Dubai - First Impressions

I've moved house. And I'm not just a few tube stops away. I've upped sticks from our little flat in Aldgate East and moved even further east. 4, 500 miles east, to be precise - to Dubai! I'll be here for the next six months while on secondment with my law firm. Two weeks into the experience, I think that if I were to describe this place as a brave new world that would be an understatement, because Dubai is unquestionably one of the craziest cities I've ever been to - an insane mash-up of Vegas, Hong Kong and New York on speed. Everything here is excessive - the extravagant Friday brunch parties start at the breakfast table and often end up in the club hours later, the Burj Khalifa glitters on a horizon littered with insanely high skyscrapers, and the road below my building, screamingly loud at all hours of the day and night, is so long it stretches all the way to Abu Dhabi. 

Lukas came to stay for the weekend a few weeks ago to explore the city with me and help me settle into my flat. It was a bittersweet trip. We celebrated his 26th birthday with excellent, cheap Pakistani food at Ravi's. We hit Kite Beach, a clean and - amazingly for Dubai - free public beach, for pistachio and strawberry ice creams and a cooling dip in the Persian Gulf. We ate an excellent Levantine dinner at Bait Maryam, a hidden gem tucked away in a residential area surrounded by skyscrapers and deep, black lakes. We learned about the history of the area at Dubai Museum and found a buffet lunch in Bur Dubai at Rangoli's, even more excellent and even cheaper than Ravi's at a mere £5.50 per head, our large metal platters filled generously and repeatedly with vessels of curry, buttery rotis and sweet, sticky halwa. We caught a 20p abra across Dubai Creek to see the bustling souks of Deira, crammed with spices and diamond rings so flashy they made me screw up my eyes. 

But all too soon, we were crying on a pavement outside the airport, unable to even hug goodbye due to strict public decency laws. Smiling bravely, Lukas packed me into a taxi bound for the office and I craned my neck to gaze out of the back window, watching him recede into the distance until he was just a speck on the horizon, as the taxi driver silently passed me a box of tissues.

I can't deny that the last few weeks have been hard. Of course they have been. My love is halfway around the world, remaining in our flat and the city I've lived in for over 25 years. My amazing support network of family and friends has been snatched away from me. But I am slowly settling in, learning to live on my own again for the first time in four years, with all the independence (and terrible eating habits) that that entails. It really is thrilling to be living in a different country for the first time. And my loved ones are, after all, only a Skype call or a Whatsapp away.

I'll be here for the next six months on secondment with my law firm, and can't wait to get to know the whole region while I'm here - so if you're planning a trip to the UAE any time from now until the end of September, drop me a line!

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You might not expect to find a Chinese restaurant in a church. The idea of the two worlds mingling - sacred and profane - might seem incongruous, possibly even blasphemous. And yet, Duddell's exists: a Hong Kong hotspot (the original outpost boasting a Michelin star) transplanted into the magnificent surrounds of St Thomas's Church in London Bridge.

Duddell's is a stone's throw away from Borough Market, situated firmly in the old London that Dickens inhabited. However, even though we're almost 6000 miles away from the original Duddell's, its elegant Hong Kong aesthetic is very much present within this 17th century church setting, the shell of which remains intact. I can't help but gape as I walk into the restaurant, marvelling at how the designer has married modern elements such as the bronze light fittings and vivid green panels around the bar with original ecclesiastical details: the wood altar at the back and the tall clerestory windows, which exude a soft wintry light.

Tiny touches at Duddell's make for a pleasurable dining experience. For example, all the tableware is beautiful, from the raspberry-like water glasses with slender stems to jade-coloured chopstick rests. As for the ceramics, I want to take every piece home with me. I also love the pad complete with HB pencil for ticking off our orders, takeaway-style.

We came to raise a glass (and a pair of chopsticks) to my mum finally receiving her graduation certificate after decades and decades. Better not to ask - better to toast the occasion instead (and thank god it's your parents footing the bill when the restaurant is this pricey). The Duddell's cocktails have been given pleasing East Asian twists and I enjoy my spicy Screwpine negroni with pandan and coconut oil.

