From Our Foreign Curryspondent ... Dateline: Dubai!

(The TATTGOC brotherhood extends around the globe, and we welcome reports of curry expeditions beyond Glasgow – here, one of our exiled MIA brethren treats some Scottish visitors to a taste of the high life over in Dubai.)

REVIEW: India Palace in Dubai

Your Foreign Curryspondent: Tikka Mabaws

The Time: Late June, when the temperature in Dubai lingers around 40C and the humidity is only about 50%.

Booking Name: We just sauntered in, a herd of white devils.

The Pub Aforehand: N/A

In Attendance: Phall From Grace, Filthy Saag, Fatty Basmatti and Chill Out, Naan.

Decor: Shin-bashingly dark, but red and gold. Probably.

Expectations: Half an inch lower than a slug’s belly (see below).

The Experience:

One year ago, in an emirate far, far away… I am in Dubai and payday is tomorrow. I have AED20 to my name (about £4.50) and naturally opt to blow it on a biryani and pakora at my dingy hotel in downtown Bur Dubai (think Townhead with humidity, without bams).

In place of actual pakora, though, I get an assortment of partially battered vegetables in various states of sorry disrepair. And when I unsheathe the main course from its tinfoil wrapping, I am even more disappointed. I poke the fork in a couple of times, like a child playing the world's worst lucky dip, and hit something hard only to discover a lump of bone with rancid, grey flesh hanging limply from its ugly frame. Suddenly, like a dog finding steak in the bin, I find something soft and quickly sling it into my mouth … but it's pure gristle.

I fall onto the bed and stare at the ceiling as the putrid smell from the bin wafts around my room. The Wee Curry Shop seems awfully far away …

With that being my first frontline experience in the UAE, it was hardly surprising that it took me a while to get into a curry house. Also, as dozens of similarly pasty, money-grabbing western expats will testify, the discovery of Lebanese cuisine – the shish taouk, smothered in garlic mayonnaise, is a key contributor to the infamous “Dubai stone” – provided a cheap, amazingly tasty distraction from, well, pretty much any other scran.

But with the arrival of Caledonian comrades Filthy Saag, Fatty Basmatti and Chill Out, Naan for a holiday in the merciless sun, Phall From Grace (Ma Burd) and I felt we had the sufficient hauners to get back on the spice trail. Besides, with around 50% of the population of the UAE – the downtrodden, exploited half – being from the Indian subcontinent, there’s every chance they’d know their curry.

On account of getting a license to buy a carryout being as much fun as snorting lime pickle – and presumably applying for a license to punt booze even less fun than that – there was no pub beforehand. Once we got to the India Palace – which was pretty much deserted – booze wasn’t on the menu either. On the plus side, it was genuinely walking distance from Chateau LaffMo, cutting out the risk of taking a taxi (six days a week there is a lethal car crash in the UAE, a high percentage of which involve taxis) but it still meant being outside for more than a few seconds. In summer, this feels not unlike God taking a long, steady pish on your head.

Empty though it may have been, the India Palace had decent air conditioning and, as with virtually every eatery in Dubai, waiters who were attentive to the point of being servile. In the face of such niceness, you wonder what motivates them – the threat of being forced to eat Scotch Bonnets for a week perhaps? But those in the India Palace are a cunning bunch and have perfected the art of deliberately mishearing an order, to the point that Filthy Saag found himself merrily going along with the up-sell, unaware of any skulduggery.

“Can I get a cheese naan?” he asked.

“Two cheese naans, sir …”

“OK, two.”

They come at you with smiles, they come as your friends … And they always seem to come at a time when you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help. As it turned out, that was "pretty often", as much of the fare on offer was authentically Indian; selections such as the murg tinka sounded more like a Klingon picking a fight than whit’s fur ma tea. With a little help from our waiter friend, we placed a sprawling order and tore into the complimentary poppadoms, which were accompanied by lime pickle, mango chutney, generic curry sauce, something close to raita and a mysterious concoction that looked a bit like rotten mustard.

The India Palace, with a sitar and bongo duo providing live music in the corner, a wee guy endlessly weaving colourful bracelets by the door and shiny brass finishings glittering in the dark underneath the low ceiling, is – if not palatial – a pretty decent-looking restaurant. Local rag Time Out Dubai claims that this is a romantic place to dine, yet having had more than one review edited to remove everything other than a tinge of Tikka Mabaws honesty to please advertisers, it’s hard to take their advice too seriously. Suffice to say: it’s nice inside.

Alas, the starters didn’t match the setting. The pakora, once again, was certainly mixed, with scrawny bits of bony chicken joining lazily dunked mushrooms. The balls of mixed veggie surprise were at least pretty tasty.

However, if the starters disappointed, the mains were much more impressive. Phall From Grace – being a female – went for a chicken korma and thus warrants no further reportage, but the rest of us shared the dum methi murg (green and tasty), the murg tikka shole (orange and tangy) and kadai murg (fruity and moreish). If anything, the only letdown was the chicken xacutti, ordered by Fatty Basmatti because it was said to be one of the spicier things on the menu and, as his forehead hadn’t stopped leaking from the moment he got off the plane, wouldn’t reduce his dignity that much further. Yet instead of the kind of choking, eye-watering sweat-fest we had all expected, he simply described it as being “Gid, aye.”

Still, at about £11 a head, we certainly got value, even if there wasn’t any bevvy. Having already started to perspire before leaving the restaurant, it made heading back out into the crushing night air slightly easier. Perhaps that’s part of the reason hot food is so popular in hot countries – that and the need to disguise the taste of ingredients. The three visitors, flying home soon after, resolved to make up for the lack of beer at the airport – and to ignore the airplane food after gorging on so much creamy curry. There are all kinds of horror stories about the Indian experience in Dubai, but in this case at least, their presence was most welcome.

Range Of Drinks: Soft to the point of total flaccidity.

Highlights: Chill Out, Naan’s reaction to the insistence of a photograph and his attempts to hide behind his menu. Also, the surprise at how good the dum methi murg tasted despite looking like liquid moss.

Lowlights: The lack of spice and a lingering feeling of guilt at fuelling the wicked Dubaian economy.

The Verdict: One of hundreds of curry houses in the city, it set a high standard to beat.

The Damage: About £60 for five, including starters, mains, sundries, water and one mint cooler. As is often the case in Dubai, the tip was already included without asking so we didn’t leave any more.


The Tramp said...

Excellent work Tikka Mabaws - a great bit of reportage, and a fine addition to the site. I hope we can expect further reports from your travels in the future. I have to say that I'm with Phall from Grace on the korma though - while I do like a hotter curry at times I generally go for the milder options these days. Be it korma or vindaloo, as long as it's curried it's good with Trampy and The Tramp.

Trampy said...

An intriguing glimpse into the high life of Dubai, viewed though the ever-democratizing lens of curry. But how will the UAE negotiate the current unpredictable financial climate?

Something to ponder while I spend most of today on the pan ...