Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Weekend in Dubai

"Baller weekend," we called it. Actually, more specifically, it was "HASHTAG BALLER WEEKEND." Because "hashtag" is funny when said aloud. Try it. I KNOW, RIGHT?

On my last visit to the UAE, a bunch of us got tickets to Sandance (more on that later), and managed to get a great deal on a hotel and so decided to spend the weekend. The Gentleman and I drove up on Thursday evening (the weekends are Friday-Saturday), which was my first experience driving in the UAE and also my first experience with Thursday-evening Dubai traffic. It is NOT to be messed with. 

I had it in my head that there was this specific corner of the Gold Souk in Dubai that sold legit pashminas for about half the price you'd pay in the US. And I wanted several to give as gifts to some of the fabulous women in my life. 

So there I was, driving The Gentleman's Jeep in rush hour Dubai traffic. It took us about twice as long to go half as far as we anticipated, and, long story short, we were already running late to check into the hotel and meet our friends for dinner when we finally arrived at the Gold Souk. Which is on the completely wrong side of the city from our hotel. 


Nope. Not close at all. In traffic? That's an hour drive, right there.

Side note - Google maps does a nice job of capturing the little blurbs of sand that were supposed to be "The World" islands but are now mostly...little blurbs of sand.

Anyway, so we finally get to the Gold Souk, and we're running late, and I'm like "But I just need to run in and get ONE THING." Which is completely underscoring the fact that the Gold Souk is not exactly a place you can "run into" to "get one thing." In fact, we circled for another 30 minutes trying to find a parking spot. But, apparently, one of the things you do in Dubai on a Thursday night is go to the Gold Souk. APPARENTLY.

The Gentleman finally convinced me that we were morbidly late, and so just as I was about to give up on the parking lot, I threw a massive Hail Mary and turned the Jeep into one of the tiny side streets that heads into the heart of the Souk area.





Lo and behold, I found a parking space. I had to park halfway up on the curb, and I may have run over a chicken in the process, but I FOUND A PARKING SPACE.

We ran through the Souk, with The Gentleman dropping pins on his iPhone Google map so that we wouldn't get lost in the winding maze of what apparently was also the Spice Souk, the School Supply Souk, and the Candy And Assorted Small Electronics Souk, and then I saw them: pashminas. Glorious, beautiful, 100% pashminas for half the price. I bargained for half a second, handed over a wad of dirhams (which look like Monopoly money anyway, and so shouldn't be counted as real money), and I had my armful of pashminas. We followed the Souk trail (well, I followed my instincts; The Gentleman followed his iPhone which was uncannily aligned with my inner navigation system) back to the ill-parked Jeep, headed back out into traffic, and checked into the hotel about an hour later.

Not too bad, considering.

Since we were all arriving from various places, we agreed to meet at the Benihana in the hotel for dinner/drinks/general regrouping to discuss the weekend plans. It was also here that I had the first truly decent sushi in the UAE:

Martini and festively-attired palm trees.

I want this box.

Following dinner, and now altogether, we proceeded to drive all over Dubai going to various bars that I couldn't even begin to describe or tell you about because they were:
a) obscure
b) unmarked
c) questionable in nature
d) all of the above

Answer: d. Suffice it to say, we found Coronas, DJ's, belly dancers, and what I am convinced was some sort of underground gay bar. 

But here's your first tip: take taxis everywhere. They are so ridiculously cheap, clean, well-maintained, and staffed with polite drivers who wear ties. 

See this? This is the cost of one of our many jaunts around the city. But that price is in dirhams. In USD, this cab ride is exactly two dollars and four cents. This is for a fifteen minute cab ride. I KNOW, RIGHT.
After all of our running around town, it was collectively decided that what we desperately needed was food. Now, this is Dubai, and while there are PLENTY of fast-food options, we were with seasoned Dubai partiers and they took us to the "24 hour quality mankousheh place," also billed as "the hip Lebanese baked wrap concept" according to their website. Behold Zaatar w Zeit:

Would you like some pizza with your baked Lebanese wrap concept? Yes, yes we would.

Someone got a salad. For health.
After our (very) late night snack, we headed back to the hotel for a good night's sleep. (I think we all tucked in around 5am and were up by 10am. Totally healthy.)

A lot of Dubai is (still) under construction as new resorts and hotels are cropping up wherever there's a spare acre or two. Upon looking out the window at our view the next morning, we discovered a gorgeous panorama of the Persian Gulf to the left....

