Alain Ducasse On The Wagon

On the top floor of I.M. Pei's stunning Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the capital city of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, there is a glamorous restaurant designed by Philippe Starck, with cuisine overseen by multi-Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse. The room, giving onto the museum atrium, has soaring ceilings, full-length windows with a view of the city skyline, towering mirrored cases full of books, shelves of colorful decorative glassware, and opulently set tables with deep-cushion white leather chairs inscribed with fragments of Arabic romantic poetry. At each place setting is a heavy cut-crystal goblet designed to hold the finest vintage of... Evian.

In this very Islamic nation, alcohol is served only in the big international hotels, which, not coincidentally, are home to many of Doha's better restaurants. One notable exception is IDAM, M. Ducasse's museum outpost. Here, the food is finely crafted French–Mediterranean with frequent local accents, and the "wine list" is a compendium of bottled waters, soft drinks, and what are openly described here as mocktails. Oh, and don't even think about rôti de porc or lardons in the salad.

Chef Frédéric Larquemin, who has been in charge of the kitchen since January of this year (the restaurant opened with the museum in 2008), is a 10-year veteran of the Ducasse operation, most recently at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris. He sources 70 or 80 percent of his raw materials in the Gulf region, he says — including a number of varieties of excellent fish (the main one is hammour, a type of grouper) — and tries to bring regional flavors into his dishes.

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Every table gets a non-regional amuse-bouche of tiny blinis served with smooth pâtés of tuna, chicken, and basil. The mezze ("small plates") selection combines French and Middle Eastern notions. A standout is a bowl of braised lentils and chickpeas topped with very light, very flavorful hummus under a coating of edible gold leaf. Crisp samosas of slightly spicy cod and similarly shaped rissoles of lamb with fig were delicious. Not everything hits: Little escargots, out of their shells, with baby carrots, endive, and fennel with bits of vegetable-stock gelée melting in, seemed unaccountably bland. Small cubes of locally caught bonite (skipjack) topped with golden caviar were overwhelmed by their lemon marinade.

Back to the good news: A dish of "soft/crunchy" short-grain Egyptian rice with seafood-stuffed squid and a few octopus tentacle tips was enhanced with hints of kaffir lime, galangal, and cumin; the result was like an exotic take on some simple Spanish seafood rice dish. The restaurant's signature creation — talk about a marriage of France and the Middle East — is "tender camel" with duck foie gras in a black truffle sauce. The camel was almost disappointingly tame, not at all tough or gamy (as camel is rumored to be), but rich in flavor and formed into a neat little round of meat so savory it could have been long-cooked beef cheek or oxtail. The sautéed duck liver atop it blended superbly with the sweet, juicy meat. A small salad of shredded lettuce in vinegar dressing (not only wine but wine vinegar is forbidden here, so this was vegetable vinegar of some kind) cut nicely through the richness of the meats. The pommes soufflés on the side were unfortunately a little soft and occasionally soggy, but they helped soak up the truffle sauce. [pullquote:right]

A dessert called "soft, crunchy and iced Iranian pistachio" was a small confection that was half moist pistachio cake and half short-crust pistachio tart, with pistachio ice cream on the side.

In lieu of wine, a couple of daily special mocktails were Spicy Mango (mango juice, chile, lime, agave syrup, and soda) and Badiane Star (litchi juice, pineapple juice, elderflower syrup, star anise, and soda). Both were agreeable. Either would have been redeemd by a shot of vodka. Interestingly, as actual substitutes for wine, the beverage list also carafes of red, white, and rosé grape juice blends. Recommended with the camel and foie gras was Red Harvest, red grape juice, cranberry juice, tonic, and a shot of Tabasco. The point of the Tabasco, said a waiter, is to leave a slight burn in the back of the throat, similar to that left by alcohol. Well, um, okay.