We order a range of familiar dishes - squid, duck, dumplings. As befitting the venue, each classic dish is on a higher plane than those you'll find at your average Cantonese restaurant. I love that the salt and pepper squid, adorned with hon shimeji mushrooms, comes with buttery scraps from the deep frying - northerners, eat your heart out.

The showstopper of the meal here is definitely the Peking duck, theatrically carved beside our table by the beaming manager. I wrote about Xu's alternative take on Peking duck with their bone marrow pancakes recently, but here it's a more traditional affair: glazed morsels of duck with gleaming lacquered skin wrapped up in pancakes with cucumber and spring onion. The more adventurous can also choose from a cornucopia of other condiments: pomelo, pineapple, mandarin, sesame or white wine bean sauces, or, most excitingly, fennel sugar. My family smack their lips and pronounce the latter divine.

In the past I've been disappointed when, after carving, the roast duck carcass is carted away, flesh wastefully clinging to the bones - but Duddell's does things differently. The leftover meat is cooked into a second dish, with your choice of truffle sauce, ginger and spring onion or black pepper martell, and we choose the latter.

It's a Saturday morning, and that means dim sum. Duddell's dim sum is fun. The waiter brings a humble bamboo steamer to the table, and as he takes the lid off, the steamer transforms into a fishing basket, bulging with a very special catch: king crab, scallop and prawn dumplings in the shape of cute darting goldfish.

A quick intermission and warning: you're about to see a LOT of desserts. Now if you're familiar with your Chinese restaurants, you'll know that this is unusual. At most, you're likely to find a humble egg tart, banana fritter, mango jelly or perhaps, excitingly, a beancurd pudding with slices of tinned peach or glacé cherry on the menu. As you're about to see, this is not the case at Duddell's. (Full disclosure - the manager saw me snapping away with my Canon, asked me if I was a blogger, then brought the entire selection of puddings to the table on the house completely unbidden. I gather these were not on the menu for the original waves of reviewers and influencers who visited. Never look a gift horse in the mouth!)

Coconut and lime pannacotta topped with lychee sorbet and ringed with pale blobs of sweet pandan crémeux. Fresh and tropical tasting, it takes me straight to the night market in Malaysia, sipping lychee juice bobbing with ice cubes and lychees in the oppressive heat, with the promise of a pandan-heavy cendol to come. There's probably some Hong Kong nostalgia these flavours should be conjuring up but you can only draw on your own experience!

Crème brûlée with gingerbread, mandarin and tangerine. The actual crème brûlée has clearly been executed by a chef who knows their pastry, while the little leafy branch of gingerbread garnished with jewel-like dried tangerine skin and gold leaf makes for an attractive accompaniment.

Smooth, creamy yuzu tart with almond sable, black sesame crisps and a little quenelle of yuzu ice cream perched on top - a playfully deconstructed alternative to your classic tarte au citron.

A range of palate-cleansing fruity sorbets.

Szechuan pepper pineapple. I was less keen on this dessert as I'm not pineapple's number one fan but  thought it was very creative - I liked the fusion of Middle Eastern and Eastern flavours and thought that the pepper added an interesting extra dimension. I also enjoyed the creative presentation, with the sphere of pineapple sorbet sitting on top of the fibres of sweet kadaifi like an egg in a nest.

Finally, the very beautiful macadamia nut délice, with sunshine-bright kumquats and caramelised nuts. I thought that each element here was essential: rich chocolate, sweet, creamy macadamia and sharp kumquat in two guises - cool sorbet and glistening puréed beads. This pud tied for first place with the coconut pannacotta.

I came away from Duddell's feeling animated and satisfied, perplexed that I was pulling on a winter coat when I had the tropical flavours of humid Hong Kong on the brain. There's no denying that unless you've got cash to splash, this is very much a destination for occasion dining - but the restaurant is clearly engineered to please a clientele looking to celebrate. It offers a luxurious experience with delicious, creative Cantonese food; an exciting addition to the array of high-end Chinese restaurants in London and the dining scene in general.

Disclaimer: As stated above, the desserts were served on the house. My opinions on the meal, however, remain my own.

