A REGIONAL TREAT

Liz O’Reilly headed to Ammuri, the latest pop-up to hit the Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain’s Nikmati venue, and sampled an intriguing Arabic-themed menu featuring dishes from across the region.

The much-loved pop-up is found at the far end of the Ritz-Carlton’s extensive grounds, close to the marina. Cuisines and interiors change regularly, showcasing dishes and décor from around world in a space that demonstrates the vision of General Manager Bernard de Villèle, who spotted the potential of a wooden storage building and, in 10 days, transformed it into a restaurant complete with its own kitchen.

The current iteration, Ammuri, features gorgeous hanging lanterns, chairs clad in majlis-style material and a central arrangement housing dried flowers, large earthenware pots and shisha pipes. A DJ playing upbeat Arabic music ensures a lively atmosphere while clear plexiglass walls give the illusion of actually sitting on the beach while keeping diners protected from the wind (and sand). There’s also outdoor seating for those who want to enjoy the balmy cooler evenings we’re now enjoying.

Happily seated with a gentle breeze blowing through, we enjoyed bread and dips while we waited for our starters to arrive.

First to come were Hummus Beiruti and Avocado Fattoush, both served in pretty mini tagines with crispy baked pitta. For me, the hummus was a bit light on the customary garlic, though there are some who’d say I’m slightly obsessed with this vegetable (yes, that’s right, garlic is considered a vegetable). But the great creamy texture and the hints of hot peppers, cumin, paprika and chopped parsley more than made up for it.

I loved the Avocado Fattoush which was not only pleasing on the eye but also on the taste buds. It does not look like a large serving but both myself and my dining companion had more than enough and there was plenty left over. Really fresh crunchy peppers, juicy tomatoes, radish, for a little extra kick of heat, and avocadoes at that exactly perfect level of ripeness that I can never quite achieve at home – how do they do that? – mixed with crisp cucumber, mint and pomegranate seeds and topped with crunchy squares of fried pitta bread. The dressing was zesty, the olive oil taking on the hint of sumac and pomegranate molasses that sets apart a really good fattoush.

As a starter, this is perfect, bursting with an array of fresh flavours yet light enough not to spoil the main courses to follow.

Arayis came next – the ever-popular lamb stuffed pitta bread. But somewhat different to any I’ve tasted before. Rather than standard pitta, this featured a crispy well-cooked slightly fluffy bread liberally packed with minced lamb, onion, parsley, mint, mixed spices, tahini and a thin sprinkling of toasty mozzarella. Such a great combination of flavours and in a generous enough serving to make a main course if you wished.

Appearance-wise the Lamb Tagine was the star of the show. The traditional Moroccan dish looks stunning and doesn’t disappoint. Richly presented with a whole raft of vegetables – potatoes, courgettes, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots plus big red and green chillies – cooked with black limes and resting on a bed of saffron cous cous littered with almond slivers and chickpeas. The lamb was literally melting and the liberal addition of the gravy from the cooking and some harissa sauce made this a truly comforting mix of flavours and textures.

But the Chicken Musakhan was the stand out dish for me. This dish is usually served in saj bread but Egyptian Chef Hanan Osman has put her own twist on it by using filo and it really makes a difference. The herby moist chicken was tender and with a delicate flavour. The filo casing was perfectly crispy and satisfying and the dual toppings of pomegranate molasses and a sauce made from the chicken reduction blended perfectly with complementary spices, really made this a dish I would go back for.

For our final main course, we chose Mixed Grill consisting of chicken shish tawook, lamb kofta, lamb chops and beef kebab served with a bed of thinly sliced onions. While all the meats were tasty and impressive, I was particularly taken with the lamb chops; slightly charred on the outside and delicately pink in the middle with not a hint of chewiness.

Finishing off with desserts, I was particularly keen to try the interesting range of homemade ice creams that came with them. Khoshaf compote was an interesting mix of dried dates, figs and apricots and nuts soaked in what tasted like vanilla for a very subtle flavour which allowed the fruits to shine. The Saffron ice cream was super smooth with a very faint floral hint.

Kunafa, admittedly one of my all-time favourites, was amazing with softly melting cheese topped by super-crunchy vermicelli doused liberally in sugar syrup, served with slightly earthy mastic ice cream – a perfect salve to the sweetness of the syrup.

An enormous portion Pistachio Baklava looked almost like a slice of pie and, despite our best intentions, it managed to defeat my dining companion and myself. Flaky pastry topped with a generous amount of finely chopped pistachios, the butter and honey in the mix added a superior richness that made this dish feel luxurious. Add in the strong rose flavour of the accompanying ice cream and we had a perfect combination of unmistakably Middle Eastern flavours. My only regret was that we couldn’t finish it all. ✤

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