Demystifying the Tomahawk Steak – bringing the Caveman and Cavewoman into the modern era

The world of social media is an interesting place. If you told me that I would be a regular on Instagram when I started this blog, I would have thought you were insane! Fast forward over a year and a half, here I am, posting daily, engaging with followers, and finding inspiration in the digital world out there.

Creativity really has no boundaries.

What I find mind boggling about this world are the human connections that can take place over the sharing of a simple photograph. A like, a comment, and a simple exchange of encouraging words make this an extremely engaging platform, and one where you can let your imagination run wild and free. It’s the perfect online haven for you to share what you find meaningful, whether it’s a talent, a passion, a product, or a tiny piece of your life.

It was through Instagram that I met the people behind Les Gastronomes, a start-up online meat supplier based in Dubai (this is not a sponsored post). Michel, the owner, reached out after spotting my account and invited me to select any cuts I found inspiring.

The first thing that struck me was their black angus Tomahawk steak. Big, bold, and on a bone that’s the size of my arm (I’m not kidding), this epic piece of meat is a force to be reckoned with, and a culinary challenge worth taking on. I found it a little imposing at first, but in all honesty, it’s relatively simple to prepare if you follow a few basic rules. All you need is some coarse salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a hot grill (or griddle pan), and you’re set for a carnivorous feast.

Massive Tomahawk steak

Trust me, you’ll never look at steak the same way again.

I served this baby with a white bean and roasted garlic purée, and a side of slow cooked baby onions. Add some roasted potatoes, along with whatever greens you fancy, and get ready to wow your guests, and seriously impress yourself in the process.

Cutting through a Tomahawk steak

Bon appétit!

Grilled Black Onyx Tomahawk steak with white bean and roasted garlic purée

Serves 4, or 2 very hungry cavemen/cavewomen

Ingredients for the Tomahawk:

  • One 1.4 kg to 1.6 kg Tomahawk – rib-eye steak on the bone
  • Coarse sea salt, enough to cover both sides of the meat (Maldon is always my favourite)
  • Cracked black pepper – place a small handful of peppercorns in a small plastic bag and give it a few whacks until the pepper is aromatic and breaks into coarse pieces

Directions:

Remove the meat from the refrigerator 1.5 to 2 hours prior to cooking in order to bring it to room temperature. (Note – If your Tomahawk comes frozen, you’ll need to thaw it in the refrigerator for at least 48 hours before you want to cook it)

Preheat grill or griddle pan over medium high heat.

Season both sides of the meat generously with salt and pepper, gently patting it on the flesh so it sticks to each side

Place the Tomahawk on the grill, and let it cook, undisturbed, for five minutes. You can close the grill, but you will need to monitor the meat so it does not flame up (keep the grill at medium to medium high heat).

tomahawk on the gril step 1

After five minutes, rotate the meat 45 degrees, and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes longer, until the meat is beautifully grilled on the exterior (you want that characteristic grill mark pattern on the meat if possible).

Carefully lift the meat, as it is getting soft off the bone, and repeat on the other side for a total of 9 to 10 minutes.

tomahawk on the grill step 2

Note that the timings I’m giving you will result in a rare Tomahawk with a seared and crusted exterior. Add approximately 2 to 3 minutes per side if you would like a medium rare steak. I won’t go beyond a medium rare. Below is an internal temperature guide for your reference (you will need a meat thermometer to gauge the temperature).

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Let the meat rest for 8 to 10 minutes to seal in the juices (cutting into it prematurely can result in dry meat).

how to grill a tomahawk steak

Ingredients for the white bean and roasted garlic purée:

  • 1 head garlic – bulb intact, with the top ¼ inch removed to expose the raw garlic
  • 400 grams of cooked white cannellini beans (you can use the equivalent in canned)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chicken stock
  • ¾ teaspoon salt (taste to see if you need more)
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C)

Wrap the garlic bulb in foil. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the garlic is cooked through and reaches a consistency that’s as soft as butter.

 

Release the garlic from its bulb by gently squeezing through its bottom (the garlic will ooze out of each clove like toothpaste from a tube).

With a hand blender, purée the white beans, roasted garlic, olive oil, chicken stock, and salt. Blend until smooth and silky. Give it a quick taste and add more salt if needed.

 

grilled tomahawk steak with white bean mash

To serve: Carve into the meat, serve with the white bean purée, and savor every single juicy bite!

Carving a Tomahawk steak

grilled tomahawk with white bean puree and baby onions in wine

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In my kitchen: roasted eggplant with garlic yogurt & pomegranate

Cook with your hands. I’m convinced that there’s an invisible pipe that goes straight from your heart directly into your fingers, and there’s nothing better than eating a dish that has a little love running through it.

