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Top Six Chains I Didn’t Expect in Dubai

shake shack dubai mall

Yeah, we all know about Shake Shack’s world domination (I saw three of Dubai’s four without even trying) and at this point P.F. Chang’s, Red Lobster, IHOP, Cheesecake Factory, and even Texas Roadhouse are all a given, but what about the lesser chains and outposts?

I didn’t know Ashton Kutcher was responsible for a restaurant, let alone one called Ketchup. Seriously? There are sliders, potato skins and vodka-free cosmopolitans. According to the American website, what you won’t find: “boring background music and atmosphere on par with a senior citizen’s buffet in a Midwestern shopping mall.” It is not clear if there are any remaining Ketchup locations in the US.

bennigan's dubai

Bennigan’s is one of those heritage brands like Kenny Rogers Roasters and Tony Roma’s (I was shocked to hear one recently opened in the Atlantic Center–why is no one talking about this? And yes, there is one in Dubai) that seem to thrive abroad while all but extinct on its home turf. Having not grown up with Bennigan’s, I’m not even sure what its calling card is. Turkey O’Toole™? Not only is the sandwich trademarked, but also the phrase Crowd Pleasers™ used to describe appetizers.

cafe habana dubai

Moving New York-ward, Cafe Habana exists and actually serves alcohol (indoors only). I know, because I was drawn in by the novelty and had the worst Hemingway Daiquiri of my life and paid $14 for the privilege.

rosa mexicano dubai mall

Also, Rosa Mexicano, which is directly next to Eataly in the Dubai Mall.

Despite not being listed on the website and saddled a distancing prefix, Maison Bagatelle is somehow loosely affiliated with the Meatpacking original. Being un-licensed, though, it bears little resemblance. It’s just a cafe more akin to the ubiquitous PAUL. Alcohol-free probably equals douche-free, at least.

entrecote cafe de paris dubai

Ok, this is Entrecote Café de Paris in the Dubai Mall, which is different than Le Relais de L’Entrecôte in Dubai Festival City Mall, but you know, the same thing as the Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecôte in NYC. I can’t keep all the iterations straight–there are three run by the descendants of the original founder.


I regret missing Hot Dog on a Stick because I would have loved seeing what the uniforms looked like. There’s no way the original striped mod set exposing shoulders and knees would be allowed.


Blue Crabs

I’m not sure I would call this crab lavender (then again, I’ve gotten into debates over indigo vs. navy and lilac vs. lavender). Based on the photo, it appears more blue-violet. Whatever shade you call it, the crustacean discovered by a Japanese wholesaler is kind of too pretty to eat (the company agrees). I wonder if it would get along with one of those also rare blue or yellow lobsters.

M. Wells Steakhouse

threeshovelIf you’ve heard anything about M. Wells Steakhouse, it’s that steaks aren’t necessarily its strength (oh, and that it’s hidden away at the ends of the earth amidst a bunch of grit and rubble–never mind the towering luxury dwellings and five subway lines running less than four blocks away). That makes perfect sense for a restaurant sprung from the contrarian Québécois school where more is more and things are never what they seem.

Prices, portions and descriptors can be at odds. Can a lobster tail really be $10 when the caviar sandwich is $50? Should one pay $60 to eat something called a Dog Bowl? I knew that the $25 side of beef butter was actually a small steak, but where does that fit into the meal?

m wells steakhouse shrimp on shrimp

Two of the things I did want (Solomon Gundy, bison rib eye) were already unavailable at 8pm on a Sunday. Not that that didn’t leave plenty of other choices; the menu is sprawling. I would’ve preferred the excess of the smelt and trout egg waffle to the shrimp on shrimp, which is exactly what it sounds like, plus cocktail sauce and the flavor of Old Bay.

m wells steakhouse onion & bone marrow soup

The onion and bone marrow soup was more like it. Who cares that the gratineed beef gelatin enriched with pork belly, caramelized onions, and yes, containing a scoopable bone, hardly qualifies as a soup. This is the M. Wells-ian decadence people–and by people, I mean me–want.

