By Trevor C. Hale
Dad made breakfast on weekends. Your standard southern fare. There were variations, but it always featured gravy so savory it went with everything—eggs, cantaloupe, sausage, and, of course, drop biscuits. Sometimes we’d put butter and sorghum syrup on biscuits. I didn’t know the word “umami”* then, but that gravy was pure liquid goodness.
We’d eat after everyone woke. There was no rush. We didn’t call it brunch, but looking back on those lazy, sumptuous Saturday mornings, you could sorta say it was brunch.
Fast-forward to faster living in Dubai. Describing its over-the-top brunch culture requires an exaggerated vocabulary. Ridonk-ulicious? Schmorgasmical? Umami-rama?
Perhaps a picture is better: 800 expats, dressed to impress, mingling among 37 buffet areas (all with different cuisines) in three giant restaurants; free-flowing Moet Chandon; entertainers scattered throughout; and views of Burj Al Arab seven star sailboat-inspired hotel in the distance past the palm trees, fountains, and swimming pools outside. Did I mention the free-flowing Moet?
Welcome to Madinat Jumeirah’s Al Qasr brunch, one of hundreds offered throughout Dubai every Friday.
Why Friday, you ask? It’s the new Saturday. Actually in Dubai, where the Islamic workweek is Sunday to Thursday, Friday is the Saturday.
And among the various brunch offerings in Dubai—some are all about the booze, some have monster buffets, while some are more understated elegant affairs—Al Qasr ticks all the best boxes and is a must do to impress out-of-town guests.
There are ten of us here today, and the chilled Moet is indeed flowing freely. We have guests from the States and the rest of our group is comprised of Brits, Australians, and a couple other yanks. Like many institutions in Dubai (a British protectorate until it joined six other Emirates in 1971 to create the UAE) there is a proper Britishness to the typically four-hour affair. As you can imagine, about two hours in, things start to get a bit sloppy.
At “Saffron,” the brunch at the gigantic Atlantis hotel on the man-made Palm island, there’s a Jaeger station, a Jack Daniels buffet, a stand with 3-liter bottles of Belvedere vodka…fitted with pumps for faster service. The food at Saffron, while plentiful and tasty, is beside the point. A DJ is playing old school house music and at about 2:30 security guards increasingly have to ask patrons to get down off the tables. “Carnage,” is the word a British friend used to describe Saffron.
Brunch at Hashi, a Japanese fusion restaurant at the Armani hotel, is a sublime experience. Unlike many areas in the world’s tallest building in which it is housed, Hashi has an understated, traditional vibe despite its front-row view to the famous Dubai Mall fountain show (the world’s biggest). The Friday brunch bubble package includes ice-cold free-flowing Veuve Clicqout champagne. The impeccable service begins with a few appetizers like Wagyu Beef Tatiki with Nameko Mushroom and Truffle Soy and Sweet Wasabi Giant Prawns. Instead of a buffet, diners can choose mains like Miso Chilean Sea Bass with Japanese Plums; Canadian Lobster Foie Gras; Soy Lamb Chops; and Wagyu Beef Short Ribs with Black Truffle.
Back at our table at Al Qasr, we’re on thirdsies and a fifth bottle of Moet. I started with the Thai station, tried some eggs benedict, and am now back to Thai. The crowd gets more raucous with every sip. It’s about 100 degrees this time of year, so seats and stations outside are toasty. Fortunately, my wife booked us inside two months ago.
More champagne? Or the Hennessey station? Or perhaps the Cuba Libre booth?
The champagne brunch package runs about $200 per person at the finer establishments. The all-you-can-drink package encourages you to get your money’s worth. “At some point, with every extra bottle of champers, we’re actually saving money,” someone pontificates.
Post-brunch we go home and nap restlessly. The rest of the crew moves on to one of many “day clubs” that cater to post-brunch crowds. Dubai brunches take their toll on the pocketbook, liver, and body mass, so they should be savored for special occasions. I do enjoy them occasionally, but I’d trade every one for some of dad’s biscuits and gravy.
*Umami: a savory taste that’s one of the five basic tastes (together with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). A loanword from the Japanese (うま味?), umami can be translated as “pleasant savory taste.”