Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Eating Dubai 4: Just like Vegas, dinner + dancing fountains

May 20th, 2016


The Dubai Fountains were among elements that reminded me of Las Vegas. I loved the regional music that accompanied the dancing waters. Those who dine at Dubai Mall's Wafi Gourmet or Karam Beirut have a ringside seat.

DUBAI, U.A.E. — Before leaving on a trip to unlikely destinations, there's always the question, "Why?"

"Why Dubai?"

Twelve years ago it was, "Why Portland (Ore.)?" It's pretty clear now it's a fantastic place to be, right?

The other question is, "What's Dubai like?"

I had to go to see for sure, but my stock answer at that time was, "It's the Las Vegas of the Middle East."

And so it was, minus the gambling.

Sited on the Eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Dubai was initially a fishing village also sustained by a bounty of pearls. It wasn't until 1966 that oil was discovered there, and the wealth that came with that led to modernization.

With the last remaining oil deposits in the United Arab Emirates expected to run out in 2029, there's been a push for economic diversification beyond oil, and for Dubai that has meant a rapid boost in finance, real estate and tourism sectors so that today, only about 5 percent of its economy is based in oil.

It wasn't until a visit to the tallest building in the world, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, that it became visually obvious how new the desert city is. Construction on the building started in 2004, and pictures from the top levels in 2009, before it opened in 2010, showed mostly desert in the background. Most of the city sprung up in the last six years, and there are hundreds of cranes throughout the city as it is poised for more growth leading up to its hosting of the 2020 World Expo.

The view from the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa shows Dubai's natural landscape. Below, development surrounding the tallest building in the world came up within the last 10 years, and where Honolulu might have 10 building cranes around town, there are hundreds here.

It took 10,000 workers six years to complete the 2,722 foot structure. To compare, the original twin towers of New York's World Trade Center stood 1,368 feet tall. In addition to freeways, they're building a 90-mile rail to Abu Dhabi.

Developments will include more man-made islands like the palm tree-shaped Palm Jumeirah, including retreats awaiting personalization by the wealthy. (Now there's an idea for Hawaii, if we could ever build anything on time, because most people would prefer to live off our shores.)

Dubai Mall is the largest in the world by area, covering 5,400,000 square feet, with 1,200 shops. In this part of the world, where a "mine is bigger than yours" mentality prevails, the mall may one day be eclipsed by another project in the works, The Mall of the World, envisioned as a fully air-conditioned city comprising more than 48 million square feet.

And, what really made it feel like Las Vegas was dining at Dubai Mall's Karam Beirut restaurant, where we could watch the Dubai Fountains, like those at the Bellagio, as well as people zip-lining over the fountains toward the mall from the Burj Khalifa's residential towers.

Here's a look at dinner:

At Karam Beirut, almonds were an amuse served on ice. It's supposed to moisten the skin, making them easy to peel. Why would anyone want to get rid of the extra fiber? I didn't get it, but because the peels became wet, soggy and chewy on ice, we had to peel them to get the crunch.

Lamb is the specialty at the Lebanese restaurant Karam Beirut. You can get any number of raw lamb dishes, plus lamb's liver for $39 dirhams (about $11 USD), lamb's brain ($32 dirham) or lamb's tongue ($32 dirham), which I found rather squishy. This is the basic, grilled lamb topped with cilantro-coated flatbread.

Hammour, a kind of grouper, is a favorite fish here because it's meaty, moist and is well suited to the barbecue grill. This was very yummy.

Desserts included ashta, a Lebanese clotted cream topped with honey and almonds, and below, halawet el jibn, a semolina pancake willed with clotted cream and sweet cheese.

db dessert

Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her food coverage in print in Wednesday's Crave section. Contact her via email at and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.

Eating Dubai 3: To the markets, a trek to Abu Dhabi's food souks

May 17th, 2016


Giant prawns are among the fresh catch offered up at the Mina Fish Market at Mina Zayed Port in Abu Dhabi, where you can also get your seafood cooked up at adjoining kitchens on the spot.

