One of the first hotels I visited when I moved here in 2007 was Four Seasons Doha. Then it was home one of the few high end Italian restaurants in town and its bar, The Library, was an expat meeting spot every Thursday.
Its all-day dining restaurant (can’t even remember the name now!) was, just that, a a bit of an unmemorable buffet. It has had several incarnations over the years, most recently as a pan-Asian Nusantao which had a long and complicated menu and just didn’t gel.
The Four Seasons has always been that kinda old school place, with marble floors and well trained staff. Reliable and frankly not that exciting.A good place for a coffee but not for a big night out.
Then, the hotel management did something pretty brave – just a couple of years after opening, they shut down Nusantao and started all over again in that space.
Now called Elements, this was meant to be a look at the new Winter menu there. But after several visits to the hotel in recent weeks, I realized something bigger was going on – this venerable hotel had upped its game and was now one of the leaders of the foodie pack in Doha.
It’s been a slow and subtle burn, but the evidence is strong.
We can start with Elements. The facelift unveiled last year saw a younger, funkier vibe yet still retaining its five star air. A gin bar, bespoke cocktails and a sexy outdoor area walked that fine line between restaurant and club. The menu was a little long and complicated, but the food was very good. Now, after a period of settling in, they have introduced a new menu.
I’m pleased to say, it’s more focussed and leans heavily on its strengths – Chinese, Indian and Arabic favorites with a flair. Where the new menu shines is the Asian and south Asian favorites. The adeptness of their Chinese chef is apparent in his selection of dumplings – a squid ink grown har gow is silky and unctious. His perfectly formed lamb bun a little sweet, a little salty and encased in a well proportioned pastry.
But the showstopper for me was Ayam Bakar – an Indonesian-style roasted chicken with a sweet and spicy soy laced sauce.
It’s early days but I am calling this as one of of my favorite dishes of the year. To me this exemplifies how this restaurant has evolved. It’s a dish that is clearly a specialty of the chef who cooked it but also an unusual choice for a menu in Doha.
In similar territory is a mesmerizing salad of shrimp, scallop, squid, sea cucumber with a delicate yuzu (citrus) dressing. This had the potential to be bland and disappointing but goes above and beyond thanks to the sing of the yuzu and careful preparation of the seafood.
In other dishes, a tandoori prawn starter dish is both strongly spiced yet accessible and sure to be a favorite.
It was as if management had told their chefs, cook what you know, what you are good a, go ahead and cook it. This might sound basic but you would be surprised how little this attitude has permeated the dining scene in Doha and for a hotel restaurant like Elements.
I’ve found myself recommending Elements again and again since trying the new menu and also sampling the brunch recently (which now has a gin cart – heaven!). This is isn’t hotel dining as usual – it’s unique yet familiar, stunningly presented and well executed.
Meanwhile, a across the hall in Il Teatro Chef Marco Arlotti and the team there has quietly transformed this once stiff and tomblike restaurant into one of the most interesting and underrated restaurants in the city.
This restaurant has, for some time, been labelled as expensive and a little dull. Times have changed. A subtle revamp has seen tablecloths return, a wine by the glass set up welcoming guests and a more pocket-friendly (and very competitive) menu.
I sampled his new winter menu recently and was reminded that this was not “business as usual” Italian fare.
A beautifully cooked octopus is a tricky thing. Often in Qatar, it comes out rubbery and a little alarming. In Marco’s hands, it’s fork tender and served with a playful take on “chips” made from dried squid ink. a base of creamed chickpeas is perhaps a nod to Middle East fare, but gives it an earthiness and a tomato confit slices deftly through what could be a heavy dish.
I have always been a fan of the pastas at Il Teatro and the new capeletti are pillows stuffed with ricotta and bitey Piemonte chestnuts swimming in a parmesan sauce and topped black truffle.
Again, this is another example of a chef being entrusted to actually lead the creation of a menu,allowing his witty and well thought-out food to shine.
I could be overthinking it, but I believe the reinvention of the Four Seasons really started in earnest 12 months ago, with the opening of Nobu Doha. This was a long time coming and with some hiccups, this restaurant has really hit its stride.
I went back to try their brunch again in early November and found a dining room humming with energy and a touch of fun. Local families, couples, groups of friends and young families all enjoying the coolest room in town with some seriously great food.
Rather than sit on their island and wait for the people to come with open wallets, Nobu has openly courted new diners and groups. With a slew of happy hour bargains and regular special tasting menus all priced regularly, Nobu Doha has won a legion of fans (as well as new ones every week for the restaurant and the hotel that hosts it).
You can extrapolate many reasons as to why the Four Seasons has become a foodie haven over the last 12 months or so.
I would say Nobu has a lot to do with it. But I also suspect they saw the looming tough financial times in Doha and decided that gimmicks or just ignoring it just wont do. That throwing a couple of happy hours at the issue is a quick fix and won’t get people coming back.
Rather, they looked at the hotel as a whole – food and beverage, marketing, rooms – and worked on a cohesive strategy that makes people loyal. This has included using social media effectively. The W Doha is one of the few to have also worked this out and are still reaping the rewards.
Whatever the recipe, it seems to be working.
Four Seasons Doha
The Corniche, Doha, Qatar
Tel: +974 4494 4444
Twitter and Instagram: @fsdoha
*Life on the Wedge and related entities was indeed a guest of the Four Seasons recently to try both Il Teatro and Elements, but my views have been formed over years of experience and just being a general busybody.