Beating out even ├╝ber-fancy The Restaurant at The Chedi Muscat, which comes second, the best restaurant in Oman, according to TripAdvisor, is...La Fattoria Della Pizza. It's not the most talked-about. On top Facebook group Oman Restaurant Review, there's just one post by a happy customer (none by unhappy ones, incidentally), although Fattoria comes up several times in replies to the question "Where can I find the best pizza in Oman?" 

If you're interested in how TripAdvisor ranks its rated restaurants, this article tells you. I can tell you that La Fattoria Della Pizza is my - and Maurizio's - favourite place for pizza in Oman, especially since Chef Mario left Tomato. Tuscany pizzas are excellent too but, at OMR 11 for a margherita, just a touch on the pricey side. Relative newcomer Volare gets mixed reviews over on ORR; I really enjoyed my eat-in pizza but was disappointed in the subsequent takeout we got to take to a friend's. My runner up would probably be Slider Station; pizza's not their speciality, not even on the menu in fact, but their flatbreads - Italian style flatbreads, I think they're called - are pretty much the same, and lovely and flavourful.

FatSu, as you can probably tell, uses a proprietary algorithm to determine whether a place is Good or Bad, a bit like TripAdvisor, but much more complex and technical. I can't say exactly how it works - the process of perfecting it was too long and expensive to share, you see - but, La Fattoria gets my approval because:

1. The pizza is really good. (I told you this was complex.)
2. There is a real Italian chef there, making the pizzas. Yes, I know other nationalities can make pizza, of course they can, even English people, but we are in Muscat and eating pizza, so every bit of authenticity helps establish a European vibe.
3. The restaurant itself has a cosy kind of charm to it, from the rustic walls and piles of wood for the pizza oven, to the little nooks and random decoration. There are adverts for pipeline suppliers and truck rental agencies on alternate pages of the menu. It's not overly eye-talian, nor branded to death.
4. Instead of bread while you make up your mind about what to order, they bring you little deep-fried nuggets of pizza dough, hot and sprinkled with parmesan, which probably have a real Italian name.
5. It's part of Kargeen, or adjacent to it anyway, so you get to soak up the atmosphere, making this a good place to take pizza-loving visitors, especially if you happen to be boycotting Kargeen because they REFUSE to mix tobacco flavours in their shisha and you don't like lemon and you don't like mint, you only like lemon mint.
6. Every time I've been there and ordered the Bufalina (a margherita made with buffalo mozzarella), they've had it in stock, and they're generous with it, too.

So, mille mabrouks to La Fattoria Della Pizza.








Oh my god oh my god oh my god. Kiwi Cafe is going to start doing HAND-CUT gourmet fries! They started their super-popular burger brand with grass-fed New Zealand beef. Then, last year (as founder of Cheese Lovers of Muscat, a group which tirelessly and relentlessly lobbies for cheese-embetterment, I totally take credit for this, and I don't want to hear anything different, because really what have I achieved in my life if you take this away from me?), in comes the real cheese - a choice of Cheddar, instead of the usual American-style stuff. A few days ago, Kiwi's Facebook page showcased a picture of their freshly-baked buns. Whaaaaa?! Don't you tease me now. 

At this point, I went there for a very late dinner, post-TOTEM AGM. Kiwi Cafe even has branded collateral now, which you can't eat (that's a good idea! I just invented edible wrappers. Maybe made of sausage skins?) but it still adds to the overall feel that this is a local brand that's growing, happily and justifiably. I posted on Instagram that the only thing left to improve was the fries. And then, just now, I see they are bringing in proper chips. Hand-cut. Skin on. I'm so happy. You know I love the real deal when it comes to fries. I've talked about it in numerous posts. This one. And this one. Also here. Little bit here as well. Which might indicate to some that I have a problem, but I think I have one less now. 


It can be quite tough in Oman to find a viable niche, business-wise. Lots of opportunities, and there are so many great ideas that I'd love to see here, but just wouldn't work because there aren't enough people willing to buy. Of course by bringing this up, what I'm really doing is trying to use this blog as a platform, in the hope that one of you is passionate and rich and eccentric enough to set up an online cheese club. You'd be doing something wonderful. Bound to be good for the karma. Look at this one in the UK. "On the first Wednesday of every month, The Courtyard Dairy’s cheesemongers select the best and most interesting cheeses in season and deliver them direct to your door. Each month’s cheese club selection includes three cheeses plus a packet of crackers and a detailed article on the cheese producers, as well as a topical information feature on cheese." If that doesn't tempt you into a start-up, perhaps a dedicated cheese-courier could be found and funded, to ferry the goods to cheese lovers of Muscat on a weekly basis from various European cities? It could be me.


