Originally posted 8th October 2014
A land of contradictions, Dubai messes with the mind. The other day, for example, it pissed down raining. I loved it, practically dancing through the chubbiest of precipitation towards the supermarket. In the United Kingdom, such selfish weather would have made me cross. Conversely, sunshine is like rain here; you shelter from it. It’s a city where veiled women and plastic housewives walk side by side (but let’s be clear, not arm-in-arm) in the malls. Where such a burgeoning taxi trade is neither indicator nor guarantee of having a driver who knows how to get to destinations less commonplace than the Burj Khalifa. Speaking of which, how can a city with buildings such as the Burj struggle to lay out sidewalks, or sort out the last of the half-built, pre-crash low-rises which litter New Dubai? And also, I’m in the desert. Where are all these camels?
If you are not from these parts, one of the most commonly cited — and classiest — contradictions is the notion of Friday Brunch, where for the price of FIFA ’15 you can usually eat as much as you want (or as much as you ‘can’, depending on your mindset and determination), as well as have trays of booze — unlimited booze — thrown at you until the doors close in the early evening and you inevitably move to a nearby bar to carry on the good times.
Now this is not bad for a place with such outwardly stringent drinking laws. On face value, Dubai looks like a ‘dry’ city, and if you compare it to Cheltenham at 2am on a Saturday morning, I suppose it is. The nay-sayers warn “Well alcohol brings out the worst in people, and you get in more trouble here if you abuse it, so the hotels must show restraint on brunch days”. It was a brunch that was the downfall of Michelle Palmer, who in 2008 was jailed for allegedly having sex with a guy called ‘Vince’ (obviously) on the beach after an all-day binge.
At the time, a few people back home got all up in arms at the seemingly ‘barbaric’ way these two people were so swiftly arrested and thrown in prison until trial, at the ‘harsh’ line taken by police, but subsequently not a shit was given after it turned out a policeman had asked them to stop whatever it was that they were doing, only to be told by Palmer to “fuck off”. It was only after this reasonable behaviour that they were nicked. Well I’ll be damned. Behave like an idiot, and you’ll be treated like one. As for Michelle losing her job and being deported back to the United Kingdom? Well, as my old boss once said, “people sack themselves”. Going back to the original point, Dubai is about as dry as Jack Dawson.
Well, I had to get in on this action. For two main reasons; a) as soon as I mentioned to folks in London that I was coming out here, everyone — without exception — said that I needed to try brunch and b) the noble Gin and Tonic is on free-flow just like the wine, beer and bubbles. I called up my fellow expatter friends and a girl from the office to get this party started.
The location for me to break my brunch virginity was the Al Murooj Rotana hotel; next to Dubai Mall, in Business Bay. My colleague and I got there by taxi, which raised the blood pressure to unacceptably high levels for a Friday afternoon, when it dawned on both of us that we were being driven in exactly the opposite direction to where the hotel is.
After a much longer ride than was necessary, and my colleague’s continuous repetition of the phrase “I’m so fucking stressed right now”, we arrived at the the hotel and met the others.
The Al Murooj is one of those palace-like, oasis-y resorts that typecast Dubai in lieu of any other kind of architectural style or theme. Whereas hotels in London might be described with such adjectives as ‘classical’, ‘Art Deco’, ‘Georgian’, ‘modern’ or ‘boutique’, most large resorts here just fit into some kind of universal design best described as “large windows for the Europeans, balconies for the Americans and tower-like penthouses for the rest, now add as much building as the plot allows, swimming pools where we can’t construct ‘up’ and the damn thing is good to go”. Cynical maybe, but this excessive approach is architecture in Dubai, defined.
Such hotels often have more than one (actually, way more than one) food and beverage outlet on site — even my company’s more basic brands have multiple restaurants out here — and on Fridays most of the expat community usually take brunch in one of them around town. We were headed to Pergolas, proudly described by the Al Murooj as an “informal yet stylish all-day dining restaurant”.