Using your hands teaches you about your ingredients – how things should feel when they’re raw, cooked, and combined. Having said that, there’s probably no food that I manhandle more than the eggplant, or aubergine as many refer to it. No matter what you call it, eggplant is something that I love, and has become somewhat of a staple in my kitchen. Grilled, roasted, baked, or all sauced up – there’s so much you can do with this plump, purple-skinned fruit, yes, its actually a fruit. I am talking about the dark shaded eggplant here as I have yet to try the white variety.

With a bitter taste and flesh that absorbs oil faster than moisturizer on cracked dry skin, cooking with eggplant can be tricky. Fortunately, there are ways to circumvent its challenges by learning how to choose your fruit wisely.

Look for eggplant that is light in weight, with shiny, smooth skin free of bruises and blemishes. It should be firm but not hard with a round brown mark on the fat, bottom end – a brown slit on the bottom might mean more seeds.

Some say that you have to salt the eggplant to remove bitterness. If I have the extra time, I’ll add this step, but more often than not, I skip it. I don’t find salting it makes that much of a difference. If you want to try it, cut your eggplant into slices, salt it generously and let it hang out in a colander for 30 minutes to an hour. Rinse it and pat it dry before cooking.

Add your oil right before cooking so that that it coats the surface of the flesh – that will help give your eggplant that beautiful brown finish.

Roasted Eggplant with Garlic Yogurt and Pomegranate

Serves 4 to 6

For the eggplant:

  • 2 to 3 medium eggplant, washed, dried, and cut into 1 ½ inch slices (salted, drained, and rinsed if desired)
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1 & 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

For the garlic yogurt:

  • 400 grams plain yogurt
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

To garnish:

  • 1 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts (optional), lightly toasted

Preheat your oven to 210 Celcius, 410 Farenheit. Position your rack in the lower third of your oven.

Cut eggplant into slices and toss generously with olive oil.

slicing eggplant

Add salt, pepper, lemon, and oregano.

Place on a large baking tray, and bake for approximately 15 to 20 minutes or until the bottom of the eggplant has started to turn brown.

eggplant on sheetpan

Turn the eggplant over and cook for another 15 minutes or until brown and soft. At this stage, you can eat the eggplant as they are (great as a vegetarian side dish). If you want to add the garlic yogurt, keep reading.

oven roasted eggplant slices

For the garlic yogurt:

Combine yogurt with garlic and salt. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.

Place eggplant on a large dish or platter. Spoon and scatter the garlic yogurt over the eggplant and garnish with pomegranate seeds and pine nuts (if using).

roasted eggplant with garlic yogurt sauce and fresh pomegranite

Serve warm or cold.

eggplant with yogurt sauce and pomegranite with pine nuts

Bon appétit!

Photos by: Tara Atkinson Photography

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I got it from my mama! A Mother’s Day post & a currant scone recipe

There’s a comfort in baking that I find difficult to put into words. Maybe it’s the memory I have of my mother immersed in her dough-making process in our flour-dusted kitchen. Or maybe it’s because as a young girl, my eager little hands would wait in anticipation to indulge in the fruits of her labor. Running to the kitchen at the first whiff of freshly baked bread, I can still remember how happy she was when she baked – singing and smiling like she was in her own secret world. For my mother, baking was an outlet that went far beyond cakes, cookies, and pies. Less about the end result, baking was a creative, soul-quenching time that gave her the chance to disconnect and let her imagination run wild and free.

Now fully immersed in the throes of motherhood, I find the same comfort in the kitchen that my mother did (although my singing voice isn’t nearly as good as hers). When I bake, time could literally stop and I probably wouldn’t notice. Yes, I really do find it that therapeutic! Whether it’s something as simple as whipping up a batch up fresh scones, or a bit more elaborate like a four-layered cake dripping in puddles of chocolate ganache, I find solace in folding fresh cream, melting chocolate, and swirling my whisk through ribbons of sugar and softly whipped egg yolks.

in the kitchen making scone dough

lidija and scones

A tiny part of me hopes my children will have the same memories that I have of my mother – with our flour-dusted kitchen table and my mama-bear-hands covered in dough.

I got it from my mama, and I know she would be proud.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Classic Currant scones

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 & ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 140 grams unsalted butter, cut into ¼ inch cubes and chilled
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup buttermilk (alternatively you can use ¼ cup full fat plain yogurt or cream mixed with ¼ cup milk with a squeeze of lemon juice)
  • ½ cup dried currants
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

* note that this recipe can be easily doubled if needed

Directions:

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Set aside.

Put the flour mixture in a food processor fitted with a steel blade (you can also do this with an electric mixer or by hand). Pulse a couple of times to distribute the ingredients.

Add the butter to the flour, pulsing several times (as many as 40 times if your butter is super cold!). Remember not to run your food processor or mixer continuously at this point. You need to see little lumps of butter in the mixture.

Combine the milk, cream, egg, and vanilla in a bowl and mix until all the ingredients have been incorporated well.

Add the wet milk/egg mixture and the currants to the flour mixture.

With your hands, combine all the ingredients together without over-mixing.

Put the dough onto a large, lightly floured surface and form into a rough shaped disk, measuring approximately 2 to 3 inches high.

