I ate this Thai salmon appetizer the other day that catapulted me into summer. Not Dubai summer - that's plain brutal and should really be reclassified as a fifth season called HELL. I'm talking about the summery weather you experience in your daydreams to the Bahamas or the Maldives or to Hawaii or to other dreamy exotic places that I've never even been to, but that have that characteristic mental image of being sprawled out limp on a beach chair sipping margaritas. That's where those pink bite-sized cubes of Norwegian salmon nestled in a little cabbage cup transported me.
First the smooth creamy mouthfeel of high quality salmon [mmm...], and then, as my mind moved past the salmon texture and started seeking out the real flavorful Thai stuff [more, me want mooore...], I suddenly realized, almost as an afterthought , that lemony streams of lemongrass and lime juices had started seeping out of the salmon cubes onto my tongue [hm, wha...? Oh my G...], and that whole lemony combo together with the sudden crunchy bits of red onion and celery lodged between the salmon just slammed me [...od, WHAM!], sling shot me right on to that beach chair surrounded by the calming ocean breeze and summer freedom. [Peeeeace out.]
For the OMG, Eureka! moment, this salmon now officially makes my list of Best Seven of 2011. Crazy how quickly this list is filling up, and it's only February. But do remember - things may always fall off this list if better eats crop up in the months to come.
If someone had told me about this salmon earlier, I'd have got myself to Mango Tree the first time a friend had suggested it a week earlier, no matter that there was no table available till 10pm on a Thursday evening and I'd have become hannibal without dinner by that time of night. I'd actually never heard of Mango Tree till January...it's one of those popular places that you'd never heard of before, and then suddenly four different people mention it to you in the span of two weeks. The fourth person was one of the organizers of Taste of Dubai, who's working with a few of us from our local Famished in Arabia blogger group to ensure that we awesome bloggers get some coverage and info about the big event. Which means that we get free tickets. Which means that we get a free lunch at Mango Tree, one of the participating outlets at Taste of Dubai. Which means that we even get a promo code: BLOG that we can give to our readers to get discounted tickets online (though I believe Cobone has better deals). Which DOES NOT MEAN that we will spare them anything other than the brutally honest and non-commercialized truth. So the deal is basically - throw us a couple of free tickets, we'll cover the event (which we as foodie bloggers would have done ANYWAY), and if it's good, you'll get awesome positive coverage. And if it sucks, well then, get ready for the cyber onslaught. It's a risky proposition all around...except for the bloggers, who get free food and can write whatever they want (and hopefully not get sued a la Kuwait Mark the Blogger case. Which is SO ridiculous that no reaction I can have will ever be appropriate enough to express my utter disgust at Benihana Kuwait for suing Mark. I shall never walk into a Benihana EVER. But I digress...)
So back to free lunch at Mango Tree, where Chef Paul decided to serve us one of his new set lunch menus - 3 appetizers, 3 mains, 1 rice dish, and dessert. While you'd normally pick two courses for AED 79 out of the menu, or three courses for AED 99, we went with all options for all courses. That's what I'm talking about! Gotta love a man who, rather than serving tried and tested menu favorites to those who may well be some of the pickiest and most vocal foodies in Dubai , is willing to take risk by the b**** and go all out with a totally new menu. Kudos to you man, that's called faith. That's called courage. That could also be called downright stupidity if your dishes flop...but even then, gotta respect the faith.
Anyway, the good thing about starting the meal off on such a high note is that it makes you optimistic about the courses to follow. The bad thing is that it sets the bar too high and then everything else just doesn't compare. Unless something out of the everything else consists of my favorite Thai green papaya salad with lime and cashews...only, this one was DEEP-FRIED. Brilliant, brilliant strategy. God I hope they serve mounds of this at Taste of Dubai.