...and another resort, still in its nascent stages, to the right.

and, apparently, many more resorts along down the beach.

What remains of #(hashtag)ballerweekend is Epic Brunch and Sandance, but I do want to share a few photos I snapped during the Most Expensive Bathroom Break Ever, wherein we followed one of our friends, who snagged a room at The Atlantis, inside this amazing resort for a quick bathroom break and ended up grabbing a round of drinks that probably set us back about $20 per person. (For one drink apiece.)

Inside, you'll find ornate marbling, giant clam shell water falls, and a multi-story aquarium. And that's just in the lobby and main downstairs.

These drinks were called "Secret Gardens" and were some sort of mojito concoction. With a garden therein. 
Stay tuned for: Epic Brunch, Sandance, and Ski Dubai.

Friday, July 12, 2013


Sorry Glitterati, I totally neglected to include the link to Jaunt's blog on my prior post about her travels in India. Go there immediately to learn about crowded streets, education, shoe stores, and veggie shammie and aloo subs from Subway. Want.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Abu Dhabi - Grub

Let's jump ahead to the good stuff.

I love the food in the Middle East. This could partially be because I'm technically "on vacation" while I'm there, and therefore have the time to savor everything, to buy carts of fresh produce and pick my way through it throughout my visit, or because everything is vaguely foreign and therefore exotic to me. Or it could be because I love food, and the Middle East does food extremely well. 

Just so you're aware - this post will NOT contain the biggest culinary adventure of our trips thus far - a brunch in Dubai. That will be its own separate post. And you shall see why.

But here's a taste of the most recent Abu Dhabi adventure.

First off, lemme tell you a little bit about my favorite store in Abu Dhabi - The One. See a fancy couch in someone's flat, or a delightfully postmodern chrome lamp, or a whimsical fake deer head? Chances are, it's from The One. And, as if their sales of interior decor wasn't awesome enough, they opened a restaurant which is fantastic. 

We went there for lunch one day, and brunch another. I was pretty stoked about both.


Thai Vegetable Curry - mild green curry with pumpkin, sweet potato, shitake mushrooms, aubergine (eggplant), bamboo shoots, tofu, green beans, and pak choi served with jasmine rice and a papaya and mango salad. A steal at DHS43 (about $11.71). Also - that drink is one of their fancy iced tea concoctions with ginger and mint and stuff. No alcohol served here, as it's not a hotel, alas. Also, the table and the lamp above us had price tags - The One is ultimately a furniture store and doesn't want you to forget it.

Let's take a look at that curry from another angle.

Eggs Benedict, The One style - turkey ham on a toasted English muffin with  sauteed spinach, soft poached eggs, and original or roasted red pepper Hollandaise with cheesy spiced potato wedges. DHS33 ($8.98)
So, remember how I was saying there were all of these little al fresco cafes along the Corniche? We stopped by one of them one sweltering afternoon, and were pleased to find that staff trained the giant fans directly on us, and that a nice(r) Gulf breeze was pushing the hot air around down by the water instead of just hovering in a ridiculous blanket over the island.

We enjoyed a nice bread basket and olive dish, but please enjoy (in the background here) the lovely blue drink called a "Mojito."

First off - the restaurant doesn't serve alcohol. This was Sprite with blue food coloring and a garden of mint leaves on top. And while it was delightfully refreshing on a torturous humid early-summer day, I'm pretty sure I understand why diabetes is on the rise.

Crusty bread, perfect olives, and a "mojito." No. Just....no.
Added to the list of things that suck about a long-distance relationship is the sheer amount of PTO you burn through. It kills me that I lose an entire day each way on my travels to the Middle East. Even if you leave at 10pm, you're still not getting in until 8pm (local time) on the other side. 8 hours of PTO spent jammed into a plane seat watching "The Perks of Being a Wall Flower" again and wondering how much you should sleep on a 13-hour flight.

Even more difficult is when one of the two of you has to work while on vacation - usually me. Being overseas means that I can't really start checking emails until around 5-6pm (given that the US is 8 hours behind), and that you could be responding to things well up until 1-2am.

But the one night that I ended up having to work, The Gentleman made me dinner. Because he's the best.

I've mentioned Jones the Grocer before - it's a conveniently located, Australian-based (ridiculously expensive) gourmet grocery store/cafe. It's one of the only places in Abu Dhabi that serves booze outside of a hotel (I have no clue how they got that license). Apparently there's a rampant foodie culture in Australia/New Zealand (as evidenced by the many gourmet foodie magazines I leafed through while brunching/lunching/waiting for carry-out).