I'm not a restaurant critic, I'm a food blogger. So I tend not to write straight reviews - I like to have an angle. Sometimes, though, for example now, after an ecstatic, three-hour pounding of my taste buds, I am only able to kick back in my sweatpants jumpsuit, fire up the e-cigarette, and tell you what the food was like. There's no angle, people, and there's no TIME! Chef Alfredo Russo, he of the Michelin star, and world-famous mixologist Cilan Anadologlu, he being the chap who designed the cocktails for the Oscars 2014, are only at the Shangri-La for a limited time. Read this fast, and then GO THERE.

This duo has been flown in (Chef Alfredo for the second time; I ate his food last year) for a week or so. These things don't happen that often here - you know that. It's a treat and we need to take advantage of it so it keeps happening. If you suffered through years of bleak music wilderness and tried to get excited about the understudy keyboardist from Ace of Bass, or whoever, and were then rewarded with an emotional night with Ed Sheeran, you know what I mean. 

We had the set menu for lunch - tomato and aubergine tart, seafood soup, seabass with broccoli puree, and ricotta with citrus parfait - but don't be fooled. That little list is humble beyond belief compared to what we just enjoyed. The starter was my favourite, just because of the entirely familiar and simple nature of the ingredients in comparison to the brick-in-the-face whack of flavour it delivered. Seafood soup was a veritable parade of squiggly things, which is not normally my cup of brine, but this was fresh and welcoming, and much of it from the local fishermen. Then the bass! I'm all about the bass. Little piped piles of broccoli and cauliflower puree, and, broccoletti, a native of Italy which Maurizio has been telling me about for years while he sighs over his full-sized veg. They are amazing, these tiny things - at first I thought they were alien-inspired garnishes, a Michelin version of the tomato flower. So beautiful, and Maurizio's favourite of the meal. 

Dessert was made of cheese. A whole ricotta, and - which I think must be a favourite game of Chef Alfredo - lots of hidden treasures. Segments of orange tucked under the ricotta. Some kind of juicy beauty of a reduction inside it. Each of his dishes is layered in flavour and these lovely discoveries you make; all part of that humility, I suppose, to discover it's actually magnificent.

Now. I was already having the best Wednesday afternoon of my life, and then the Shangri-La throws in a mixologist to do to drinks what Chef was doing to food. Cihan Anadologlu calls himself a bartender, and bartenders can win awards but there is no equivalent Michelin standard for them, as far as I know. But the technique and passion Cihan puts into designing and preparing his cocktails merits some kind of star. Possibly a real one. He makes all his bitters and syrups from scratch. His drinks are molecularly planned and executed, from the ingredients to the mise en scene. As mixologists tend to be public-facing, it helps that he's also tall dark and handsome, and charming enough to have got his quite bizarre-appearing apparatus through Omani customs. He has all these tiny little bottles in front of him, like an apothecary! Cihan is making drinks specifically to pair with Chef Alfredo's menu; between starter and soup, we were served a concoction of basil, cucumber and seaweed, out of a specially-designed port-hole bottle. After lunch: The Flight To Arabia, a perfectly composed cocktail made from Turkish coffee, Cihan's homemade vanilla syrup, and star anise, topped with flaked almonds, dark chocolate and vanilla pods. Served in one of Cihan's own copper pots, and drunk through a wooden straw (plastic can effect the flavour. The man's a genius.), all of which is put together in an Aladdin's lamp. Of course someone had to rub that, and I was allowed to, on that basis that I was the only guest who really would have been upset if I hadn't been, especially as I was so fast at raising my hand and bouncing on my bar stool. But anyway, by that point, there seemed little else to wish for.

Cihan's last night is the 16th - tomorrow! - and Chef Alfredo goes home after dinner on Saturday - visit the Shangri-La's website to book your treat.


















Here's a thing that happened to me once.

I was on a break from university, and I went to Indonesia by myself. Flew into Bangkok, took a train down through Malaysia, and then across to Sumatra, where I spent the rest of my time. Like many before me and since, I meandered between the beautiful lakes and volcanoes via rickety buses and with little purpose. At one point, I found myself in a hostel in a small scrubby town at the end of a bus route, near Aceh province - I forget why I had headed there, probably there was a bat cave or dilapidated temple recommended by some other dirty traveller I met along the way.

