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Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Pearl in Qatar

Driving around Doha in the past 10 days,  you can't help but feel that the landscape is a little monotonous. Everywhere road works are kicking up sand, multiple cranes nodding to create more houses and more malls. Flat roof houses in the same beige-ness, with little architectural distinctness, lined next to each other. The terrain is flat and dusty with certain parts of the city rising like krypton with their steel and glass mega towers.

(image via here)

I am spending time roaming the city for a new home and have been shown apartments and villas. At first instance, the prospect of living in a villa sounded very appealing. We have spent many happy holidays in balinese villas where you don't ever want to leave.

These villas however are mostly part of huge gated compounds with between 100-200 units sharing a pool, tennis courts and amenities. Some villas have backyard space which could be grassed at your own expense. I imagine it could be turned into a leafy oasis with maybe a vegetable patch in the shade, and outdoor barbeques. Most residents however do not bother and so most yards are concrete tiles left baking in the sun with the occasional dying shrub.

The view from these villas is non existant, if you are lucky, you can look out of your second floor balcony into your neighbour's beige walls, or a construction site next door where they are probably building yet another compound.

Apartment blocks at least have a slightly different perspective. Of course you give up the large spaces villas offer but you are sometimes offered a balcony overlooking the city or the Corniche blue waters.

About 10 minutes outside the city centre, is an estate that is still under construction. The word estate is understating it, The Pearl, is more like another city that has been planned by a megalomaniac. When completed ( slated 2012 ), will house 48,000 people.

( image from here.)

This grand entrance leads to the Pearl. When you drive through, the first shops flanking the driveway, are car showrooms with sparkling  Ferraris and Rolls Royces. You can't help but smell the money.

Only about 50% has been built so the views from the apartments were sometimes of the Gulf, or the marina but also of more cranes in the distance and more construction sites. It is a view that will remain for years to come, as Doha is still growing as a city.

We have seen several apartments in some of the blocks and I was taken by the outdoor space afforded in the way of balconies. Some were as big as 5-700 square feet and you could literally live outdoors during the fall when the climate is less harsh.

The Pearl is the only licensed area in Doha, meaning that if you dined at the restaurants,
alcohol can be served. Outside the Pearl, only hotels are given liquor licenses.

We took a stroll along the boulevards during the day but will be heading there tonight to check out the scene. Apparently, the place is alive during the evenings as many flock there to the numerous alfresco cafes or indulge in 5 star restaurants that are starting to open up in the mall areas. Gordon Ramsey's Maze opened in The Pearl recently but to mixed reviews.

I am heading to a mid range restaurant there tonight called The Noodle House. The Noodle House can be found all over the Gulf countries and as far as Melbourne.

It serves Asian food like Singapore black pepper beef, laksa, chicken rice, pad thai noodles to name a few. all at a premium of course, nothing is cheap here. I tried the black pepper beef once and it was very good so at least you are paying for tasty fare.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Happenings in Doha

There was a tremendous sandstorm yesterday and walking out meant being blasted by 49 degree hot winds. The weather within the next 3 months are going to be hard and even hotter. However in September onwards, temperatures dip to below 30 degrees and we were told that it is a lovely time as the heat is dry and people can go swimming in the sea without feeling like being slowly boiled alive.

Sometime in October when it is even nicer, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival takes place and this would be the second year running. The original festival was started by Robert De Niro  in New York after 9-11. The festival has grown bigger each year and in 2010, was imported into Doha by the royalty.

Those who attended some of the screenings, all uncensored, were raving about the event.
I looked it up and found some impressive coverage.

Last year they hosted the event outdoors next to the iconic Museum of Islamic Art photographed here on the left of the giant screen. 

On the opening night, they bathed the museum in azure glow while guests parade down the pink carpet made of LED lights.

Ben Kinglsey were among the guests here last year and in 2010, they have Martin Scorsese on the list.

I am excited about attending the event this year. Apparently the Tribeca Film Festival has a full staff based in Doha, who have set up production teams and sponsoring partnerships and foundations. Things in Doha are looking up.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Retail Therapy Desert Style

Everyone here has commented that shopping in Doha was dismal. It was thus that I arrived with zero expectations at The Villagio Mall. The mall was touted to be the largest in the city and was about 25 minutes away from the town center , a trek by most standards as everywhere seems to be only a 5-10 minute drive away.

I was struck by the ceiling which soared above me and painted to look like the sky. Quite bizarre but rather nice.

Once I got past that, I saw that in the middle of the wide boulevard was a skinny man-made canal complete with gondolas !

