Monday, March 14, 2016

Searching for Sushi in the City of Gold

View of Burj Al Arab from the Mina A'Salam Hotel's Private Beach
Dubai's Skyline

The Sushi Diva's Wanderlust Takes Her to Dubai

With more than 100 nationalities residing in the megacity of Dubai, and with cuisines that range from overpriced (in the glittery tourist traps that bedazzle the besotted, like me) to reasonable and authentic (in the modest, mom-and-pop shops that line the outskirts), it’s no wonder that in Dubai—a megalomaniac’s dream manifested in skyscrapers and resorts on shimmery desert sand—it’s easy to find sushi that parallels the city’s diversity.

In the week and a half of my quasi-Emirati odyssey, part foodie tour, part sightseeing, part delusional desert wonderland-chasing, I had my fair share of my favorite Japanese delicacy presented in various forms—highbrow, casual, fusion delight; in a fancy hotel, in a mall, in a hole-in-the-wall not yet fully discovered by all the locals.

I felt mixed emotions as I gallivanted through this artificial, overwhelming city in my hedonistic pursuits. Were it not for the Western business model of capitalism, perhaps greed, fear, and the human condition of never being satisfied, this kingdom built on fantasy and commerce might not even exist. What is it that makes us crave or desire anything, anyway? We are insatiable, seemingly, in our strife for more—more consumption, more thrills, taller buildings, larger shopping malls and souks. When and where does it end?

I felt partly riddled with guilt, as in my research I had read that this city’s construction has been criticized by human rights organizations concerning the treatment of its largely Southeast Asian workforce; yet I remained transfixed, curious about this hyped-up oasis that has been sold to the world as a glamorous playground for the extremely wealthy. (I found loopholes, however, that proved you don’t have to shell out big bugs to partake of what this destination has to offer, both for modest locals and wannabe-glam tourists.) And so I sallied forth into the mesmerizing, modernized desertscape….

YO! Sushi at The Dubai Mall

YO! Sushi written in Arabic
Enjoy the "Sit Take Eat Pay" Policy at YO! Sushi
Smoked Salmon and Chives Hosomaki
Salmon Skin Roll with Green Onions
Smoked Salmon Roll with Cream Cheese and Cucumber

YO! Sushi Wends Its Way into the Middle East

The Dubai Mall, of all places, happened to be the first attraction to which I gravitated on Day One of my trip: Hey, there is a method to my madness here...I felt it was a safe place to observe how the locals dressed in this Muslim country, in a walk-at-your-own-pace, air conditioned ambience.

I am difficult to please, and I am easy to please, I think to myself as I discover YO! Sushi inside The Dubai Mall. Normally I find ubiquitous chain restaurants to be obnoxious and repetitious; however, I felt pleased this time that YO! Sushi, headquartered in London, had wended its way into the Middle East. Although it's casual sushi, it's comfort sushi at a reasonable cost, and those who know me understand that I embrace (and blog about) all types of sushi, from the high-end to the lighter side of things, so that the world can see that not all sushi involves raw fish; it's not necessarily traditional, exorbitant or snooty. It need not be intimidating or confusing, and with the YO! Sushi chain, it can be approachable and fun at the same time.

I'm reminded of London when I catch a glimpse of chives in the smoked salmon roll that I pick up off the conveyor belt which snakes past my booth. (The English have a penchant for adding chives in their sushi rolls for some reason...that and red bell peppers.)

I'm a bit irked that they charge for bottled water here (I later learned that most touristy establishments in Dubai charge for water; they simply ask "Still or sparkling?" and next thing you know, you're paying $6 to $18 for a bottle of designer water wearing a dewy label).

The fact that there are signs in both English and Arabic everywhere amuses me. One side of the restaurant is open to the rest of the mall, and I'm enchanted as men and women saunter past me in Middle Eastern garb while clutching shopping bags emblazoned with Western brand names. The soothing sounds of the 24-meter-tall Dubai Mall Waterfall nearby lull me as they mix oddly with pop music in the background.

