It's the Thursday after my Friday brunch at the Al Bustan's Beach Pavillion, and at the risk of putting a godawful song in your head, I've still got sand in my shoes (note to self and Dido: wear flip-flops to sandy venues). I've also still got a big smile on my face. This season - winter, the one that just finally arrived ten days ago - there is a new concept for the Friday brunch. That made me concerned, because I loved the existing concept so much; I wrote about it earlier this year, in deservedly glowing terms. I even called it my favourite food to eat on a Friday. So I went back, to check that everything is still awesome.
It is. Was that paragraph break enough to constitute a dramatic pause? Maybe I should have hit enter again. Because actually, it's not a given that brunch at the Al Bustan will be awesome. Lots of people I've gushed to about the brunch have been surprised to hear it's so fun, informal, and reasonably-priced. They're not surprised the food rocks, but they don't expect such a fancy institution to operate a laid-back and glorious way to fill your Friday. It has 'palace' in its name; it's not necessarily where you'd think of for a sandy, boozy, chilled-out feast for 39 OMR.
Well, by now you'll likely have clicked on the link above, eagerly devoured the post I wrote on this brunch back in March, made notes, and returned here, ready to compare the two experiences. That's very impressive, but I've already done it for you. The essentials are still there: great price, ridiculously fresh and tasty food, unbeatable location, and friendly staff who seem happy to be there and happy you are, too. There are still so many different cuisines that you can easily make this an eight-course affair, without danger of duplication. And the best drink I ever had, the clear Bloody Mary invented by the culinary geniuses at the Al Bustan, is still there in pride of place. The wall of cheese stands tall and you can still have flavour-packed, herb-infused honeys, specially-paired, for each slice or dollop.
Debuts for this season include a ceviche station, manned by Chef Bryce himself. I never heard of a ceviche station but I love ceviche and things I've never heard of. There was hammour, shrimp, and scallop on offer, each with its own marination. Dear god. You must try the hammour ceviche - it's made with charred corn and coconut and it's a revelation. When I tasted it, I sat back in my chair stunned for half a minute.
What else is new? There's an oyster station, complete with various dressings - just ask the friendly oyster guy for his recommendation - and a tabasco oyster shooter too, which provides the inept with a far easier and less scary way of eating them than glugging down one of the cat-sized oysters also available. I like the thought of something in a shot glass being the classier option. The sushi station has also expanded, and there's a range of cured salmon there (try the beetroot one - sweet and delicious). Fresh local crab, or one flown in from Alaska. Homemade tuna confit. Slices of lobster, of course. More lobster outside in the cosy garden, where you can get some perfectly-cooked steak to turf up your surf. There's lamb out there too on the barbecue, and a biryani station. Through every station, there's an emphasis on freshness, quality, and local produce, and it makes the food sing.
A couple of changes I should point out. The music is more beach loungey house type stuff, very Dubaiesque, but don't expect singalongs like I was treated to in March - I'm guessing they weren't always as harmonious as the one I witnessed and have thus been jettisoned. And this season is missing the little tasters that were brought around randomly on my first visit - I loved this because it allowed me to sit happily on my chair instead of hoisting myself up to peruse the many stations. Possibly the growing awareness of the global obesity problem has caused the Al Bustan staff to re-think this indulgence of the lazy, or maybe a manager saw what was happening and said, what the hell? Let them get up and get their own damn food, it's right there and it's really good. I did notice one waiter carrying a child back to his table, having taken him to look at the balloon animals being made, and asked if this porter service was available for adults too, but he just laughed so I didn't pursue it.
Desserts were gorgeously presented and lovely to eat - rosewater macaroons, lemon meringues in dark chocolate shells - and there's an ice-cream station too. Then to the wall of cheese and freshly-baked breads. This all happens over a four hour period of course - I'm not a beast. It makes for a perfect day and a total mess of your body clock. Forget dinner, write off the Saturday, and go to bed to sleep it off at 7pm, full and happy and a bit drunk. The wine was really lovely - Veuve Cliquot was on offer too but I liked the white they had. And at the end of the meal, we asked if there were any liqueurs. They're not included in the package price, but we wanted something zingy to end with. The waiter listed the options, we ordered, but then instead of the drinks coming over, the barman did. Would sir and madam perhaps prefer some of the Al Bustan's homemade limoncello? Well, I almost swore with joy. Not only that, but when the guy came back with limoncello, he brought some mandarin-cello too! What a brilliant day. You should go and have one too. Stations change up weekly depending on what's good and what amazing ideas the chef has had. Here's the Al Bustan's Facebook page, and you can reserve a table by calling 24799666.