WRITER: Lisa Travell PHOTOGRAPHY: Pierre Monetta
IDAM, Alain Ducasse’s first venture in the Gulf is located at the top of I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, boasts an interior designed by Philippe Starck and is already proving one of the most popular restaurants in the region.
When you visit the IDAM restaurant you will feel a door open on a different world,” Starck wrote of his design. I’m in complete agreement but what I didn’t know until very recently was that he was signed on to the project before even Alain Ducasse. In fact, it was Starck who brought Ducasse in (they have a long history of working together on restaurants all over the world).
The duo’s idea from the get-go was to “make an education” out of Arabic cuisine and modernise it by melding it with the French canon. Judging by the way IDAM looks, Starck clearly took his mission to heart.
Located on the top floor of I.M.Pei’ majestic Museum of Islamic Art, the 60-seat restaurant features a starkly monochromatic palette. “I used no colour,” Starck explained previously, “only black-and-white because it is the people who should bring the colour.”
His fourth wife, Jasmine, is of Arab origin which may be why he’s an avid collector of Arabic literature. Either way, his passion is clearly evident. Two walls are filled from floor to ceiling with books as well as portraits of great Arab writers, while excerpts of poetry and prose have been woven into the carpets and embroidered onto the leather chairs. The passages don’t necessarily do Starck’s breadth of knowledge justice for Qatar’s Ministry of Culture apparently dictated that he stick to examples taken from the ‘1001 Nights’ because they felt it was “a bridge between Arab and Western literature”. Despite this, my first impression is breathtaking. And I haven’t even got to the food, yet.
At IDAM’s helm sits Chef Romain Meder, who was trained by Ducasse in Paris and then Mauritius. He’s well equipped to preside over such a prestigious eatery. In fact, Ducasse personally offered him the job. “I needed a new challenge, something exciting and this was a great opportunity. I’m so proud to work here.”
It took a year and a half for Meder and Ducasse to develop the menu, with the venture taking Meder all over. “Alain sent me to India, Beirut, Morocco and New York to work in restaurants and become familiar with spices,” Meder continues. “It was challenging to adapt all that I saw and bring that to this kitchen but I think we’ve found the right balance.”
In addition, IDAM has achieved a feat many might not think feasible, sourcing 70 per cent of its produce regionally. “It’s been really interesting finding local produce and it’s educated me a lot in terms of gastronomy. For example, we use lamb from Jordan, camel from Qatar and we also source some organic vegetables from a farm north of Qatar.”
Ingredients not available locally are imported and the menu changes quarterly, in line with what’s in season in Europe. “We’re serving porcini mushrooms at the moment and on the next menu we’ll have black truffle. Then in the summer, we’ve sourced beautiful fresh asparagus from the South of France.”
I’m eager to sample this contemporary French cuisine with its Arab twist as Meder begins preparing the ‘Experience Menu’ - a selection of his most recommended dishes. He’s clearly most at home in the kitchen. He’s also surprisingly down to earth. I ask him how his kitchen staff would describe him and he pauses modestly before answering, “If it is time to work, I will work, if it is time to laugh, I will laugh. Yes, I have to drive this kitchen, if I want to say something I will say it but it’s also a question of respect; if you respect your staff, they will respect you.”
It’s obviously a kitchen that works in complete harmony, as what follows is a gastronomic feast. From the array of appetisers presented, the velvety cep mushroom and labne velouté proves a personal favourite. Filled with juicy morsels of lobster and chunks of nutty girolle mushrooms, it’s quite outstanding.
Next is the Egyptian rice with its perfect union of taste and texture. Cooked in the oven, the top layer of crunchy rice contrasts wonderfully with the soft bed below. It hides a plethora of delights including chunks of fish, lobster and squid, which combined with the flavours of lemon and cinnamon, transform this dish from simple to sublime.
Highly recommended as an entrée is the camel topped with foie gras-black truffle. It took two months to perfect and the meat is so tender, it falls from my fork and the rich, meaty camel contrasts effortlessly with the smooth, buttery foie gras. Even the souffléed potatoes are wonderful little puffs of perfection, works of art in themselves.
There’s barely room for more but I can’t pass on the dessert trolley, which overflows with an array of enticements, from melt-in-the-mouth sticks of sugary churros and chewy macaroons stuffed with orange and saffron marmalade, to rich, powdery handmade truffles. But it’s the show-stopping IDAM chocolate that brings my culinary experience to an end. It’s a perfectly crafted cube of decadence that looks oddly familiar. “Some dishes reflect the design of what you see when you dine,” Meder says, revealing the inspiration behind this dessert, “we try to get a good marriage between the architecture of the building and our kitchen.” Filled with rich, creamy mousse, it’s a dream come true for the die-hard chocoholic.
“My grandfather was a chef,” he continues. “I remember him in his uniform, with the long old-style hat. I used to help him and my grandmother cook at home for my family. I think they both inspired me.”
As does IDAM. Artists in the kitchen, Meder and Ducasse have created a menu full of dishes that rival the masterpieces encased below. “Our philosophy,” the chef concludes, “is that we cook simple but good food at one of the most beautiful restaurants in town.”
WHERE Museum of Islamic Art in Doha
WHEN Open everyday for lunch and dinner except Mondays and Tuesdays
WHY Exceptional in both food and design, IDAM offers French haute cuisine with Arab and Indian influences.