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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