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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