Cut rounds out of your dough using a fluted cookie cutter (alternatively, make free-form balls).

The amount of scones your dough will yield depends on the height of the dough and size of your scone cutter. This batch makes roughly 8 large to 14 small scones.

Place your shaped scones you’ve made on a parchment lined baking tray, and freeze for AT LEAST 30 minutes or longer (I usually make my scones the night before I serve them, and keep them in the freezer until ready to bake. You can also freeze the dough shapes for up to a month and use as needed. Remember to store them in airtight freezer bags if storing for a long period of time. you can bake the scones directly from the freezer).

scone dough shaped on a baking tray

Preheat your oven to 200 C (400 F) and position your baking rack in the center of the oven.

Bake the scones for 25 to 30 minutes (time varies depending on size), until tops are golden brown and the smell emanating from your oven is insanely delicious.

currant scones on cooling rack

hot scones ready to eat

Serve hot, cold, or in between.

scone tower part two

Bon appétit!

Photos by Tara Atkinson Photography 

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A tuna niçoise salad recipe

My culinary management skills were put to the test last month when I was invited to an early-evening cocktail party across town. I happily accepted, made a mental note, and filed it away in my memory until the date of the event. The morning of the party, I realized I had already extended a dinner invitation to friends for that same evening. Note to self, next time use google calendar and avoid double booking!

With no time left to bow out gracefully, the only choice was to rise to the occasion and honour both commitments. I carefully mapped out my dinner menu as well as my route to the first party. I also added a pit stop to grab a ball of buratta on my way across town (what can I say – I like living on the edge!). Timing is critical, especially when you don’t have much to spare, so I put my party clothes on and set off on a mission to prove that the time gods were on my side. It turned out that they were! I got to the party, mingled with guests, and enjoyed a lovely cocktail with our hosts before heading back.

Making it home by the skin of my teeth, I slipped into the kitchen to finish off what I started. Prepping my dishes in advance turned out to be a very wise move. Salads were pre-assembled and tartares were left un-tossed and ready to serve at the last minute. In the end, my slow-cooked beef short ribs saved the day, as I left them to cool in their braising liquid while I attended event number one.

I would be lying if I said that rushing back home from the other end of the city and putting my hostess hat back on was a breeze, but I must admit that it was much easier than I thought it would be. The finishing touches took only a few minutes, and it looked like I had been in the kitchen for hours.

Taking a few minutes to step back, plan, and prepare really does make life easier, whether it be in cooking or just in life in general. I love advanced preparation in the kitchen, especially when hosting a party. Not only does it save a lot of last minute stress, but, more importantly, it gives you the freedom to enjoy the company of your guests.

My rendition of a classic Tuna Niçoise Salad is the perfect make-ahead dish that works beautifully for lunch, dinner, or even as part of a weekend brunch. The tuna can be seasoned and seared several hours before serving. I usually leave it in the freezer to let the fish firm up. This makes it easy to cut into even and uniform slices. I plate everything ahead of time, which means I only need to dress the salad at the last minute. Use the biggest platter you can find to showcase the beauty of this dish – the “oohs and ahhhs” from your guests make it all worth it.

ingredients for tuna ncoise

Tuna Niçoise Salad – serves 4

Ingredients:

For the tuna:

  • 500 grams fresh, sashimi quality tuna (2 ½ to 3 inches thick)
  • Maldon or Sea Salt
  • I tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 2 spring onions, finely chopped (white and green parts)
  • 2 teaspoons cumin powder
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Extra olive oil for searing the tuna

For the salad:

  • 200 grams baby gems lettuce (or any other lettuce of your choice)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard (a l’ancienne)
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons runny honey
  • 2 teaspoons canola or grapeseed oil (or any neutral flavored oil)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Dressing – whisk together both mustards with the oil. Add honey and the lemon juice to combine. Set aside until ready to drizzle over the lettuce.

For the eggs and vegetables:

  • 4 organic eggs
  • 200 grams fine green beans, stems removed
  • 300 grams baby new potatoes
  • Dijon mustard
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 10 caper berries (optional)
  • A handful of black olives (optional)

Directions for each ingredient:

Preparing your fresh tuna – Let the tuna loin sit for 15 minutes at room temperature before cooking. If you’re wondering why the tuna in the photos has squared off edges, it’s because I trim it to ensure that all sides cook evenly. I save the “scraps” for another use like tuna tartare or fish cakes. You can disregard this step, but it does make for a visually appealing presentation.

Lightly coat with olive oil and sesame oil all over the tuna, season with salt on all sides.

Add the green onion, making sure it sticks onto the tuna’s surface. Then pat on the cumin powder and season with black pepper. Make sure all the sides have been coated and seasoned well.

Heat olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over high heat. Add the tuna, and cook for forty-five seconds to one minute per side.

Do not fidget with the tuna until it is ready to turn – what you’re looking for is a nice, brown sear on the outside with a beautiful, rare pink interior. The whole process takes 2-3 minutes, so don’t step away from the stove.

