Flamenco night at Salero (Tapas and Bodega)

A charming little restaurant and a true gastronomic hidden gem set out of sight in the far most corner of Kempinski Hotel, Mall of the Emirates. Right from the entrance prepare to be transported to the fiesta-like ambience of a trendy Spanish wine cellar where delicious aromas of olive oil, roasted garlic and herbs are paired with wisely selected wines, soulful conversations and Flamenco (especially on Wednesday nights).

All tables are nicely positioned around a central bar with an open kitchen where chefs simmer delicacies on a gas stove. Up on the ceiling large wicker baskets replace ordinary lamps adding cosy warm lighting. The pops of red here and there are gingham napkins which add to the Mediterranean allure and an abstract wall mural echoing cubism screams Picasso.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I slowly studied the menu the band walked in, immediately stealing all the attention with the never fading lyrics of “Bamboleo”. We couldn’t help but sang along: “Porque mi vida yo la prefiero vivir así”. Francesco, who looked after our table, suggested we start with a selection of tapas (small savoury dishes) and end the feast with a seafood paella prepared on the stove. I insisted that jamón was a must try as it’s mission impossible to find fine pork in Dubai (spoiler: it was the best jamón I had in a while). Francesco advised that a pitcher of fruity red Sangria would be a perfect pairing to the food we ordered.

Our feast started with a dish of traditional Spanish bread “Pan Basico”, fragrant roasted garlic, “pa amb tomaquet” (soft plum tomatoes), sea salt and olive oil. I rubbed a clove and a tomato all over my toasted slice of bread, sprinkled some salt and olive oil and only paused eating when a board of “Jamón de pata negra” aged 36 months landed on the table (AED 195). The selection of tapas, which arrived next, was extraordinary tasty: “Pimientos de Padron” (small green peppers AED 49), “Croquetas de polo y croquetas de setas” (chicken and mushroom croquets AED 49) and absolutely magical “Gambas al ajillo” (shrimps simmered in olive oil with garlic and chilies AED 69).

While I dipped the remaining pieces of bread in deliciously tangy sauce, Maria the gorgeous Flamenco dancer, walked on the stage. She moved so powerfully and gracefully that all eyes were drawn to her including mine. 

A few minutes later my small seafood paella (AED 215) was served in a rather large pan with lots of simmered shrimps and mussels on the top. Size wise it was enough for four hungry eaters and we ended up packing leftovers for a takeaway. The taste generated by the broth was quite intense at first but would quickly settle into a creamy heaven. I didn’t have any room left for the dessert however churros looked truly irresistible.

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Thiptara or “magic on the water”, best Thai cuisine in Dubai

Set in a magical location facing the Dubai Opera, the Fountains and the tallest building in the world Burj Khalifa, Thiptara gets immediately ahead of the most Dubai restaurants offering romantic yet eclectic vibe. By the time you pass through the garden tastefully decorated with candles and lights, the expectation of an exotic night reaches its exciting point right in the front of big authentic wooden gate guarded by the resting Buddha. Behind the gate is another little garden filled with traditional aromas mixes with laughter, the heart of Thiptara the Bangkok style Thai restaurant.P9090147.JPG“Bar to the left and the restaurant is to the right,” the voice of my hostess was lost in the sounds of music sneaking from the open door to the terrace. My eyes piers into the sudden splash of neon, water and sparkles as the famous fountains rise to the sky. Astonished I still chose to seat inside as pairing humidity with the spicy food leads to gulping icy cold water all night long. I fancied sipping a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.P9090008.JPGPrior to softly placing menus on the table I was offered a refreshing wet towel scented with jasmine. Survivor of numerous Dubai summers, I’ve learnt to appreciate this gesture and smiled happily knowing I was in good hands. Lucky for me the chef de cuisine, Chef Nguyen Thanh left her kitchen for a few minutes to greet tonight’s guest providing me with a rare opportunity to order what chef recommends. Additionally, it was a real pleasure to meet yet another female chef working at the Palace Downtown. It appeared that her all time favourites included papaya salad, green chicken curry and dishes infused with lemongrass. Chef Nguyen Thanh warned to be realistic picking the spiciness level (not spicy, European spicy or confidently Thai spicy), so I complied.

The papaya salad turned out to be so fresh, sour and crisp with a tingling sweetness of tamarind sauce that I considered repeating. A platter of mixed dumplings rested only for a few seconds on the table surprising my server with the speed of my consumption. “Sooo good,” I mumbled in satisfaction. Tom Yong Goong soup to share was cooked to absolute perfection and I couldn’t wait for the main. With the curries in progress, I picked my Sauvignon and stepped outside to feel the downtown. Well, it’s fancy and very entertaining to observe.

Among my curries, the green chicken curry completely blew me away with its richness, creaminess and lightness at the same time probably achieved by adding coconut milk instead of the cream. I was tempted to inquire the recipe and was told: “Good news, everyone!” Chef Nguyen Thanh conducts cooking classes from time to time. Guess who is in!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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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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