For good measure, I pluck non-sushi items off the conveyor belt as well: a chewy squid salad here (ah, there were red bell peppers in this one!), a trio of shumai there. The smoked salmon-wrapped roll of cream cheese and cucumber was actually quite aromatic, making me wish more sushi places offered more than just regular raw salmon.

Their to-go menu reveals more British sushi flair: a vegetable hand roll with strips of inari inside, the inclusion of dill in a poached salmon roll, the use of the chiefly Britain term aubergine as opposed to eggplant (there was an Aubergine Salad on the menu). And then you are quickly reminded that this is a melting pot in the Middle East, not London, when you spot a "Crispy Duck Futomaki" marinated in orange and Hoisin sauce, and a "Kimchee Salmon Salad."

YO! Sushi's motto is simple, and it's spelled out on a large sign in the middle of the joint: "SIT TAKE EAT PAY." Just like most sushi trains (otherwise known as conveyor belt sushi restaurants), YO! Sushi tallies up your plates at the end of your meal. How much simpler can it get?

The "Plate Rates" are broken down easily enough on a graph that appears on signs as well as on the menu: a lime green-rimmed dish costs Dhs 14 (as in 14 Dirhams, or AED$14, which is about $4.50 in U.S. dollars), while a yellow plate sets you back Dhs 26 (close to $8).

YO! Sushi
The Dubai Mall
Downtown Dubai, UAE
+971 800 9678744 or 800-YOSUSHI

The Best Place for Simple Sushi in Dubai

Sushi Counter at The Dubai Mall
Sushi Counter has the friendliest staff 
Mango Chutney California Roll
Crab and Beef Gunkan-Style Sushi
Tuna and Green Apple Roll with Blue Flowers

Introducing UAE's Simple Yet Delicious "Sushi Counter"

With its name stamped across the top in both English and Arabic, Sushi Counter in The Dubai Mall is an adorable little sushi stop with the friendliest staff. Their stylish, sleek black booklet menu reads “Tasti Sushi Quickli” across the top, and they have a simple logo that conjures an egg yolk, or perhaps a piece of hosomaki with orange yamagobo (or is that salmon?) in its center.

The menu promises “A unique approach to Japanese Cuisine,” which sounds trite until you open the booklet and see the variety of tartares, sample-size sashimi, roundish gunkan-style maki, chirashi, and creative rolls. Flip deeper into the menu and you’ll find ceviche and salads, even soups. There is a “lunch specials” section; and platters of sashimi, rolls, or sushi for AED$65 each.

With the vast array of quirky options, it is difficult to choose here: should it be the Salmon Mustard Miso California Roll? Perhaps a roll with smoked salmon, cream cheese and rice cracker bits on it? I decided on the Mango Chutney California Roll for AED$18 (only about $4.90)—because it implied the strangest and most random encounter, a sort of “India Meets California in Dubai” kind of taste experiment, and pistachios and and almonds just happened to be mixed in. It was delightfully fun and twisted, and it tasted like dessert.

The single piece of Sushi Counter's "Crab and Beef Sushi" cost AED$18 (about $4.90 in U.S. dollars), which is a bit pricey considering it's consumed in one bite, but the freshest ingredients and the interesting combination of surf and turf makes it worthwhile. It's chunky, saucy, meaty, and it has black sesame seeds on top. Another winner, in my opinion.

I couldn't pass up the floral and fruity "Tuna Green Apple California Roll," which had tuna, green apple and cucumbers inside, and a smattering of blue flowers rolled onto the exterior. This one cost AED$32 (about $9). The blue flowers, obviously only decorative, had no taste—or perhaps the other flavors took over. I love sushi that marries not only fruit, but flower petals.

Although I only visited Sushi Counter at The Dubai Mall, Sushi Counter actually has multiple locations throughout Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Sushi Counter's staff members are infectiously friendly, ever helpful as they seem to wear perennial beams of contentment. Good food, good service and good vibes...what more could you ask for?