So, we bought some stuff from there and Spinny's (also expensive, but I love it because they're fully stocked with all of my favorite British treats like biscuits and trashy magazines). Here's a Tuesday night, home-cooked meal:

That cheese is loaded with truffles. No lie. But everything on the right side of the photo is healthy, at least.

This stuff is awesome. With vodka. Or not. 

Appetizers - veggies and hummus, crackers and truffle cheese.

Risotto for the main course....


Cooking chicken and the risotto.

The finished product - chicken, risotto with truffle butter, and a rocket salad. I freaking love rocket salad. Why has this not taken off in the US?

On another night when I didn't have to work, we ventured out to the Intercontinental for dinner at the Belgian Cafe and drinks at the Yacht Club.

I totally had a Fruli at the Belgian cafe. It tastes like strawberry pop. 

Mussels are big at the Belgian cafe. We ordered two pots: Thai-style in Thai curry sauce (DHS155, $42.20) and  Roquefort cheese and cognac (DHS165, $44.92). They were ridiculous.  

Another specialty of the Belgian cafe are their crisps, which they serve with  different kinds of mayonnaise - true Belgian style. These were also ridiculous. 
I don't have any pictures of the Yacht Club, but it was Ladies' Night, and so I did get free champagne while The Gentleman paid like $50 for two fingers of mid-level scotch. First world problems.

On my last day, when we went jet skiing, we stopped at the Shangri La Souk on the way back for some shopping and lunch. We ate at an Indian place called Ushna.

First off, I was dressed quite inappropriately in a bikini and beach cover, and they served us with utmost respect and 5-star service. Restaurants can (and will, and should) absolutely refuse to serve you if your appearance is not aligned with their rules of conduct. This was a nice restaurant, and I was surprised that they let us in off of the beach in our swim suits, said nothing, and offered nothing but extremely excellent service. It could have been because it was a slow, weekday lunch, or because they knew we were tourists who might write about the service on their self-indulgent blogs. Regardless, they were nothing but kind, but I knew that I took my chances on that one.

Second, the view of the Grand Mosque from our lunch table:

I mean, I guess it's like awesome or whatever.

The No. 1 selling Indian beer! Apparently. Delicious, regardless.

Dipping sauces. I don't even know what went where but....it went, and it was good.

Cucumber salad thingy served on an endive boat. I love the presentation. IT'S EVERYTHING.

I don't remember what all we ordered beyond chicken, lamb, and garlic naan (like a nursery rhyme!) but it was incredibly delicious and looked very nice.

Things to look forward to on this blog:

Pittsburgh - city of bridges and fabulous mixed drinks
Ocean City - old meets new
A weekend out in Dubai (shi gets cray)
Epic Dubai Brunch
That time we went to Sandance
That time we went skiing indoors
Crazy Middle Eastern idiosyncrasies 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Jaunt's in India

My buddy Jaunt, who has been a part of this blog since like 2008, is teaching in India this summer and, of course, writing/photographing her experiences along the way. Jaunt is one of the best writers I know, so I'm terribly excited that she's blogging again.

Also, I just finished reading a very early version of my friend Kat's book, "I Think I'll Make It." It's fantastic. She's fantastic. You should check her out.

In other news, Bookclubjess requested an email sign-up thingy so that my new posts will be sent directly to your inbox, and because I think she's amazing and I have more than a little secret girl crush on her, behold my side-bar where you can enter in your email address. YOU'RE WELCOME.

In other news, just for fun, here's a pic of me and The Kid eating crawfish at Bluegrass. I love this picture. Mostly because we're both about five bourbons in and just LOVING THESE CRAWFISH.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Abu Dhabi - Stuff To Do

I think one of the questions I get asked most often about visiting The Gentleman in Abu Dhabi is "What is there to do there?"

I wrote a lot about things we did during my first visit out there in October last year. This visit was a lot more relaxed; neither of us felt a compelling need to cram a whole lot into the trip given the amount of traveling we've done recently. There was a lot of down time at the rooftop pool in The Gentleman's building, a lot of lying on the beach, and a lot of couch-sitting and scary-movie watching. We didn't go out nearly as much as we did the first time.

That having been said, we certainly didn't sit at home all day every day.

