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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dining Out in Muscat

by Stephanie McCreary

I moved to Oman a little more than a year ago and since then I have been living a double life. During the week I am a resident of Nizwa, a conservative small town in the interior of the country where I have to cover my arms and legs whenever I step outside. On the weekends however, I escape to the capital city of Muscat where I wear short sleeves,  Capri pants and indulge in activities that are unavailable in Nizwa. As a food lover, one of the things I love to do is patronize great restaurants. Aside from a couple of decent Indian places and a smattering of hole-in the-wall Arabian joints, Nizwa doesn’t have a whole lot to offer in terms of fine cuisine. Muscat has more options, and since I’ve stayed in my small town for the past four weekends, I have a strong desire to sample from the capital’s culinary platter. After waking up early and eating a rushed breakfast of shredded wheat, I hit the road.

An hour an a half later, I get my hair cut at the Intercontinental Hotel in Shatti Al Qurum and a pedicure at Totem Nails. As the end of my pedicure approaches, I feel my stomach growling and begin to envision lunch. I know that I want a special dinner later so I  need something light and fresh. I choose Automatic, a Lebanese restaurant conveniently located in Shatti Al Qurum. I walk inside to find a fast food restaurant in a casual dining setting: open and bright, with tables covered in black, white, red, and green cloths. I find a seat away from the bright October sun streaming in through the window side and peruse the menu, which offers a wide array of Lebanese food, including appetizers ranging in price from 1.200 to 2.100 OMR. Hommos, hommos with meat, and tabouleh are a few of the featured starters. I choose the rocket salad and fried kebbe. The salad is crisp and fresh, a mix of verdant green arugula leaves, fiery red chopped tomatoes, and red onion, drenched in the sweet tang of balsamic vinaigrette. The fried kebbe, torpedo shaped Lebanese meatballs made of fried bulgur stuffed with ground beef, onions, and seasonings, leave something to be desired. The bulgur coating falls apart too easily, and I have to sprinkle lemon juice and salt on the filling to add flavor.

For entrees, Automatic has a good selection of fresh juices like pomegranate, avocado, strawberry and apple, ranging in price from 1.100 to 1.700 OMR. Grills include lamb chops, chicken kebabs and chicken wings starting at 2.300 OMR. The lunch menu features sandwiches like the classic vegetarian falafel to the not so vegetarian sheep’s brain  from 300 to 450 baisas.  For early risers, there are breakfast dishes like foul, and eggs with meat that range from 1.200 to 1.700 OMR. If you like seafood, grilled hamour, kingfish, and grilled prawns have a place on the menu. If you care for a sweet ending, there is a variety of sweets including Oum Ali, a middle eastern style bread pudding, and Kataif, a pastry made from shredded wheat filled with cheese and topped with a fragrant syrup.  The total cost of my quick lunch: 3.700 OMR. Automatic has four locations: Shatti Al Qurum in the Bareeq al Shatti building, Al Ghubra, Seeb, on North Hall Road, and Al Khuwair, across from the Radisson SAS.

After a few hours of shopping, I meet my driver to go for dinner at Mumtaz Mahal. Oman has a large Indian expatriate community, so there is no shortage of Indian restaurants to choose from, but Mumtaz is without a doubt the best. Sitting atop a hill in Qurum overlooking the city, this establishment recently underwent renovations and the new décor is subtle yet warm, elegant yet inviting.  The ceilings are chocolate brown and beige, with dark wood tables and chairs with beige cushions.  A small stage is at the front of the spacious dining area with sophisticated paintings in earth tones and deep reds hanging on creamy walls. As I sit at my table and look through the menu, I notice the gold placemats in front of me that compliment the amber hued lights hanging from the ceiling and pillars.

I start with the prawn and coconut soup. Light, with a delicate citrus bite, this is a mellow introduction to the rest of my meal. I feast on American corn saag masala, a pureed spinach dish with Indian spices, punctuated by plump, sweet, sun yellow corn kernels and served with steamed basmati rice. Next, I try the tangy tandoori potatoes. Marinated in raw mango pulp, coriander, and mint and roasted in the tandoor, these are some of the most delicious potatoes I’ve ever tasted. Their outer coating is red from the marinade and flakes slightly  when touched with a fork. I sip the sweet truth of a ripe mango in a lassi, the perfect fruity, ice-cold dessert. As I finish my meal, live sitar and tabla music ring out from the stage and lend a mystical and enchanting atmosphere to the evening.

The extensive menu reads like a tantalizing novel, featuring dishes like tandoori whole lobster, cajun spiced chicken tikka, chicken and lamb kebab platter, and desserts like strawberry phirni brulee, a chilled rice flour pudding infused with strawberry puree sauce. Starters range from 2.200 to 3.200 OMR, soups from 2.000 to 3.000, chicken entrees from 5.000 to 5.500, vegetarian dishes from 3.500 to 4.000, seafood from 6.900 to 18.000 and lamb from 5.500 to 6.000 Rice dishes range from 2.500 to 18.000, breads from 200 baisas to 1.800 and desserts from 1.800 to 2.600. My entire meal set me back about 16.000 OMR. If you’re out and about in Qurum and need a fast lunch in a clean family restaurant, head over to Automatic. If you want to be transported to India encapsulated on a hill with a sparkling  nighttime view, have your dinner at Mumtaz Mahal. Reservations are recommended.

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