Extraordinary efforts to transform Doha into a shining mini-metropolis have continued unabated for much of the past decade. Evidence of change is everywhere, it seems.
So, after our dining debut experiencing the modern munificence of the Meliá, it seemed appropriate to test the common notion that nostalgia really was a thing of the past in this sybaritic city.
The Radisson Blu Hotel, Doha is one of many brands owned by the Carlson Rezidor empire, which boasts a portfolio of 1,370 hotel properties worldwide. But, as the folks at the Mercure Grand Hotel Doha in downtown Doha would doubtless acknowledge, shaking off the shackles of a hotel maiden name demands more than a simple switch of signage. For many residents of a certain age the old Sofitel, once of that plot, has been moribund for years, but not dead in the memory.
Similarly, borne of both affection and affiliation, the Radisson Blu remains the Ramada in the minds of many. To complicate the issue further, taxi drivers still ask if you want the Old or New Ramada as they dive in and out of traffic at the new Ramada Signal!
Therefore, in somewhat “rueful” mood, the Rue Brothers took the express elevator (the equivalent of about six steps) to Maxim restaurant, the hotel’s tribute to French cuisine with dishes that are as elegant as the red décor is plush.
Upon arrival, guests are greeted by a snug saloon bar that is an anachronistic gem ideally situated for an aperitif, digestif and an after-supper cigar. A faceless fast-food emporium this is not, so take time to experience the epicurean allure.
Suitably relaxed, we were shown our table, adorned perfectly for “dining a la russe”. Yes, Parisians have an early 19th century Russian ambassador to thank for the laid-back style of dining we now take for granted: dishes served one at a time with distinct accompanying cutlery for each course. The French, of course, embraced such etiquette with chic aplomb.
Even the large leather-bound menus at Maxim evoke a bygone era and the choices found within are classical but far from restrained. After a simple smoked salmon and cream cheese canapé the food festival began in earnest.
The Atlantic Lobster Minestrone was obviously prepared with Gallic glee, a carefully cooked soup comprising ample pieces of plump meat and fine crisp vegetables. It was duly noted that many modern chefs simmer in temperament only and are all-too content to boil soups and bisques into oblivion.
The Smoked Duck Breast, which can often give the appearance of being sliced with a razor blade to resemble a disappointing translucent carpaccio, was a pièce de résistance. The mélange of summer melon, fig compote and lemon granite was a superb complement.
If we were not on such an important assignment we may have opted next for the Chateaubriand for two, having acquired a carnivorous craving following the delicate entrées. However, an appetite for more adventure was deemed appropriate.
Incidentally, the menu at Maxim contains a section dedicated to “Old Time Favourites” in recognition that the restaurant’s longevity can be attributed in large part to meeting the demands of loyal customers. The Chateaubriand is part of the favourites fayre along with Burgundy Snails, Beef Filet Steak Diane, Canadian Lobster Thermidor and Pan Fried Duck Breast. We understand that the menu will be revised soon so we await the results with more than passing interest.
Meanwhile, a refreshing sorbet prepared the palate for the next instalment. Dover Sole would be a staple of any traditional London dining club but it is certainly not a fish out of water here. The fillets were cooked en papillote and filled expertly with a fine mousse of crayfish and dill with a light sabayon sauce. Presentation was impeccable, in the best traditions of classic nouvelle cuisine.
For the other half of the main act, the selection elicited equal pleasure and visual wonderment. The Veal Tenderloin and King Scallops Truffle, adorned with buttered asparagus and saffron hollandaise with caviar pearls, was cooked to perfection by erring on the right side of rare. Maximum marks were awarded when we discovered that the selected meat came from grass-fed cattle.
And, with barely a moment to fix a concerted gaze on the gifts we were about to receive, along came a hearty variety of vegetables (roast potatoes, carrots, asparagus, broccoli and sautéed mushrooms). Again, they were prepared al dente, offering further evidence that we had stumbled upon a caring kitchen.
Finally, dessert beckoned and, having been seduced by the cheese trolley when we arrived, it would have been foolish not to sample the delights on offer. We were here for a full-on French experience after all.
However, onlookers, including the adept restaurant manager Solomon Gebretsadik, were aghast when one Brother Rue (who shall, of course, be nameless) decided room remained for a healthy assiette of Crepe Suzette. As the pancakes were flambéed at the table with the customary caramalised sugar and butter sauce by our wonderfully attentive server Luce Carlota, the ensuing scene was not for the faint hearted. Thankfully, he survived to review another day.
So, Maxim may be the antithesis of modern but therein lies its warmth and charm. G. Sathiya Seelan, the ebullient senior sous chef, joined Ramada in 1989 when times were tough and the only outlet for voracious diners was the coffee shop buffet.
That was a full decade after the hotel opened and helped to change the landscape of Doha. Getting lost while driving around the rubble streets in those days was a frequent frustration and the Ramada served as a landmark for lost souls, just as the Torch does today.
Much of the credit for the Ramada’s eventual reincarnation as the Radisson Blu goes to Gordon MacKenzie, who succeeded the genial Eamonn Xynias in 1989, and, after a spell away, was lured back in 1998.
In conclusion, we can safely assert that nostalgia is not a thing of the past in Doha. At least, not at Maxim!
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.