One of the nice parts about this trip was that we now have a group of friends there - all expats, and some of whom I knew previously from Baltimore - and one of the nicer things is that some of these friends live on a beach and have paddle boards.

My first day there, we headed out to visit said friends for an afternoon on the beach and grilling out. I got to try paddle boarding for the first time, which was awesome until someone mentioned that the Gulf is teeming with jelly fish, and then I gave myself over to complete concentration in trying not to fall, because I hate jellyfish. 

Al Raha Beach

Nothing to see here. (Also - apparently, black plastic bags are like the Solo Cups of the  Middle East. It doesn't matter what you have inside, it's obviously a poor attempt at masking liquor in public.

I found a friend on the beach.
There were attempts at head stands on the paddle boards - mainly unsuccessful ones.
Did you have cheese plates at your ragers? We do now.
Because alcohol in bars and restaurants is ridiculously expensive and restricted to establishments in hotels, there are a lot of house parties. Kind of like college, except now everyone knows how to cook and only drinks the good stuff, and you're usually not worried about your house getting trashed or someone stealing your stuff. 

Another thing that's in high demand in the UAE for expats (besides alcohol and uncensored R-rated films) is bacon. Some grocery stores sell it in separate, "Non-Muslim Only" sections, and when you can find it - you buy it, and you use it. Immediately. However you can.

You've heard of beer can chicken, right? Of course you have. Creating it goes a little something like this:

Prepped, rubbed with spices, massaged, and told its a good little chicken. No one likes tough chicken - you have to show it love to soften it up.

Fill with delicious spicy things. 

It kind of looks like Gossamer, no?
I probably don't need to tell you how delicious that thing is when you stick it on the grill for (too long) and then serve it up (hourrrrs later), all browned and charred in all the right places, with the beer and juices all circulating beautifully. 

I don't think I could ever be vegetarian.

We also cooked a lot of pork. A LOT. Apparently someone found a grocery store that sells pork and just went bananas. B-A-N-A-N-Apork.

Another fun past time in the UAE is Vox Gold Cinemas. Films tend to come out there at about the same schedule as the US, maybe a couple of weeks behind. Occasionally, for a big film, it's come out before the US because Dubai holds film premieres, but for the most part the line-up you get in the US is comparable.

The UAE does censor films, however, and pretty much won't show anything that has nudity, excessive sexual scenes, etc. But it's sometimes completely random what they'll censor. They might cut out a gratuitous sex scene, but then leave in a couple making out in a later scene, or vice versa. We saw Iron Man 3 and, to me, it seemed to be pretty flawless but someone told me later that certain scenes were cut. Go figure.

Anyway, no one goes to Vox Gold Cinemas for the films. 

You go for the ridiculousness

Upon entry, you and your theater-going friend sit in a lounge area where you're given a full menu to browse. This isn't popcorn and Swedish fish - this is full-on dinner. The Gentleman and I shared calimari and a hummus platter. And a bag of M&M's. BECAUSE IT'S THE MOVIES.

A server comes to visit your private lounge area and takes your order, and then leads you into the theater where you are assigned your very own La-Z-Boy black leather lounger that fully extends out into a horizontal position. Oh, and you get a delightfully soft, fleecy blanket as well, which is AWESOME because I am always freezing in movie theaters. The Gentleman and I had two loungers next to each other with a cocktail table between us. After lying down and getting all tucked in, the server set the table and brought us our snacks just in time for the film to start. The screen is large, the food is pretty damn good, and when you're all snuggled up in your own lounger with a blanket, you'll watch pretty much anything.

Would you care for some shrimp cocktail during the movie?
The ONE down side to Vox Gold is that it doesn't serve booze. Oh well, can't win 'em all. Besides, if they did, I would probably fall asleep in my delightful lounger. Especially if I was watching a film Swiss cheesed with edits for decency.

One of my favorite things (obviously) is trivia. I have hosted a trivia for over five years in Baltimore, and seek out trivias in other places to enjoy (and snoop for category ideas). When I heard there was a pub quiz in Abu Dhabi, I made sure my flight schedule was arranged so that we would make it.

Heroes is a sports pub in the lower level of the Crowne Plaza hotel in what is basically midtown Abu Dhabi. You walk in from the excessive heat, humidity, sand, palm trees, neon, and chrome of Abu Dhabi into...a dive bar. With an excellent beer list. No joke. While I don't love dive bars, there is something just so familiar and comfortable about being inside one, and being inside one in the middle of the Middle East is about as homesick-defeating as you can get.

