Dubai is the king of chains! King of brands. Restaurants, clothing stores, hotels. And of course, coffeehouses. Starbucks, Costa, Cosi, Caribou, Second Cup, Gloria Jean’s, Segafredo, Tim Horton’s and more abound. Blah blah blah. The city appears to have a deep and abiding aversion to anything small and unique – preferring instead to fortify itself with (supposedly proven) café after cookie-cutter café, oozing lack of personality and same-sameness.
Now, I know it might sound a bit snobby to turn my nose up at these coffee brands. In fact, I don’t care how it sounds. Am I a coffee snob? Yep! I’m Melburnian. If you don’t know what the connection is, you might as well stop reading here. Where I come from, coffee isn’t just a shot of caffeine but an actual artform. And if you think I’m talking about cute little pictures of elephants or butterflies in your foam, again please stop reading here. What I’m talking about is the barista, a person properly trained in the craft of making coffee, actually taking pride in every single cup they produce. In my opinion, if you serve me the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life one day and then a crappy cup the next, you make bad coffee. Simple as that. Quality is not just about perfection, it is about consistency. And I feel that the reason coffee in Dubai is so dreadful is that people aren’t being trained to make it. But that’s a whole other ejo.
In over five years, only two places have come close to fulfilling my need for a great milky coffee. One was Brunetti’s – yep, the Melbourne joint. They didn’t make awesome coffee, but it was generally consistent. And in a city where that’s rare, it counted. Alas, Brunetti’s has recently closed. The other place that served really good coffee for a little while was a café called Raw that imports and roasts their own beans. Unfortunately, the operative word in the previous sentence is “served”. Their consistency was a joke. And so I stopped going.
Something that really bugs me about coffee in Dubai is that regardless of whether you order a latte, cappuccino or flat white, you get the same damn coffee (albeit in a different sized or coloured cup to differentiate between the styles). This infuriates me. The nuances of the different types of milky coffee are numerous, but unfortunately the guy behind the machine at Costa hasn’t been taught that. He hasn’t been shown that when you froth milk the correct way you end up with three layers in the milk jug. The hot milk at the bottom, the micro-foam (which for me defines a latte) in the middle, and the stiff peaky froth at the top (the stuff that should get spooned onto the top third of a cappuccino). Invariably the contents of the jug simply get poured into a cup and served to you as whatever it was that you ordered. And it seems that the majority of coffee punters in Dubai don’t know the difference between a latte and a cappuccino either, because they keep paying for coffee, milk and a thin, mealy layer of foam on top. And paying top dollar for it. An average cappuccino in Dubai costs between 17-24dhs, approximately five to eight Aussie dollars. That’s bad enough, but when you have to pay that for a crap cup of coffee, it’s enough to make your blood boil.
So, as you can see, my experiences with coffee here haven’t been the best. Which is why when I saw a magazine cover a couple of months ago with a picture of a bearded man wearing a butcher’s apron and the words, “This man knows good coffee,” my heart leapt a little bit. Oh joy! I flicked through to the article and was quite excited to read about a great new café that was soon to be opening in the Al Quoz neighbourhood of Dubai. For those of you who don’t live here, Al Quoz is a rather industrial area of town, mostly known for car dealerships, factories and (of late) art galleries. In fact, it’s the perfect place for a start-up. My excitement levels were cautiously rising. Could it be that after five years of crappy caffeine, at last someone who “knows good coffee” would be making his way into the city (and straight into my heart)??
When I went home I hopped online and did as much research as I could about this upcoming café (this might show how sadly scarce good coffee is in my everyday life). It all looked very promising. Interviews with (Aussie) Tom Arnel and (Spaniard) Sergio Lopez, gave assurance that they were here to provide a quality product, expressing a desire to work against Dubai’s proclivity towards “mass-produced” and “franchised”. Music to my ears.
