In his regular column, our art and food specialist Cedar Lewisohn tucks into some Arabian perfection.
I was recently in Doha, the capital of Qatar, for a project. I thought I would splurge and go for dinner at the Alain Ducasse restaurant at the Museum of Islamic Art – but before I went inside, I wandered through a market in front of the museum and tried a couple of drinks. The first thing I had was a cup of hot ginger milk. The woman selling it didn’t speak English, and my Arabic is slim, so I couldn’t get much information. It tasted great – hot milk and ginger with something a little sweeter; so simple and lovely. Why have I never had this before?
Next, I spoke to a guy selling cold drinks. He told me he was Palestinian-Jordanian, but born in Qatar. He had a liquorice juice made to a recipe of his mother’s that he said I just had to try and also roselle juice, which is actually something I’ve been experimenting with in London. While I have been having it hot, like a flowery tea, my new friend served it ice cold. It has a mild, fragrant flavour and is very refreshing. Lastly, I had a little sip of tamarind juice. It was thick and spicy with a serious kick.
After the drinks, I headed to the restaurant. If you’ve never seen it, The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is one of the most spectacular museums on the planet; a stunning yet refined mixture of minimal sacred geometry and exquisite craftsmanship, all on a monumental scale. For those that don’t know, Alain Ducasse is one of the most respected Michelin starred chefs in the world, so his restaurant fits right into this context of immaculate perfection.
The restaurant’s food is a precise in every detail. The menu is classic modern French cuisine, mixed with locally sourced ingredients and flavours. The service is faultless and the meal was magical, a feast of multiple sensations, every dish a kind of theatre, exactly as haute cuisine should be. Alain Ducasse is alleged to have once said that “Desserts are like mistresses, if you’re going to have one, you might as well have three”, and they certainly love their dessert trolley in this place – as well as their tea trolley and their bread trolley. Indeed, the trolleys, like everything in the restaurant, are fantastically designed objects in their own right. By the time the meal ends there is a slight feeling of hanging out on a different planet, or perhaps a restaurant on The Starship Enterprise.
I came back down to earth on the last night of my trip when I took a taxi to the souk. I wanted to pick up some funky spices I’d heard about – massive black rock salt crystals and another weird rock-like thing called Sumak Arabi, which I’m told you dissolve in water, along with some regular sumac powder. After the spice store I stumbled upon a fairly awesome kebab house. The menu had some pretty wild options, everything from an entire boiled sheep’s head to a traditional Iraqi breakfast of fava beans, eggs and naan bread with onion and lemon. I opted for hummus and meat – two things I love. The bread came straight from the oven and I tucked right in. I washed it down with a very delicious glass of mint and lemon juice. As far as kebab experiences go, this was pretty perfect. I was in Doha, in the heart of the Middle East. It was a warm evening, and I was hanging out at an ancient souk, eating hummus. There was even a live soundtrack of quirky Arabic pop in the background. A perfect Arabian night.