9A St Thomas Street
London SE1 9RY

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Visiting Xu is like travelling through space and time. Stepping off the dank streets of the no man's land on the outskirts of Chinatown and theatreland, you squeeze through Xu's wooden doors and suddenly find yourself in 1930s Taipei. It's a world of darkly gleaming leather booths and neatly pressed smiling staff dressed in white, filled with the soft buzz of conversation and the clacking of mahjong tiles being washed in the private rooms at the back. Ceiling fans whirl overhead, there are fabulous Asian-inspired cocktails on tap from a lacquered bar on the first floor and as you pore through a menu that resembles an old Chinese newspaper you may feel as if you're sitting down to dinner on a humid evening in the East. I myself rather wished I'd dressed to kill in a tight cheongsam, hair in a bun and a slash of red lipstick.

Xu hails from the Bao family, but if you've arrived hoping for a bite of one of those little fluffy gua bao, you'll be disappointed. Don't worry, though - there's a far more expansive menu here, offering everything from xiao tsai (bar snacks) to dumplings, buns and huge mains. In my opinion, these combined with the beautiful surrounds make for a more high-end dining experience.

The xiao tsai I mentioned before: chilled clams on ice, given an almost nuclear glow with basil oil and a chilli marinade. I thought these made for a fun visual alternative to oysters on ice as a starter.

Dumplings, cuttlefish toast and xian bing. The latter were filled with pork so I didn't try them, but my family (still bemused by my refusal to eat meat at this point) benevolently ordered me taro dumplings filled with sweet potato and miso sitting in a pool of bright green sauce. The best of the three was the crisp, salty cuttlefish toast accompanied by whipped cod's roe mousse for dipping - a playful, elevated take on the classic Chinese takeout menu, prawn toast.

XO carabinero prawns which left us with messy fingers and zero regrets.

The standout dish: little chunks of smoked eel soaked in a tangy tomato sauce and crowned with tangles of dried daikon. This delivered on multiple levels, mixing and balancing sweet, salt and sour flavours and offering an appealing array of textures. Loved the minimal presentation too.

Beef shortrib and marrow pancakes: a pleasingly creative twist on classic Peking duck pancakes.  Although I didn't try this, I enjoyed the ceremonial process to be adhered to: scraping clean the bone filled with marrow and ground shortrib and sprinkled with potato and carefully adding it to the traditional thin pancakes along with the usual accoutrements of thinly sliced cucumber and spring onion.

Chilli egg drop crab and grilled sea bass topped with chilli. I thought the sea bass was presented in a striking manner - with its stripes of red and green, it was almost like a flag - but unfortunately the taste was a little forgettable. The crab, meanwhile, was delicious - a riot of flavour yet not overpoweringly spicy, with the sweet brown and white crab meat mixed with chilli, garlic and fermented shrimp, the texture enlivened with little bubbles of cod roe.

Finally, pudding. I've often observed that in Asia there's less of a focus on dessert, as they tend to focus on working sweet flavours into savoury dishes, and so perhaps there's less of a need for something sugary after the main courses have been put away. But that's not to say that the Taiwanese don't take their pudding seriously. Here, we were presented with a light dome of ma lai cake encased in a sweet little bamboo steamer. It was hard not to feel nostalgic eating this cake - I felt it evoked a bygone era, recalling steamed cakes served with custard under the warm glow of the heaters in the school canteen, or perhaps colonial Malaysia, as it came accompanied by little vessels of condensed milk and orange butterscotch sauce. 

In my next blog post, I'll be writing about a restaurant that turns my preconceptions about Asian desserts upside down. For now, I hope you've enjoyed reading this review half as much as I enjoyed the experience of eating the food. This was a sensationally enjoyable meal - a true feast for the senses, and probably one of my favourite meals of the year. I might have to learn mahjong so I can legitimately rent out one of the back rooms...

30 Rupert Street
London W1

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Pearl Liang

Gong xi fa cai/Kung hei fat choi! It's the sixth day of Chinese New Year - the Year of the Dog, specifically. I may be late to the party as always, but in the spirit of making a new start, I'm breaking months of silence with three special posts on where you should go to eat this Chinese New Year and beyond. 

