Time Out

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Time Out – Drive of your life

Getting up is the easy part, it is going down that gets a bit tricky,’ warned Sayeed, the hotel concierge, as he handed me the keys to the tank-sized monster I was about to pilot into some of Arabia’s most dramatic scenery. I am what could politely be classed as ‘a remedial driver’, with a single battered Volkswagen Polo, and a string of insurance pay-outs to show for a decade behind the wheel. Therefore the prospect of steering the foreboding Toyota 4x through the Muscat traffic, and up and down the near perpendicular slate-covered tracks that wind their way through the Western Hajar mountain range, wasn’t doing my nerves a lot of good. The fact that I was about to attempt the trip unguided didn’t help either. Surprisingly it didn’t take all that long for my faith in my own manhood to be reaffirmed – it’s amazing what a raised cockpit and a means of transport with vehicular giganticism can do for a person’s confidence – and soon I was weaving blithely through the capital’s traffic and along the spectacular westbound highway…

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Time Out – Rome of the Brave

It’s approaching 2pm at the Roman Hippodrome in the northern city of Jerash. In the rows of stone seats that line one side of the arena, the spectators languidly wipe sweat from their brows as they wait impatiently for the entertainment to commence. To the left of the pews, a lone trumpeter stands atop an arch: the fierce early afternoon sun casting him in an ethereal light as he heralds the entry of his fellow legionnaires. Seconds later, the tramp of marching feet and the rattle of swords, shields and armour marks the arrival of the VI Legion Ferrata – a 50-strong group of swarthy warriors who will spend the next 20 minutes or so demonstrating their aptitude for combat through a range of military manoeuvres and exhortations in Latin. Their appetite for agro whetted by the thuggish soldiers, the crowd are then presented with a gaggle of wretched gladiators whose fates they decree with a show of thumbs. Up signifies survival, a horizontal digit consigns them to a meeting with their maker. Its role as judge and virtual executioner…

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Time Out – Splendid Isolation

It’s getting on for 6pm and the blazing sun is sinking languidly towards the horizon. Out on the water, a large mixed group of western expats looking for a bit of weekend rest and recuperation away from their base in Saudi Arabia, are perched on a floating platform telling jokes and taking in the final few rays of the day. Beside me, a long-haired gentle- man with a bandito moustache and a bandana grins enthusiastically, lights another roll-up cigarette, raises his glass and proposes a toast. ‘Welcome to Al Dar,’ he says as the lilting sound of reggae music pours out of the stereo and into the balmy evening air. It would be pushing the constraints of reality to liken Bahrain’s hippest new island resort to any commonly held perception of paradise. A tiny and somewhat scruffy speck of sand separated from one of the less attractive tracts of the mainland by a mile or so of sea, this is no Thailand. What it is, however, is a microcosm of what makes Bahrain such an ap- pealing place. Compact, friendly…

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Time Out – Exchange Grill

Think of a word to describe Dubai and chances are the first adjective that springs to mind won’t be ‘sensuous’. The virulent capitalism on steroids that courses through the veins of our desert domicile may make for plenty of excitement, but it leaves little scope for easing down a gear, psychologically ‘dimming the lights’ and letting nature run its course. As such, a visit to somewhere as down tempo as The Exchange Grill is one to be treasured. This is no two-bit steakhouse churning out uniform hunks of meat for the masses. It’s a slow-burn beef epiphany that caresses the palate into raptures with a smooth adeptness reminiscent of a 70s soul loverman (together with meat rather than gold medallions). Having arrived alone and a little aloof after a wearying midweek, I probably wasn’t the easiest nut to crack, but the restaurant was ready with a guerrilla charm offensive destined to blitz my crabby defenses. First I was deposited into a deep leather chair that was the very essence of ergonomic ecstasy. An amuse bouche of Olympian-sized curls of lightly…

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Time Out – Raw Panic

I’ve always had a problem with the clichéd, cut-and-dried perception of Japanese raw fish preparations being something you either love or hate. What sort of barbarian, after all, dismisses an ancient and intricately nuanced culinary art, just because they can’t get over the thought that the ingredients haven’t been cooked into submission prior to consumption? Not me that’s for sure, and I felt cer- tain as I geared up for a crash course in the Zen art of sushi and sashimi at the spanking new Bahrain branch of Yo Sushi, that my experience would provide me with the kind of insight that would make such snap judgements seem even more ridiculous. The scene was set for a momentous morning. I had arrived at around 10.30am with plenty of time for a few false starts before the lunchtime rush. The Filipino whiz kids in the central preparation area were chopping, slicing and shaping with masterful speed and ease, and the daft-looking hairnet I had been presented with before being allowed near food, fit my hefty Anglo-Saxon head like a glove. All…

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Time Out – Spice Emporium

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the flagship Asian restaurant at the new Westin hotel is so self- consciously ‘now’. Dubai, after all, is a city where modernity carries far more weight than scuffed traditionalism, and is often all the better for it. The pressure is especially intense on the local dining scene – an increasingly vicious battleground where shiny gimmicks often take precedence over substance, as restaurateurs bid to stay ahead of the game. All of which brings us to the parable of Spice Emporium. In keeping with its parent city’s thrusting ethos, the restaurant is replete with contemporary trappings. There’s a pair of futuristic glass cubes enveloping two cooking stations, the attractive low-slung tables are hewn from dark walnut, and the inoffensive Latino house that pumps out of the speakers at a discreet volume has no doubt accompanied slurping diners at a zillion similarly aspirational restaurants across the world. So far, so hip, and my dining partner and I were suitably impressed by the set-up as we sank into the ergonomically impeccable chairs and bedded in…

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Time Out – Dhofar So Good

‘Perhaps we should head back down to Salalah for food,’ suggested my travelling companion, Jules, as we entered the derelict-looking restaurant and imme- diately felt the force of the stares from the heavily- bearded male clientele. This appeared to be the most sensible course of action in the face of the slightly funereal atmosphere, but the pangs of hunger drove us on and into the building. We had been driving around Dhofar, Oman’s southernmost region, all morning, and by the time we had parked our car at Ayoub’s Tomb – the burial place of the prophet Job – even the rather scrawny camels ambling lazily around the mausoleum were begin- ning to look mighty tasty. Our decision made for us by the rumblings in our bellies, we took an outside table at the heroically insalubrious Job’s Tomb café, tuned out the curious glances, and reflected upon a widescreen vista of mountains and sparkling sea. Those who enjoy charting the changing land- scapes of a country through an aeroplane window won’t find much to interest them on a flight between Muscat…

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Time Out – Keva

It had been a late one the night before. An acquaintance had rolled into town on business. Before I knew it, what started out as a casual drink turned into a talkathon that wound up at a sha- warma stand on Diyafah Street at 3am. It was with a deep sense of dislocation, then, that I was ferried through the searing and deserted streets of Dubai and deposited in the empty lot outside Keva. Slight dementia has a nasty habit of cranking up a stuck jukebox in my head and the journey across the melting neighbourhoods had been soundtracked by an endless loop of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s stressed-out 60s classic ‘Summer In The City’. As if that wasn’t bad enough, my in-cranium sound system took a more melancholy tack as I opened the door to the restaurant: the mournful ska strains of ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials accompanied the dispiriting sight of a dark, empty room populated by a man shifting a table and a doleful-looking waiter. Any more trauma would probably have pushed me over the edge – or…