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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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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Sensational, Pierre’s Bistro

I met Pierre Gagnaire at a secret dinner party held just a few days before opening his new Dubai venture. Picture dimmed lights, misarranged partly unwrapped furniture, absence of décor but a collection of rare French wines, a sweet view of the nearby marina and its colourful fountains, melting candles, and an atmosphere of a medieval castle ready for a feast. Mingling between a well-selected group of local celebrities, magazine editors, TV anchor, food critics, PR and social media opinion shapers, I kept a very curious eye out for the much talked about chef. In the best French tradition, he appeared with a chilled bottle of dry champagne ready to pour.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 11.32.36 AM.pngNot a long speech sort of a person, Pierre dressed in a white double-breasted jacket tightened at the waist with a similarly crisp apron, performed a charming smile supported by a hearty greeting and a soft waving gesture indicating that dinner was about to begin. We sipped champagne, giggled and headed to the table. All pointed out to an amazing night out.

P4196137.JPGFeeding a group of highly experienced foodies eager to express what they think is a hard job. Speaking from my personal experience, at some point dining out may turn into a blur: if not for photographs, I would have no idea what was served an hour ago even when it was the best burrata ever. You can imagine my curiosity and anticipation to watch Monsieur Pierre handling us. Spoiled: he did well. Making short but sharp appearances in various intervals during the dinner, he managed to look after everyone by topping up a glass a wine, bringing a dish to the table, swiping crumbs, sharing a joke in both French and English and patiently waiting for follow up questions. The night ended with a cookbook copy signed by the chef. I left completely mesmerized. Needless to say I craved the world’s best frog legs ever since.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 11.31.14 AM.pngI missed the restaurant opening as I was on a trip to India but called to reserve a table a few weeks later, curious to see the turnout. Guess what? It all turned out pretty well! With a separate entrance on the side of the Intercontinental Hotel, dedicated team of three on arrival to ensure guests reach the destination happily and a very elegant interior design worth a fortune, the Pierre’s Bistro is fancier than it sounds. Playing “un petit truc” with the word “bistro” referring to a casual eatery with a simple menu, Pierrre Gagnaire delivers the opposite: fine dining with the most delicious French cuisine.P4196230.JPGA 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. I loved that on top of smoking/non smoking or inside/outside tables there were options for “intimate dining” and “the centre of attention”.  As the weather chose to be kind that night, I sat on a very comfortable sofa outside facing the fountains and a promenade.

My dinner started with a warm baguette baked “en ce moment” and served in a branded paper bag. Crispy on outside, the baguette was so airy and fantastically fragrant; that I couldn’t help but eat it all with the beautiful salted French butter. I ordered my all time favourite frog legs with garlic and parsley cooked to such perfection they melt on a tongue. My other dishes were as exceptional as expected but it was the apple tart that stole my heart that night.

P4196221.JPGOh mon Dieu! It arrived together with caramel ice cream and whipped cream with bits of real vanilla and a dash of brandy. Someone cut it gently in front of me into two halves while I couldn’t take my eyes off its golden glow. I eat very slowly savouring every bite, thinking of beautiful sunsets, apple trees in bloom and fireworks. What a magical end to a magical night!P4196142.JPGStalk me on Instagram and Facebook.