A week or so after they opened, I dragged David along to sample a cup of their joe. Sadly, my first impression of the place was that, despite the promises to be “different” it was a very typical Dubai restaurant opening. A huge, cavernous space outfitted with industrial design. If Tom and Sergio were going for the antithesis of the Dubai café, if they were going for an antidote to the “Dubai-ness” which they stated they were overwhelmingly “frustrated with”, at least where the interior is concerned, they failed miserably. The inside of Tom&Serg is, for me, the definition of Dubai. Strike one.
We ordered two cappuccinos and sat down at a bench by the window. While we waited we read their policy on serving coffee at <65ºC. I admire the intention. Burned milk is one of my absolute worst pet peeves when ordering coffee and I have been known to return to a café and insist they make me another cup at a lower temperature. Now, I’ve already said I’m a coffee snob and I’ll reinforce that here with the suggestion that the best coffee is actually served at a temperature closer to 70ºC. It’s hot, but not hot enough that the milk has burned, and not so hot that you’ll burn your tongue. You can drink it without waiting, but if you do wait a few moments you won’t be drinking tepid coffee (blech). Years and years of drinking amazing coffees in cafés in Melbourne as well as being the honorary tower barista when I worked at Melbourne airport have taught me that temperature is paramount. A lot of experimentation and a great deal of love have gone into my research. I don’t mind a coffee at 65ºC, but I most definitely prefer it a bit hotter.
Anyway, back to Tom&Serg. One cup was brought over and served to us, which we thought was a bit strange. I told the server that we had ordered two cups and he shrugged. And then, check this, he left. I was a little bemused, thinking the second cup must be on the way. Alas, this was not to be. There was no second cup. Strike two. And I can’t begin to tell you how much this pissed me off. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that everyone makes mistakes. But when you go around aggrandising yourself as being the opposite of what is wrong with Dubai, then you’d better make sure that you are great, in all respects. And for the guy to just shrug his shoulders and not even bother ordering us a second cup really got on my nerves. It typifies what inspired this “Things I Hate About Dubai” series in the first place. Our first experience with Tom&Serg was a bust. We walked out disappointed.
Being fair-minded people, we decided we’d give them another chance about a week later. We walked in and decided to order one latte and one cappuccino, so that we could compare the two. I declined the offer of chocolate on my cappuccino. That’s another of my pet peeves (yes, I do have a lot). Cappuccino is not a mocha. There should be no chocolate anywhere NEAR it. I don’t care if it’s Valrhona or chocolate that’s been grated between the legs of virgins (I’m sure such a thing exists somewhere in the world – just not on my cappuccino please). Anyway, I was saddened (but in no way surprised) when my cappuccino came out liberally sprinkled with offending chocolate. Strike three. I gently reminded my server that I had requested no chocolate and I swear to god, she looked like she was about to shrug and walk away. I think it was the wild, wide-eyed look which started to flower across my face that stopped her in her tracks and she hesitantly asked me if I wanted another coffee. I nodded slowly, my shackles smoothing down. Strike four (the strikes were coming thick and fast now).
So, while we waited, David and I shared his latte and when my cappuccino arrived, we shared that. I would be hard pressed to tell you the difference between the two cups. They were both milky coffee with a thin, mealy layer of foam on top. Ugh!!!!!! Strike five. When we’d finished the server came back and asked me how I liked the coffee. I shrugged (oh yes, the grasshopper becomes the master) and said I didn’t really like it that much. She knowingly nodded and said, “Ah, you thought it wasn’t warm enough” as though I was an idiot. Hackles well and truly raised, I didn’t bother to tell her that it just wasn’t a very good coffee. Strike six and we were out the door never to return.
It’s a shame that Tom&Serg didn’t live up to my (increasingly desperate) expectations of a great coffee joint. I have a feeling they’ll be fine though. Last time we were in Al Quoz we walked past and the place was jam-packed, full of hipster guys and gals sucking down their lukewarm coffees. Sure Tom&Serg will be fine. But what about me???