Sushi Counter

The Dubai Mall
Downtown Dubai, UAE

Sushi at Armani/Hashi Beneath Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE

The Awe-Inspiring Burj Khalifa Towers Above
Sweet Wasabi Giant Prawn
Assorted Pickles and Umeboshi!
Chopped Tuna with Green Onions, Seaweed Strips
Fancy This: Yuzu Granita with Pop Rocks for Dessert

Dine Like a Royal at Armani/Hashi in Dubai

It wasn’t until I walked out of Armani/Hashi and gazed skyward that I realized I had actually been dining inside a veritable fortress of fine Japanese cuisine, built into the bottom of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building to date. There, towering high above me against the backdrop of ominously darkening skies and the phosphorescent moon, was the futuristic edifice that dwarfed the rest of the world.

It was no wonder Armani/Hashi had been such a posh restaurant, although the service was in no way snooty; rather, every staff member had been extremely gracious and pampering (as most service-industry people in Dubai tend to be). Were it not for everyone’s wacky version of the English language here, I might have felt a tad intimidated by my uber-luxurious surroundings. You had to step into a rotund elevator to descend into the underground gem (one staff member claimed even she still gets lost among these hallowed halls of sushi).

Armani/Hashi is the kind of place that treats you like royalty even though you happen to be dressed in casual clothes that day. It’s the kind of restaurant whose staff members will fuss over every minute detail, constantly rearranging your plates, your chopsticks; damned if your water glass wasn’t filled to the top every second.

That moment of bliss that enraptured me as I relished Armani/Hashi’s food and service was so intoxicating, that for a brief moment I decided I’ll just stay in this city—why not? Live it up, chase a mirage in the desert until it dissipates, enjoying every microsecond till the end.

But in the present moment, I see the cutest little pink peppercorns neatly tucked inside my Ise Ebi, or “Sweet Wasabi Giant Prawn,” for AED$90 (about $24 in U.S. currency). The hint of wasabi was also just right, the mayonnaise mixing well with it so that it seemed even the wasabi tasted sweet.

Ostensibly because of my zeal, the chef gifted me morsels of food—some not even on the menu: from the plate of Japanese pickles which included umeboshi, a super-tart, pickled salt plum (it’s round and purplish-red in color) to the bowl of chopped raw tuna served with dried green onions and salted seaweed strips with which to eat the robust red fish. The chef then handed me Toro Tataki served in a mini bowl, complete with a tiny sprig of kinome, or mint-flavored mini leaves of a prickly ash tree (this is frequently used as a garnish in traditional Japanese cuisine).

And lastly, for dessert, the chef insisted I try his “Yuzu Granita,” a frozen flavored-ice treat served with yuzu juice and something like pop rocks that crackled and fizzed in my mouth! As it was my first time having granita, I insisted the chef reveal the secret behind this little bowl filled with a mound of yellow-and-red, syrupy-crunchy powder concoction, with a little wooden spoon sticking out of it. (A friend had questioned if that were a photo of bath salts when I first sent it to her.)

“It’s like a sorbet,” the chef replied. (Later I would learn that granita is only truly different from sorbet in that it has a crunchier texture due to the freezing process. As the liquid freezes, it forms large ice crystals.)

I vowed I would return to this place at the tail end of my excursion, but it was not meant to be, as plenty of other locations beckoned with their unique menus and tempted me with too many flavors. I believe gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins that best describes me….

Armani Hotel Dubai, Downtown Dubai, UAE
04 888 3888

My Nobu Dining Experience at Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai

Atlantis, The Palm on Palm Jumeriah Island in Dubai
Obsiblue Prawns (Before)
Obsiblue Prawn Sushi (After)
Carabineros (or Scarlet) Shrimp on Display
Seared Scarlet Shrimp Sushi
Lobster Tempura with Three Sauces

Zen and the Art of Nobu

Nobu, as we understand, is a brand, and brand-name restaurants can be tricky. On the one hand, we associate the name with luxury, celebrity chefdom, and exquisite dishes made for the most discerning palates. On the other hand, we question if trendiness, high prices and premium locations necessarily catapult that brand to the top of all sushi echelons in the area.

The Nobu location in this case—ready?—is situated inside the Atlantis Resort at the very top of the large, man-made rock breakwater encircling the man-made island shaped like a palm tree known as Palm Jumeriah, which extends into the Arabian Gulf.

Whew. To eat there or not to eat there?

