Sorry to anyone who visited the blog yesterday and saw a message saying it had been made "private, by invitation only". The site went blank for some reason (I think hackers, Maurizio thinks I broke it), and then showed that message - but it's not true! I would never do that! And if I did ever make the blog invite-only, of course YOU would be the first person on the list. You've always been my favourite.
Paragraph two, begin post proper. I'm often asked, when working in my shop, for advice on where to go in Muscat. I have a rudimentary knowledge of where the wadis are and what's the right time to visit the Grand Mosque, but the worst thing is getting asked, "and where can I go for a night out, except hotels?" Well, we have Left Bank. And...and embarrassed sigh. It kills me, that expectant look on tourists' faces as they wait for me to name a second option.
Lucky for us we do have Left Bank, and luckier still it's stayed pretty awesome since it opened. I remember the long, hard months leading up to the opening - will they get the license? Aren't these guys at the top of the wasta tree? What's the hold up? And then for a while after opening, there was some kind of weird Ministry condition that you had to have food if you ordered a drink, and it was always olives because the kitchen hadn't properly opened yet. Good times. Lots of olives.
Usually I'm there on Monday - that's ladies' night, which in this case means free cocktails (up to three I think) from a special menu. In fact that's where me and my team hold our Sporadic Weekly Annual General Meetings. Cocktails for free puts us in a good mood and we whiz through the agenda in minutes, then hang around swapping stories for the rest of the evening. This routine rarely includes food; I think because of Left Bank's unique place in my mind as Nice Place To Go For Drinks, I forget to eat there. My food forays at Left Bank have generally been the sort of one-course wonders that go naturally with free cocktails and a table full of right-thinking people. Let's get a load of cheese to share! Ah my mum used to make this pudding!
I've got a very good friend who practically lives at Left Bank. She has a permanent reserved table and everyone who works there knows her by name and preference; I can't think why they haven't yet built a small shrine to her on the terrace. She insisted I gave the food a proper try. I started with the pate; that of course sparked the cruelty debate, which came to an end when it was loudly claimed (and I chose to believe) that this type was somehow extracted from the bird with its full consent and blessing. That might have been the cocktails. It tasted lovely and came with a generous helping of bread and homemade chutney, and didn't feel at all evil. Maybe the fun atmosphere and homemade element drowned out the nagging of my conscience? I'll stop thinking about it now.
I was at a table full of Left Bank enthusiasts so it was quite hard to pick a main course with all the recommendations flung at me. But my reliable method of choosing the dish with the most locally elusive ingredients prevailed, and I plumped for the sake-glazed black cod with coconut and lemongrass sauce. Just packed with beautifully-balanced flavour and perfectly cooked, way above your gastropub average. I should have had it with sake. Sake is the drink that makes me happiest in the world. Karaoke happy.
And then, sticky toffee pudding! Now this is an example of English food that I'm proud of, and at Left Bank they have an English chef. What's the word for this: someone who's not jingoistic, nor racist, but still can't shake the belief that only their fellow-countrymen can successfully produce a certain item? I met a Frenchman recently who claimed this about cheese (ha! That rebuttal is a whole other post to be written). I feel it about sticky toffee pudding, and Yorkshire puddings. I've yet to try the latter here - planning to go to Left Bank's Sunday Roast this week - but the sticky toffee pudding. Oh lord. It's not often I moan with pleasure and in the same breath wish my mother was here for this.
Two other things about Left Bank that you may or may not care about, but for me they round off the experience and raise it up in my esteem from just a place for tasty cocktails. First is their food philosophy; a long way from the early days of Obligatory Olives, the kitchen team is really very dedicated to freshness and quality. You can ask about the provenance of any of their ingredients and be met with an enthusiastic answer. All the meat is grass-fed and all the seafood is caught daily just off our coast. Everything that can be made from scratch, is. Everything that can be sourced locally, is. And you can taste it.
Left Bank has a laidback and friendly environment, which seems to apply for the staff as well as the guests. Talk to managers Rachael or Luke there and you find they're as hot on making their staff happy as they are their customers. They get pretty steamed up about it in fact, and why not? When you're out for a night in a bar/restaurant you need and expect a full package experience, an evening to remember (or not). For that you need good staff, and to have good staff you need them to be happy. One reason I rarely complain about service in restaurants here: who am I to pull a guy up for not smiling at me on arrival, when he could be earning 150 OMR a month and working an eighty hour week? I know, and am happy to know, that Left Bank pays well above the odds and looks after the team in a dozen ways they're not obliged to. They have what must be a record-breaking retention rate; witness Alvin at the bar, there since the launch. And it's not because of our lovely new two-year NOC rule either - it's because there's a strong support system of nice people helping each other. Vibes like that make good food and drink even better.