ABU DHABI, U.A.E. — There comes a time on every trip when one must part from the gang, and a 90-mile day trip to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, was that occasion.

Some wanted to go to Yas Mall and some wanted to head to Ferrari World to ride the world's fastest roller coaster, the Formula Rossa, which attains a speed of 152 miles in 5 seconds, approximating the speed of an F1 racer.

I wanted no part of that, so Melissa Chang and I headed instead for the various markets, starting with the Mina Fish Market at the Mina Zayed Port. It would be like getting dropped off a couple of piers away from Honolulu's Pier 39 and having to walk to Nico's. In the hot, isolated area, I asked the cab driver how we were going to get back to civilization. He said to wait for a taxi. I was like, "Really?" And shrugged, if you say so, taking his word at faith as I got out of the car.

It was a really hot day as we made our way across asphalt on foot after being dropped off by taxi to reach the Mina Fish Market and a nearby fruit and vegetable market. People had a hard time directing us from place to place because given the desert climate, apparently, nobody walks in Abu Dhabi.

Luckily, with all the seafood on ice, the fish market was the coolest place to be as we got a look at area favorites such as hammour, a grouper, and sheri, a spangled emperor or reef snapper.

If I were hungry and thinking straight, I would have bought something to have cooked up on the spot. I'm sure it would have been delicious.

The waters of the Persian Gulf are home to many species of crab. These crabs look like Maryland blue crabs.

Posters remind shoppers to make sustainable choices. Sound familiar? I like the names of their fish, like Sultan Ibrahim (thread fin bream) and Disco (another grouper).

Next, we walked over to a fruit market, but it was something of a bust because all the fruit they sold is imported. It is what they prize in the desert where an apple or orange is something of a miracle, but isn't what we wanted to see at all.

I was really thirsty that day, but they aren't so commercialized that they have cafe spaces or vendors selling fresh juices or smoothies. (I smell business opportunity!) So, the only thing I could drink was coconut water from an imported Thai coconut, which I have to say is not as good as our own.

In between the fish and produce souks, there were garden shops where people could pull up, park and pick up all manner of plants. But some of the lawn ornaments had us baffled.

They could use a better artist for their lawn deer.

At a vegetable souk, this gentleman from Kerala, India, was happy to be photographed with his produce.

I had a little bit of a gross-out moment when I wanted to eat the coconut and had the vendor hack it open, which he did with a machete on his open palm! That was crazy. But then, he proceeded to scoop out the meat with said machete, which I don't how was used before or how long was left sitting attracting flies.

Even though I was sick and my immune system was weak, I didn't want it to go to waste so I ate it. Of course I couldn't eat the whole thing on the spot, so I asked for a bag. Then, he proceeded to pick up a piece of the cut meat with his fingers and drop it into the bag! I was like, "No, whole shell." That later turned out to be my lunch, but I threw out the meat that was touched.

Across the way, there was a row of date vendors, all inviting us to taste. I didn't have much of an appetite and could see how these sugar-, fiber-, vitamin-, calorie- and carb-rich fruits could sustain desert tribes over long periods. If I were healthier I would have compared the dozens of varieties offered to find the best.

Just as one of the vendors handed a date to me with his fingers, I remembered the news that 30 percent of American men don't wash their hands after using the restroom, and thought that figure must be much lower in this part of the world. Again, I was grossed out but ate it anyway to avoid appearing rude.

Overall, these markets are more for locals than tourists because access is difficult. When we reached the end of the line and actually had to get back, another westerner in a cab pulled up and I said, "Thank you for coming!" I was so grateful.

So far, I've been lucky. In all my recent international travels to Indonesia, Thailand, Korea, China and Japan, I haven't been sickened by the food, not even street food in a dusty environment. (In Shanghai I was slightly sickened by the water from brushing my teeth because I forgot there's a reason every hotel offers bottled water.) My body actually has a harder time adjusting to coming back to hormone-pumped meats and other processed aspects of the American diet.

