Travelogue : A DESERT PICNIC

A DESERT PICNIC

By BHAVANA PURSWANI

As we were led into the open air arena of the Al Hadeera* Restaurant, by a local man in traditional dress, I saw my partner’s face echoing my thoughts. After ninety minutes on the road, with nothing around us but desert, and mice with death wishes periodically streaking across the tar, this had better be good. We were led past a beautifully laid out and sumptuous looking spread to the seating area. The traditionally low majlis style seating areas caught our eye; we decided to settle there.

Looking around, it could not be denied that the décor was uninspiring: its signature red was reminiscent of a desert safari campsite. Surrounding the restaurant were tall sand dunes, serving as trotting grounds for men on camels and horses, which attempted to take one back to ancient Arabia and create an air of authenticity. However, they did not serve much purpose other than offer brief excitement to the tourists. Fortunately though, the service was prompt. Soon, we had in front of us two refreshingly minty Arabian Lemonades, which I must admit, for the first time in my Arabian Lemonade drinking career, had just the right amount of mint.

Not able to contain our hunger for much longer, we headed for the buffet. I decided to start with the grilled aubergine and cucumber salad, and the cooked lime. Both the aubergine and cucumber in the salad were delicately flavoured and grilled to just the right texture. The cooked lime consisted of a whole lime, lightly flavoured with traditional spices. Considering it was my first time ever to bite into a whole lime, I was pleasantly surprised. While we were devouring our appetizers, a man in traditional costume offered us a drink from an ornate receptacle called magriesh. It took my palate by surprise. At first, it felt and tasted like flavoured water, but two seconds later, an incredibly sweet and spicy taste sunk into the centre of my tongue. Spiced with cloves, this wonder is supposed to help your appetite unfurl after twelve hours of fasting. I could not stop myself from sipping away at it.

Appetite unfurled, we headed back to the food stations. We were spoilt for choice, but a decision had to be made. I settled for some Lamb Raqooq and spiced tomato okra in addition to two dishes from the local section: Harees and Saloni. The Lamb Raqouq consisted of minced lamb in subtly sweetened filo pastry, and it presented an artistic fusion of sweet and savoury. Accompanied by a rich, tangy tomato and gravy, the okra was delicious (especially loved by my partner), and it oozed its characteristic slime agreeably.

The Saloni consisted of lamb and vegetables in a spicy stew, which tasted similar to the sauce the okra was in. Good, but not as good as the okra, it was very filling and resembled the product of a Moroccan tagine. Last, but not the least, the Harees. Pureed into an unaesthetic lump, it was a lot more palate pleasing than it looked, although it may be a dish that grows on one, rather than an instant delight. A jumble of pureed lamb, wheat, salt and cinnamon, it is a local staple that would fill a boar in the winter months.

While we ate, poignant melodies were being strummed out by an oud player, as if to prevent our one unoccupied sense from feeling left out. Slightly further into our meal, we were surprised by the entrance of a dancing dervish. We stopped scoffing for the first time to consume the beautiful movements of this creature. Spinning round and round and round, he amazed us with his capacity for speed. He flung his skirts around him gracefully, flashing colours of the rainbow at us. Before we knew it one of the layers was off and he was folding it into a baby. Joyously cradling it in his arms, he continued to spin, stopping only briefly to gift it to a diner, then started spinning again. Presently, a second skirt started riding up his body, and was soon spinning just above his head, while he pirouetted around the restaurant to pose for pictures with the customers.

Feeling quite enamoured with the performance, but not quite sated, yet (or so we persuaded ourselves), we ventured to the desert stall. Once again, we were confronted by a vast array of choices. Once again, we made a choice. Stuffed to the point of overflowing, my partner decided to skip this course. I, however, let my eyes win this fight with my belly. Settling, if you can call it that, for the chocolate cake plus Awami and Harees with Nuts, I rushed back to my seat so I could savour them all (as much savouring as one could do while shoving food down one's throat).

Possessing a dense sponge, the chocolate cake skipped the mandatory coat of icing and, instead, was topped with a rich chocolate mousse containing hints of dark chocolate. The Awami was deliciously sticky, coloured orange, crunchy on the outside and oozing a sugary sweet syrup on the inside. The Harees with Nuts, despite sharing the same name, was nothing like the pureed lamb dish. Ideal for those not looking for stodge to finish their meal, it consisted of a layer of nuts, mainly pistachio, sandwiched between two layers of delicately sweetened crispy vermicelli. Unable to pretend that I was not full anymore, we signalled for the bill. Even for a buffet, the amount was slightly overpriced. However, credit should be given to them for the extensive selection of dishes from the region.

Not all members of staff were knowledgeable about the food, though, or even the origins of the name of the restaurant, but this was possibly made up for by the ones who were, especially the headwaiter, who was informative and contagiously cheery. So, did the Al Hadeera live up to its name? Yes, if accompanied by a large enough group. It certainly provided the crucial components needed for a desert carnival: excellent food and good entertainment.

If a tourist or even a resident of this region, and staying at Bab Al Shams, do venture to Al Hadeera.You might find yourself pleased with its offerings, and will certainly find some authentic local cuisine to sample. However, if a Dubai resident and not in the area, don’t bother, it really isn’t worth the trek.

* Al Hadeera has two meanings. It can mean ‘farm’, or a desert carnival of sorts, replete with a bonfire, lamb roasts, music, singing, storytelling and the rest.

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