I am sucked in by the hypnotic, oversize aquariums teeming with the most fascinating sea creatures—sharks, stingrays, innumerable schools of fish—that surround the restaurant in the resort, and at the same time, I am disconcerted by the artificiality, the pretentiousness, the tourist-trap vibe of it all.

Nobu Matsuhisa is a reputable restaurateur and chef; I revere him, I have met him, and he is quite down to earth for a busy man who has opened Nobu locations all over the world.

I felt torn, but in the end, I succumbed—to the ambience, the well-heeled hostesses, the fawning. And quite simply, I was famished. I practically somnambulated into the restaurant, I was in such a dreamlike state. And oh, the d├ęcor! Was I just like all the others, a silly tourist after all? Snap.

I commenced my meal with the as-yet-unheard-of-by-me prawn sushi (the first one “Obsiblue Prawn” and the second one, “Carabineros Prawn,” also known as “Scarlet Shrimp”), both of which were ineffable and prepared with the most delicate precision and skill.

The exotic Obsiblue shrimp was grilled and practically massaged until it became a perfect morsel of delight on a mound of sushi rice. Its smoky essence smoldered in my mouth, and I couldn’t believe that just moments before, it was one of several cold, bluish silver, alien-looking butterflied shrimps on a tray in a display case.

Unlike its simpler counterpart, the Scarlet Shrimp sushi was seared with garlic, ginger, yuzu soy, sesame oil, olive oil and chives. The flavors coalesced perfectly: I was tempted to over-order the same thing again and again so I wouldn’t yearn for it when I went back home. The Scarlet Shrimp was so meaty it seemed muscular; there was a satisfying, lobsteresque bite to it.

I ended my meal with the Americanized, super-battered lobster tempura with three sauces (jalapeno dip, spicy ponzu sauce, and creamy mayonnaise sauce)…because I am a fan of Nobu’s notable tempura items, and because I knew it would be indulgent and that it would fill me up, the hedonist-glutton-tourist that I am. In my opinion, this plate was overpriced for what you got, but I kept in mind that I was really paying for the location, the ambience, and the name. For enhancement and filler, mushroom tempura and what appeared to be asparagus or green bean tempura were thrown in the mix, puffing up the appearance of the dish. I felt rather delighted by the unexpected bed of black bits known as hijiki, a brown sea vegetable that grows on rocky coastlines, upon which all the tempura pieces were arranged. That was a nice touch, for I feel that plain nests of shredded daikon tend to be overused. As Nobu knows, it’s about presentation.

The young, enthusiastic Filipino sous chef beams with a genuinely friendly smile, like so many service people I have met on this trip. His zeal reminds me of the caliber of staff at Armani/Hashi; it’s clearly no accident that the most pleasant people are chosen to cater to your every whim and turn in this city; just don’t expect to not repeat all of your questions, for Dubai’s diversity also means just about everyone here speaks a different version of English. You learn to nod and smile when you clearly don’t understand what is being communicated after a couple of attempts.

Was I satisfied afterwards? No. Not because it wasn’t delicious, because it was, but because I am never completely satisfied, and dining on a man-made tourist-trap island left something to be desired; you feel bereft of something afterwards…perhaps meaning.

Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai, UAE

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sip, Dip, Roll at Moshi "Momo & Sushi" of Dubai

Moshi: Momo & Sushi
Cheesy Chips Oman Roll
Cheesy Chips Oman Roll: with pink soy paper,
cream cheese and crushed cheesy chips
Nepalese-Style Pero Pero Chicken Momos
Falafel, Hummus & Cucumber Roll
Chicken Tikka Roll with Tikka Mayonnaise

My Last Sushi Stop in the City of Gold

On my last night in Dubai, as I bid farewell to the good and the bad (the fantasy architecture, the frenetic traffic, the beautiful resorts and their private beaches, the hardship of those looking for work in a merciless yet often innocently friendly artificial land), I decided to choose a sushi bar wisely. I had experienced overpriced resort sushi (once was enough); I had enjoyed casual, fun sushi served by the best servers yet; and then there was the elegant, pricey-but-well-worth-it sushi at Armani/Hashi with the wonderfully gracious staff and exceptional courses. Deciding to do things the old fashioned way for a change, I bought a “Time Out Dubai” magazine at a Metro station store and perused the Japanese dining section. And there it was, Moshi, described as “a quirky spot serving a fusion of sushi and Nepalese momos,” with a modest price range of Dhs 40-100. I admit the words “Open daily 11am to midnight” also offered a nice break, as most of the other restaurants on the same list stated they weren’t open until 7pm.