We turned out to be the only Americans in the place - it was packed full of Brits, Aussies, the Irish, and a handful of other English-speaking white people from countries I couldn't discern. 
It was pretty damn fun, although we didn't do terribly well...

One of the questions we got correct was, "In which US state was The Blair Witch Project filmed?" MARYLAND, MARYLAND, MARYLAND I KNOW THIS ONE OOOHH OOHH!!

The Gentleman lives on the Corniche, which I thought meant boardwalk until I just Googled it and found out that it actually means a road on the side of a cliff or mountain with the ground rising on one side and falling away on the other; the word comes from the French for "on a ledge."  

Ahhh, well. I'll give that one to you, although it's a little bit of Arab-ish (like Chinglish) because the Corniche is not on a cliff or a mountain, but snuggled right up against the Persian Gulf. It's beautiful, and anywhere else in the world would probably be called a Boardwalk.

Running on the Corniche in the (very early) mornings is a favorite past time of ours, except you have to watch out, because they "wash" the Corniche every morning. This means that a coupl'a government workers come out in jumpsuits and hose down the Corniche turning the stones into a slippery death trap. I'm not entirely sure what they're washing off of the Corniche, but I don't want to think too terribly much about that.

Corniche facing south

Corniche facing north with The Gentleman strolling along. I love those buildings to the left that look like lipsticks. They've been in various stages of construction over the past year, and I hope we can go in them when they're finished.

The Corniche is sprinkled with little stands for ice cream, shisha, smoothies, and beach-side snack shacks (I'll show you the good from one in a later post about food). There are "Family-Friendly" beaches where women and men are allowed, and although you'll certainly see ladies bathing in their full-body swim suits, I've always worn a bikini and been just fine.
Another fun past time is finding Happy Hours. They exist. They're ridiculously expensive, and often times "Ladies Only," but they exist.

"Happy Hour" at Jumeirah Towers - each glass of wine was half price ($8 US), and you get a free tray of olives. Hooray!
One of the things we most wanted to do was go jet skiing, which turned into a bit of an ordeal. All day long, we watched jet skis circle the Gulf right outside of The Gentleman's building. We Googled, we Time Out Abu Dhabi'd, we asked around, and it seemed that all you needed to do was find this one particular guy at this one particular dock who would rent you jet skis for an hour or so. 

The first time we tried to do this, we wound up on a very remote area of the island of Abu Dhabi. We got a scenic tour of the jail, the Automated Slaughter House (which is right across the street from the jail, BTW), and a work camp. But no jet skis. Just a shuddery feeling of being in the wrong neighborhood.

The second attempt, we wound up at the marina and yacht club next to the mall where a very non-English-speaking man accidentally let us onto the docks where peoples' yachts were tied. We found a guy who said he knew a guy, he called the guy he knew, and the guy was somewhere else on the island but could meet us back at the docks "within a couple of hours." There were no jet skis to be seen on the docks, which begged the question: was he bringing the jet skis with him? Or would he expect us to jump in his car and be driven out to said jet skis?

The whole thing seemed sketchy at best and, anyway, we didn't have two hours to wait for him, so we bagged it.

Third time was a charm. A friend gave us a phone number and told us to drive out to the Shangri La hotel and resort and call a guy. (Everyone knows A Guy in Abu Dhabi. A Guy is responsible for finding you a maid, an oil change, a half-priced camel. You know - A Guy. Things don't get done by Google out there. They get done by knowing A Guy.)

So we drove out to the Shangri-La on the last day that I was there, called A Guy, who met us in a sputtering, ancient Nissan and asked us to follow him to this beach:

But: behold! Jet skis!!

This was, by the way, the second week of May and the very last of the nice weather before summer truly sets in. It was in the mid-upper nineties the whole time I was there, until right before I left when it started to creep up:

We finally got to go jet skiing. It was awesome.

After the excitement of jet skiing, it was back home for quick shower and change and then out for the evening to Pearls and Caviar for drinks and one of the best views of the city:

The Grand Mosque
 Finally - when you're doing all of this eating and drinking in hotels, you can also photo stalk incredible furniture and design schemes that I would like in my future home:

The Fairmont

The Fairmont - the lights change color periodically. It's amazing.

View from The Fairmont's beach
 I have several more Abu Dhabi posts to come for you, including: Eats, Epic Brunch, Ski Dubai, Sandance, and A Weekend Out In Dubai.