Saturday, August 7, 2010

TGIFriday: The Day of Brunching

My favorite brunch fare - eggs florentine hollandaise.
Nothing like poached eggs, hollandaise sauce and sauteed
spinach to make you feel like laying around for the next 24 hours.
Photo credit: From a great food blog called My Salt is Maldon.

*NB: I meant to post this on Friday but the weekend and moving into our new house got away with me. Here it is, a day late!*

It seems like there is something intrinsically special about Fridays everywhere. People thirst for them in the West because they are the portal leading to the weekend. People revere them in the East because they are the Holy Day, a day of rest and prayer and family. I look forward to Fridays for many splendid reasons: because the radio always plays the best "ready for the weekend" songs, because in my synesthetic conceptual calendar of the week Friday is symbolized by a pretty summer's sunshine, because I still associate it with drinks at Jake's Dilemma on the Upper West Side, because it is the most exciting day of the weekend in the sense that you still have two "fun" nights ahead of you before the dreaded joykill that is Monday, because, in short, it's Friday.

Ironically, having just moved to Abu Dhabi, many of these traditional reasons to love Friday no longer apply. The weekend here starts on Thursday and ends on Saturday. It's a little bit of a mind-jerk to be honest, and I can't help constantly feeling jipped when I wake up on Saturday morning realize Matt goes back to work the next day. No Sunday brunch, no Mass as a family, and no lazy Sunday afternoons watching black and white movies.

But on the bright side, I now have a new reason to look forward to and enjoy TGIFridays as the "bread and butter" of the weekend...
It somehow became known to us that in the UAE there is a certain pleasure reserved solely for Fridays and - no, it does not have to do with Mosques or worship of any traditional sort - it has to do with food.

Fridays are the day of Brunching in Abu Dhabi, and like with everything else in the UAE, when the Emiratis do brunch, they go
all out.

* * *

Friday: It's the new Saturday
Or rather Sunday, in the brunch sense,

What is Brunch?
Brunch has meant lots of different things in the various places we've lived, but everywhere people agree and know it means good food - and lots of it - somewhere between breakfast and lunch. The idea is to stuff yourselves so you can cover two meals in one - breakfast and lunch.

This wonderful portmanteau conjures images of sweet and savory dishes, drinks hot and cold, and even unbreakable traditions depending on who you ask. Here are some of the meanings in some of the places we know.

Domer-Style: At the University of Notre Dame, my alma mater, brunch took place on Sundays, and for a Walsh-Wild-Woman like me that meant getting up at about 10 or so and walking across God Quad and South Quad with my 3 or 4 closest girlfriends to the legendary South Dining Hall. They generally had the full-gamut of traditional choices, buffet-style: scrambled eggs, eggs Benedict, and even hash browns. If you were a freak you could also get a full choice of 20+ different cereals or savories such as roast chicken and beef with veggies, or even sushi. The sky was the limit - as would make sense in God's brunch locale of choice. ;)

You can't really say you've ever had Sunday brunch until you've had it in New York City.

Sunday brunch in the Big Apple is a tried and true, full-blown institution. Women and men alike crawl from their tiny apartments donning impossibly fashionable casual clothes and prerequisite designer sunglasses (both for effect and to help with last night's hangover), small dog alongside, and sit outside at one of the many cafes and international venues the city offers. In New York you are spoiled for choice - French, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, even Chinese Dim Sum - everyone does brunch. But if you want the real deal, you've got two choices: an American cafe or an American diner. (image: Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel don the typical NY brunch look, on their way to eat)

Any place with a brunch worth its weight in gold will have a brunch menu and special: your choices generally consist of coffee (American is traditional but it is also acceptable to indulge in an Italian or French variation), a cold drink (Mimosa or Bloody Mary are traditional), a starter (yogurt and granola, fruit salad or toasted muffin), and a main which is typically egg-based: eggs any style with home fries, toast and bacon, eggs Benedict, eggs with smoked salmon, or any kind of gourmet omelette. If you go all out you can get salads, sandwiches, bagels, pancakes and pastries of all sorts - the list never ends - but in NYC you always go a la carte, no buffets here.

Matt and I were even sadder (if that's possible) to leave NYC when we realized that brunch is all but non-existent in London. There is a negligible crowd that adheres to this tradition, and those who do generally do it in extremely expensive locales: Cecconi's, The Wolseley - you get the idea. If they don't go to posh British places, then they go to posh American ones - The Diner, Christopher's, or even Automat. The food is good-ish, but overpriced for what it is. Some local pubs have started offering brunch fair in an attempt to feed the growing demand (one of our Putney locals did a good one: The Normanby), but it just doesn't compare to any normal American diner. For the life of me, I could not find a good, normal fried eggs and hash in London! So I basically wrote American-style brunch off...until, that is, I discovered the British version of Sunday brunch: Sunday lunch.

