There's sometimes a bit of a negative attitude towards Omani brands. Yes, I know we are honouring National Day this week and everything is lit up and festive and we're all happy and patriotic, but I've seen it in retail and food for years - it's a feeling that something from Somewhere Else is by its nature better than something from Here. You could buy a tip-top Rolex in Muscat, but you'd probably prefer to get the same one from Dubai, or London. Why is that? There's a cache attached to being able to afford things from shinier malls, I suppose, and a slight suspicion that if it's in Oman, it might be fake or last season. And there's the perceived added value of being able to say, oh this? I picked it up in Dubai. When first-time customers came into my shop and asked, as they very frequently did, where is this brand from, I used to proudly say, TOTEM is an Omani brand. And then 90% of those new faces would fall slightly, until I would add, and we source all our labels from the US, the UK, France...faces back into the accepted position that says alright, shop-lady, I am willing to browse your rails now. But we have loads of awesome home-grown brands here - some of them now sold in my shop, in fact - and I haven't seen many of them celebrated to the extent they should be, with the exception of Ali Al Habsi. (Sadly, Ali Al Habsi is not sold in my shop.)
Well, that is a rant I've been wheeling out for the 12 years I've been in Oman, and given that I have these feelings, and being such an old hand and a food blogger of sorts, there is really no excuse for never having tried the food of The Dried Lemon. This is a husband and wife team who really are celebrated here - I've never heard a bad word about any of their dishes. I got to try their cooking at Shahrazad in the Shangri-La, where Chef Salim is guesting for the week. I was expecting a fusion of sorts - I know Chef Salim is passionate about bringing Omani cuisine to the world, and the team recently returned from a successful stint in Milan doing just that. But it wasn't so much fusion as a neat and well-executed update of tradition local food and ingredients. (I was glad; fusion scares me a bit, and I'm glad it seems to be dying a death. Whenever I've had it, it all feels a bit Emperor's New Clothes - well this combination of foods is revolting, but does that opinion make me horribly old-fashioned? Or maybe racist! I'll just pretend I really like this Yorkshire pudding sashimi.)
We started with a super-tasty clear lamb broth, flavoured with their signature dried lemon, and also lots of other spices that I couldn't identify, nor persuade Chef Salim to name. There was a little more merging of cuisines in the main course - marinated local kingfish on a bed of risotto - but in my opinion, Italian cooking can and should be introduced to all other types, because it makes everything better. This dish was also a delight, and thank goodness it was a press launch and I didn't have to impress anyone, because I practically scraped the glaze off the plate trying to mop up every last grain of rice. Dessert was a deconstructed lemon cheesecake, the tumbling presentation inspired by the mountains of Oman, and the flavours were astounding. Deconstructed is one of the words on a menu that is guaranteed to set off a subtle endorphin rush in my brain, along with 'hand-reared' and 'wild-crafted', unless I just made that last one up. Also, I love it when deconstructing something makes it better and prettier, and isn't used to apologise for not being the proper shape, as when I make deconstructed omelettes at home. Anyway, this was also a freaking triumph, a mind-blowing version of an established favourite. This is a good week to start celebrating Omani fine-dining, if you haven't already. Chef Salim is at the Shangri-La until the 19th for lunch and dinner, and you can book by calling 24776565, or email fbreservation.slmu@shangri-la.