By their own admission, hotels in Doha have had a tough summer with the long June to September stretch from Ramadan to Eid al-Adha taking a toll on room and restaurant bookings. Factor in the stubbornly low oil price and it has been far from a barrel of laughs.
Qatar, of course, has a resilient regional economy but it is not unaccustomed to budget belt-tightening. Thinking back a mere decade ago, Brothers Rue, who shall remain nameless, were reminiscing that the world was about to wake up to the prospect of unrelenting uncertainty not witnessed since the 1930s.
It was about the time that Goldman Sachs was predicting crude oil would hit USD200 and Americans were worrying how they would fill their cars with “gas” rather than facing up to the underlying issue of how they would pay their mortgage after US house prices peaked in 2004.
Lending largesse and the oft-misguided notion that bust would not follow boom was the root of most evils back then. Debt overload within the banking system became a game of “pass the poisoned parcel” until Wall St’s corridors shook and its toxic foundations were aflame with stark reality.
By late 2007, Qatar, still elated from the success of the Asian Games and still dreaming of showcase sporting events to come, reacted astutely to the global gloom and particularly the fierce financial fall-out from neighbouring Dubai.
It is easy to forget that the country’s oil and gas powerhouses went through a sustained period of cost-cutting and local lenders were forced to scale back and bolster balance sheets following firm affirmations from the central bank.
Public companies took the lead, but the private sector soon followed a fiscal urge to become leaner. Many expats left, never to return, but Qatar was looking ahead and not in the rear-view mirror. For many companies that stayed to endure the pain, long-term gain awaited.
Always able to conjure a quote or three from the backwaters of his brain, one Brother Rue declared that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. “Yes, but we should not assume our days of over-indulgence are a thing of the past,” came a swift response as thoughts turned to the evening ahead.
We were making another trip to the resplendent Westin Doha Hotel & Spa, an opulent oasis that nestles serenely off Salwa Road adjacent to “Ramada” junction. The restaurant of choice, for which we had received rave reviews, was Sabai Thai where up-and-coming young chef Areewan Larpnikornkul is making a big impression. Perhaps out of sympathy for those of us who have pronunciation problems she is known simply as Pang.
Several years ago it became trendy for British pubs to offer “authentic” Thai food, often cooked by a bloke who would not recognise a stir-fry from a beef stew and had never witnessed the breath-taking bustle of Bangkok.
Pang’s passion is rooted firmly in her family, having grasped the rudiments of fresh, hearty and healthy cuisine from her grandmother. She went on to study food science and technology at university, followed by stints in Dubai before the Westin Doha became an alluring challenge.
The place was packed, perhaps an indication that hotels can expect a welcome uptick in trade during the months ahead. Quality, of course, is a key ingredient to a kitchen’s success and Sabai Thai has this in abundance.
The restaurant is superbly designed and all details – down to the elegantly carved front door and the dulcet musical tones of the traditional kim – are unmistakably Thai. Perhaps less steeped in tradition are the amazing cocktails on offer, vivacious and vibrantly prepared by the resident mixologist. A perfect start.
Never reticent about asking for directions, we were given heaps of menu advice and what followed was simply delicious. Remember that good Thai food is fresh and zesty so no additional seasoning is necessary.
To begin, we opted for a precocious platter. Gai Hor Bai Toey (deep-fried honeyed chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves with dark sweet soya sauce) was pleasingly piquant with a sweet touch. Thod Mun Pla (deep-fried light curried fish patties with arjard, a crunchy raw vegetable relish sauce) had a wonderful consistency to make any amateur chef envious. And Shrimp Tempura with light and breezy batter for which the secret is cold water, according to Pang who is also a connoisseur of Japanese cooking.
However, the star from the starters was undoubtedly Som Tam Thai, shredded green papaya salad with string beans, tomato, peanuts in spicy lime dressing. If anyone, anywhere heeds our sage advice and is unafraid of a fervid fragrant dish then this should be a compulsory order.
Generally, Thai soups are not for the faint-hearted either and the dynamic duo we tasted were no exception. Tom Yaam Goong (spicy prawns soup with lemongrass and mushrooms) and Tom Sap Neau (hot and spicy beef shank soup with tomato, chee frang, a strong tasting herb similar to cilantro, and dried chilli) were outrageously full of fire and flavour.
We decided to cool down, so rather than dip our heads in an ice bucket we settled for the signature Pla Grapong Ob Smoonprai, baked marinated whole sea bass with Thai herbs and steamed vegetables. Take time to savour because the awesome taste is long-lasting.
Our vegetable dish should also be obligatory. Pok Choy is the most delicate and versatile variety of cabbage, best barely cooked and at Sabai Thai it was steamed with ginger, crispy garlic and soy sauce dressing. Trust us, watery school dinner greens will easily be forgotten.
Choosing the stand-out dish was the most challenging task of the evening, but the Gaeng Phed Ped Yaang Linchee (red curry with roasted duck, cherry tomatoes and lychees) was awarded the accolade by a narrow margin. Just add steamed sticky rice and heaven awaits.
By this time the restaurant was still buzzing and two refreshing desserts beckoned. Water chestnut rubies in chilled coconut milk accompanied by coconut ice cream had a bracing effect, appropriate for such a feast of gregarious gusto.
© Marhaba Information Guide 2016. The Rue Brothers review restaurants exclusively for Marhaba. They have spent a combined 40+ years in Qatar and think they know their onions, and kofta kebabs, by now
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