What were momos? And Nepalese momos, for that matter? What kind of fusion sushi did they offer? There was only one way to find out. What I discovered was a little block of a sushi shop located behind Mall of the Emirates and across from Citymax Hotel, with a color scheme of orange, silver, white and black. And splashed across the top of the shop was the single word Moshi.

Moshi, as it turns out, is a portmanteau of the words Momo and Sushi. And momos, I learned, are dumplings native to Nepal and Tibet. (Momo actually means dumplings in Nepalese.) For a little mom-and-pop store that’s only been open for about six months, I thought it was a quite clever name for this up-and-coming place; also clever were their catchphrases written on the wall: “Sip Dip Roll,” and “Once a Moshi-holic, Always a Moshi-holic.”

I was about to become a Moshi-holic: the waitress immediately suggested their most unusual and popular item: the “Cheesy Chips Oman” roll, which only cost AED$21 (about $7). Based on the name, I really didn’t know what to anticipate. What was placed before me was a six-piece sushi roll unlike any sushi roll I had ever seen. The colors were white and a light brownish-yellow, with a bit of pink peeping out (that turned out to be the pink soy paper in which it was rolled); the surface was craggy and spiky—clearly, these “Oman-style cheesy chips” had been crushed into bits and then sprinkled all over the roll until it was practically covered beneath a roof of it. And then the surprise in the center of the rolls: cream cheese!

The waitress giggled at my paroxysm of pleasure almost as soon as I stuck a piece of it in my mouth. It was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. The smoothness of the cream cheese balanced the salty-spicy crunch of the cheesy chips just right.

Moshi caters to both vegetarians and meat lovers, as their menu is divided into “VEG” and “NON VEG” items. From the “NON VEG” momo menu, I indulged in a plate of spicy “Pero Pero Chicken Momos,” served to me with a homemade spicy chili garlic sauce, as well as a tomato and sesame sauce.

One of the managers explained to me that it’s a goal of theirs to show diners that sushi is not just about raw fish—it can be vegetarian, such as the “Cheesy Chips Oman” roll, which is probably about the most creative vegetarian option I have ever seen in my life at a sushi restaurant.

“As children we all liked cheesy chips, so we brought that into the menu,” he said.

In the States, some sushi bars don’t even know what an ume shiso roll is, much less a kampyo or oshinko roll. Yamaimo is even more obscure. Imagine their surprise when I tell the tale of the “Cheesy Chips Oman” roll!

Sushi, unlike what most people realize, is actually defined as cooked vinegared rice combined with ingredients such as seafood, meat, vegetables, and even fruit. Not all sushi is raw, and not all sushi includes meat. Seaweed may or may not be used. As such, some chefs transgress metes and bounds with their creativity—I have seen grapefruit sushi; seared Kobe beef nigiri; and deep-fried dessert rolls filled with tropical fruits, chocolate chips and graham cracker bits.

And now I’m about to see what happens when Nepalese, Indian, Middle Eastern and Japanese cuisines are fused together. Rolls like the “Falafel, Hummus and Cucumber roll” blew my mind. For AED$21, or about $7, you can have chunks of crunchy falafel and cool cucumber smeared in hummus and then served in a sushi roll, with Tahini sauce on the side. Then, as a salute to Indian cuisine, I ordered the Chicken Tikka roll for AED$24. The Chicken Tikka roll came with a smear of what appeared to be spicy mayonnaise on top, but was actually a special “Tikka mayonnaise.” My mouth was on fire…not the worst it’s ever been, but this was quite spicy for a sushi place. Or perhaps it was the spiciness of the momos….

Feeling exultant that I had chosen Moshi with which to bid farewell to the “City of Gold,” I prepared to depart the United Arab Emirates, delusional dreams intact.

Al Barsha area, Dubai, UAE