If you’ve gone to the trouble of assembling a priceless collection of jaw-droppingly exquisite metalwork, ceramics, jewellery, woodwork, textiles and glass that spans 1,400 years, and you’ve put them in a stunning building designed by the architect I M Pei, then you don’t get just anyone in to do the catering. At the Museum of Islamic Art on Doha’s Corniche waterfront, your coffee and sandwiches come courtesy of Alain Ducasse, one of the most celebrated chefs on the planet, with 19 Michelin stars to his name.
Ducasse has also just opened IDAM – a full-on fine-dining restaurant – on the museum’s fifth floor, which served its first customers last night. In Qatar, they don’t do things by half. And with one of the strongest and fastest-growing economies in the world (founded on the discovery in of oil in 1939 and the largest single concentration of natural gas in 1971), why would they? The nation’s flag carrier, Qatar Airways, has grown at a phenomenal rate, and in early December becomes the first airline to fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Heathrow – which will operate one of the five daily non-stop trips. (The airline has just launched a new in-flight menu created by chefs Tom Aikens, Nobu Matsuhisa, Vineet Bhatia and Ramzi Choueiri.)
Qatar sticks up like a thumb from Saudi Arabia, halfway down the west coast of the Gulf. Under the rule of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar, and more specifically its capital Doha, on the peninsula’s central eastern coast, has developed at a furious rate.
Over the past decade, Qatar’s population has doubled to more than 1.5 million, 85 per cent of which is migrant workers from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, other Arab states and beyond, who have helped to construct the city’s Manhattan-like West Bay skyline, Katara Cultural Village, the vast Pearl-Qatar (a man-made island development of apartments, restaurants and shops) and numerous malls.
This growth and the nation’s enormous wealth have meant plenty of opportunities for international luxury brands. As well as fashion names such as Givenchy and Cavalli at the gleaming (but deserted when I visited) Gate Mall, high-end restaurant groups are being attracted to the city. Next year a branch of Nobu will occupy a purpose-built home on the marina at the Four Seasons hotel; modern Japanese Megu is already trading at the Pearl-Qatar and is soon to be joined by a fine dining restaurant from three-Michelin-starred Paris-based chef Guy Savoy.
While this news might make locals and business travellers salivate (the latter, along with passengers in transit, makes up 95 per cent of visitors to Qatar), it’s not necessarily going to help the Qatar Tourism Authority meet its goal of boosting tourism by 20 per cent over the next five years. What is going to attract the inquisitive visitor if all they are going to find is an ersatz London, New York (a branch of that city’s Jazz at Lincoln Center has recently opened at the St Regis Hotel) or Paris?
The good news is that beyond the modern extravagance, there are still traces of a Qatari heritage that goes back to the 13th century, when it was an important pearling centre. Souq Waqif isn’t quite that old, but it does date back more than 100 years to when Doha was a small village where Bedouins would arrive with camel meat, milk and dates to sell. Qatari cuisine is generally quite simple, traditionally consisting of plain grilled or boiled fish and lamb and camel meat from Bedouin flocks. But over the years, the food has been enriched by foreign influences, introduced by the pearl traders who brought back cloves, cardamom and cinnamon from South-east Asia. The more recent influence of Lebanese and Syrian cooking has added dishes including mezze.
Although the souq was restored in 2004 it retains a traditional atmosphere: the covered alleys with their fabric shops, wooden booths with cross-legged cobblers, and narrow cafés lined with colourfully upholstered couches for locals to puff on shisha pipes. Cages of sad-looking rabbits and chicks dyed neon purple, pink and blue were a less appealing sight.
Souq Waqif is one of the few places in the city where you’ll find authentic Qatari cuisine. Unfortunately, Al Bandar the restaurant that I’d been tipped off about was closed and due to reopen in a new location on the Souq’s main restaurant road. But a row of open-air cafés in the centre offered traditional dishes such as harees (soaked split wheat and meat). Home-style dishes were being served by ladies dressed in traditional black abaya robes from stalls near the souq’s main parking area. I tried waraq enab (rice-stuffed vine leaves), madrooba (a thick, soft-textured stew of rice, vegetables and chicken) and umm ali (a sweet bread pudding made with nuts and white raisins).
Qatar has 563km of coastline, so seafood plays an important part in the nation’s cuisine. At L’Wzaar, one of several restaurants in the Katara Cultural Village complex (also home to an opera house, art galleries and a beach), I selected dazzlingly fresh fish from the large counter display to be cooked in an open kitchen to a method of my choice. Safi, a rather unpromising looking smallish grey fish that had been marinated in Arabic spices, turned out to have delicious delicate flesh and more-ish crispy skin once it had been pan-fried, while grilled king fish from the waters of neighbouring Saudi Arabia had a meaty texture similar to swordfish. To complete the meal, there was a range of salads and accompaniments such as mujaddara, a hummus-like Arabic dish made with puréed lentils and rice.
I found an equally good selection at the fish market on Salwa Road. Although the initial smell was off-putting, once past the gutting station and inside the air-conditioned, spotlessly clean market building, there was no aroma at all. Porters are on hand to take what you buy to be cleaned and will carry it to your car for a small tip. A kilo of prawns, some sharri or pig-face bream and a whole large hammour, a type of locally caught grouper, came to about £12. Next door, the furiously busy wholesale fruit and vegetable market is worth a look for the sheer energy of the place.
I also found hammour adding welcome local flavour and colour to the menus of two of the city’s top hotel restaurants, both run by international chefs. At Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market at the W Hotel, the fish is served roasted with a Malaysian chilli sauce and Thai basil, while at Gordon Ramsay’s Opal, at the St Regis, it comes as ceviche.
Shopping malls play an important role in the social life of the city, and while the food is mostly provided by the usual chains, there are a few anomalies worth checking out. The chicken kofta sandwiches at Al-Tazaj Fakieh in the City Centre Mall and other locations are cheap and delicious and whole baby barbecued chickens come with tubs of tahini and decent flatbreads. The Australian-owned Jones the Grocer café in the Gate Mall serves excellent coffee and European breakfasts in stylish, contemporary surroundings, but the must-visit is Wafi Gourmet, which serves Lebanese food at the Landmark Mall. Here, blistered flatbreads emerge tantalisingly hot from a large show oven, but the huge range of Arabic sweets, mezze and dried ingredients including rose leaves and molokhia (leaves of the corchorus plants used in soups and stews) is also impressive.
Qatari cuisine is virtually unknown outside the country and is served mostly in the home. It seems a shame that aside from using local seafood, international chefs don’t appear to be taking the opportunity to put their own spin on some indigenous dishes and help to preserve a heritage that can be difficult to spot among Doha’s futuristic landscape. That said, the food doesn’t really deliver the sort of sophisticated flavours you’ll find on a Vongerichten menu.
Doha may not be the gastronomic epicentre of the Middle East, but you can eat there well for a reasonable price (unless you factor in alcohol, available only in hotels and alarmingly expensive). It is also a fascinating place with global ambitions, due to host the World Cup in 2022. It can only get more intriguing.
Andy Lynes flew as a guest of Qatar Airways (0870 389 8090; qatarairways.com). Return flights from Heathrow to Doha start at £716. Qatar Airways flights to Doha are also available from Manchester from £691. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) also flies to Doha from Heathrow, with fares from £597.
Andy Lynes stayed at the Four Seasons Doha (00 974 4494 8888; fourseasons.com/doha) where a superior room starts at QR1,500 (£260).
Qatar Tourism: qatartourism.gov.qa