A building behind the fresh produce market featured about a dozen date vendors.

Accepting a date from a stranger. Shoppers are welcome to taste before they buy.

Dozens of varieties of dates.

If I were feeling better, I could have told you the difference between these dates, but I couldn't eat much.

Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her food coverage is in print in Wednesday's Crave section. Contact her via email at and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.

Eating Dubai part 2: Call me nomad, dining like the Bedouin

May 16th, 2016


There's a reason I stayed covered up in the desert. The fine sand gets everywhere.

As a wayward Sagittarian, I often leap before I look, and in signing up for a desert safari in Dubai, I didn't quite know what I was getting into, as in, "How we gonna get there?"

I knew we were in trouble when our driver picked us up in a Toyota Land Cruiser fitted with roll bars, and I noticed that all of the overhead grips (the ones that help passengers lift themselves into tall vehicles) in the cruiser were broken, except the driver's. I guessed that the damage came via previous passengers holding on for dear life.

It was all going fine as long as we were on asphalt, and not knowing the desert terrain, I just assumed it might be a bumpy ride. Pretty soon we came to the end of the paved road, and what ensued was a sport called dune bashing, off-roading on sand dunes that involved drifting, sliding down and surfing the slopes in our oversized vehicles as we screamed our way through the desert. Pictures and video don't do the natural roller coaster experience justice.

Camels are quite goofy looking. A bunch of them were roaming the Lahbab desert.

Camels are quite goofy looking. A bunch of them were roaming the Lahbab desert, and for some reason, my travel companions thought we were going to eat camel for dinner.

There was order to the huge caravan of Land Cruisers because everyone had to be going in the same direction. What we didn't want was someone coming in from the opposite direction, rising to top of the same blind peaks, with the potential for a head-on collisions. Check out the video walkthrough on this dune-bashing game link for an idea of what it feels like: Obviously I could not shoot my own video or photos because I was hanging on for dear life.

Check out our experience here:

I checked out other YouTube videos and note that the screams are the same in any language:



Depending on which company you choose, the cost of the desert safari ranges from about $40 USD for the dune-bashing experience, to about $54 for the ride plus dinner.

I felt so much better when the ride was over and we could relax on the Persian rugs that lined the ground of a Bedouin-style camp, with low tables for dining.

The English word "Bedouin" is the derived from the Arabic words "bedu," referring to those who live in the open desert, and "Badawiyin," a generic name for a desert dweller.

Although the Bedouin population—from the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt to the Sahara Desert of North Africa—numbers about 4 million today, only about 5 percent of Bedouins still live as nomads in all of the Middle East because it is becoming increasingly dangerous to do so.

In that moment, it was so beautiful being under the open sky, that I could easily see the attraction to the desert lifestyle. I would have loved to spend the night there. Throughout Dubai, I could see a fascination with the night sky in the architecture and murals. Even on our Emirates flight, there was enough empty seats on the way over so that I could lie down and stretch out, and looking up, the ceiling was full of tiny twinkling lights, like the night sky.


The Dubai desert safari is their equivalent to our luau. Once we got to our destination, there were camel rides and we could take a photo with this baby falcon, Rayna. I already loved raptors, but now I really wish I could have a falcon. This bird was so sweet and much heavier than she looks.

Sun setting over desert sand.

It was easy to see the attraction to the Bedouin lifestyle at night, while dining at low tables, being entertained by dancers and relaxing on comfortable cushions.

A buffet dinner was set up in tents, and options included plenty of salads and grilled meats.

For some reason, my traveling companions were convinced that camel would be on the menu that night. Nope, we were just eating the traditional Middle Eastern combo of beef, chicken and lamb.

In a normal time, I would have been game to taste camel, but I was sick before I left Hawaii and was sick the entire trip. I was alarmed when a sign before boarding the flight to Dubai warned of MERS, or Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome that was killing people, because my immune system was already weak.

