Another one for the bucket list ticked off! A fine-dining experience in one of Dubai’s molecular gastronomy restaurants, the kind that Instagram lover’s dreams are made of. It was none other than the stunning ENIGMA at the absolutely stunning Palazzo Versace Hotel. ENIGMA’s concept borders hosting a distinct Michelin-starred chef from the world’s top restaurants every three months. No doubt, Dubai’s restaurant-goers and bloggers are over the moon with this one!
I call myself an amateur foodie. Food is exciting to me, and I probably spend far too much time thinking about it. I admit, I only know as much about the art and science of food as the mass proliferation of food websites and cable channels have schooled me on, as well as my own kitchen hit or misses over the years. Anthony Bourdain is my hero, Giada de Laurentiis is my soul sister, and I adore Ariana Bundy’s show on NatGeo — Ariana’s Persian Kitchen. I’ve only watched just about every foodie film and series on TV. I’m currently addicted to the ones on NatGeo. And yes, I’m one of those insufferable people who Instagram food. And this does not mean I have a mental illness or eating disorder. It just means that I have an appreciation of food as an art form and the way it plays into our senses in the most gratifying way.
We are now living in a time where expression through food is a mainstream cultural achievement. Celebrity Chefs strive and compete to awe us with the most tantalizing culinary creations imaginable, sanctioning adventure in our own kitchens. Executive Chefs live under pressure to continually manipulate their menus to keep foodsters coming back for more. And this makes me HAPPY!
My client can’t always attend every media invitation, so as a team member I get to fill her shoes in our tasting or marketing events. When this opp came along, I was in instant nirvana because I had read about the currently showcased 2 Michelin-starred Scandinavian chef – Björn Frantzén, who is rated 31/50 in the world of Chef stardom. He’s the first chef to come to Dubai from this region known for its plethora of fine-dining restaurants, so you know this was big for me! Especially since this slated to be my first experience of this kind and I had no inkling what Nordic cuisine tasted like.
And what an absolutely enchanting and luxurious experience it was! Anyone who is remotely interested in perfectly engineered modernist cuisine must try this at least once. Some may see these type of restaurants as ostentatious and overrated, but I already knew this was set to be not just another lovely meal at a great restaurant — but instead a theatrical event of the fifth dimension…and I was ready!
So this lone gourmand arrives via regular Dubai RTA taxi to the Palazzo Versace. I tried to schedule a Careem ride for this one, but no luck because they were all booked up. Must have been due to Ramadan rush hour time. This was my first time at the Palazzo and just wow! Opened for just a few months now, this hotel – reminiscent of a 16th century Italian Palace – is a work of art within itself with its high ceilings, landscaped gardens, white-gloved bellhops, and interiors covered in Versace prints. I felt like I had just walked into a scene at Julian Fellowes film version of Romeo & Juliet. Just dreamy!
From what I’d learned up to that point about Norwegian cuisine is that it’s influenced by the bounty of its sea and forests — things like cod, Klippfish (bacalao as we called in Puerto Rico), herring,gravlaks, Brunost, cured meats (even reigndeer!), and a whole array of foraged ingredients and exotic berries scoured from their woodlands. The restaurants décor lends to that feeling of a place where ferns peep and hide, white-stemmed birches grow…a place where ones expect to see a lurking gnome.
Little did I know that I was about to experience an ultimate visual drama and taste sensation that would give me a direct look into the soul and culture of this region.
And it went like this…
My server, Dennis, starts me off with a refreshing glass of Prosecco. A much-welcomed treat when you’ve just stepped in from intense Dubai’s heat this time of the year. I toast to the gastronomic Gods and wait for what’s to come. The menu is a tasting menu, and there is no posting about it on their website, which adds to the mystery and novelty of the whole thing. I’m presented with a lovely booklet which explains in great detail the journey I’m about to experience in its exact sequence, as well as some initial sketches of Chef Frantzén’s creations for the 12-course meal. The booklet itself serves as a perfect souvenir of the experience I was about to have.
The first starter trio comes out. The No. 1. Dennis instructs me to pop the apple & lingonberry macaroon with foie gras & chervil in my mouth like a food shot. I comply, and therein begins my journey! The pretty, little thing exploded in my mouth. I blushed because I was not sure if that’s how it was supposed to go. Dennis stands there watching for my reaction and gives me a look of reassurance, so I know I did it right. It felt like a giant pop rock (only those from by birth decade will know what that is) exploding in my mouth except with layers of sweet, tangy, and salty — creating a burst of flavor on my palate.
He then tells me to have No. 3 and No. 2 in that order. No. 3 is the Oyster 63.3 degrees with granita of seabuckthorn, juniper cream & sprouted walnut. I examine it and inhale it with gusto with all its sweet and savory richness. This little guy was both pretty and delicious. These oysters are known to be best in the world due to the cold and clean Arctic waters they come from. Seabuckthorn is actually an herb, though it looks like a berry. The third part of this starter trio (No. 2) was a little saucer of “Golden Tea” served with carrot sphere, lemon verbena & grain mustard. It was a little bit overpowering for me. Maybe because it resembled Gazpacho and I’ve never had a particular liking to cold tomato soupy things of any kind.