Remove from the pan, let cool, and cut into slices. For perfectly even slices, freeze the tuna for a couple of hours, then slice through with a sharp knife. If you’ve frozen it for too long (it can happen!), let it thaw slightly before cutting into it.

slicing seared tuna 2

slicing seared tuna 1

sliced cumin crusted tuna

For the perfect runny eggs… Fill a pot with water, bring to a rolling boil (just make sure there is enough water to just cover your eggs). Carefully add the eggs, one at a time. Allow eggs to boil in the water for exactly 1 minute. Remove pot from heat, cover, and let the eggs hang out in the water for exactly 6 ½ to 7 minutes. You’ll need a timer for this. Once the time is up, immediately plunge the eggs into a bowl of very cold water to stop the cooking process. Peel, split in half, and add a pinch of salt over the yolks when ready to serve.

For the green beans, blanch in boiling salted water for 3 to 4 minutes, then plunge into cold water to stop the cooking. Drain, and toss the green beans in a bit of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Season with salt and pepper.

For the potatoes, clean off any debris. Boil or steam the potatoes until cooked through. For the dressing, whisk together 1½ tablespoons olive oil with 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon cider vinegar or lemon juice and a fat pinch of salt. Cut the potatoes in half, and while still warm, toss the potatoes with the dressing. This will make sure all the liquids soak into the potatoes.

For the salad dressing, whisk together both mustards with the oil. Add honey and the lemon juice to combine. Set aside until ready to drizzle over the lettuce.

To assemble:

On a large plate or platter, arrange the tuna slices in a domino fashion exposing the rare, interior part of the tuna as well as the seared crust.

the making of a tuna nicoise recipe.jpg

Group each ingredient individually around the plate. Drizzle the vinaigrette on the salad, and you’re ready to go.

tuna nicoise with organic eggs, green beans, and lettuce

tuna nicoise platter with capers, potatoes, beans and eggs

Bon Appétit!

Photos by Tara Atkinson Photography

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A Conversation with the Galvin Brothers

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Jeff and Chris Galvin – the Michelin-Star brother duo responsible for elevating Britain’s culinary scene with their beautiful collection of critically acclaimed French restaurants. Little did I know that our conversation would touch on topics such as Michelangelo, derelict English pubs, and walking on the moon.

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While I sat with the brothers at their hotly anticipated restaurant Demoiselle by Galvin (their first in Dubai), it was easy to feel the affection between them. “We famously have never had a cross word,” says Jeff “not even in the heat of the kitchen or in the heat of the battle.”

Jeff Galvin at Dmoiselle Dubai

Decades worth of culinary experience, both together and apart, would eventually culminate in the brothers joining forces in 2005, when they opened their first restaurant together, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. One year later, they launched their restaurant Windows at the Hilton Park Lane in London, which was awarded its first Michelin Star. The brothers opened seven restaurants in seven years, and twelve years after the first, their grand total stands at an impressive eleven. With no plans of slowing down, a second Dubai location is set to open in the fall of 2017.

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Curious about their love of cooking, I naturally asked how it all started. Their answer was one that resonated with family and togetherness. “It started at a very early age at our grandmother’s house,” recalls Jeff. “We had a huge, huge family. It was a small house, and across the weekend gran would have at least fifteen to twenty people over at one time with everyone coming and going during the day. I guess it was just normal, really. It wasn’t until I started talking to media about it, that I realized she probably started preparing after that weekend for the coming weekend. We were always around food. Gran grew lots of things in her garden, your basics really. It was just your good hospitality, she always made sure you had something to eat and drink.”

Lidija in conversation with the Galvi brothers Demoiselle DXB.jpg

Early on in our conversation, Chris retreated from our table only to return with Warren, who is fondly referred to as the third Galvin brother (actually the fourth, their third brother resides in the UK and looks after the Galvin operations in the dark hours of the night). “We needed a third brother, if you like. Warren has worked for us for so long, and has really been brought up with us. He joined me as a commis (junior chef), and we worked side-by-side for over twenty years.  He is our executive chef and has worked with us in London and with everything we do.”

Warren Galvin Brothers profile

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When we got onto the subject of markets, all three men lit up like they were kids given carte blanche in a candy store. Warren remembers the amazing markets while living in Vancouver and says, “It really is guys turning up with a little table and putting out what they’ve grown. It shows you what the real seasons are. They can only grow what’s coming in and coming out.”

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Chris interjects with a sparkle in his eyes “We have a massive love of markets – that’s how I think you discover the underbelly of a city or a culture. We have great markets in the UK and France as well. We take all the chefs to Rungis in France. That’s a powerful visit. We go there about four or five times a year, although we buy from Rungis almost every day. It’s incredible, the garden of France!” His voice trailed off for a second as he turned to me and asked “Lidija, why don’t you come to London with us? We’ll take you to the market!” It was at that very moment when I felt the warm hospitality their grandmother had instilled in them. The apple certainly does not fall far from the tree.