It was only after returning from the desert—and being exposed to camels—that I looked up the risk factors for MERS, and they include exposure to camels and eating camel meat!

More than 90 percent of dromedary camels tested positive for MERS antibodies, suggesting that MERS or a related virus had infected dromedary camels. Other animals tested, water buffalo, pigs, cows, sheep and goats, did not have the antibodies.

Which meant a visit to Local House restaurant in the Al Bastakiya region, was also out of the question. It's the only restaurant in Dubai that serves camel burgers.

And that meant camel milk chocolate as omiyage was also out of the question. I wouldn't give my friends something I wouldn't eat.

Following are a couple of snippets from the evening's performances, including a whirling dervish. I don't know how he does it without getting dizzy. Afterward, he invited one of the audience members on stage to give the dance a whirl, and she fell to the ground after about three spins.

Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her food coverage is in print in Wednesdays Crave section. Contact her via email at and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.

Eating Dubai: Puffy pitas and other Lebanese treats at Wafi Gourmet

May 16th, 2016



A colorful array of vegetable and meat kebabs on display at Wafi Gourmet in Dubai Mall, which specializes in Lebanese cuisine.

DUBAI, U.A.E. — While in Dubai, I thought we would certainly be eating at Saudi or Emirati restaurants, but somehow, we always ended up eating Lebanese or Indian cuisine, at malls and hotels, no less.

What gives? I put the question to one of the Dubai chefs and he said it's because the Saudis have no real cuisine, and it's only been in the last year that three Emirati restaurants have opened, in a city of 2.5 million people.

Well that was a shocking statement. In my food-centric world, every culture has a cuisine that speaks to its soul and is a point of pride to its people, such that you can't talk stink about anyone's food.

Before reaching the tables at Wafi Gourmet, we were tempted with all kinds of marketplace treats, such as a variety of olives, sweets, pastries, and below, pistachios, dried fruit and almonds.

wafi nuts

But, it made sense. People of Saudi Arabia were descended from nomadic sheep- and goat-herding tribes, who could only eat what they could carry, such as dates, nuts, figs, flat bread called fatir, and spices that flavored meat grilled in the desert.

Dubai, on the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, started as a fishing village, making grilled fish a simple, satisfying meal.

Also, the nation's Islamic laws include restrictions against eating pork and drinking alcohol, and it's only in places where visitors congregate—malls and hotels—that alcohol is allowed.

I've never come across fresh pita like this in Hawaii. Sadly, the ones we get are already stale. They're light and puffy when fresh, and deflate when left sitting.

I wasn't complaining. Though the names of dishes are different, food in the region is similar from country to country, and Middle Eastern cuisine has always been one of my favorites, though it's sad to say, coming from Hawaii, I never knew what it was like to enjoy a warm, pillowy fresh pita. More times than not, you have to go to straight to the source.

The hummus, or hommos in their spelling, at Wafi Gourmet had a whipped, light texture and tasted less like chickpeas than we have here. Instead the chickpeas sit inside the bowl of hummus. The cost was $33 dirhams, roughly $10 USD.

I usually love baba ghanouj, so loved the moutabal, essentially baba ghanouj with the addition of tahini. Inside the little well of eggplant were pomegranate seeds. And that's another thing, pomegranate juice in the West is sugar water. In small Dubai cafes, it's made fresh and has a float of fine grains from the seeds. I felt so spoiled because it would be such a luxury here, where there aren't many pomegranates to be found. The seeds are also much sweeter than those in Hawaii.

A mixed grill of tawouk (chicken), beef and lamb, was $88 dirhams, roughly $24 USD.

Kebabs coated with a layer of onions and pistachios, left, and onions and cilantro. Below, the kebab halabi (lamb and pistachios grilled and served, topped with aleppo pepper. Costs $72 dirhams, or about $20 USD.

wafi lamb

Dessert of knafa (also spelled kanafah, kunafeh, kanefeh, kunafah or kunafa, was interesting. Looking at it, we all expected the texture of cake soaked in syrup, but it's a Levantine, or European Middle Easterner, dessert of cheese pastry, and the texture and flavor was like butter mochi!