It's later than brunch, but in England it's worth the wait: Sunday Roast, beef or chicken with roasties, veggies, a Yorkshire pudding and gravy to boot. My all-time favorite Sunday roast was had with Matt and his parents at a hidden-gem of a pub in Primrose Hill, just down the street from Primrose Bakery: The Lansdowne. All four of us ordered the roast chicken and instead of the typical, tired half-chicken with watery gravy and soggy roasties, what we got was a platter with a full chicken on it (!) surrounded by the necessary and perfectly-cooked accoutrement and au jus. Unforgettable, aesthetically pleasing, and almost worth passing on brunch for. :)

Abu Dhabi-Style:
In Abu Dhabi much of the culinary scene takes place in hotels. Because it is a Muslim country, hotels are the only places legally allowed to serve Alcohol, which means the truly-gourmet, Western institutions are drawn to them and their wealthy clientele (largely expats). Hotels also have enough man-power to produce a production such as what I am about to describe.

Over the past two weeks I have been learning to drive again: we rented a car on a monthly basis until we buy our own, and so I was essentially let loose in a city I didn't know, Roman buckled-up in the back, and told to find my way around. As I attempted to keep my calm in what is, or so I am told, one of the 10-worst places to drive in the world, I listened to the BBC radio. The chap on the other end kept blabbing on about "Friday brunch" and so I looked into this, as of yet, unknown phenomenon.

On Fridays, between the hours of 11-2, people in Abu Dhabi flock by the thousands to various luxury hotels where they enjoy the most sumptuous, international version of brunch I have ever experienced (outside of at the JW Marriott in Phuket, which does an un-believable daily buffet breakfast). Prices range from 125AED (about 40USD) to upwards of 300AED (about 100USD) per person, and can either include alcoholic drinks (usually called a "bubbly brunch" because of the traditional offering of champagne) or not. Your main choices for venue in Abu Dhabi are the Shangri-La Hotel, Le Royal Meridien Hotel, Fairmont Hotel (they have a Frankie's!), Sheraton Hotel or for a boutique-y feel - the One to One Hotel. We chose to go to a place very near to our new house: Al Raha Beach hotel, Abu Dhabi's first "boutique hotel." I would hardly call it "small."

The dining room at Sevilla, Al Raha Beach Hotel
It was not crowded because of its relatively out-of-the-way location, but the venue was beautiful, immaculate, and the service attentive and warm. The choice of foods left me, for lack of a better word (again), speechless. Perhaps a pictorial description and Time Out Review would do it all better justice.

My first plate of food: crab claws (pre-peeled), seared tuna on a papaya salad, shrimp ceviche and octopus salad.
Second plate included: full lobster tail, raw oysters, grilled shrimp, and beef wellington. Indulgent, I know.

The Asian / Seafood section, next to the carving station, "Arabic" corner and full salad bar, as well as the whole-lamb roast, whole turkey, whole beef wellington and Indian section.

A whole roasted Hammour fish.

Part of the dessert section.

Favorite new find: Umm Ali Arabian bread pudding made with croissants and pistachios.

Oh and as an added perk, many of the hotels offer discounted use of their pool and beach facilities when you eat brunch with them. Good thing - it can cost up to 80USD to use some of them!

Why Brunch, anyway?
Why bother with brunch? Why get up out of your lazy weekend slumber and venture into the cruel, cruel world rather than continue to hibernate in the relative safety and assumed comfort of your home? Because brunch as a concept and tradition reaffirms humanity's need and desire to commune, to be together, to share, to break bread (or toast, as it were) together and to relate life's happenings, for better, worse or hilarious.

There could be nothing more satisfying, in my mind, than a meal well-had and well-shared. And brunch, wherever one may be, is that perfect, almost cosmic, combination of comfort-food and friendship that makes it a tradition worth passing on to the next generation and the one after that.

the little prince, brunching away at Al Raha Beach Hotel
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  1. Wow, love the brunch comparisons - this is vital information indeed, NYC brunch is indeed something to behold. This is people watching at its finest, and why I always thought people wore those big designer glasses, so no one could really tell you were staring.

    This bread pudding of croissants and pistachios sounds amazing - any chance you'll recreate it for your desperate followers?

  2. Hey Oyster - I think there is a very good chance I will recreate it - especially now that I have a special request! Only thing is, it is served hot, so it will most likely have to wait until the weather is a little...cooler. :)