Chris Galvin at Demoiselle Dubai.jpg

With English pride echoed throughout our conversation, Chris recalls when he worked as a head chef in New York back in 1986, “London was the center of my world until I came to New York, it was so far and so exciting. When I had come back to London, it felt like a tiny village compared to New York.”

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Jeff and Warren have a good laugh as Chris continues ”There’s a joke that since I was born in 1958, I was too young for the 60’s, people saying you weren’t there, and that I’m too damn old for the noughties. I kind of missed the two special times in a couple of centuries! But London is on fire, it is so exciting now.”

“In a culinary sense?” I ask.

“Everything. Music fashion art, the energy is just amazing!”

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It seems that everything the Galvin brothers touch is elevated to the highest standard of excellence. Even their Galvin choux-croute hot dog sounds poetic. “I love New York hotdogs.” Says Chris. We’ve developed a choux-croute sausage with a sourdough bun out of a potato starter. The skin cracks when you bite into it with the sauerkraut underneath. We had Maille make a little truffle and Sancerre mustard to go with it. It’s beautiful.”

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When we get to the topic of English pubs (it seems like I’ve hit Warren’s hot spot here), I was surprised to find out that around thirty pubs a week are closing in Britain, mainly due to changes in lifestyles and increased challenges in operations. The brothers opened The Green Man, a seven hundred year old derelict English pub which they had fully restored and brought back to life. “It’s healthy, but it is very much an English pub.” Says Jeff (with a juice bar that coexists with a perfectly kept beer cellar – it sounds like my kind of pub!).

“It’s like a barn, with one a half acres of garden with a river running through it. Walking through the garden you can see the chef sharpening his knives. There are hares, rabbits, partridge and pheasants. It’s very rural, very English.” explains Warren. “We really look after the building, and give it the respect that it’s due.”

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On the challenges of refurbishing a seven hundred year old pub and the responsibility that goes along with restoring a historical structure, Chris eloquently offers words of wisdom, “Two things in life: when I have a challenge I look at the moon and think ok, ‘we walked on that’ so this is not tough, if we can walk on the moon we can do it. I am besotted with Michelangelo! He did that amazing statue, and I always think that he started with one chip with David. My daughter, who lives in Florence, took me to look at Michelangelo’s and Dante’s tombs in Santa Croce. As I was walking around there, the hairs were standing up in my arms, and I thought: our pub is older!”

In fact, the same architect that worked on the Green Man built Demoiselle Dubai. Perched on a corner in Meraas’ City Walk, Demoiselle stands it all its glory overlooking the main piazza, where you can “sit and watch the world go by”. As soon as the brothers saw the location – all sand and desert at the time – they knew that this was the very spot they needed to be. “We were attracted to it geographically, and we didn’t want to be in a faceless hotel” says Jeff.

Loyalty and a sense of family are core values that are deeply engrained within the Galvin philosophy. “I’ve always been taught to hire people who are better than you.” Says Chris “We’ve got beautiful ingredients, chefs, and front house people that have been with us for a long time – they’re family. We don’t open any restaurants unless we’ve got the right people. We get offered lots of projects that are exciting and we always say: do we have the chef, do we have the managers? If we don’t have that, we pass it up – we don’t do it. It’s not about us, it’s about the people who are going to live and breathe here day in and day out”.

With a location in place, great ingredients at their fingertips, and trusted people to run the show, choosing to launch Demoiselle was a very natural thing for the brothers to do. Spanning over two floors, Demoiselle has a beautiful feminine edge in its design that brings together elements of French aesthetic combined with British sensibility. It’s a place where you can grab a perfect cup of coffee with freshly baked viennoiserie, sit down to afternoon tea, or linger over a fabulous meal (think: the perfect steak tartare, beautifully smoked salmon the Galvin way, and a tarte Tatin that dreams are made of). I could tell you more, but I’ll keep my lips sealed until I engineer my way into their kitchen!

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“I always think restaurants should reveal themselves bit by bit, and I think Demoiselle is like that.” Says Chris “You can come here ten, twenty times and see something different.”

As our conversation came to an end, one thing was clear – Michelin Stars and accolades do not define the Galvin brothers. It’s their relationship with food, with each other, and the people around them that’s combined with knowledge, passion, and a deep love of life that make theirs a world where everything is possible.

….and just like with Michelangelo’s David, it all started with one chip.

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Photos by Tara Atkinson

Galvin Restaurants

Shot on location at Demoiselle by Galvin, CityWalk Dubai, Meraas

Dress by Temperley London, Dubai Mall

Hair by Mustafa at Polished Salon

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Chef Spotlight: In the Kitchen with The Experience by Reif Othman

I’m often at a loss for words when I meet a great chef. They are the artists, the pioneers, and the visionaries that roam the culinary world with a constant thirst to learn, inspire, and create. At the risk of sounding too poetic, great food is more than just taste, it’s an emotion all on its own.