There is something similar at The Mines in KL but I have not been. As it was the weekend, the mall was buzzing and I stuck right into looking around. To my surprise, the first shop on my left was Zara Home. I never seen this anyway in Asia except perhaps HK. My obsession with homewares left me wandering in the shop for about half hour- just fingering the gorgeous glasswares, luxurious bedding and sniffing at  all the scented candles. I had my eye on several lamps, bedspreads and toilet accessories and pledged to come back as soon as we settle on a home here.

Upon leaving the shop, a mini scream escaped me rather embarrassingly. I just spotted Boots across the aisle and who doesnn't like Boots ?! Haf hour later, I was still there, scanning all the perfumed soaps and yummy scrubs.

So far so good and my spirits were soaring. 3 hours later, I was still wandering around and forgotten about lunch completely. More international retail brands were spotted like Sephora, Hobbs, H&M, even Malaysia's Vincci ! The prices were much higher than back in KL though and the selection was very limited. Same with the Virgin megastore, a music CD costs 60-70 riyals while a movie DVD cost 86-100 riyals. ( The Riyal is almost equivalent to the RM )

Dean & Deluca opened just recently and it was posh. Even the fruit and vegetable looked polished. The gourmet prepared food section offered up posh nosh like lobster thermidor.

So I guess it's not so bad here. People have said that Doha only started becoming more cosmopolitan in the past 5 years. It's looking like they are determined to fast track the city to match other cities in Europe. I am keen to see what else develops in the next few years.

I am still struggling to find a good bookshop though. So might be my only solution.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Day Two in the Desert

We arrived in Doha two days ago during the late evening and the view from the plane prior to landing reasserted how small this city is. Streetlamps lit up the few highways that seem to go on forever into the black desert.

 (We are staying at the hotel on the right of the photo, that looks a pyramid with crew cut)

We were sent to the Sheraton within 5 minutes of leaving the airport and left the exploring for another day. Yesterday was spent getting phone SIM cards and trying 10 different ATMs before succeeding to get some much needed currency.  Just to show you guys a peek into the cityscape, I took a snap shot of the sea view from the hotel room. You can almost see the heat wave.

The city is mostly flat, barren with a homogenous sand colour scheme. There is a huge amount of construction going on as Qatar is trying to establish itself as a culture and business hub. They are also bidding for 2022 Soccer World Cup. Everywhere you look, there are holes in the ground, cranes digging up new holes, it feels like being in a gigantic sand pit.

The hotel has a private beach and while it was too hot to swim during the day, temperatures became more tolerable nearing sunset. A poolside notice board showed that sea temp. was around 35 degrees while air temp. was higher around 38 degrees. Humidity was at a high of 48% sometimes. 

Despite the blistering heat, I had to get out of the hotel today to have a look around. So starting with baby steps, I ventured out to a mall called City Center that is only 2 minutes drive away.

The mall is nothing to shout about but it was quite big. They had some familiar brands like Debenhams, Zara, Monsoon, Aldo, Mothercare, Carrefour etc. To my delight, I found several department shops that sell really ok looking and cheap clothes that are perfect for my blooming tummy.

I had to buy some tops that are more appropriate for the local culture. No more spagetti strapped shirts, sleeveless tops, skirts above the knee anymore. I found a pair of nice jeans ( RM 60 ) and a top (RM50) at Max Retail. Result !

Here are some facts about my new home.
  1. Qatar is the 164th biggest country in the world with around 4,500 sq m, around 1.5 times bigger than Singapore (according to wiki).
  2. Population is around 1.4 mil while there are 5 mil in the latter. 80% in Qatar are foreigners.
  3. Women were only allowed to vote since 2005
  4. According to some surveyors in 2009, Qatar was the 8th most expensive city in the world to live in.
Sorry I don't have any other weird facts about the city but am sure I will come across some in the coming months.

Monday, June 14, 2010


The same day England played their first World Cup game with USA, we had tickets to Bill Bailey, stand-up comedian. This was a little unfortunate but we wouldn't give these seats up as this performance was quite special. Bailey, these days, perform in stadiums to thousands. He decided to give back to his fans by doing a one night special at the Leicester Square Theatre, that only seats 500. Not only that, he was selling tickets on the cheap, just 12 pounds a pop!

When he announced this gig, tickets just evaporated. T who called the hotline at 2 minutes past was turned away. She went mental and apparently had a go at the organisers and managed to score 6 tickets !

So World Cup or not, we were going to this gig. Neither D nor T had ever been to this theatre so when we arrived, the place just blew us away. The theatre was tucked away in Chinatown, next to Prince of Wales, an arty film house.

As you descend the steps into Basement 1, you were ushered into a room that is like a small movie theatre. What set this theatre apart from the rest, were two bars, flanking each side of the theatre!

You could get cocktails, beers or wine and sit through the act with it. Truly old school and why not ?!

