May 7, 2010

My Mini Staycation*

*photos added

I needed a break. Even though my real vacation is just three weeks away, and I've only been working full-time since October, it has felt like ages since I've had a vacation.

Seven weeks a year and then a bout of unemployment will do that to a girl. Not to mention split days off since New Year's.

So I scouted around for a hotel in town that would feel out of town. We contemplated Dubai. Hotel deals are great here for weekenders, but not if you want to go on Wednesday and Thursday -- the days we had off. (Did I mention it was also the first time Paul and I had the same days off since we arrived?)

So this is what I did. On Wednesday I slept late and went to the beach. Good start, eh? I finished a so-so crime novel (An aside here: Who thinks Jesse Kellerman only got a book deal because his parents are Jonathan and Faye? Me.) and just generally relaxed. I was going to rent a lounge chair and an umbrella, but it was overcast, so I spread out on my towel. I also contemplated having a little lunch in one of the great boardwalk cafes that have cushy couches and swing seats -- but no, I wasn't hungry. This is the benefit of vacation: you can change your plans at will.

When I got home Paul and I got ready to go to a swanky bar for good-bye drinks for a colleague of ours. I'm sorry he's leaving, actually. But one day he woke up and decided he'd had enough. That happens a lot.

On Thursday I went to the mall. Sounds not so special, doesn't it? Well I actually went shopping. Usually, I have a very small window at the mall and have to do the grocery shopping in a certain time-frame. The sole reasons for this are crowds and taxis. Too much of one and not enough of the other. But here I was in the middle of the day. Leisurely looking at long skirts and cute tops.
Of course then I did do the grocery shopping (hey, the family still has to eat, right?)

After, I came home and got cleaned up for our "Big Night Out". The coup de grace of my staycation. We had made reservations at Bord Eau in the Shangri-La Hotel. The best restaurant in town at one of the nicest hotels. I really like that area because it feels out of town and it really isn't -- about 15 minutes away.

We hoped to get there for sunset, but I lagged. But we caught the tail end of it, and I'll post pictures ASAP. The view from the hotel area (there are three hotels, all pretty nice) is of the private beach area, an inlet of the Arabian Sea called The creek, and the Grand Mosque. Also some ugly construction, but it was my fantasy vacation, so I saw what I wanted to.

We arrived too early for our reservation, and so decided to wander along the beachfront. Then, to the rooftop bar of a restaurant called Pearls and Caviar, for happy hour. The space is lovely. Big sail-cloth ceilings and couches to lounge on. There was soft techno ambient music playing, and three couples a huge, circular space with the large bar in the middle. No one had to sit near anyone else. The back of the bar was roped off, presumably for VIPs, for later in the night. Bottles of expensive Champagne and vodka were chilling.

Part of the point of the happy hour, we assumed, was to get people there early, when it's still empty so that it isn't. (That made sense, right?)

So we lounged, sipping very nice mojitos and looking at the water. And we pretended we were somewhere, anywhere, else. I don't think we made a decision as to where we were. But we weren't in Abu Dhabi. That was the plan.

After cocktails, we strolled back to our restaurant. It's a newsroom favorite among a certain crowd and they said they would put in a good word for us. That good word got us an excellent table by the window with an equally excellent view of the water and the lit-up mosque. A stunning room, very opulent.

This was going to be our big splurge. Instead of the hotel, we opted for a fancy meal at a French restaurant. But splurges here are more like what real restaurants cost in big cities. Not so horrible. And I had a plan: The newspaper was offering a gift certificate to various fancy restaurants worth Dh500 if we subscribed to the paper for a year. The yearly cost is Dh300. We planned to subscribe eventually, so now was the perfect time. Free money. for a fancy staycation dinner.

We were greeted warmly in a city not know for its service. We were offered complimentary glasses of Joseph Perrier champagne, with a bit of raspberry liqueur. Kir royales. Some lovely nibbles.

The waiter read the menu to me while I held it, turning the pages he described everything on offer. After, the maitre d' came by to see how we were. He asked me in French and I replied in kind. Someone must have tipped him; it was entirely pleasant and made the whole thing even nicer.

