I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed a lot that my tongue – and my teeth – wouldn’t have to meet an oyster. I am what someone would call the epitome of an omnivore. Which means that while I haven’t hit Bear Grylls Peak yet, I eat pretty much everything.
Everything except oysters. There is something about the viscosity of an oyster that makes my palate nervous. Every now and then I turn my bull’s head and bite one, almost daring him not to get the better of me. Only to spend the next five minutes, an excruciatingly long 300 seconds, without being able to spit it out (for decorum at the dining table) or swallow it (for the good of my digestive system). I’ll probably never make my peace with an oyster.
That’s why I watched the tray approach cautiously across the restaurant by the waiter, then placed in front of me, with great trepidation. It was magnificent, a true work of art. Almost like one of the many installations I had seen in a museum earlier today. The colors – red, green, yellow – were inviting. The ice pebbles on the base made it almost look like an Icelandic beach. And yet, I was afraid. What if an oyster or two were nestled amidst all this beauty?
It turns out there wasn’t. What he had was not only pleasing to the eye, but also dignified enough to do a triumphant dance on my taste buds. The signature set comprising Ceviche and Tiradito at COYA in Abu Dhabi, to which I devoted almost the first three paragraphs, is to be lived to be believed.
Everything else on the menu – I was at a chef’s table in the much talked about Peruvian restaurant in the heart of Abu Dhabi in mid-November – met the expectations set by the aforementioned entry. The Maki platter was good enough to rival some of the best I have tasted. The Grilled Wagyu Sirloin I opted for – I’m still the “well done” kid in a “medium” and “rare” piece – was the right mix of bitter charcoal and melt in your mouth. The dessert spread – I’m always a fan of a good cheesecake, but the popsicle got me at âPina Coladaâ – was the perfect farewell. After three hours of relaxing digging in one course after another, even though I admired the sights and sounds of Abu Dhabi at night from my seat facing the window, it would be safe to say that I was in gastronomic paradise.
To be honest, I don’t know Peruvian cuisine. This evening at COYA – which comes with the promise of “transporting you to a world of Inca heritage and Peruvian culture” – gave me a taste. Pang, the chef at COYA, was more than happy to share his creations with us, although I was discussing my only exposure to this one – Tintin’s Prisoners of the Sun. I was quite tempted to bring up Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan dancing, on a song oddly titled Kilimanjaro, among the ruins of Machu Picchu in Robot too, but I resisted. Thank goodness there was enough delicacies in front of me to stuff my mouth. And keep it closed.
My four day stay in Abu Dhabi consisted of jumping, jumping and jumping from one food adventure to another. I was on a mission for Abu Dhabi Culinary Season, the emirate’s annual six-week celebration of innovative dining experiences that began in October and will end on
December 9. The main objective of the initiative, organized by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, is to equally showcase and strengthen Abu Dhabi’s position as a leading global culinary destination. Something that I have discovered at almost every meal I have eaten while visiting the Emirati capital.
Any mention of the UAE conjures up exotic images of lavish dining, architectural wonders, barren deserts and golden souks. ‘Gold’ was clearly the key word when I entered the breathtaking lobby of Emirates Palace. The five-star hotel is the height of luxury, with much of its structure gold-plated. Lunch at Mezlai, one of the Emirates Palace restaurants, was a big deal, accompanied like us by Chef Khulood Atiq, the UAE’s first female chef who is trying to revive and popularize traditional Emirati dishes. .
Sadly, there was nothing traditionally Emirati on the Emirates Palace lunch menu we were served, but a few fun nuggets from Chef Khulood and the ultimate piece de resistance – a giant cup of cappuccino decorated with real gold sprinkles. (gold, keyword, remember?) – more than made up for it. Of course, I Instagrammed the hell out of this cup of tea! Believe me, you would too …
FRANCE IN BEIRUT …
One culinary destination in Abu Dhabi that is definitely worth a visit is LPM. A stone’s throw from COYA, this quaint French restaurant, with stunning views of the midday sun playing on the sparkling water outside, is the perfect place to enjoy a meal at leisure.
The menu at our chef’s table, again, was extensive. A special word for the Chilean Chilli Lemon Candied Sea Bass, which is essentially nothing more than a solid slab of fish, but packed with flavors ranging from spicy and sweet to a little spicy.
I never thought I would see a day when I would be delighted to dig into a few seconds of a cauliflower salad, but you have to taste the Cauliflower Salad here – cauliflower tempered with almonds and caraway – to find out what I’m talking about.
Then, of course, the Escargots de Bourgogne. If your French is moderately good, you already know what it is. Yes, snails! Butter, spicy, meaty … it was a dream. I put six. No, not at the speed of a snail.
The final dinner of the trip found me on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, a natural habitat that functions as a tourist haunt. One Sunday evening, we made our way to the cheerful outdoor dining room in Beyrouth-sur-Mer. Offering a wide range of Lebanese specialties, the restaurant is the perfect place to have a family meal or savor unconventional shisha flavors.
Sitting at a community table of a dozen people, full of jokes and laughter, I found myself digging through endless mezze platters, plates of Shawarma and Shish Taouk, followed by a sinful dessert that instantly brought me back to my childhood love for cotton candy. Except this one was white, reminding me of Dumbledore! Turkish coffee – smooth and strong at the same time – to the rescue!
STREET SIP ‘n’ BITE
What’s a trip to Abu Dhabi without a stop at the city’s date market? Al Mina is home to some of the best date varieties in the world. Sip an Arabic coffee, bite into a date or two, and stroll through the market. It’s an experience. The same goes for sitting down during a traditional Gahwa-making session. Emirati’s iconic coffee, gahwa, is made from green coffee beans, boiled with cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron, and served a traditional dallah in handle-less cups. The aroma instantly transports you to a Bedouin tent, and I savored every sip, pairing my coffee with – priceless to guess – a date.
Although not part of the culinary itinerary of this trip, a souvenir shopping spree brought me into an unpretentious cafe, mainly to rest my tired legs. What I got instead was a heavenly glass of cheesecake and a chance to look at all possible images of the boy group BTS, taped to the walls of this quaint lair. Yes, the Korean takeover is everywhere. But who is complaining?
Photos: Priyanka Roy