The man came on and he was just brillant. His jokes were very assessable and had people in stitches. Because the theatre was so tiny, the whole performance felt very intimate. He was picking on front row patrons, threw questions to the crowd and people responded well. He was particularly funny when he blended jokes with guitar riffs and he did so seamlessly. The night was perfect except that he gave up the football score during the second act.

Here is a old clip of Bailey's past performance to give you a taste of his brand of humour.

Thanks again T for making this night happen!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bit of Jazz

 Last night T booked us tickets to watch a live jazz performance at London's (and some say the wor'd's) most famous jazz club - Ronnie Scotts. The club celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and featured, in its times, giants like Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie.

When it first started, it used to be in dingy Chinatown, with second-hand furniture and served just tea. New owners in the 90s gave it a new lease of life as a plush supperclub in Soho. We arrived just before 7 and the place was buzzing with well dressed patrons and even more smart looking waiters flitting gracefully about with giant trays of martinis and wine glasses.

The opening band came on shortly after the waiter got our orders and the lights were dimmed. The trio consisted of a pianist, a double bass player and a drummer. The pianist and bass player were clearly veterans and very cool and relaxed. The drummer was much younger and had the tight shirt and punk hairdo. They were all very good especially the drummer and between songs, we found out that he was actually an award winning drummer who toured with Take That ( which explains the hairstyle!)

We came to watch the main act which was Kyle Eastwood and his band. He is the eldest son of Clint Eastwood and looked just like his old dad.

The songs played were all original tracks from their albums. Some were scores from movies like Letters from Iwo Jima. Kyle was very impressive, switching between the double bass and the electric guitar. The music was best of all, very assessable. Free form jazz can sometimes get too creative for me.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

London Eats

London this summer is spectacular, with temperatures hitting a regular 27 degrees and cornflower blue skies without a cloud in sight. Roofs on convertibles come down and people are going shirtless or wearing their bikini tops, sunning in alfresco cafes and parks. It is so lovely this time of the year and we were spending a lot of time outside, taking the dogs for walks and having coffee in parks.

One of the great things about a large cosmopolitan city like London is definitely the quality and diversity of it's dining scene. We were stumped for choice of cuisine. Not only is food good, it was coupled with thoughtful service and chic interiors.  There was nothing I could find fault with.

  The Wolseley was one place we had brunch in and it was until 1999 a Barclays banking hall. Before that, the original owners sold Woseley cars in the 1920s. The building is historical and very grand, with towering columns and massive ceiling arches. I felt like being in a cathedral. The interior was all black and gold lacquer and all tableware were vintage silverware.

We had brunch there and I ordered the eggs benedict with spinach which were very tasty.

Another night when the while family was together, D booked a table at Cambio De Tercio, an award winning and highly acclaimed spanish restaurant. At first glance, it looked typical with red and orange walls and a busy Thursday night sitting. The menu however gave us a hint that this meal was going to be special.

They recommend that each person order 3-4 tapas or 1 tapas and a main. I went for the multiple tapas option in order to sample dishes as possible.

Some of the tapas choices were fairly ordinary like the spanish tortillas but it carried the El Bulli tag "1998" with it. We hoped that meant it might be interesting and it was. The tortilla came in a martini glass. Bacon and egg gratin was set at the bottom of the glass while white fluffy potato foam sat on it. The texture was unlike anything we expected of a tortilla and it was unbelievebly good.

I picked the gazpacho with lobster tail and cherry ice cream. A deep plate was presented with lobster tails and a dark pinkish scoop of the ice cream. The waiter then brought a carafe of soup and poured it into the dish at the table.

This was the best gazpacho I have ever tasted and the cherry ice cream worked so well with it. The other tapas I had were the crispy ham and bechamel sauce croquettes served with a side of tomato and thyme sauce; and a roasted quail stuffed with foie gras and iberico pork, spinach and cranberries. T ordered the suckling pig and he could not get over it. Everyone ordered different meals and everything was superb.

The plates were licked dry at the end of the meal but I could not resist ordering desserts. If the mains were so good, what of the sweets? We picked just two to share but only one was so unique, it cannot go without a mention.

Gin & Tonic “on a plate”, Bombay Sapphire geleé, tonic water sorbet & lime foam. Unfortunately, we were so in awe with it that before I could take a photo, it was gone. The gin was jellified, tonic was frozen scoop of ice and the lime was like air. It was a perfect ending to a dreamlike experience at Cambio De Tercio.

Of course we can't indulge in extravagant meals all the time but good food is never far away. At every few street corners, there are artisan bakeries offering giant crusty bread loaves, boutique sweet shops tempting you with girlish coloured macaroons, authentic italian delis with homemade pasta and sauces.

Certainly my sort of town.