I had the privilege of watching chef Reif Othman glide through his kitchen with the cool-headed confidence of a culinary James Bond – he is suave, charming, and effortless. I did this twice, once as a guest at The Experience, and once as an active participant in his kitchen. On both occasions, it was an honor to say the least, and watching him transition from gracious host to king of his kitchen with ease and fluidity is an impressive sight.

Born and raised in Singapore, Reif developed his “mediterrasian” culinary style while working in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, London, and Lyon. His six-year stint as Zuma’s executive chef catapulted him into the leagues of the finest chefs in the region, and one could easily argue, worldwide. In fact, it was during Reif’s chef training for Zuma, which took place in a loft-style apartment in New York City, that would leave a big impression on him and is what planted the seed for what would eventually become The Experience.

Located on the 37th floor of the H Hotel with breathtaking views of Old Dubai, The Experience was born out of Reif’s desire to build a test kitchen in an empty space one floor above Play Restaurant & Lounge, where he currently resides as executive chef.

views of old dubai

Since the space was too big to build just a kitchen, Reif decided to take his concept a step further and create an apartment where guests can relax in an intimate setting – all while being wined and dined by the man himself! “Basically, this is like my apartment, my own villa. You feel cozy, you feel at home – it’s a chef’s dream! I have great investors and partners who give me the freedom to do what I love. I want to take this concept to the next level.”

As soon as you step off the lift, you enter the living room. There’s a full length mirror, coffee tables, and couches where you can sit and enjoy an aperitif – just like you would at a friend’s house – it is all very private and personal.

lidija's Kitchen mirror shot at the experience

When the doors open to the main dining area, the real fun begins and twelve lucky guests are seated at a large, u-shaped table facing Reif’s open kitchen “playground.”

The experience roland mouret full restaurant

lidija at the experience in the kitchen

All personal touches have been curated by the chef himself. From wallpaper and curtains from France, to locally sourced furniture pieces, fine cutlery and porcelain from Spain, with some pieces handcrafted especially for Reif in Japan. If his mission is to make you feel at home and comfortable, then it’s mission accomplished.

Dinner includes ten courses and can go up to a jaw-dropping twenty-five. “From the eighth course, I will say ‘are you ok, or do you want to go on?’” says the chef with a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. “You can do twelve, you can do fourteen, you can do sixteen. It’s up to you.”

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Rarely repeating the same dish at the Experience, Reif creates dishes that are based on what he feels and can tailor them to individual needs. “I don’t prep,” He says “I have my basic stocks. If you come in and say ‘I’m allergic to seafood,’ then I will create anything without seafood. That’s it.”

He sets the bar even higher with plans to open an Imax theater in a room at the back of the restaurant at the end of March 2017 – and we’re not talking reruns either. Reif’s Imax will be directly linked to Vox Cinemas, which means diners can watch movies that are new in theaters. “Whatever is new in the cinema will be linked to my Imax. Finish off your ten-course meal and you move to a movie. You’ll have homemade popcorn, cotton candy, you can even have your wine in there.”

On when he started cooking, he says, “I was 16. I think I got it from my mom. She used to have a small little store back home in Singapore, so I would help her with that. Even during my younger days, I’m the only one who would follow her to the market. All the moms would be with their daughters, and I would be the only boy!”

“So it’s in your blood?” I say to which he replies “A little bit.”

A mesmerizing journey was about to begin…

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seaweed butter

Once inside Reif’s kitchen, I start my apprenticeship by making an amuse-bouche of caviar and Reif’s “secret” mousse. This isn’t just any caviar – made by Sturia, France’s leading caviar producer – these little black jewels are especially made for him.

sturia caviar

“With Reif caviar,” he says, “they clean the line, and pick the eggs. Anything irregular they put it aside.” He gave me the rundown on how the optimal maturation time for his caviar is 6 weeks to balance out the salt ratio. He is proud when he tells me about how his caviar contains a ratio of only 1.5% instead of the usual 3% found in most other varieties, and proceeded to tell me the conditions in which the sturgeon live. A milky pond, with freedom to swim freely in un-crowded conditions is what the fish need to thrive. Judging from the fine quality of the caviar, it is clear that Sturia raises happy sturgeon.

We piped the bottom of a little round box with the cream-coloured mousse. When I asked Reif what was in it, he shrugged his shoulders “I don’t know” he teased, “it wouldn’t be nice to tell you what’s in there!” With a tool that looked like a giant tweezer, we added caviar, followed by grated Sudachi zest (Japanese lime), and little pearls of crispy, puffed sushi rice.

