guide me through the menu and suggest a suitable aperitivo.

“You must try a few of our appetisers and mains inspired by the sun of Tuscany and Florentine living,” he declared with a charming smile. “Our Milan-born chef Luca has spent so much time in Florence that he calls it home.” Evgeni’s voice sounded so convincing and reassuring that we moved away from the initial selection towards the dishes he recommended. “Please do order the main even if you are for the first time here and intend to share,” he added. “Our chef will blow you away.” I nodded in acceptance. P3250041.JPGI think we were lucky. Going out on Sunday nights delivers an unexpected advantage. Being a quiet night for hoteliers and restaurateurs in the Middle East we benefited from extra attention given by the team. Our bartender at the Artisan while chatting to me poured a huge serving of Stolichnaya into my mocktail without realizing it. Needless to say I was very very happy. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat followed was the real food magic. Chef Luca locked away in the kitchen (I didn’t get a chance for a quick chat) served one amazing dish after another. My feast started by crunchy thin toasts of artisanal house baked bread and smoothest pate. Tuna tartar based on rapidly seared an exceptional cut of this tricky fish accompanied by funnel puree and a few secret ingredients was definitely my favourite. Shrimp tartar served with the sweetest creamy burrata and, surprise, deep fried fresh capers, was a combination I never tasted before. I’m not going to describe any of the mains, as you need to book a table and experience this place yourself. My words won’t do justice to chef Luca’s passionate creations.

Check The Artisan menus here. 

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Milano in the heart of Dubai, Cova

Last month the largest shopping mall in the world got a little bigger, introducing a beautifully designed addition of retail, walking areas, lounges, glass roof with the famous Burj Khalifa peeping through, well-fitted curiosity objects and restaurants facing the Dubai fountain (another must-see). During my recent stroll between shops I discovered the gem of the hidden gems, Cova.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA landmark on its own, Cova first appeared in Milan at the beginning of 19thcentury; soon transforming into a place to see and be seen. With irresistible aromas of freshly baked pastry mixed with intense espresso, Cova immediately won hearts and minds. While many went in in expectation of exceptional delicacies, others fell in love with Cova’s elegant design accented by a bit of a sparkle from their crystal chandeliers and decorative glass. Forced to relocate following the WWII, Cova sustained the ambiance of aristocratic luxury and delicious recipes being once again the destination for a stylish dining experience. No wonder Downtown Fashion Avenue in the trendiest shopping district was selected for Dubai’s flagship.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADesigned to resemble the original location, with prevalent classic oak furniture adorned with branded dark blue and gold, Cova Dubai is so Milanese. As I walked through the restaurant (my tongue refuses to call Cova a café), a feeling of glorious heritage kicked in, adding a rare emotion: “Look, this place has a past” as opposed to the usual “shine bright like a diamond” local interiors.

While I debated with the rising sun if the weather would permit us to sit outdoors, my waiter gently placed a well-printed menu of the closest to the window table and gently pushed a chair out for me. If only all decisions were that easy!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe lunch rush was ending and I witnessed a transformation from super buzzy to stylishly reserved. Only a few were leaving empty handed, many opted to carry a little box of Cova’s chocolates or delicate looking cakes. I turned my head to the menu hoping for a serving of creamy burrata. My habit of reviewing online menus prior to a visit always pays off.

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Once settled in a very comfortable chair, probably one of the best restaurant chairs in Dubai, I suddenly felt very hungry; a result of watching the tables around me. A few sips of sparkling water helped and I occupied my mind with the upcoming order. The burrata was accompanied by beautifully sliced veggies and left me happy. It was sweet, creamy and as delicious as I imagined it to be. My penne in pink sauce, sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan was excellent in its simplicity. The veal Milanese, coated in crunchy bits, was very tender and accompanied by a side dish of finely chopped ratatouille a la Provençale.

What followed was a trip to the terrace and a cup of coffee in a special Cova cup paired with the best tiramisu in the city. Come and try for yourself!

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Ramusake obsession

I still remember the moment when sushi rolls turned into an obsession, taking over the world, soul by soul, appearing on everyone’s menu including places one would never imagine serving raw fish. Bakeries, bars, supermarkets and food trucks decided to dedicate their specials to green wasabi paste and weird tiny bites which in fairness combined a balanced dietary trio of carbs, protein and fibre. Luckily a few years later the avocado cappuccino went mainstream, killing all competition and letting the sushi craze fade away. Quality eventually overcame hype.

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As a result, a number of incredible contemporary Japanese restaurants kicked in, fighting for a spot in the foodie’s and businessmen’s heart. No one can count the exact number of great deals signed over a delicious serving of smoky eel, resting on a carefully crafted cube of steamed rice, beside a miniature carafe of ice-cold sake (or my favourite, steamy warm).