m wells steakhouse dinner

The steaks were ok. Or maybe I’ve just been unduly influenced. I had to nix the châteaubriand for two because that tender cut is like the steak fries of steak. And that’s not a positive. The côte de boeuf probably would’ve been more up my alley, but the Minetta Tavern price tag was not.  The grass-fed Kansas strip had moments of greatness. Medium-rare was exactly that and some bites had nice char and punches of minerality, but overall it was a fairly innocuous piece of meat. That said, the half I saved for dinner the next night was one of the better things I’ve eaten in my apartment this year. It’s all about context.

m wells steakhouse t-bone

The T-bone was more what I wanted–fat and flavor–though my dining companion preferred my strip steak, which only proves that meat is very subjective.

m wells steakhouse pommes agliote stretched

Sides were more fun. Potatoes come five ways and the aligot, more cheese and butter than actual tuber, is the one to get if only to test its elasticity with a fork.

m wells steakhouse salsify & black truffles

Salsify with shaved black truffles was almost candied, as the roots were browned in copious amounts of butter, bringing out the natural sweetness.

After all this (and a Manhattan and a bottle of Russian River valley pinot noir that I can’t recall) dessert wasn’t entirely needed. I wanted to see the fabled dessert cart rolling about the former garage’s floor (as long as I live, I’ll never forget the two sweets trolleys at Robuchon a Galera in Macau) but that wasn’t the drill. Next thing, I’ll find out that the trout are already dead and caught elsewhere and and that there’s not going to be freaking catamaran at all.

m wells steakhouse pavlova

At least a pavlova is light. The meringue shell was drizzled with a passionfruit sauce and branded with gold leaf. The interior contained blood orange curd.

The menu is ranging enough to pay an additional visit and try all different things. I’d be up for a non-steak second meal, not because the meat was all that disappointing but because other dishes are just more interesting.

M. Wells Steakhouse * 43-15 Crescent St., Long Island City, NY

Gotham West Market: El Colmado & The Cannibal

twoshovelApparently, there are two new bacon boards in Hell’s Kitchen: one at BarBacon (which I only learned of today) and another at The Cannibal inside Gotham West Market. The latter might get lost in all of the charcuterie on offer, but it’s worth a look if you aren’t into delving into pig’s heads, chicken livers or raw lamb.

cannibal bacon board

Left to right, this is house made back bacon a.k.a. lardo, what I heard as “lamb bacon” but another thought was “ham bacon,” though admitted that was redundant, and jowl. The firm and crispy mystery bacon in the middle was the universal hit, despite being the slightest bit gamey. Lardo draped on the hearty wheat bread and drizzled with maple syrup (left condiment) is also a good move.. The bacon fat is only for the hardcore.

cannibal pretzel & cheese

We all know fried brussels sprouts flavored with mint now. These, tossed with generous crumbles of salty country ham are different, meatier take. I got overly excited at the sight of liquid white cheese, thinking of my processed favorites. This blend was oddly flavorless, though, almost like thick opaque water. There was a mild sharp cheddar after taste, but not enough to make an impact.

el colmado oysters & cava

El Colmado has a happy hour deal worth walking three avenues for in the urban arctic. $11 will get you six oysters (Malpeques on this occasion) with mignonette sauce and a glass of cava. To be honest, I just a seat at the nearest counter upon entering because I had some time to kill. The oysters were a nice surprise.

el colmado bocadillo de calamar

The mini bocadillo contained an octopus body (grilled, not crispy as advertised and as I’d envisioned–like the ones in Madrid) paired unexpectedly with a minty sauce.

el colmado patatas bravas

Patatas bravas were not only spicier than any version you’d find in Spain, the plate was also larger than anticipated, which is one of those things that’s hard to gauge with NYC tapas, regardless of using price as a guide ($10 vs. $7 for the bocadillo). Instead of pure potato with a spicy brava sauce on the side, these were coated in a chile powder then swathed in aioli.

Ivan Ramen will have to wait.

El Colmado and The Cannibal at Gotham West Market * 600 Eleventh Ave., New York, NY

The Week in International Intrigue: Peri-Peri, Big Pictures, Lamb Burgers

The Guardian generated over 1,200 comments when Jay Rayner defended Nando’s (and mildly insulted the monotonous cuisine of Dordogne).

