At the risk of having M tell me “I told you so”, I once again picked a cafe for a meal, but this cafe did NOT disappoint.
Walking in, one gets an immediate feeling of De ja Vu. Someone on Zomato accurately observed that it’s very “Jones The Grocer”, and that someone is spot on! The first impression IS very Jones The Grocer, but a much more hipster version. The restaurant was extremely clean and the staff were extremely welcoming and attentive. There were seating options for people of all preferences, ranging from the standard table and chairs, through comfy couches to tall barstools. We were instantly glad we picked this branch over the one in Al Wasl. The space was very well lit and I can imagine it to be beautifully sunny during the daytime, as it has an entire wall of glass overlooking this beautiful artificial lake in Bay Square.
The view from our table
We ordered two entrees, and a good 10 minutes after we ordered, we asked the waiter if we could change our order to the 8 course Iftar set menu (we were VERY hungry!). The management kindly obliged. Throughout the meal, my husband and I couldn’t stop whispering to each other about how excellent the service is. The Pantry has the best staff I’ve come across since Crate & Barrel and Fortnum & Mason.
The first course brought to us included a refreshing mint lemonade, a date, and some crisp bread with a smoked salmon dip thing (I forget it’s exact name) and beetroot “hommus”. Now, I’ve grown up in the Middle East and I’ve had A LOT of dates in my life. Cheap, expensive, simple, fancy- you name it and I’ve had it. THIS date, however, oh my GOD. This was truly something else. It was a normal Mejdool date, but it was taken to the next level ++! This date was stuffed with cream cheese that has been mixed with pink peppercorn, and was topped with some sour cream, pistachios and orange zest. The chef had won me over with the first bite. This guy knows what he’s doing! The smoked salmon dip was also good. The beetroot “hommus”, (I use inverted commas because it had no tahini in it so I don’t know if you can technically call it a hommus), was topped with some sour cream and was so delicious that it made me stop hating beetroot!
Next up, we had the option to pick between watermelon carpaccio or sweet potato Harrissa soup. M and I both picked the latter (we were very hungry and wanted savory food). The waiter warned us that its spicy, and much to our pleasure, it really was! It came with some fried chickpeas inside that were soft rather than crispy but offered a subtle textural contrast, and some baby spinach on top. There was also crispbread on the side, which I crumbled into the soup to make for croutons. That was a really good idea. I’ve always been one for multi-textural foods. (My ice cream had to have nuts, it just has to).
After the soup, was an extremely refreshing watermelon and marinated feta salad. This was such a pleasant contrast from the spicy soup we had just had, but I wonder if it would have impressed me and pleased my palate just as much had I opted for the watermelon carpaccio instead of the sweet potato soup? Two courses in a row with watermelon? Hmm. Not so sure how that would have turned out. Either way, this salad boasted the sweetest, reddest, juiciest watermelon I’ve had in a while. The salty, tangy feta on top that had been marinated in olive oil, basil and thyme, was the perfect ying to the yang of the watermelon. Two very familiar ingredients and flavors, paired together in a relatively unfamiliar but very complementary marriage of flavors. The caramelized pecans sprinkled in scarcity on the sides were the cherry on top of this metaphorical sundae.
Watermelon and feta salad
By this point I was already extremely satisfied with the selection of the menu. What pleased me the most was that there were no greasy, fried, or heavy items on the menu and everything seemed to be extremely well thought out.
Next up, M chose the Mexican Chicken served on polenta and topped with fried onions and avocado. I chose the prawn option (cursing myself right now for not taking down the exact names). We were both rather pleased with our respective choices. M loved his dish, for it’s perfect cook, good seasoning and generous portion size. I’m glad I picked the prawn instead as I felt his polenta lacked seasoning and the chicken had it’s skin on (something I don’t enjoy). I loved the creativity my prawn exuberated. Wrapping a prawn up in Kunafa vermicelli and placing it on a paper thin bed of pineapple? Slow clap. Nice touch, Chef (Y). Way to incorporate an ingredient native to Middle Eastern Ramadan into a very Far Eastern dish. Other than that, the Kunafa vermicelli added no value to the flavor. Yes, it added a crunchy texture, but I could easily have done without the extra crunch if it meant getting to enjoy more of that insanely awesome lemongrass-ey seasoning on the prawn that I was struggling and longing to savor more of. I also noticed that the bottom side of the vermicelli was burnt, but lucky for them- a little extra char never bothered me. The sweet chili sauce tasted like it was out of a store bought bottle. Overall, it all worked though. And it worked very well. So far, so good.
The next course caught us by a bit of a surprise. We were brought a passion fruit sorbet. I knew my meal wasn’t over, which meant that this was a palate cleaner. This was extremely, pleasantly surprising coming from a cafe, and had I been seated in a hotel instead, this could easily have passed as a fine dining experience. For this kind of attention to be paid to detail in a cafe, has till date been unheard of to me. And I think there’s no reason one shouldn’t be able to expect a decent meal just because you’re in a hoodie and fit flops 😀 Witha big, content smile on my face, I dug into what was the most refreshing, most well-balanced tart but sweet- NOT overly sweet- sorbet I’ve had in a LONG time. Also, it was made in house. I might as well slow clap for the chef throughout this review.
And the above was, unfortunately, the highest point of the meal. My clapping paused midair; when we were next brought a gnocchi pancake. Here’s where they lost me: it was made with clarified butter. I despise, loathe, cannot stand clarified butter. Still, I had a couple of bites, for the sake of the review. The gnocchi was grossly under-seasoned, and I’ve actually never heard of plain bland gnocchi with no protein or add-in. This course was a miss. Sorry, Chef.
Finally, it was time for the main course. Drumroll, please. M got some tender, juicy, insanely delicious beef brisket that was sheer perfection on a bed of mustard mashed potatoes. This one was a win. I got a dry, fishy smelling, under-seasoned fillet of salmon on a bed of what I thought was creamy pasta. With a heavy heart, and trying not to eye M’s dish, I dug into my “pasta” and that’s when I realized it was actually some fresh, tangy horseradish slaw with wholegrain mustard. YUM! It was a VERY smart move to pair this with the salmon as it cuts through the richness of the fish. Great idea, but less than satisfactory execution on the fish. Come on, Chef, I know you can do better than that. You’re the one who raised the bar so much!
Lastly, my favorite part of every meal: dessert! Oh. Churros. Hmm. Ok. I can do with Churros, I guess. Sigh. And here I thought there’s no greasy food on the menu :/ It’s ok. Churros aren’t so bad. At least the chocolate dipping sauce was made from real chocolate and wasn’t Hershey’s fake syrup. M didn’t eat his Churros. He hated that they’re coated in sugar and lacks the sweet tooth that I have a jaw full of.
One observation we made throughout the meal was that the potion sizes were very balanced and well calculated. Everything was just the right amount to allow you to thoroughly enjoy it, without making you feel stuffed to the point of tears. There were more hits than misses, overall. A tad pricey at 140 AED per person, especially when you can go for nice buffets starting at 165, give or take. BUT, my argument is that how much can one really eat at the end of the day, really? I’d pick well planned set menus like this over eat-till-you-can’t move buffets any day.