I'm in the process of preparing a page listing all my favourite food places in Oman. I've been here for eleven years and over the last few, happily, there have been new restaurants, cafes, venues and concepts springing up in Muscat like whatever flowers might grow in an oasis. So I'm often pencilling in my finds on the list in my head, and the most recent hidden jewel is this: my new favourite way to spend four hours on a Friday.
It's the Friday brunch held at the Beach Pavilion at the Al Bustan. Are you one of those people who just skims the first couple of paragraphs then skips to the photos? Then here's a summary for you: amazing food, innovative set-up, wow factor drinks, a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, ridiculously beautiful setting. Those of you with the time and willpower to finish my long posts, read on for details (especially because I deliberately left out of my summary TWO of the best things about the brunch, to punish the unmotivated readers and reward the dedicated).
You know, anything that's on at the Beach Pavilion has got to be good. They have to deliver the goods. You've just driven through some stunning scenery. Pulled up at a Ritz-Carlton palace. (Palace!) Been greeted by the courteous doormen and guided through the opulent lobby, dazzled by the chandelier, strolled through gardens with fountains and pools and parakeets and perfectly-aligned palms. All über-luxurious, so your senses - and expectations - are heightened.
So when we got to the Beach Pavilion it was a delight to find a laidback, smiley maitre d' in shorts and a t-shirt; a happy chap singing reggae with an acoustic guitar, and a table full of guests singing along; and playful touches like a homemade lemonade stand. It wasn't what I'd expected - it was a lot more fun.
Our waiter, Judge, took us to a table on the front line - couples strolling, kids playing, birds swooping. I could have kicked off my shoes and sunk my chair a little further into the sand and stayed there all day. Or for the rest of my life. But FatSu must be fed, and now I come to the food. It's awesome as you might expect; an emphasis on fresh ingredients, local where possible (all the seafood, bar mussels, is Omani and caught that day, and the Al Bustan has long taken advantage of its lush surroundings and grown a lot of its own produce). You can taste the truth of it. The lobster medallions were super succulent and delicate, and the crab legs were worth the effort of the sucking.
The brunch set-up is buffet, but - how kind of them to have thought of this - tapas is brought to your table at intervals. You know Fridays; you don't want to keep standing up. Uncannily, just as I would start to heave myself out of the increasingly comfortable chair, a waiter would glide over with a potato martini, or a tuna and couscous amuse bouche, or a deconstructed eggs benedict, or a mango sorbet. Just wonderful: the Al Bustan has cured buffet fatigue! (I'm aware that this is a first-world problem.)
Then you've got the grill, over in the little nook created by the mountains. Here there's more lobster, plenty of juicy meat cuts, and most enticing and Instagrammable, the shuwa fire pit. Back inside, you can visit the cheese wall. In fact you must. Each of the cheeses on offer sits nobly on its own plinth - maybe it's more of a cheese temple? - and alongside each is a different jam, relish or honey, specially paired. Desserts were similarly impressive with the gold and silver macaroons tasting as good as they look.
And the drinks. You can choose to have non-alcoholic beverages. We didn't. The brunch starts at 11am and goes on til 3pm in theory; the buffet was still being replenished at 3.30. Which is good because they only start serving booze at 2pm, per the rules - that was when we arrived, and we only left at 4.30pm. We had the best drink. It's a Clear Bloody Mary. Intriguing right off the bat, plus they have signage up for the unlikely contingency that your waiter forgets to tell you enthusiastically, as Judge did, that you have to try this. (If you don't drink, there is a non-alcoholic version which is just as good, and you can't say that very often.)
This Clear Bloody Mary was a revelation, fresh and tart and exactly the flavours you want from the classic, but tumbled in a crazy procession. I got the story of its creation from F&B boss Mark, and newly arrived (from California) Chef Bryce. The idea came up in the kitchen several months ago and took six weeks to perfect. What these guys were looking for was a cool and unique alternative to the brunch staple, something clean and beautiful and packing a punch. To stay true to the original, tomato and celery mixtures were distilled, tweaked, combined and re-imagined, with the team spending many late nights in the kitchen perfecting the recipe, glassing and garnish. What you have in the end result is superb. This cocktail takes a lot of making: twice, the base liquid needs to be strained through muslin, with each session taking at least twelve hours. There is a secret ingredient that makes it clear. The cherry tomato in the glass is marinated, roasted and peeled, and then swells up to make a sweet bite to finish the drink. And the rim is coated with a mixture of salt and tabasco - I recommend taking a sip from a fresh spot each time to get the full heat. A-freakin-mazing. GO THERE AND HAVE ONE.
There are so many lovely little touches that make this my new favourite. I'm surprised how few people know about it - I've been spreading the word verbally (and enthusiastically) since my first visit. No way will it be the last - Chef Bryce regards this weekly happening as his baby, and he's full of cool ideas. You heard it here first: coming up very soon, there'll be an Iced Oman Coffee station. The food, too, will keep evolving - go this weekend and you'll likely see a whole new set of those lazifying tapas treats.
Well done for reading this far. I really didn't feel I could leave anything out, when I left so happy. I'll end with two other brilliant details: everyone attending the brunch can visit the open-air tents just down the beach for a revitalising back and shoulder massage. That's included in the price, which is the other great thing: would you believe 21.9 OMR without alcohol, and 31.9 OMR with? It's true, and it's a bargain, and I'm happy to put it on my list and my weekend schedule.