Quartz is one of those endless scroll sites with big photos that make everything seem smart and important (for instance, if you were to read some of the content–just some–from Roads & Kingdoms in a Word doc, the whole vibe would change) like this article/post that uses charts and links to say that there are lots of Dunkin’ Donuts in other parts of the world even though only a few US regions have the chain. New Yorkers don’t realize how good they’ve got it–I recently tried some doughnuts and coffee at the newish maligned Bedford Ave. location [why is no one going nuts over the truly new branch  on Metropolitan Ave. near the Lorimer station?] and they were so delicious and cheap.

Fuddruckers, a chain that on one really defends, is opening in the Dominican Republic and hopes to sway locals with unique-to-the-region specialties like lamb burgers with mint jelly (I had no idea) and bread pudding.


Solero Tapas & Bodega

twoshovelIf you wondering if you could find Spanish food in Dubai, the answer would be yes. Why, is a separate question. Honestly, the only reason I paid week-old Solero a visit was because my hotel was “dry,” I wanted a glass of wine (something non-residents can’t purchase in stores without a license) and this new tapas bar in inside the Kempinksi Hotel inside the Mall of the Emirates was technically across the street (the NYC equivalent of being on the other side of a BQE overpass).

salero pa amb tomaquet

Pa amb tomàquet, the simple toasty snack that I never bother attempting because how often do you get a tomato with enough juice and flavor? I have no idea where tomatoes come from in Dubai in December, but this rendition wasn’t an atrocity.

salero pulpo a la gallega

Neither was the cazuela filled with stacks of meaty coins of octopus, doused with smoked paprika and olive oil. Being mildly pork-deprived, the logical choice would’ve been a plate of jamon, but I feared not only the dirham to dollar gouging but the metric to imperial conversion. I always screw up ordering in measures that aren’t ounces or pounds and end up with double instead of half of what I’d intended. Pulpo a la gallega was safer–and satisfying. I decided to stay a little longer and sip a gin and tonic, despite my aversion to dining alone.

The staff, both service and behind the open kitchen with bar seating, was almost wholly imported from Spain (minus the one Chilean cook I spoke to). Even the DJ appeared be playing Spanish pop hits of the ’80s, which only the hard-partying couple next to me, two chefs from another restaurant, seemed to know, based on their shrieks and hollers. The rest of the diners were far more subdued. There were even a few obviously Muslim women present–I mention this only because there’s a security guard outside the door at the mall’s entrance who on a different occasion had steered a group of curious men away by saying, “That’s a bar.” It’s really more of a restaurant, though.

Solero Tapas & Bodega * Kempinsski Mall of the Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Rd.  * Dubai, UAE

Thailand’s Center Point

twoshovelConfession: I’ve never eaten at a Gray’s Papaya in my close-to-sixteen years in this city. (Deeper confession: I don’t like hot dogs–and yes, I also eat pizza with a fork and sometimes a knife, too.) More embarrassingly, though, since I kind of consider Thai food to be my thing, is that I had never eaten at Thailand’s Center Point until this year.

I know, I know. It’s what Sripraphai used to be, it’s mom and pop (or rather mom and daughter), there aren’t hordes and a ticketing system, it’s BYOB. All valid arguments. I’m probably one of the last remaining Sripraphai apologists. That’s just where I’ll go if I’m in the neighborhood.

Center Point does have charm. It’s more personable, and I appreciate the thrift of drinking your own bottles of Brooklyn lager (four cocktails at Bar Below Rye afterward cost more than dinner) though it’s also impossible render a verdict after three dishes–three dishes that came sequentially, the next arriving only after the former was finished. It wasn’t clear if this pacing was intended or just how the kitchen was handling orders. I like being able to take a bite here and there.

center point thai crispy papaya seafood salad

The crispy fried papaya salad is kind of the answer to Sripraphai’s crispy watercress salad; a weird treatment that works. It’s essentially a som tum with seafood (squid, shrimp, mussels) except that the unripe fruit has been battered and fried. I’m all for this. You lose the freshness but gain a different kind of crunch. This is a papaya salad for temperatures sinking dangerously close to single digits. The dressing wasn’t overly sweet, a common complaint, but it was heavy on the lime and garlic with no heat for balance. Of course, that can be remedied with ground chiles or chile-infused fish sauce from the condiment caddy shared among the handful of tables.