It was almost too pretty to eat! Reif closed the lid of the box before ushering me to my seat in the dining room – it was time to taste. When my spoon slid onto the caviar through the silky puree, I knew that something special was about to hit my lips. I was right – it was unlike anything I had ever tried. When I guessed the secret ingredient (cauliflower, shhh, don’t tell anyone), Reif gave me a high five before his assistant topped up my champagne. We were off to a great start!

perspective caviar shot

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lidija amuse bouche at the table

Next on Reif’s agenda was Tuna belly tartare (otoro) prepared in two different ways. In the first, tuna was delicately scraped with the back of the spoon and served on deep fried nori.

closeup of totoro

closeup of tuna on wasabi cracker

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The second was the same tuna belly, this time diced into fine cubes, and tossed with wasabi mayo. Served on what looked like a simple crispy rice cracker, was actually cooked sushi rice that was blitzed with squid ink, and dried before being fried until crisp. When I asked Reif if he could make me the same thing tomorrow, he replied with a smile “You wouldn’t have anything you had today – except for the caviar!”

two types of tuna tartare at the experience

When it was time for our third course, thinly sliced, scored, and cured Japanese snapper was laid out onto a plate and cascaded with a broth of Umeboshi (Japanese sour plum) and fish stock.  Reif was keen on educating me about the snapper we were using and pulled out a book on Japanese fish.

A touch of Mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), crispy kale and spring onion oil finished the dish. Reif says it’s simple. I say it’s meticulous, crafted, and perfect.

cooking with reif othman at the experience

cured red snapper

Paper-thin Japanese Wagyu Sirloin was served over broth infused noodles, and topped Myoga – young Japanese ginger.

It was at this point I noticed that our dishes were transitioning from light to slightly heavier. Note to self, next time wear yoga pants. Reif pulled out a fresh Yuzu and held it up to my nose – powerful and insanely aromatic! I thought he plucked it off the tree in the living room entrance. “Nah”, he laughed, “that tree isn’t real! It’s just for show!”

yuxu pic

A man after my own heart, he grated fresh black truffle over the dish, then added hot beef consommé to “cook” the meat. While the liquid gushed over the dish, an amazing scent permeated the air. It was more divine than it sounds.

grating truffle

broth on noodles

lidija eating noodles

“I don’t boil with water, I only use vegetable stocks,” says Reif, while preparing course number five. “Water is very dull and flat. Even at Play, we always have a pot of boiling vegetable stock just for our pastas.” Plunging an individual “ravioli” into the hot liquid, I asked him what was stuffed inside the pasta. He gave me his ‘you’ll-have-to-wait-and-see’ look that I was growing accustomed to.

The lone ravioli was laid on a sauce made out of fresh cream, milk, and parmesan. It turned out that I had to eat it in one bite – no chewing allowed! Reif was clear with his instructions “Say Hakaaa! And eat the whole thing at once.” What happened next was somewhat of a revelation as the ravioli exploded in my mouth, oozing with a burst of liquid truffle-infused butter. It was rich, decadent, and as unexpected as the rest of my day. I’m completely convinced that Reif goes to sleep dreaming of what to cook and how to surprise his guests.

secret ravioli truffle and cream sauce

lidija eating secret ravioli

Just when I thought it was time for dessert, Reif pulled out grade ‘A’ Wagyu sirloin strips in preparation for his rendition of a classic Korean bibimbap. The sirloin strips – marinated with apple and soy sauce – were lightly seared unilaterally in a hot, cast iron skillet lined with Wagyu fat.

wagu sirloin searing

A pot dressed with sesame oil was filled with Japanese rice, and topped with soy dressing and vegetable-infused bok choy. Homemade Kimchi, our quick-seared Wagyu strips, and the ultimate runny egg (slowly cooked to perfection in a sous-vide) crowned our dish.

babimbap at the experience

Reif led me to the table to taste. I watched him break through the soft cooked egg yolk while it slithered throughout the dish, meticulously tossing all ingredients together. This was comfort food redefined!

As I was polishing off the last of my Bibimbap, Reif popped out of the kitchen with a box of lush-red strawberries. “From Japan!” He proclaimed. They tasted as good as they looked – even the packaging was perfect! It was time for dessert.

Plated on what looked like a porcelain log, nearly each component of the dessert had an element of strawberry to it. A strawberry filled vanilla sphere coated with white chocolate sat atop raspberry pop rock (bringing back childhood memories). Strawberry Swiss rolls made out of sponge cake, strawberry jam, and white chocolate soil, scattered across the plate. A brilliant finale to a spectacular meal!

talking with reif

closeup dessert

The Experience certainly does live up to its name and much much more! Thank you, Reif, for giving me a glimpse into your kitchen – you are the ultimate host and a force to be reckoned with. Here’s to more Hakaaa’s soon!

