In Dubai, it would be nigh impossible to live without them. Even historically, this region has been a centre of trade - silk, spices, gold, food, it all comes and goes. When I do my weekly shopping, I return home with beef from Australia, prawns from Oman, apples from China, oranges from Spain, potatoes from Saudi Arabia, cheese from France. I've spoken about this before: in Dubai, we are all consumers - the rest of the world creates, and we buy it in and eat it up. But how far should it go?
Last week, I attended the launch for a new dining concept, (Dinedubai) and they had me and a bunch of much more important people meet them over lunch at Caffe Florian in the DIFC. When I received the invitation, I knew the name, but couldn't remember where I had heard it, so I Googled. Lo and behold, it's an import. The oldest still-running cafe on Piazza San Marco in Venice has decided to update it's image by opening in block 6 of the DIFC Gate district. Natural progression, no? I mean, Venice, Dubai, they're just stepping stones apart really?
But, I kept an open mind. I need to control myself in these matters. I am just a little anti-brand if that makes sense. I have been ripped off just one too many times buying the 'real deal' - don't even get me started on $300 frying pans. So, putting to the back of my mind my €10 Chinotto last year in Piazza San Marco, complete with snooty service, shitting pigeons and thousands of tourists, I tried to remember the circa 1720 interior, the smell of authentic panforte and espresso, the clamour of 10 chefs in a kitchen the size of a Dubai maid's room, the whisper of ghosts in the walls and the poetry of tragic romatics.
The DIFC is beautiful, but it's too clean, linear, sterile, straight and grey. The cafe is well lit, modern, sure, Italian, but in the way an Armani Suit is Italian. In the words of the great Dr Spock, "It's life Jim, but not as we know it." Not quite Venice transplanted. More like Venice translated - into the kind of English you see on a pirate video cover.
Sure, it's pleasant in its own way. I wont talk much about the food, because I was there 1. for free, and 2. at a function of 30-odd people, and I believe it's a little harsh to judge a place in those contexts. However, they did do a remarkably good job impressing me with a parmesan taglietelle and shaved truffle dish.
The Maitre'd brought out a wheel of Parmegiano, it's top concave He began to scrape the surface with a silver spoon, roughing it up in a fluid motion and leaving delicate little curls like sawdust in the base. A jar sat along-side with a bulbous black truffle stored in cool rice. Soon, the chef arrived, and loaded the steaming taglietelle straight into the cheese-bowl, then tossed it theatrically to incorporate the tiny swirls of salty deliciousness. Then each plate was delivered, and a generous amount of black truffle was shaved onto each serve by the Maitre'd.
It really was quite wonderful. I haven't had any decent truffle since last year in Melbourne, and even then, I don't think it was this good. The amazing thing with black truffle (which I know is the cheaper one, but in my opinion, is actually the superior), is that they are sweet and delicate when fresh - nothing like that toxic funky truffle oil - which often contains not a scrap of truffle. Despite all my following complaints, I will probably return to Caffe Florian Dubai, just so I can eat some more of this king of fungi. Hopefully they won't also make me eat my hat.
My problem started with the very brief conversation I had with the Maitre'd. As you can imagine, I often bring my camera out at restaurants, and for the first time ever, I was told I could not take photographs. The response to my obvious retort of "Why?" was something along the lines of
"because we are forbidden to sell pork or alcohol, we have decided to forbid photographs"
"We do not want the publicity"
"Caffe Florian is a very prestegious brand. Very Italian. We would be ashamed."
As you can see, I completely ignored his requests. I was quite shocked with the response, and so confirmed it with my companion, who agreed that was exactly what she had heard. Now, I must stress that this is by far, NOT an official comment from the group, and may have been mis-heard (by two of us). But why would you want to sell a franchise that you would be "ashamed" of? And do the Dubai owners realise that this is the way their own staff (who I believe were Italian) regard this venue - to be inferior, and far from a match of the prestigious venue they have bought the name of?
And this brings me back to imports.
What is the region's fascination with brands, and when will it end? I can understand some items - cars, shoes, electronics. Consumables where the brand will provide a guarantee of quality and style, durability and performance. I can also understand hotel chains - again, a guarantee of the standard due to their international profile, and for that matter I will not begrudge brand names such as McDonalds and Starbucks. Again, international brands that take the risk out of consumption for wary travellers.
But the original Cafe Florian (right) is famous mainly due to it's history and location. Some may say it's because of it's beauty, or the fact that Casanova, Byron, Proust and Dickens were patrons, but can you imagine for a moment that it would have lasted the test of time if it was a beautiful cafe in the middle of Bur Dubai? Or even outer-suburban London. Probably not. People visit the Caffe Florian in Venice, because they can sit where those famous people sat, and look out at exactly the same view. They can watch the sunlight on marble and the shadows between the columns and discover where these artists and lovers found their inspiration. If you took Caffe Florian out of Piazza San Marco, would it be worth anything?
No. It's just an Italian restaurant. With techniques that can be copied, staff that can be poached and decor that can be purchased elsewhere. I have reviewed three other big brand names recently - Emporio Armani Caffe, Shake Shack and Fauchon. Sure, the venues on their own are good. But would they be just as good if they were called "Cafe Italiano", "American Burger House" and "Patisserie Francais"? I'm sure they would.
And it would give me one less thing to complain about.
Caffe Florian is located in the DIFC, block 6, the Gate Village, close to Zuma. ph 04-3231833
And by the way, for the Maitre'd; there are plenty of restaurants in Dubai that sell both pork and alcohol - it is the owners choice to settle in a space that is unlicensed to do so.
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