Nestled in Paddington Basin, Pearl Liang isn't one of London's most well known Chinese restaurants but is still a firm family favourite. The Lims have frequented this place loyally for years for their lobster noodles and lychee martinis, and it has added sentimental value for me as the place we went to celebrate on the evening I was offered my current job.

CNY is all about spending time with your loved ones, so Lukas and Briony's boyfriend were invited along for the ride (for Lukas's first CNY meal!) We toasted the new year with the classic lychee martinis and bellinis as well as a round of Tsingtao for the men. Then this magnificent plate of yee sang, or lo hei, was placed in front of us. It's a lucky salad eaten at CNY in Malaysia and Singapore, but is apparently not a typically Chinese tradition. I've asked mainland and Hong Kong Chinese whether they know about this dish and have been met with blank faces. While it might not be strictly traditional, it remains a typical example of a Chinese New Year dish made lucky through wordplay - if you flip 'yee sang' round you get 'sang yee', which translates roughly as 'thriving business'. 

Pearl Liang's yee sang is fresh and crunchy, with salmon sashimi used for the raw fish component, - my kind of salad! It's also a lot of fun to eat - everyone stands up and uses their chopsticks to toss and swirl the ingredients around while saying 'huat'. I reckon even the most staid of diners would derive a measure of glee from destroying that carefully constructed pile. Pearl Liang only serves this at CNY, so you'll have to make a special trip at this time of year if you want to try it.

Another dish you shouldn't miss at this time of the year is noodles of any kind - the longer the better! Noodles symbolise longevity, for obvious reasons, and if you go to a Chinese restaurant you'll probably see the waiters lifting them up high to emphasise the length for the expectant diners. You're sure to have a full and rich life if you're lucky enough to be eating these sticky noodles, heavy on the garlic and ginger, with a generous serving of plump lobster. 

Also on the table for CNY: crunchy kai lan with abalone (a Chinese delicacy - but essentially a sea snail!) and scallops, silky mushrooms with more greens and seafood rice for the 'fishitarians' at the table (that's me and Lukas, by the way). For the meat-eaters, soya chicken and a comforting lai tong soup.

To finish we ordered a trio of classic Chinese chilled desserts: mango pudding with coconut cream, coconut tapioca soup and a grapefruit and citrus tapioca. These instantly transported me back to a childhood of dim sums in London, coveting the heart-shaped mango pudding at Royal China.  

Thanks for reading! As I wrap this post up, I realise I've inadvertently organised my trio of CNY restaurant posts from oldest to newest. This post has been about an old family favourite, the next will be about a relative newcomer to the restaurant scene (but fast becoming a favourite) and the third will be about a brand new restaurant that opened this winter. Can you guess which restaurants I'm going to write about? There's already a lot of blog coverage about those two, but I don't mind - I'm so excited to write about them! See you next time and for my Chinese readers, xin nian kuai le (happy new year)!

30 Sheldon Square
London W2 6EZ

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Christmas in Salzburg

It's Christmas Eve, so I'm taking a break from sizzling Andalucia and moving north to Austria to bring you the wondrously wintry landscape of Salzburg, where we spent a long weekend this month. I can't imagine this chocolate box city at any other time of year - Salzburg feels like it was built to be covered in thick snow, for its inhabitants to wander its narrow cobbled streets while wrapped in multiple layers (seriously - we wore three jumpers each while we were there), warmed by cups of hot glühwein and Mozart playing in the background.

When in Salzburg in December you have to completely give in to the Christmas festivities, and if you're looking for the best Christmas market in town I must point you towards the Christkindlmarkt in Residenzplatz. Dating back to the Middle Ages, this sprawling Christmas market completely fills the squares around the old cathedral. Locals congregate here to iceskate and knock back a glühwein or two before dinner. We came here to stroll among the stalls, snacking on chips covered in an avalanche of mayo and "Fischbratwurst" while snowflakes fell gently overhead. At least they fell gently to begin with - before long we were being battered by heavy clumps of snow and had to take shelter under umbrellas. 