I opted for the five-course tasting menu. Paul, who is much more sensible than I, opted for far fewer courses. I also decided to do the wine pairing. I have never done a tasting menu, and done a pairing only once, but not for so many courses. The food was flawless. And the pairing was lovely. My only problem is cocktails+champagne+five tastings = a little too much to drink.

The menu, briefly, for those who wonder: An amuse bouche of roquette and ricotta in pumpkin veloute. Another amuse bouche, I suspect just for us, of lobster and morelles in a light curry sauce. OMG.

My first course: Pan-seard foie gras in a gingerbread crust on finely chopped chestnuts. It was paired with what tasted like a Sauternes, but I didn't catch it when the waiter mentioned the name.

Second course: A pair of perfectly cooked scallops in a lovely sauce and nope, I don't remember any other details. I remember thinking the portion was perfect. The wine was a completely non-oaky Chardonnay from, I think, Australia.

Third course: Monkfish with tapenade and a choice of vintage olive oils to eat it with. I chose French, one that had something to do with Alain Ducasse and one that was Belarussian. The latter was the most flavorful. The monkfish, which I had actually been warned off, was very nice. It was served with a Chablis.

Fourth course: A small Black Angus filet served with peas and the restaurant's famous mashed potatoes with truffle oil. Sublime. I haven't had steak in maybe a year and I eat almost no beef here. Delicious. Paired with a very nice Medoc.

Fifth course: I asked if I could have the cheese course instead of the dessert. Of course it was no problem. Five cheeses, including a St Marcelin and a Fourme d'Ambert. Some not-too-toasted toast, and it was fabulous. As was the glass of Port it came with.

I was full at the finish, but not stuffed. I do regret having had so much to drink, only because I think it was a bit excessive. But it didn't ruin my meal -- not by a long shot.

After, the bill, with the help of the gift card, was extraordinarily reasonable.

Paul escorted me out of the hotel, poured me into a taxi and I happily went to sleep.

The perfect staycation.

May 2, 2010

What's That Smell

I had never thought of myself as having a particularly keen sense of smell. But in the last few years it has become increasingly clear that I do.

I can walk into a market and smell ripe peaches and strawberries and be filled with delight. I think my sense of smell has helped with my sense of taste -- nearly 70 percent of what we taste is related to what we smell. I like to think I can identify different ingredients in my food.

But it's not all roses out there.

I am also finely attuned to unpleasant smells. Paul can never smell these things. He says he's blessed. (Yesterday at work, I told him one of the stray cats must be annoyed; I was certain I smelled cat in one of the hallways leading outside. He didn't notice)

But forget pet smells and other unpleasant things like Metro stations or foreign taxi drivers. The thing that bothers me most is the smell of mildew.

One summer in Paris I was plagued by the smell. For weeks, everywhere I went it overwhelmed me. I was sniffing everything. It wasn't my clothes. Nobody around me ever noticed it. It was driving me mad. Finally, with the help of a very understanding friend, I realized it was me after all. My hair had mildewed.

Yes, it's gross. I know. It must have been during the heat wave in 2003 and I was always hot; it was impossible to cool down. So each morning I would take a cold shower and go out with my wet hair tied up. This went on for several weeks. Ultimately, it never dried, and thus the mildew. Ewww, huh?

That particular smell isn't one you encounter often in the states, because people have dryers in their home. There is usually no problem of leaving the clothes in the washer too long (and if you do, you know right away) and clothes dry fully.

This is not the case here. Clothes never dry fully. Even when they are put outside in the heat, there's always a dampness to them. And always a dampness in the apartment. It doesn't feel damp, but I can smell it in my freshly washed clothes.

It drives me crazy to put on clothes that smell like this, even faintly. And at work, it's not uncommon to sit near someone who also has that smell. How does everyone else not notice this?

One solution may be to send everything to the laundry, instead of just sheets and towels and clothes that need to be ironed.

The other might be just not to breathe too deeply.