The best way to describe this creation is in the words of one of my all-time fav bloggers, Robyn from New York, where she describes a fried squid dish she ate in Chinatown as "A mountainous pile of lightly battered, crispy, tender squid chunks seasoned with salt and pepper and more salt, mixed with strips of bell pepper and onion, cashews, and, methinks, fried garlic." [I have mentally drooled over this for days...] I hate to plagiarize, but the sum of visual components and textures in Robyn's description really lent itself well to this dish...a mountainous pile of lightly battered papaya threads, some super crispy, some that were still soft and sweet and mushy, crunchy cashews and green beans, cherry tomatoes and a touch of lime. Maybe some chef can connect the two mountainous dishes to come up with the Mt. Everest of Deep Fried Squid and Papaya, drizzled with some fresh squeezed lime of course. I volunteer to take on the arduous task of scaling that deep fried giant were it ever to be created.And then as predicted, nothing else after these first two plates could be spectacular enough to really wow me. It was all just meh...good, nothing out of this world or meh...I've tasted better or meh...this could have been Queen if not for the marinated salmon or deep-fried papaya, but now it's just a plain lady-in-waiting. For instance the soup, Tom Sap Gai, was a spicy clear soup with chicken chunks, and didn't really taste of much other than fiery chilli. And of fish sauce, that may not have completely dissolved into the soup and whooshed into my mouth in that first excessively fishy, salty spoonful. I'd talk more about it, but I just got totally distracted with the salmon and papaya, so the poor soup was sent back barely touched.
On the mains, the Tom Yum sea bass was steamed to perfect white flaky tenderness, and surprisingly, even though it just looked like one of those fishes that would be overpoweringly fishy, it was actually quite subtle. What was also subtle - to the point of being non-existent - was the Tom Yum flavor that it touted in the menu. And why would you even need the Tom Yum flavor in the fish, when you're going to serve an incredibly potent lime dressing on the side that is totally capable of drowning out any other flavors in close proximity? That lime dressing was explosive - use just a drop or two and it'll add the right spicy-lemony tang to the fish, too much and that poor fish would die a second death on the plate.
Accompanying the mains was some unspectacular veggie egg fried rice, and steamed Bok Choi with crunchy ground cashews and soy sauce. The Bok Choi was quite forgettable...maybe braising the bok choy in more intense garlic and soy would have imparted more memorable flavors...?
Though as part of an overall lunch menu, it's important to have light subtle side dishes that aren't trying too hard to get the diner's full attention, and let you focus on the real protagonists like the fish, or the Nua Nam Man Hoi wok-fried beef. I really had high hopes for this beef, expecting a plate full of beef that was caramelized in some places and crispy in others, sort of like the kind I'd seen made at the ICCA Thai cooking class that I'd attended last year. But other than one caramelized sliver, the beef was just bland and totally anticlimactic. If the salmon appetizer had made me prance about on the beach under the happy summer sun, the beef had left me somewhat cold and gloomy and gray.
Dessert - chocolate mousse with mango compote. I'm not much of a mousse person, but this was pretty decent with a nice texture that had the creaminess of mousse but the substantial bite of an ice cream scoop. The tart mangoes and mint leaves were a nice touch, and reigned in the chocolate in a way that kept the dessert light and subtle, an appropriate end after the potent lemony and spicey flavors we'd experienced during the apps and mains.
So the verdict - outstanding apps, lackluster mains that don't wow you, but won't really offend either, and a decent appropriately subtle yet indulgent dessert. Which altogether might make it a safe, reasonably-priced bet for a company-expensed team lunch if you're working in the DIFC or Emaar boulevard area. Though what would really win my vote is if Mango Tree released a tapas concept, where it would be perfectly legitimate to just order a few tapas-sized portions of summery salmon and deep fried papaya, and then slink away without having to patronize the rest of the pre fixe menu.
(PS. My fellow foodies at FooDiva and Red Panda Bakes have also documented the lunch on their sites, so definitely worth a read if you're shopping around for second and third opinions. And special thanks to Red Panda for sharing the names of the dishes...I couldn't remember them for the life of me and had to refer to her site for the Thai names.).
3rd Level, Souk Al Bahar, Old Town, Burj Khalifa
Phone: +971 4 4267313