Meliá Hotels International was built on the back of the Spanish tourism boom in the 1950s and 60s, an era when air travel to sun-soaked destinations became an affordable rite of the European middle classes.
Alluring high-rise resort hotels claimed the coastlines and soon the package holiday, expertly marketed as exciting and exotic, became a ubiquitous feature of family life.
The hotel and real estate group has moved on considerably since and in February 2015 Meliá Doha was launched as Qatar’s first 5-star Spanish hotel, an upmarket upstart designed to be different from its more established near-neighbours, W and Kempinski.
After about one year of operations it was time to test its success. Nidaaya, which appropriately means ‘My Choice’ in Arabic, is the hotel’s all-day international buffet restaurant about to embark on a cosmetic and culinary makeover.
Post-launch tweaking to improve ambience and experience is not uncommon in the hospitality trade but it can test the most agile of hotel managers. Importantly, executive chef Mourhaf Jumie specialises in restaurant openings and he will also stay to oversee Meliá’s second Doha hotel launch at a Souq Waqif location in 2017.
With Nidaaya he intends to enhance the live station concept, a final adios to the days when chefs could be heard but not seen. Indeed, the large restaurant is ideal for such interaction, particularly as the main fayre is fresh fish.
For executive chefs to flourish as consistent purveyors of fine food, dedication is one dish that must be served piping hot, all the time. The other prerequisite is passion for product.
With Mourhaf there will be no antibiotic-fed, tick-infested farmed mutants on his tables. Sourcing fish is a skill learned over years and, while there is an array of local Gulf favourites available here, The Netherlands is a principal port of call for salmon, tuna, shrimp, crab, mussels and calamari, along with Chile (for sea bass, of course) and Canada for live lobster.
Experienced chefs like Mourhaf also know when simple preparation is more than sufficient to please a discerning diner. Fish is delicate and should be handled with care, so begin with the basics – salt, pepper and olive oil – but do not venture far because risk will rarely bring its rewards.
And, because we were in listening mode (as rare as a flame-resistant sirloin steak), Mourhaf’s advice to eschew the fancy fad of pan-frying everything that swims in the sea should also be heeded.
So, at Nidaaya the Josper charcoal oven is the trusted receptacle of choice for large whole fish that require high heat but should be cooked well below the recommended level for incineration.
We sampled two hamour. One was marinated Tunisian style in a deliciously tangy tomato, caper and olive sauce and the other required only an unobtrusive piquant lemon seasoning. The flavour of the local fish was perfectly preserved in both.
It would have been a dereliction of duty not to sample at least one (or three) pan-fried offerings so, away from Mourhaf’s gaze and arriving at the cooking station, we ordered a regal-looking Sultan Ibrahim (red mullet) as well as tuna and salmon steak. This well-chosen trilogy of vertebrates (plus some fine calamari) may have ended in tragedy but for a thoughtful and salutary reminder that the Sultan’s bones remained amongst the flesh. Health warning: fish can contain bones.
Undaunted, we moved on to delightful individual chocolate and fruit desserts, crafted in style by pastry chef Abd Abnaseer who, like Mourhaf, had been lured away from the “New Gold Standard” adherents at The Ritz-Carlton, Doha
For a restaurant review, it may appear perverse to move from desserts to appetisers but our dishes at Nidaaya have been noted in order of palatal importance.
The fish soup was homely and rich as if no crustacean crust had been discarded from the kitchen but just a ladle or two will be an ample prelude to the main acts.
Perfecting a Peruvian Ceviche, or any Latin American derivative, is an art form requiring the balancing qualities of a ballerina. It demands a citrus taste that is not too sharp and a chilli presence that is discernible but not too dominant. At Nidaaya a little subtlety is required to ease the initial impact of lemon and lime but it is nevertheless a worthy “livener” for raw fish aficionados.
That brings us neatly to sushi. It appears that no self-respecting international restaurant in the Gulf would ever consider omitting sushi and sashimi from its buffet options for fear of outrage and rebellion. Yes, a plateful looks pretty but does the law of diminishing returns not apply in the restaurant world?
Finally, on the food front, it’s back to the future! During Meliá’s formative years about half a century ago those sun-seeking adventurers arriving in Palma de Mallorca via the glamour of a BEA charter flight may well have been seduced by a foreign delicacy called (roughly translated) the prawn or shrimp cocktail.
It is great to know that such a time-honoured tradition remains alive and kicking at the Meliá Doha.
Conclusion: For the buffet dinner price (QAR140) Nidaaya is fantastic value. The restaurant promises to be more eclectic upon revamp but it should not forget that its soul is from the sea. Special thanks not only to Mourhaf, but to restaurant manager Ankush Kaul and to vivacious sales & marketing coordinator Cheryl Fernandes for a warm front-of-house welcome.
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.