Dubai is a mirage; it doesn't exist. Instead, there is Dubaiworld, an artificial world of "worlds". You can visit Internet City, enter Media City, go to Business Bay or Dubai Festival City, approach Silicon Oasis and stroll through Studio City. Next up is a new £10bn theme park entitled Dubailand.
So it's no surprise to feel that you are leaving Dubai behind when you enter Verre, Gordon Ramsay's plush, cool restaurant on the first floor of the futuristic Hilton Dubai Creek Hotel. This is Ramsayworld, a satellite planet of killer air-conditioning, glass panels and widely spaced, double-clothed tables. You could be in Paris, New York or London, surrounded by the same French sommeliers, walls of vintage wines, trolleys of Cognac, and expensively dressed tourist diners.
Since it opened in 2001, Verre has established itself as the premium Dubai restaurant, recommended by every guide. In its short life, it has produced two of London's most fêted chefs: Angela Hartnett, now at The Connaught, and Jason Atherton, currently picking up rave reviews at Maze in Grosvenor Square.
I'm here to check out the next star pupil of the Ramsay Finishing School for Wayward Chefs, Lancashire-born Jason Whitelock. At this early stage, the menu doesn't show much of his own personality. Instead, it is pure Ramsay with its proliferation of pork belly (caramelised, with seared scallops, celeriac purée and Oscietra caviar; and braised, with pommes mousseline and spiced jus); foie gras (pressed and layered with confit and smoked goose; and sautéed with potato gallette and a Sauternes sauce); and pineapple (pineapple ravioli of mango, raspberry and vanilla cream).
Also typical of the Ramsay Way are the generous amuse gueules; including the signature aubergine purée, which must feel more at home in the Middle East than in Mayfair. Two hand-made potato crisps sandwich a smear of foie gras in the perfect meeting of the everyday and the exotic, while choux pastry balls filled with truffled cream cheese are like savoury bliss bombs.
Next comes a chilled but still intense gazpacho broth, which is ceremoniously poured at the table over freshly diced cucumber and tomato.
It is something of a ritual with me in a Ramsay establishment to unwittingly order the one dish that most resembles the complimentary appetiser, and yep, I've done it again. A vine-tomato minestrone (£8.50) is another tomato-based broth, although it far exceeds its job description by being a clear, flavour-packed tomato tea broth in which float tiny white beans, crunchy little bibs and bobs of celery, carrot and zucchini, a spinach-filled tortellini, and a roasted langoustine. This is minestrone refined into something altogether dazzling.
Another showstopper is the roasted fillet of red mullet (£11), a luscious piece of fish topped with a dollop of olive tapenade, and bottomed with rich, red tomato-based ratatouille. It is chaperoned by three little yabbies (Australian crayfish) that are sweet and fresh, with none of the bland muddiness often encountered in a yabbie.
You could bankrupt yourself ordering wine in Dubai. Only hotels are allowed to sell alcohol, and even then it carries ferociously taxed mark-ups. At Verre, you could speed up the process by indulging in the Latour 1982 for £2,924 or the Petrus 1975 for £4,723. Even a relatively modest, if perfectly pleasant, Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir is a hefty £55.
At around £20 a main course, the food is far better value. Steak and eggs gets a designer makeover in Verre's pan-fried fillet of beef (£23), a monolith of pink-centred beef capped with a thin disc of caramelised pig's trotter, itself topped with a perfect fried quail egg. Morels, pearl onions and pieces of kohlrabi dot the pour-on Madeira jus like architectural rubble.
More serious food architecture comes in the form of moulded couscous, layered with a raft of asparagus spears supporting three fleshy lobes of impeccably fresh, sautéed John Dory fillet (£22). Yet another pour-on moment results in a moat of sauce antiboise, an easy-going tomato sauce strewn with squidlings.
The final course is often where the whole edifice crumbles, but instead, the meal steps up a notch, with a very delicate chocolate fondant cleverly served cold, complete with liquid centre, a frothy milk mousse, and dreamy white chocolate ice cream (£6). Freshly made petits fours show a pastry chef who works right up to the line rather than doing everything beforehand.
The dining experience is classically sedate, although the lighting, from very bright ceiling lamps, is a bit glary. Nevertheless, the elegance and sense of balance at Verre is actually closer to Gordon Ramsay's three-star restaurant in Hospital Road than the more commercial dining rooms of Claridge's, The Connaught and the Savoy. Whitelock is not rocking any boats, but is able to refine and make light, what lesser chefs would make heavy. We can all look forward to his graduation and eventual return to Londonworld.
17 Verre Hilton Dubai Creek, Beniyas Road, Dubai, tel: 00 971 4 227 1111. Dinner Sunday to Friday, around £155 for two, including wine and service
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: Dining in Dubai
Al Iwan Burj Al Arab, Jurmeirah Road, Dubai, tel: 00 971 4 301 7777 To get into the Burj hotel, you either have to book a room (from £1,000 a night) or a table. Your best bet is the Arabic and international buffet at the glamorous, golden Al Iwan restaurant, for around £40 a head. Dip into hummous, cheesy rakakat pastries, couscous, exquisite sweetmeats, and the dreamy mouhoulabia, a rosewater cream made with camel's milk.
Shabestan InterContinental Dubai, Bin Yas Street, Dubai, tel: 00 971 4 222 7171 In the city of the new, Shabestan is an old friend, serving traditional Persian food rather than the ubiquitous buffet or bloody awful fusion food. The baker brings hot flatbread straight from his clay oven, the band plays Iranian music, and the menu lists slow-cooked lamb shanks with rice, dill and broad beans, loads of kebabs, pomegranate chicken, and a delicious warm aubergine puree with yoghurt and fried onion.
Amwaj Shangri-La Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, tel: 00 971 4 343 8888 Renowned for its fabulously fresh seafood, and notorious for chef Adam Melonas' way-out flavour combos (tuna in Nutella tempura with strawberry, mint and balsamic pesto), this sleek, coolly modern restaurant recently introduced a list of Arabic-influenced dishes, from seafood tagine to hamour (a type of grouper) with Arabic scalloped potatoes, to marinated lamb chops with kofta-stuffed potato.
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