Former Vintage Cave chef launches Province popup in S.F.

May 3rd, 2016


Chef Lee Opelinia welcomes diners to his Bay Area popup Province, for a taste of Filipino-inspired fine cuisine.

SAN FRANCISCO — Going and coming home from Dubai meant a total of 42 hours of air travel. There was no way I wanted to be sitting on planes for 20 hours at a stretch, so it also meant taking some time to "rest" in San Francisco before the 15-hour Emirates Airline non-stop flight from S.F. to Dubai. The route was created to cater to Silicon Valley engineers and their family heading to and from India. Dubai just happens to be a hot destination for Western travelers curious about the ultra-modern city that sprung out of nowhere in what was formerly a small fishing village.

Yay for clam chowder overlooking San Francisco Bay at Hog Island Oyster Co.

On the trip over, I hit up the Ferry Building Marketplace, and because I was already sick before I got on the plane, I had a craving for a bowl of soup, clam chowder at the Hog Island Oyster Co. It was a mere snack before Melissa Chang and I were to meet her cousin (and my college journalism classmate Patrick Chu) at The Ramen Bar for a proper lunch. Of course because of the generous portion size at Hog Island, I was already full and could not handle ramen. So I had a salmon and kale salad.

Coincidentally, The Ramen Bar is part of Michael Mina's empire, and there is a chance that when he opens operations here on the site of the former International Market Place, The Ramen Bar may not be too far behind.

Later, I dropped into State Bird Provision's sister restaurant, The Progress, described in the previous post. But things got interesting on the return trip when we were able to attend chef Lee Opelinia's Province popup.

This truffled, buttery polvoron, or cookie, made a great amuse bouche, teasing our palates and making us long for more.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Opelinia worked at the Ritz Carlton and was picked by chef Ron Siegel to work in the Dining Room, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant. It was there that he worked alongside Hawaii chef Chris Kajioka, who called on him when he needed a sous chef to help him open Vintage Cave. Opelinia returned to his hometown about a year later to work on developing his own signature style, with plans to promote Filipino cuisine, reflecting his heritage.

These days, Opelinia works at Parallel 37 and stages small popups about twice a month to test the waters for a possible bricks-and-mortar venture down the line.

His menus are influenced by the flavors of Filipino cuisine that he grew up with, but, Western in execution, it can't be called Filipino food. He said many of those who seek his popups through word-of-mouth have never tried Filipino food before, so part of his mission is educational. His biggest fear is that people will attend one of his popups, then try to order something similar in a Filipino restaurant.

After trying his cuisine, we're hoping to get him back to Honolulu for a popup different from any other in town, if anyone out there is willing to offer a kitchen. Opelinia can be found via or on Instagram #ProvinceSF.

Smoked adobong beets with braised onion, beet greens and puffed quinoa.

Two views of tortang talong with charred Filipino eggplant in an egg espuma and sourdough croutons.

province egg

A careful arrangement of sliced and shaved asparagus precedes a pour of tamarind-asparagus soup, below. Refreshing for summer.

province pour

What is amazing in this dish of Dungeness crab arroz caldo are those little brown chips made from crab fat. They pack so much flavor that those little bits manage to flavor the entire dish. Also love the sweet spring peas.

Pork belly with pickled pearl onions, pork liver sauce, long beans and yam leaf laing, similar to luau leaves with coconut milk. This dish might be considered a clean take on lechon kawali.

Dessert of fresh mango and mango blanco, the light mango purée layered over coconut pudding similar to haupia. Interestingly enough, picking up the mango pieces with a fork sent the parsley springs down into the mango with the tines, adding another flavor dimension.

Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her restaurant coverage is in print in Wednesday's Crave section. Contact her via email at and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.