Double-O-seven would be proud!

lidija's kitchen with Reif Othman at the experience

lidija's Kitchen Reif Othman Experience pic 2

reif othman at the experience

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Shot on location at the Experience in the H Hotel, Dubai

Photos by Tara Atkinson Photography

Dress by Roland Mouret

Jewelry by Nadine Kanso for Bilarabi

Hair by Mustafa at Polished Salon

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Restaurant Spotlight: In the Kitchen with Chef Liam Breen

Something struck me when I first met chef Liam Breen. Maybe it was because I had heard his name whispered fast and furiously throughout the Dubai foodie circuit on too many occasions to mention. Or maybe it was the fact that at the age of twenty-five, he’s already an incredibly accomplished chef. For me, what really stood out during our first encounter was the word MISE (short for the French culinary term mise-en-place) boldly tattooed across his knuckles. Right off the bat, I had a strong feeling that this guy means business, with a dedication to his craft that stretches beyond the kitchen.

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At of age of fourteen, a time when most boys are playing hockey in the streets (at least in Canada), Liam was hard at work at a local Italian restaurant chopping vegetables in the trenches of the kitchen. He hasn’t looked back since – paving his way through the culinary hierarchy with some hard-core on the job training and well-earned experience. Originally from Montreal, Liam proudly speaks of how his hometown embraces cultural diversity and injects it into its local cuisine. “It’s cooking from the soul” he says. Clearly, this is the driving force behind Liam’s passion in the kitchen.

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Fast forward to the Maine Oyster Bar and Grill. Born out of the desire to bridge the gap between fine dining and casual eateries in Dubai, the Maine is Liam and his partner Joey Ghazal’s answer to the ultimate seaside Brasserie.

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With a menu of oysters, tartares, and some serious seafood (just look at that octopus in the photo below), the Maine is tucked away in the Double Tree Hilton where a quirky but cool entrance from the garage welcomes you into the unexpected space. You know you’ve reached the right place when you get to the signage and the words “Shuck Me” (as in the oyster) is written in bold. Very cool indeed!

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The restaurant itself is beautiful, raw, and unpretentious. Lofty, mile-high ceilings breathe airiness into the restaurant. Lined with cognac colored leather-bound stools, the bar is long, narrow with mammoth chandeliers suspended overhead.

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Lamps in the dining room made to look like jellyfish, and a fully-stocked oyster bar add to the seaside vibe.

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Even the walls have a story. “We had originally painted the walls green” says Liam “but it looked like crap, so we painted them black. That also looked like crap. So we sanded the walls down, and found some exposed concrete. We thought it looked good, so we kept it”.

It might be all those tattoos, but I thought that cooking with Liam would be intimidating, when in reality, nothing could be further than the truth. He welcomed me into his space with open arms and a desire to share his expertise, in this case, his version of a classic Salmon Tartare.

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The dish is relatively simple, but Liam’s skill, finesse, and respect for the ingredients are what elevate this tartare.

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We started by finely chopping red onion – no room for chunky onions here.

Chives, celery leaf, and capers came next while Liam gave me tips on how to keep from slicing off my fingers! “Careful not to overdo it with the capers,”he warns. A little goes a long way.

chives-closeup

Using a dry curing method, we applied rock salt and sugar to the salmon to pull out excess moisture – “it’s osmosis” says Liam. After twenty minutes in the fridge, we gave it a quick rinse. How amazing that the color had changed from dull coral to bright orange! The skin was so plump, firm, and vibrant that I’m thinking of adding a salt & sugar cure to my skincare routine.

The salmon was sliced off the skin and cut into chunks. “A sharp knife is key for this. See this number right here?” says Liam, proudly pointing at a tiny script etched within his Shun chef’s knife “there are only 3000 of these in the world.”

We put the salmon in a bowl over ice, then poured olive oil infused with aromatics to flavor the tartare as we combined our ingredients.

A touch of horseradish, lemon zest, and a quick stir later, the tartare was ready for plating.

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Served with a caper and horseradish mayonnaise alongside the finest homemade chips you’ve ever tasted, the tartare had a beautiful balance of delicate, rich, and decadent flavors. Perfect.

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Somehow while making our tartare, Liam discovered that I hadn’t had an oyster in over twelve years. He clearly thought this was a travesty! After challenging me to a showdown, out came some wild oysters from the Irish coastal city of Galway.

In one foul swoop, he shucked the oyster across the top shell, unveiling a perfect little jewel nestled in its bed. After rinsing with mineral water, he carefully carved it out onto its presentation side.

Seasoned with a touch of sea salt, grated horseradish, and a squeeze of lemon, we clicked our shells together – “Cheers” – as we gulped our oyster shots in one go! That’s all it took to turn me into a born-again oyster lover.

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With another venture awaiting him, I had the good fortune to work with Liam on his very last day as the Maine’s executive chef. Like a true gentleman, he is proud, confident, and humble when he talks about the culinary team entrusted to deliver the standard of excellence the Maine is known for. Affectionately referring to his chefs and sous-chefs as the “real stars” in the kitchen, “I’m leaving Maine in excellent hands” he says.

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Yes, Liam, you are, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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To be continued…

Photos by Tara Atkinson Photography

Dress by Roland Mouret 

Jewelry by Nadine Kanso (Bil arabi)

Hair by  Mustafa at  Polished Salon

Shot on location at the Maine Oyster Bar and Grill

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