Next up was probably the most curious course. No. 4. A white moss “sushi” ” with deer, frozen bird’s liver, burnt hay & chanterelles — which again, I’m instructed to eat in one bite. It looked more like a sculpture than something I was to consume, but down it went. The moss did not freak me out because I’ve had it via the delicious Sea Moss drink we frequent in the Caribbean, but it’s the bird liver I was wondering about. So I asked Dennis and he was kind enough to find out. It was chicken liver. I just wanted to make sure was not a Marabou Stork. Look it up. They are some darn ugly birds. This one, however, was the most aesthetically pleasing, but not my favorite. The crunch of the fried sea moss was fun, but just seemed odd to me for some reason. Next was the poached king crab served with wild trout roe & emulsion of brown crab meat. Delightful, with flavors that danced together perfectly.
No. 5 arrived at my table and was a lovely poached king crab served with wild trout roe & emulsion of brown crab meat. Utterly delicious!
And then came No. 6. Oh boy, this one stole the show! A scallop served in its own shell with dried roe, fir tree, finger lime and dashi. The highlight ingredient here is the fir tree, whose needle-like leaves are milled into a powder. This dish perfectly encapsulates the forest and sea and brilliant! I began to float. Dennis brings out No. 7, knäckebröd with a homemade butter made with sour cream and course salt. This crispbread is a Nordic staple dating back 500 AD. So good! Seconds later comes a gorgeous porcelain bowl of frothy soup that frankly does not look appealing to the eye, but it turned out to be an onion soup that will knock your socks off. And earthy concoction of onion, almond, and licorice. Excellent!
At this point, my senses are fully alert and heightened. Next comes No. 8, the slow-baked cod “38ºc” served with Swedish vendace roe from Kalix, beurre blanc flavored with preserved anchovy juice, dill & young onions. I know. What a mouthful! I just love cod no matter how it’s prepared. The highlighted ingredient here is the vendace roe, which is only harvested seasonally in Northern Sweden off the coast of Kalix. The roe is extracted by hand from the female vendace who only produces about 2 teaspoons of the roe. What a tedious job that must be! OK, so that explains why this caviar is served at some of the world’s finest restaurants.
Then comes the showstopper — No. 9. “Hot-pot” lamb served with cabbage, roasted cauliflower bouillon & truffles. My reaction: Yes, this is IT. Right here, right now…this is everything. Why? Because I am a lamb lover and this dish is a sight for sore eyes presented in the most stunning and delicious wild vegetable wreath. The broth is then poured over after the dish as its placed in front of you. Exquisite!
And then for the grand finale. No. 10, No. 11 and No. 13 were none other than a 3-course dessert. I have a sweet tooth the size of the Burj Khalifa, so dessert time is usually when I begin to wag my tail. No. 10 was sticky beetroot served with blackberries, frozen lingonberries, 100-year-old vinegar & licorice mousse. There was a dissonance to this dessert at first glance. It looked messy, but it turned out to be a beautifully curated mouthful of flavors that worked together well in a distinctive dance.
I sat like a well-behaved second grader in anticipation for what little work of art was in store next. Then comes No. 11 – the pièce de résistance of all three dessert courses: smoked ice cream, roasted nuts, tar syrup & salted fudge with cloves. An ambrosial bowl of creamy ice cream encased in a chocolate, smoky sphere that seductively melts before your eyes. The highlighted ingredient here is the tar syrup, which Mr. Google tells me, comes from pinesap, and also used to seal nautical rope and decks. Fascinating! I loved it because I’m a lover of jacked up chocolate of any kind. Don’t ever give me normal chocolate. I go crazy for spicy and savory adds to my chocolate. I made some dark chocolate chipotle thin cookies over the holidays that my husband still talks about. The secret to this is making sure you add enough of the savory ingredient just to accentuate the chocolate. No one wants to bite into a chocolate dessert and have their mouth burst into flames. I digress. Back to my story.
Sadly, my Nordic odyssey came to come to a sudden halt. Just as I start to come down from my food high, No. 12 arrives: Cloudberry & thyme with wild berries. Highlighted ingredient here is none other than the Cloudberry, a rare Arctic berry often referred to as Highland Gold. A nice way to end the ambrosia of a meal that will be eternally etched in my cerebral cortex. No wonder Norwegians are known to be one of the healthiest and happiest in the world! They live in a place rich with the best quality of seafood, meat, berries and wild vegetables in their own backyard. I’d love to travel there someday. Until then, I have a newfound appreciation and admiration for this cuisine that relies heavily on quality ingredients and deep-rooted food traditions from a region loaded with abundance from its arctic seas and lush lands. Skål!