center point thai pork larb

It wasn’t that my request for spicy (and no, I’m not trying to prove something by obliterating the taste of the food) was misunderstood because the next two dishes, both pork because of lack of foresight, were just the right amount of hot; appreciable, some bites more tingly than others, but not brutal. The larb was a good rendition with meat that was just a shade away from medium-rare. Make sure to scoop the liquid from underneath the lettuce because that’s where the heat hides.

center point thai crispy pork with basil & chile

I can never not order crispy pork. It’s always going to happen if it’s on the menu, which is why the larb should’ve been something else like the also rich-and-fatty duck that I didn’t notice on the specials board until the end of the meal. Here, the fried chunks of pork were stir-fried with chile and basil, a classic. While it tasted unmistakably Thai, there was also something vaguely Chinese-y about this version compared to Sripraphai’s. It’s not like five-spice powder or soy sauce jumped out. All I can attribute it to is that Sriprahai’s is drier with fewer distractions while the Center Point style includes thickly sliced onions and green and red peppers more prominently. It was a very likeable dish, nonetheless.

I am certain I will return because there is no shortage of people who enjoy eating here that I could tag along with. There is much to be explored on the menu still.

Thailand’s Center Point * 63-19 39th Ave., Woodside, NY


Save Your Brioche Buns and Asiago Cheese For Someone Who Cares

Restaurants can try wooing diners all they like with exquisite millennial buns, Satisfries and Italiano burgers, but according to research firm NPD only 30% of Americans ordered a new-to-them item on their last restaurant visit. And among that group, 73% of the never-tried foods were already on the menu, neither new nor  limited-time promotions. One can only wonder how that new and scary pizza by the slice thing will work out for Pizza Hut.

Food That has Moved People to Tears In No Particular Order or Timeframe

Is crying in a restaurant ever acceptable? Probably not if you’re a baby and everyone around you paid roughly $400 for the chance to eat green apple flavored helium balloons and exploding black truffle ravioli (Alinea is likely the most notable restaurant I dined at in 2013 and never blogged about–more on that soon because I know you can’t wait for my opinion).

But what about the adults who weep literally (in the traditional sense of the word) because the beauty tasted was too much to contain? I kind of hate these people and their emotional availability (and no, I don’t mean that mid-2000s meme) so I’ve been collecting examples for the past few years, waiting for the right moment to do something with them. That time is now!

I would know nothing about this personally, having only been moved to tears by too many pre-birthday dinner Manhattans and a quoted 70-minute wait at an Edgewater, New Jersey Outback Steakhouse over a decade ago, but this soulful breed exists, if primarily in the pages of food and travel magazines.

Food that has moved people to tears, in no particular order or timeframe:

Mackerel tartare with osetra caviar

Grilled sole with olive oil, pine nuts, orange, bergamot, and fennel

Turkish ice cream

Truffle soup

Salmon, avocado and mayonnaise hand roll

47 courses during El Bulli’s final run


A meal that ends with five desserts including the Mont Blanc Snow-Bowl, resembling “a 3-D map of a winter landscape beneath a glass dome” that’s presented as the room turns blue and Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” plays.

Cronuts (lack of)

Double header: foie gras and fig and an oyster encrusted in “dirt.”

If there were any themes to be gleaned, I would say seafood and spectacles have high potential for making crybabies out of diners.

Uncool Cocktail Corner

dallas bbq frozen long island ice tea

Dallas BBQ continues to top itself. Thinking creative Times Square mixology, I went looking for the Red Velvet Piña Colada and shot of Bacardi 151 advertised last month. But no, instead the special was frozen Long Island Ice Tea with an Absolut shooter. Texas-sized, of course. Never mind that while the colors of each cocktail differ wildly (don’t forget the Apple Bottom Royale) they all kind of taste like the same sweet slush.

It’s slightly counter-intuitive but if you’re ever on 42nd St. and can’t take another ambling tourist, you should take refuge at the tri-level Dallas BBQ. There’s never a wait because it’s enormous and it’s filled top to bottom with locals who know how to appreciate a frozen drink.

One thing that BBQ has yet to tap into is the new breed of sweet flavored vodkas. Even an Irish bar in Queens was recently featuring a drink make with whipped cream vodka and gummy bears. And no, I did not order it.