I was struck by how quiet the market was. This is a completely different breed of Christmas fair to Winter Wonderland at home in London, where the festive hits blare from giant speakers and most of the stalls sell plastic tat (sorry, but it's true!) Here there was little in the way of music other than that provided by singers and classical performers from the Mozarteum conservatoire on the steps of the cathedral, while any chatter from the revellers was muted by the snowfall. It was the perfect welcome to Salzburg and I felt completely at peace (likely helped along by the hot spiced wine).

The Christkindlmarkt is not just a place to pick up dinner; it's also great if you're on the hunt for presents and decorations. We browsed stalls selling sweet-smelling beeswax candles, church incense and all manner of cute tree ornaments, from fuzzy hedgehogs to wooden toy soldiers. Most fascinating of all were the shops selling minuscule pieces to furnish Nativity displays: plastic sheep and camels of various sizes, glowing lanterns, tiny terracotta pots and pails, stars trailing long tails and teeny washboards. These charming models reminded me of childhood visits to the dusty specialist toy shop in Hampstead where we would rummage for tiny sets of cutlery and rocking chairs to kit out our doll's house.

Another must-visit is Café Tomaselli (Alter Markt 9) off the Residenzplatz. It's alleged that Mozart used to hang out here to drink almond milk. On that note, it's the perfect place to refuel after a trip to the nearby Mozarts Geburtshaus (Getreidegasse 9) - the house where the great man was born, now a museum housing shedloads of Mozart paraphernalia with a particularly interesting section on the set designs of Mozart's operas through the ages. We slid into a booth in a room feeling as if we'd entered a time slip into the late 1700s, with a giant wooden crucified Christ in the corner looming over us as we sipped hot chocolates and made our selection from the groaning tray of cakes brought over by a benevolent elderly waitress. 

We opted for Mont Blanc cake - layers of fluffy sponge with chestnut cream and jam, topped with the familiar strands of chestnut paste which are a characteristic feature of the eponymous elegant French dessert. Staggeringly good, especially when accompanied by a large cup of chocolate and whipped cream! I'm a massive fan of the Kaffee und Kuchen lifestyle, as you may know if you've read my Hamburg posts. This cake felt particularly special, and apt since we were surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

There's another very sweet Christkindlmarkt near the Mirabell Gardens which is a little smaller (and therefore less busy). It sells most of the same things as the bigger Residenzplatz market. On Miho's recommendation we made a stop here on Saturday morning for Bauernkrapfen, a heavenly fried puffed dough pancake of sorts topped with apricot jam. My kind of breakfast.

The Mirabell Palace looks like it's fallen straight out of a Wes Anderson shot, specifically from The Grand Budapest Hotel - especially when covered in snow. You might recognise the grounds from The Sound of Music - and hordes of tourists gather round to photograph the fountain that Maria and her gaggle of youths danced around, or the steps that they jumped up in 'Do Re Mi'. 

We also came back to the Palace later that day to see a concert of Vivaldi's Four Seasons in the sparkling, gilded Marble Hall - a brilliant performance slightly marred by the fact that many of the audience guests insisted on videoing the concert with their phones, taking flash photos and scrolling through their Twitter feeds while the performers were playing. Since when did this become a thing?

One of my favourite memories of the trip was climbing up to the Festung Hohensalzburg, a fortress perching on a hill above the city. This spot made for the best views of the city: Salzburg looked like a little gingerbread town dusted with icing sugar below, while the fortress itself was fascinating - with exhibits ranging from medieval weaponry to methods of torture as well as incredibly well preserved and restored state rooms. Plus we got to take the funicular down afterwards - so much fun!

On the Sunday morning of our long weekend we went for a pre-flight continental breakfast at Cafe Habakuk (Linzergasse 26) where Lukas went full Austro-German on the poached eggs and I had my last hot chocolate of the trip...or so I thought. Thanks to a heavy blanketing of snow in the UK, our flight home was cancelled. Luckily, we managed to book a flight for the next day, via our beloved Hamburg! But it wasn't all bad - we got an extra (extremely good) Apfelstrudel, beers and schnitzel  out of the deal. Plus walking around at night with snow falling quietly overhead felt illicit - we felt that we'd stolen one more night in this fairytale town. I can certainly think of worse places to be stranded.

Wishing you all a merry Christmas and a peaceful and happy new year! Thank you for reading my blog for yet another year. See you in 2018!

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