A three-night trip to Qatar earlier this year was studded with brilliant meals and dishes like cloves in a biryani, only confirming the state’s culinary rise to rival its Emirati neighbours. Of course where money is little or no object, celebrity chefs are falling over themselves to put their names to properties such as the 26,000 square foot Nobu at the Four Seasons. But it’s also the local food scene which was a revelation, reflecting Qatar’s global mix of nationalities and cultures. Here are my five most memorable meals:
- Qatar Airways Hong Kong – Doha
The beauty is that the dining experience starts even before you land. Qatar Airways have won multiple awards for their self-styled ‘five star’ inflight cuisine and service and this translates to some sensational dishes that make you forget you’re at 35,000 feet.
They’re somewhat preaching to the converted when it comes to this huge fan of the cuisine of the Middle East and North Africa, but it’s the little touches which are the hallmarks of quality.
The Arabic mezze – available in business on all their flights – is just done really well. The tabouleh is cut through with vibrant fresh mint and lemon, the houmous laced with olive oil and sumac and the muhammra walnut and pepper dip perked by chilli. How they make the pita so good is beyond me – it tastes like it has just come from a tandoor – and is the perfect vehicle for the dips of joy.
Lamb loin with a pistachio and mint crust was genuinely the best main course I’ve ever eaten on a plane, while the barley and tomato salad was the perfectly-balanced accompaniment:
After cheese, to finish a dainty little Ladurée chocolate creation.
- Street eats
One of the great revelations was local eats, of which there where three standouts. First were two breakfasts. The first featured rogag – a sort of dhosa crispy pancake – with a brilliant tomato and eggs hash and sweet tea:
The second came in an early morning wander around the Souq Waqif market. At 630am workers are breakfasting prior to setting up stalls for the day’s business. I was given some Iranian dried lumi limes (bottom left of photo) by a generous stallholder.
A tiny hole in the wall place is a bakery with a huge tandoor over selling what they call ‘pies’ but are essentially nan breads with different fillings.
I dread to think of the temperature inside in summer, as even in winter it redefines toasty, but the baking boys all in white are busy kneading, pulling and slapping dough before pounding it to the walls of the oven and removing minutes later in the form of mind-blowingly good bread.
The ‘cheese and honey’ pie was enormous layers of hot dough where cheese spread had been applied before honey dripped on top and then sealed and cut in triangles. Wow.
No website, but 30 seconds walk from the hawk market, this is what it looks like:
All they serve is, you’ve guessed it, chapatti hot from the oven and karak tea. Wholemeal flour is ground in a ‘chakki’ or stone mill before being kneaded, rolled and broiled on something called a tava, essentially a flat iron griddle. It puffs up into a flat bread which can feature toppings, but for purists is eaten as is, along with tea. ‘Karak’ means strong, so expect a cuppa to fire you up for the rest of the day.
- Ducasse’s ‘IDAM’ at The Museum of Islamic Art
From street food to the altogether more refined and pricy surroundings of Alain Ducasse’s ‘IDAM’ restaurant at the breathtaking Museum of Islamic Art. Ducasse needs no introduction – I interviewed the great man recently, you can read that review here:
Suffice to say that this lunch was another exceptional dining experience. The cuisine is French Mediterranean with an Arabic twist, the surroundings a typically understated Philippe Starck design of light and bright, letting the views over the water and the city take centre stage.
This being Ducasse, of course the breads were sublime and potentially a meal in themselves:
A trio of amuses, spicy prawn bouillon with saffron potatoes, quail eggs with leek and truffle and a mushroom ‘cromesquis’ set the tone:
Confit lamb came with ‘zaalouk’ aubergine and peppers, the glorious ensemble crowned by a jus that I can still recall in intricate detail, a kaleidoscope of flavours condensed into one reduction:
A special shout out to the drinks. I’d normally pay not to drink cucumber, but here with lemon juice, elderflower syrup and ginger ale it was a whole new world.
Petits fours were wheeled out in a small house of a display case, a Wonka-esque cornucopia of delights, a kid’s dream writ large for grown-ups:
Museum of Islamic Art, 5th Floor، Corniche Promenade, الدوحة، Qatar
+974 4422 4488 www.mia.org.qa/en/visiting/idam
- Moroccan cuisine at Souq Waqif
In addition to great street food and snacks, Souq Waqif is the place to go for an atlas of Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, from Lebanon to Syria, Morocco to Iran. The Al Jasra boutique hotel is part of the spiffing Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels group, one that boasts beautiful individual properties across the district, all with unique design motifs and themes.
Argan is their Moroccan restaurant with brilliant Pinoy servers and a menu to make fans of North African cuisine weak at the knees. It’s a large and varied look across the country’s dishes, with a number of more unusual additions.
Unusual is always good so I started with beef liver salad with tomatoes, a dark and metallic (in a good way) hum to the meat, sparky under ras el hanout. It translates rather wonderfully as ‘head of the shop’ and refers to the best spices on offer. It’s always a bespoke and secret mix but includes some or all of the following, for starters: Cardamom, Clove, Cinnamon, Coriander, Cumin, Paprika, Mace, Nutmeg, Peppercorn and Turmeric. One way ticket to flavourville.
Zaalouk (as per lunch at Ducasse) is wonderfully-smoky grilled, marinated eggplant salad while bissara soup is made with fava bean, lemon, cumin and olive oil.
Lamb briouat are a type of Moroccan samosa made with minced lamb ,white onion and cinnamon. Star of the show was, perhaps understandably, the lamb tajine with prunes, an aromatic dome of slow-cooked happiness, lamb shank falling apart:
Al JASRA BOUTIQUE HOTEL Souq Waqif, 1274 Doha Tel: 00 974 4433 6666 http://www.swbh.com/aljasraboutique/dining-en.html
- Panorama buffet at The Torch
Last but not least, the world on a plate at Torch, the aptly-named towering hotel. Panorama restaurant offers a buffet to cheer even the pickiest soul, from sushi and sashimi to roasts, seafood and salads to local favourites.
The dinner deal generously includes the buffet as well as a main course, in my case the rather splendid grilled hamour fillet, a local favourite, with a saffron caper sauce.
If, like me, you make the schoolboy error of greedily going large on starters in a buffet, fear not as desserts come in suitably dainty sizes, meaning you can still hit up profiteroles, crême brulées and more. Just for research purposes, naturally.
240 Riyals (HK$500) http://www.thetorchdoha.com/dining-en.html