North of the Pyrenees, the French will always lay claim to being the grandiose gastro-capital of the world. Well, despite being vocal, voracious and demonically defensive about their food, they do have a point.
According to the latest Michelin Guide, a source for well-reasoned restaurant reviews second only to Marhaba, the proud Gallic nation stands out with no fewer than 27 three-star establishments.
Jim Harrison, the recently late and lamented American poet, novelist and all-round exceptional bon vivant, once flew to France for lunch. After 11 hours, 37 courses and 19 fine wines he insisted it was money and time well spent before heading back. Brothers Rue look forward to a similar assignment.
But Spain is making great strides in world-class gastronomy with the number of its three-star restaurants doubling to eight over the past decade. That is the same as Italy but, somewhat bewilderingly, three behind Germany in second place. Perhaps there is some kind of “Eurovision” voting anomaly at work here.
Leading this modern-day Armada of flagship food emporia is the Basque region with close to an incredible 40 restaurants that warrant at least one Michelin star. One Brother Rue dabbled with Spanish recipes as a lad and, apart from rabbit casseroles, recalls making a wonderful loaf (akin to sourdough) that was simply stuffed with hard-boiled egg and glazed to golden perfection (his opinion) in an Aga oven. Ah, the delights of peasant food passant!
That was before trendsetting bars began to recognise that an after-work crowd was not just thirsty but also hankered for something wholesome and not demandingly hearty. Thus, the Spanish tradition of serving tapas became universally popular.
So, to The Cellar at the Oryx Rotana. When one Brother Rue (who shall remain nameless) made a detour in life and arrived in Qatar when Julio Iglesias was probably topping the charts, Doha barely had an airport let alone an adjacent hotel.
Fast forward to 2010 and, amid much excitement, the Oryx Rotana opened to offer not only the city’s only tapas restaurant but the first jazz club as well. There was instant harmony. Soon after launch, Choices, the hotel’s all-day dining destination, began to offer a Friday brunch that would become a fashionable and reasonably priced alternative to its five-star brethren.
Friday brunch is also served at The Cellar and continues to attract regular clientele. We arrived early evening for dinner and would not have made one jape had the staff appeared jaded, but they were not. Being gregarious rather than grumpy is our favoured approach, even when a venue appears as flat as a tortilla at first glance.
After a warm welcome we focused on the task ahead. The secret with tapas is not to consider them as a cousin of canapes, so order just a few first before any threat of over-indulgence. And especially if you are immediately confronted by fine bruschetta accompanied by a perfectly piquant tomato and olive salsa, as we were.
Now, it is sometimes possible that a kitchen wants to be rebellious and, on receipt of the illustrated iPad menu (an acquired taste!), one Brother Rue became an instant cheerleader for the beef cheeks. However, he felt the tablet in hand depicted the dish as resplendent but a little too replete. How happy he was when slivers of delicious meat with reduced jus encased in home-made ravioli were delivered. Glorious. “Thank you for listening. We can go home now,” he quipped, but quitting was never an option.
We were also treated to a delightfully sizzling Gambas al Pil-Pil (tomato, chilli and garlic), a bastion of Basque country cooking. This effortless recipe was equalled in flavour by small mouth-watering toasts covered with Manchego cheese, a dairy king of Spain, and a roasted red bell pepper sauce.
The Asparagus Tempura was a little dense on the batter so, while the vegetable was crisp, the combination became a touch chewy. Tempura must be afforded due diligence although the thick tomato and hazelnut sauce helped to enliven proceedings.
There really aren’t “side dishes” when it comes to tapas but after sampling superb sautéed mushrooms requiring nothing more than olive oil, garlic and a sprinkle of flat leaf parsley we were prepared to call them anything.
As anyone who has been here awhile will attest, Doha has a surfeit of surprises. During a short break we were entertained by an aspiring and attentive member of staff to discuss starring in a Bollywood television series (we cannot name him, of course, but thank you Ravi).
Suitably starry-eyed, we were ready for the next episode. Albóndigas is actually a Mexican soup speciality comprising meatballs (in this case veal) in a red wine, carrots, peppers and onion sauce. We are both fully aware that perfecting meatballs can be a lifetime challenge for many a chef but this ample dish was delicious, although we do admit to adding a little chilli spice.
The Pan Seared Duck Breast also came with a subtle off-menu difference, with a reduced cranberry glaze and grated onion. All the above may seem like a litany of excess but the secret to tapas lies as much in the size of portions as the ingredients. A fine balance is required.
So, on to the paella! Many variations have been concocted over centuries but only traditional Valencian recipes are worthy of the name. Keep it simple, as The Cellar does: mussels, prawns, squid and chicken cooked in good quality absorbent rice with smoked olive oil, ripe chopped tomatoes, an onion seasoning and saffron. Sure, chorizo may have been missing for obvious reasons but it was prepared with great care and attention.
Finally, if you did not know by now that Spain is vying with France for all those magical Michelin stars it even has its version of the famed Crème Brulee. No ingenuity in the name really, but it is called Cream Catalana! Enjoy.
The Rue Brothers review restaurants, spa and events exclusively for Marhaba.
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