There’s something about going for brunch in Dubai that has become intrinsically linked with an afternoon on the French fizzy pop that segues into a wild night on the town. It shouldn’t really be like that, at least not always, so could the new Friday brunch at Zheng He’s be the classy alternative?
The setting is a great start. It’s perhaps one of the best around, and at this time of the year the weather is perfect to enjoy it. Sitting outside next to the water, watching the tourists glide past on the abras, is a rather pleasant way to spend a Friday lunchtime. But the system by which the brunch works is less than plain sailing.
Rather than a buffet, where diners keep going up and gorging on what they please, the set menu is brought to you stage by stage. This means that among the starters was a plate of jellyfish, which is something I’d have never asked for, simply because I don’t like it. The braised bean curd cubes and asparagus were fine, without being anything special, but again not something I particularly desired.
The next round of food proved far better. The obligatory duck pieces with pancakes were big and chunky, although the skin that had been left on was fatty rather than cooked to a light crisp. Thin slices of pork were delicate and tender while the chicken pieces dipped in soy sauce were functional rather than fanciful.
Then I hit upon another downside. A dish of pork pieces had sharp, shards of bone in them and I’m not sure why that was even necessary. It was as if they had shattered a few bones and scattered them in just to keep you on your toes. Other than being a huge inconvenience having to remove bone every other mouthful, I suspect it’s probably a serious choking incident just waiting to happen. Also brought to the table were dumplings with prawn, mixed seafood, vegetables and pork pastries that were all above average, but not memorable or especially moreish.
We asked for more of the duck and it duly came – in that sense you can replay some of the winning dishes like a normal buffet, and unlike at other places, they’ve not been left standing in a tureen for who know how long. That was a bonus but then the drinks let us down. The sakitini was smooth enough and the lychee instead of an olive was a great touch, but other specialty drink was pretty poor. It tasted like powdered Tang with a bitter aftertaste and although beers and wine are available too, it was a shame that the specialty drinks were disappointing. We could get beer and wine elsewhere.
Then back on the culinary rollercoaster as the main courses totally redeemed things. The plate of peppered beef was stunningly good, and I know beef. There are steakhouses that could learn from this, and with the black peppered sauce giving it an oriental kick it was the highlight of the day with the soft, thin noodles complementing it perfectly. With it came chicken with dried chili and cashew which was totally acceptable, but if you want to try this dish at it’s best (cheaply) then go to The Noodle Bowl on Al Diyafa street – it’s number 911 on the menu. If you want to spend more, then the version in The Noble House at Raffles Hotel is table-thumpingly good. Ironically, the chef at the latter came from Zheng He’s. I couldn’t help feeling that they might be missing him slightly.
In places, it’s truly wonderful while at other times it’s hugely disappointing especially considering the reputation and price. Their mango puree with ice cream that we had for dessert was wonderful, while the plate of fruit (pineapple, watermelon, a few grapes and strawberry halves) was totally functional. It summed up the brunch.
At night with the a la carte menu this is one of the best places for top-quality Chinese food – and I’m not even going to add ‘…in Dubai’ on the end of that sentence. It could compete anywhere. But this brunch feels flat and doesn’t fit with the afternoon sun and surroundings and the occasional gales of laughter that waft over from Al Qasr are a taunting reminder that better things are just a few yards away. Perhaps Chinese is not the right food for long brunches. Even though it was occasionally outstanding, for Dhs450-a-head there are other places in the city that represent far better value for money if you want a long lunch on a Friday.
Verdict: Occasionally great, but considerably expensive considering the hit-and-miss nature.
The set price is Dhs450 per head