There was only one other guest. He was an Italian man of middle age, with limited English. (He wasn't Maurizio.) This chap was a freelance photographer and natural historian - he had written a book about the Birds of the Alps, and was staying at this edge-of-nowhere place I'd ended up in because he was on an assignment for National Geographic, and about to head into the nearby virgin rainforest with a team of porters and guides, in an attempt to find and photograph a rare type of phosphorescent fungi said to be indigenous to that area, and not to many others, anywhere. Naturally we got to talking, and over drinks in the bar - clear, potent local liquor from what we would now call upcycled, unmarked bottles - to the sounds of the rats in the rafters and the hum of the generator - he invited me to go with him on the expedition, and I agreed.

We set off at dawn the next day. It wasn't a question of entering a well-kept national park - there was no gate, we just walked until we reached the edge of the pathless forest, and started hacking. I'd been told not to bring too much stuff - of course the porters were for the photographer's equipment, and tents and supplies for the five-strong team. The expedition was expected to last at least five nights, as we could only make slow progress, behind the machete-wielding guide, who would be cutting a path for us over thickly-foliaged and hilly terrain, and it was the rainy season. It's a shame I'm quite lazy, because there is nothing like silently, doggedly, trekking up and down, up and down, muddy, mosquito-infested, dark and dense jungle for making you really appreciate food. Especially good is food cooked by someone else, over a fire made by someone else, and eaten on your first sit-down of the day, at sundown, knowing there is not another human for miles and miles and miles. What seemed to me deliciously exotic at the time was actually Maggi noodles and river water, but with that genuine hunger and fresh smoky taste added by the situation, and which you can't re-create with a packet of the stuff at home.

By night, we would all of us sit around in the firelight, trying to swap stories but having very little common language, so the gesturing would soon make us tired and we'd go back to our tents and sleep til the sun woke us. On the third night, I woke to unidentifiable but terrifying noises, then panicked voices from the other tents - the guides called out for us to stay put. In the morning I saw the footprints of the elephants who'd been stamping around the campsite which was our base for the last two days. That was near a beautiful pond, overhung by vines, and you could see lots more animal tracks going down the the water's edge. Once I lost interest in peering into rock crevasses to try and spot this dayglo mushroom, I took to spending my time lying on the fallen tree trunk that almost traversed the pond and watching for the little jungle mammals who would visit the waterhole.

That sort of thing that doesn't happen to a person very often - being presented with the opportunity to go where people just don't, to see the jungle so very close up, to have taken part (entirely passively, but still, I was there) in a natural history expedition. It really did happen; I still have somewhere an autographed book about alpine wildlife with an Italian tribute to my eyes hand-written on the inside cover. Anyway, the reason I'm telling you the story is because it is a cautionary tale. If it happens that a chance like this presents itself to you, and, being the spontaneous daredevil you are, you take it, don't make the mistake that I did that could blot your entire memory of the time, and fail to bring any dental floss. The jungle, supposed to be such a wealth of natural resources, offered up no suitable twig. I find it hard to look back on this amazing trip without feeling annoyed that, for four and a half days of it, I had something stuck between my teeth. At one point, a mother monkey with a tiny baby clinging to her came cautiously down from the canopy, while I was cooling off under a waterfall, and I distinctly remember thinking how difficult it is to gasp with delight and awe when you're working your tongue round your lower left molar.







The NHI expo at Muscat Grand Mall started yesterday evening, and the guys there will be filling the foyer with delicious coffee-brewing smells and mocktail-theatricals again tonight and tomorrow, as the students at the Institute battle it out in public to win prizes for their culinary skills. It's a fun thing to see and support; I'll be cheering from the mezzanine level again this evening.


Do you ever get that shivery feeling, like you're part of something wonderful, something bigger than you; that you might actually be heading towards a real legacy? I think we're approaching greatness with our homemade burgers (possessive plural because it's "our" home, not because I'm laying claim to any part in the actual cooking). I wonder where it's all going to end. We've already perfected the patty, and it often has cheese INSIDE it. The condiments are all made from scratch. The separate cheese layer is either Gruyere or Red Leicester. And then there are the bonuses, like a fried egg on top, or a squishy roasted tomato slice next to the bun, or elusive ripe avocado tucked between the layers.

The latest improvement is to the bun itself. This has always been toasted on the barbeque or the griddle, for the blackening. Now we've started adding splatters of chipotle sauce to the bun straight after this step, while the bread's still piping hot. It adds an extra smoky flavour when you thought there was nowhere left to season.


  



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