Sushi, being an obsession for so many folks out there and especially fancy girls, has also proven that Japanese cuisine is so much more than just rolls. In fact the more one discovers the traditional side of infamous Japanese dining the more delicious it gets. Ramusake restaurant at the Double Tree by Hilton in JBR is a perfect example. I was very excited to barge my way into Ramusake on their popular Ladies Nights and that experience led to my personal obsession with the restaurant.

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First of all, Ramusake is in style. It’s the place to be and a place to watch the crowd. Always being over booked on Wednesday nights they are also being stormed by the most beautiful girls from the Dubai and further.  No matter how Insta famous you get (true story) there is no way you can reserve a table unless you call far in advance. My attempts to get a table for four on short notice failed miserably. On a brighter note, there are always a few spots left for the Friday brunch which, in my opinion, is the best way to discover the mystery of Ramusake’s success.

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My usual Friday brunch strategy is to arrive early. The next move is to convince your server you are the most mega super famous person on Instagram to score an extra cocktail and some fantastic bar magic footage. They are easy to convince and it always works for me 🙂 Once your arrival drink is sorted, look through the pre-set menu and agree to everything they offer. The food at Ramusake is so damn good.

The moment the salted edamame beans appear at your table, start ordering and tasting sake. Nothing compliments Japanese cuisine better than this magical beverage, neither jasmine green tea nor Asahi. Sake, based on processed fermented rice, delivers a little kick of happiness with the every sip as well as a balanced taste that works in a harmony with any dish. No matter what you are sampling – a dessert, sashimi or chicken skewers, sake will deliver an accompanying flavour turning a meal into a feast.

While brunching at Ramusake it’s easy to sneak a peek at the chefs putting together rolls, main dishes and cooking their way through the experience. The concept of an open kitchen is indeed my favourite way of dining. I love to watch men cook. There is something truly magical when ingredients imported from all over the world appear in the form of something you never knew existed.

That’s Ramusake 

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OKKU: the legend (closed)

As a young emerging city, Dubai constant evolves in all directions, including the restaurant scene; places open – places close. However the show must go on. Dubaians are so used to the saying that nothing lasts forever, “all we are is dust in the wind”. While the city, a bright example of rapid evolution, cherishes every sign of history left around, the “it” crowd squints ironically at mentions of places over five years old, looking instead for the next great thing before anyone else discovers it. I’m different.

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I love going to the same place where everyone knows me and occasionally sneaks in a treat. I love the feeling of stability in this every changing world. I love the past, especially when it remains in its original glory. OKKU is one of those places, a living legend that survived the recent financial crisis and following chaos. Additionally, the hotel where OKKU is located changed its name and owners, but the transformation had no effect on the restaurant.

OKKU, a contemporary Japanese restaurant since its opening in 2009, reinvented the Dubai party seen by filling the house every night including Sundays (quiet day of the week for restaurants here), and being the place to be seen. The hottest DJs, mega private parties with LA rich and famous, no place left to stand, mind blowing cuisine and insanely beautiful hosts and hostesses, OKKU had it all. People loved it (even when they were turned away).
Today OKKU is more of a restaurant than a party lounge, catering to hotel guests, curious foodies and nostalgists like me. OKKU starts with a greeting counter leading to a narrow path with a curtain of glitter that eventually opens into a bar and a spacious lounge on the left. The slightly insane aquarium with visibly attractive but barely real jellyfish reminds me of the crazy past.
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Skilled bartenders keep pouring, shaking, smoking and mixing, leaving a few gaps in between for a quick verbal exchange. From time to time a giant cube of ice gets imprinted with the famous OKKU stamp and the bar life moves on to the next cocktail. My request for a moderately sweet and sour mocktail raised an eyebrow. They wanted me to party! And I did.
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The famous OKKU food didn’t fade it past glory either. A quick look around convinced me to start with deliciously healthy edamame, followed by an enormous order of sushi and sashimi resting on ice, a celebrity cod dish and everyone’s favourite wagyu steak and green veggies, cooked right at the table on a giant rock of salt. Heaven!
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The magic of Ninive

Once upon a time in the ancient city of Niniveh, former capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and oldest urban centre in Mesopotamia, there was a secret terrace. Shielded from curious eyes by the mysterious Hanging Garden and massive stone walls, the place was a legend. A few centuries later, the World Wonder secluded courtyard has been reborn in the open space of Jumeirah Emirates Towers. Niniveh became Ninive

Surrounded by ever-busy Sheikh Zayed highway, glittering downtown lights and the hussle of the financial district, Ninive of Dubai is a brilliant idea. It caters to the growing need of every cosmopolitan city for a little paradise of greenery, privacy and peace. A place that looks good, feels good and contributes to goodness. That’s what Ninive is for me.P2189000.JPGDecorated in the best traditions of One Thousand and One Nights, where gold is everybody’s favourite colour, Ninive communicates Arabian luxury and guest’s comfort as the priority. The interior elements, accented with warm light lanterns, fluffy cushions, low foamy divans and a feeling of privacy, make you immediately forget all your worries. The focus on complete divine relaxation is partly achieved by impressive service, and partly by wafts of shisha travelling with the breeze from table to table. P2188986.JPGDespite all the effort and skill of clearly mega expensive designers, the best part of Ninive is the luxury of the open night sky, shining with stars. While seated in the restaurant, one falls under an illusion of dining in some fancy Indiana Jone’s camp in the middle of a new adventure. Surprisingly the urban look of nearby skyscrapers adds charm to the restaurant’s view. It’s so easy to spend a night away on those snugly cushions without noticing the time. My simple dinner with a friend lasted four hours. Fortunately valet parking is complimentary.

