I’m not going to lie to you, compiling Life on the Wedge’s annual list of top Doha restaurant dishes of 2020 was pretty hard. I mean, it’s always a difficult task, but COVID-19 made it even more complex.
Many restaurants had to pivot hard and fast to deal with restrictions, new rules and staffing changes. Some didn’t survive (RIP Snoull). Others barely scraped through. Some thrived. Others are still closed or struggling to make up ground.
Usually I reserve a bit of my yearly wrap for some harsh words to restaurants and venues that didn’t live up to the hype. This year I won’t – the hospitality sector was hit hard by COVID and the associated closures. While some, with resources, were able to pivot to home delivery and other ventures. Others lost staff, budgets and more.
It’s now a well worn cliche but 2020 was a year like no other and can’t be treated in the same way. Yes, we should all expect consistent quality from our restaurants and hotels, but we also need to allow time to rebuild. That said, hospitality operators also need to realize that diners and guests also expect value for money….
There is some glimmer of hope for 2021 – COYA will open its doors at the W Doha in February. We anticipate the reopening of some of the excellent venues at Mandarin Oriental – I miss both Liang (which will open 31 December) and Mosaic which really lifted the bar for hotel dining. STK is back with a new energy and focus on their food. The opening of the Banyan Tree Hotel is also one to watch. I’m also hanging out for the re-opening of Italian restaurant Veritas at the Al Messila Resort.
1. Smoked Trevally at CUT Doha
I don’t usually pick a “dish of the year” per se, but if I had to, this one would win hands down. One of the most interesting and even daring dishes on any menu in the city right now – smoked locally caught trevally with almonds – it’s a textural sensation. After a long closure during the lockdown, CUT and the team came out fighting with a new menu and new direction. This dish may not be everyone’s cut of tea, but in a city full of cookie cutter menus and dishes, this is a true standout. I’ve had it three times in the last month and each time it impresses me. Chef Justin Yu is set for some exciting things in 2021.
2. Cauliflower and yoghurt at Mulberry Tavern
Sounds simple right? and it is. But this dish is a wow from the moment it hits the table. Smokey and slightly caramelized cauliflower and the tangy yoghurt are a match made in heaven. the Mulberry Tavern has some solid foodie credentials – definitely should be on your radar.
3. Coldskin Noodles at Elements
While the team at neighboring Nobu get a lot of plaudits, Chef Ding at Elements is turning out some equally impressive food with little fanfare. His Chinese heritage is evident in many of the dishes on the main and brunch menus, including this one. The noodles are handmade and bathed in a lip numbing chili oil, served cold, it’s a treat for a palate.
4. Prawn tacos at Boho Social
In its early days this Instagram perfect venue could have been accused of being more show than go. The menu was safe. But a year down the track, its Peruvian chef has been given free reign to create dishes from his homeland and the results are stunning. These tacos are a great example of how far they have come – stuffed with spiced prawns and topped with purple potato – it’s a treat for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
5. Coconut croissant at Gelato
Light, airy and just a little bit off center, these croissants are a thing of beauty. Stuffed with a tangy, fruity mango jam and dusted with coconut, the croissant pastry is infused with charcoal. Gelato and the pastry team at the Mandarin Oriental are in the business of making people and tasty delights and this is one of them.
6. Buffalo chicken burger at Nosh Cravings
Yes. It’s vegan. Who am I even? Made with plant protein this is a pretty close approximation of a chicken fillet, topped with a cooling slaw and a spicy buffalo sauce, if you close your eyes it could be…well you know. Nosh is a cool and exciting addition to the food scene – offering pocket friendly and approachable vegan fast food.
7. Tempura Lobster at Sora
Listen, it wasn’t love at first sight for myself and Sora. My first visit was terrible but I was lured back post lockdown to see how much it had grown and improved since that encounter. The good news is, yes, it had and this dish was illustrative of that. Tender lobster meat dipped in a light and airy tempura batter and fried perfectly before being dusted with seasoning. The simplest of dishes (yes a bit pricey too) done well.
8. Truffle and egg sandwich at Egg Tap
Qatar has an enduring love affair with Korean trends and this is a tasty one. Based on the Korean “egg drop” sandwiches, these use lightly toasted brioche and are stuffed with fluffy scrambled eggs and a variety of toppings and flavors. While the shashuka version has been gaining a solid following, for my money the truffle take, delicately laced with the earthy ingredient, is worthy of a gong. Service can be slow and the sandwiches are on the smaller side, but this is as trend I can support.
9. Risotto Cameron at Toro Toro
I’ve probably been to Toro Toro more than any other restaurant this year and for good reason. The food and service is excellent. This was a late entrant, I tried it just a couple of weeks ago and it’s from their Mistura menu and I hope it joins the regular menu. A Peruvian take on risotto, the rice is accented with squid ink and topped with fried prawns bathed in a spicy sauce and a coriander aioli. It’s the perfect meld of textures and flavors.
10. Nobu Tacos to Go
The masters of the pivot, Nobu adapted their gold standard sushi offerings for takeaway. but the star of this show is their teeny tiny Nobu style tacos. this comes as a set with lobster, snow crab, tuna belly and salmon plus the tacos and the fixings including that avocado sauce. Smart, satisfying and a bit of fun. I could have chosen more than a dozen different dishes off their menu for this list, but this is the one that demonstrated how adaptable they are. For me, Nobu is still the restaurant to beat in Doha.
11. Spicy tofu at Mama Rozie
I’m still soy (see what I did there) in love with this tiny place in Mansoura. Food is made with love and care and they powered through the pandemic, doing what they do best. This spicy tofu is everything I love about this place – it packs a solid punch of chili and the tofu is pillowy soft with a perfect amount of crunch.
While these places didn’t make the final cut I wanted to give a shoutout to:
- The Curry House – their British Curry house vibe and excellent menu make this place a sleeper hit in Doha. Worth a visit for their well executed curries and great service
- Maya Doha – still impressing me and still serving excellent Mexican food that has been cooked both with care and flair.
- Brewskis and Grub – It’s all about the beers on tap and the buffalo chicken dip.
- La Bodega Negra – I admire what the St Regis and Al Fardan hospitality has done with the once moribund ballroom complex at Al Gassar. La Bodega Negra is one of the restaurants in this area and for me, it was love at first sight. I have only sampled the menu and look forward to many return visits in 2021.
What can we expect in 2020? Here’s my two riyals worth:
- I believe there will be more of a push for plant-based alternatives in the restaurant market. This is mirrored globally and will be reflected not just in the supermarket shelves but also in restaurant offerings.
- Quick service and delivery-only – the pandemic showed us this could work and if rumors of a certain food delivery service operating “grey kitchens” for delivery only operators, this could change the landscape. This year will also bring a realignment in food delivery as more restaurants develop their own systems for online ordering – removing the middle man so-to-speak.
- Peruvian food will continue to rise with the previously mentioned COYA. Who knew this would take Qatar by storm.
- Boards of all kinds – charcuterie boards came into their own in the pandemic and I expect to see the market continuing to grow. Lunchables for adults?
- Theme park food – Qatar is getting its first theme park in a matter of weeks and the foodie kid in me hopes the food offerings will be Disney style rather than dismal
- Meal Kits From chefs and hotels – I recently tried an amazing BBQ kit from the Astor Grill which included not only meat but also everything you need to cook them including sauces, buns for the burgers as more.
- Bye bye buffets – COVID-19 killed the buffet and I don’t see them returning anytime soon.