Certainly, ordering gin and tonics in such a way that as soon as the waiter realised that we liked them, he started to bring them two at a time, could be described as ‘informal’, but perhaps not ‘stylish’. So the rumours were true. Dubai doesn’t really bother itself with such nonsense as anti-binge-drinking laws and just allows restaurants to pile on the units until the corpulent diners either roll out into taxis at sundown or get arrested for frolicking on the beach with girls called Michelle or men called Vince. Brunches can be ‘ordered’ as ‘dry’, ‘with alcohol’ or ‘with bubbles’, usually referring to booze plus champagne or sparkling wine. It’s all included in the price; in our case, about two hundred and fifty Emirati Dirhams per person, which is around £forty. With unlimited food thrown in alongside the unlimited booze, I am sure you would certainly agree this would beat a Friday sitting at a desk in London, counting down the hours until the bell tolls five and you hit the pub, where a decent drink costs at least a fiver and the only food on offer is a ramekin of wasabi peas.
Most hotels use their brunches to really showcase their overall food offerings and the style / competence of the chefs. The best in town offer over twenty different cuisines, across whole resorts. It’s all buffet service (I swear to god I have eaten from more buffets since I moved here than in my previous twenty-nine years on Planet Earth) and once again, like Iftar, such meal experiences involve getting off your arse and elbowing yourself around various stations and gastronomic geography, picking foodstuffs that probably shouldn’t be seen on the same plate but to hell with it, you have three gins waiting at the table and it’s better to be there, of course.
The brunch at Pergolas offers a mix of the usual offerings that pique your interest, such as Indian, Lebanese and other Arabic locales, European (mainly Greek and Italian), sushi, and a new cuisine I have discovered, which I shall term ‘Universal Pudding’. Essentially this is best described as bite-sized sponges, cupcakes, cheesecakes, chocolate bites of joy, cheese, fondue, cheese fondue, and -ahem- fruit. Overall, the quality was good though some meat tended to be tough and it seemed that most stations sacrificed punchy flavours to appeasing the masses and offering grazing fodder so they (we? I?) can soak up the booze. The sushi was cracking though. It went well with my lamb koftas and creamy walnut pasta.
There is no getting away from that ‘free for all’ vibe though, whether you like it or not. You’re subjected to it when the waiter brings over another round as you are struggling to finish your sixth gin and tonic, when you are fighting to get the Universal Pudding at 4.30pm when the staff are trying to clear it away and — on that sad note — when subjected to the service overall. From a professional point of view, it is clear that the chaotic style of brunch operations does not afford the staff an easy time, and they all-too-frequently vanish. For every moment where you have one too many drinks on your table, you are sat with none at all, trying to find someone — anyone — within a hundred metres of your table (it ain’t a small restaurant) to look after you. As the clock ticks along to early evening, the drink orders get larger and larger and the service bar gets increasingly stretched. Such is life here.
In addition, the bill took a lifetime to arrive, plates were all-too-often left empty in front of us and the chefs were simply not as chatty as they were at the Iftar at the Marquis. You may call me picky (“Cheap, unlimited booze and food?, come on Mike!”) but I am a firm believer that if a business chooses to do something, they should think it through and do it properly.
Pergolas is certainly not going to top the charts for brunch around these parts. Al Qasr at Madinat Jumeirah is often regarded as the best. Yalumba at Le Méridien Dubai (where the Michelle and Vince incident began) is seen as showy and stereotypical (a recent review read like this: “…a fight broke out between two girls after one told the other her Louboutins looked cheap… …Everyone headed out to the terrace to see what the ruckus was all about, but first I remember stepping over a tattooed man who was sitting on the floor crying”) and Traiteur at the Park Hyatt offers you the option of ‘premium Champagne and limo service’ for a shade over two thousand Dirhams per tosser.
What Pergolas does do well though, is offer a good afternoon out for decent prices, and could be seen as a drill-down of what a newbie such as me can expect when venturing out to greener pastures around town (I am already booked into Al Qasr on three forthcoming occasions). I am better for having tried it, having now gotten the gist of what exactly is brunch in Dubai. Like the best things in life, such as New York in general, eating cheese next to a canal in Amsterdam or drinking red wine in a Budapest backstreet, it’s exactly as you would imagine it and would have likely read about in travel magazines; you’re told no lies and for once in Dubai, there are no contradictions.
Also like the best things in life, brunch is best enjoyed in the company of others. What beats an afternoon with gin, food, Universal Pudding, sun and friends? Well I guess limo service and premium bubbles, but you get my drift.
Pergolas Brunch at Al Murooj Rotana Dubai (now the Roda Al Murooj)
Off Sheikh Zayed Road, opposite Dubai Mall