P2188963.JPGNinive, like the neighbouring La Cantine du Fauborg, is run by chef Gilles Bosque, Gordon Ramsay’s right-hand man. The menu is created with a deep understanding of present desire for an unforgettable experience, exclusive food magic at the table and pomegranate seeds. The later was elegantly sprinkled on several mouth-watering appis, which didn’t last long. I especially enjoyed the absence of ceviche, a dish that the majority of Dubai restaurants tend to force into their cuisine recently.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is no strict definition of Ninive’s cuisine type. It’s noticeably influenced by the Middle East, Persia, South Asia and nearby states, however things aren’t easy. I appreciated the trend of moving away from serving a boring spread of stereotypical dishes towards crafting the new Haute Arabic food couture to impress and startle.

Chef Ibrahim

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I spotted chef Ibrahim right at the entrance. Confidently powerful in the kitchen, he projects charm, charisma and a love of food. Easily mesmerized by super skilled professionals, I couldn’t keep my eyes or iPhone off him. Intrigued by my non-stop flash, chef Ibrahim laughed and visited my table for a quick chat. He was as entertaining in conversation as in the kitchen.

Chef of the bar Marc

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Marc is another personality not to miss at Ninive. Many guests stop by the bar just for an opportunity to observe this awesome guy and share a bunch of jokes. Enigmatic, always on the go, anxious in a fun way and incredibly skilled, Marc is a character that could be plucked from Cirque du Soleil. I knew there was something cheeky in his past watching the way Marc tossed a napkin next to me. That’s for me to know and for you to discover.

Haitham

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Haitham was introduced to my table half way through the dinner and for the first few appearances I kept on referring to him as Olivier. He never corrected me, smiling rather charmingly. He captivates attention with a soft approach to service, sharp attentiveness and enthusiasm. Haitham concurred my heart by performing a master class of Moroccan tea pouring, sharing a few secrets with me.

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Vida la vie de Loca

Do you recall those Friday mornings when you wake up and feel it’s gonna be a beautiful day? So you start with a lazy coffee, scrolling Instagram direct messages or giggling to ridiculous emojis from your favourite WhatsApp people. Then a random pop-up ad on YouTube reminds you of a new amazing dress still with tags longing for attention. For me this was the moment to book my brunch experience at 3in1 at Vida Downtown, the place where weekend lasts forever.

Vida, being a landmark itself, often appears in the news in connection with fashion shows, celebrities and events involving VVVIP+ (something super awesome that only exists in Dubai). The drive through the Downtown of Dubai is a separate treat. Lower speed limits result in extended views of palm trees, a mix of futuristic and stylized architecture and a sneak peak at new restaurants opening here and there. In the winter when Dubaians are spoiled with the best weather in the world, I roll down the windows and wave at folks crossing streets I’ve met some time somewhere. Downtown is a popular neighbourhood!

Friendly security and valet parking teams led my car right through a bit of Friday traffic directly to the entrance. Having complimentary valet over here is as essential as complimentary WiFi and obviously Vida offers both. A few steps down (please do not misunderstand me there is an elevator but I always fancy an appetising walk before a brunch), I was greeted like a star.

P2027113.JPGThe concept of brunch is not new but the Western version of it greatly differs from what we are used to in the UAE. Again spoiled by choice we pick a package that suits today’s budget, mood or driving arrangements (my life). For Urban Picnic brunch at Vida’s 3in1 restaurant I chose unlimited soft beverages over unlimited house beverages (think refreshing Margaritas). I upgraded my choice to a table inside a private cabana and smiled anticipatingly a fantastic afternoon.
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And what an epic brunch it was! Picture yourself sitting around a pool on a lovely sunny afternoon with a soft refreshing breeze playing with the silky curtains of your private cabana. The best of Latin dancing tunes including Lambada and Merengue act as the background, adding an authentic vibe to the event. Smoke from the nearby live cooking station encourages you to make another run for the bbq seafood of the day. Your Margarita never gets warm as an attentive server keeps an eagle eye on your happiness. Meanwhile a game of piñata starts somewhere in the corner and a friend hands you over a fun fail video taken at the spot to amuse you.

Believe me when the time is up no one wants to leave and no one rushes you out. Because there is more than one reason this party is the talk of the town.

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