Bahrain’s Chef & The Whale: Small on space, big on taste

Chef Stephen McGowan is the man in charge of the eatery. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 January 2020

Bahrain’s Chef & The Whale: Small on space, big on taste

  • Chef & The Whale is making waves on Bahrain’s Budaiya Highway

MANAMA: The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive at Chef & The Whale is that it’s bijou, for want of a better word. Just a few tables downstairs and a few more upstairs. But, boy, have they packed a lot in. On one wall there are pictures of the farmers and suppliers toiling to produce the high-quality ingredients used. On another is a block of shelves selling local ethical produce, from soap-free cleaning products to recyclable bowls and utensils made from coconut husks and — not to be missed — bags of Bahrain-roasted coffee.

Head up the stairs and there are great photographs representing every country from which there is a dish on the menu. In the upstairs section proper, you’ll find a kids’ corner, complete with fun educational books and toys, as well as a small garden section growing herbs — chilis and the like – some of which are handed over for donations at the regular charity coffee mornings (they’ve just raised almost $4,000 for victims of the Australian bush fires, though beneficiaries are usually closer to home).

The tacos are freshly pressed daily in-house. (Supplied)

On to the food, and there is much to say. The menu has been divided into four sections: Garden — mostly plant-based and all but one dish vegan, with several gluten-free options; Sea — as you would expect, fish and shellfish; Land — meats, chicken and duck; and Heaven — desserts, of course.

I started with the black bass ceviche, which is one of the signature dishes. I have to admit that, for my taste, the lime was a little overpowering and the chili not quite punchy enough. However, the fish was plentiful and perfect and the pairing with mashed avocado takes what would normally be a starter or snack to a dish fit for a light lunch.

The menu has been divided into four sections: Garden, Sea, Land and Heaven. (Supplied)

Next up came the Super Food Bowl and it truly was super. When eating out, I usually shy away from anything that’s promoted as healthy. Let’s face it, even I can put together a reasonably decent salad at home. But, don’t be fooled, this really is something else. There are 15 to 19 ingredients and if you can guess them all, you get a prize — I managed about 12 and even added a couple that weren’t there.

So, here are my correct guesses: roasted pumpkin, carrot and cumin hummus (heavenly), chick peas, soya beans, sun-dried tomatoes, cauliflower, mange tout, puffed black rice, blueberries, green leaves, roasted almonds, various seeds and awesome falafel — crunchy on the outside yielding to a soft, fluffy inner — all topped with crispy kale. The flavor and texture combinations in each mouthful were really outstanding — challenging to the taste buds and superbly filling. For this alone, I would go back.

In the upstairs section proper, you’ll find a kids’ corner, complete with fun educational books and toys. (Supplied)

My next dish was Crispy Kunafa Shrimp Bao — a huge juicy shrimp coated in crunchy kataifi dough and topped with miso mayo, white and black tobiko (flying fish roe) and pickled watermelon rind — yes, they’re even recycling kitchen scraps. The use of a black bao bun rendered this dish visually exciting and the crunch of the savory kunafa coupled with the tangy bite of the tobiko made for a deeply satisfying combination.

The last of my savories — and possibly the best, though I would be hard-pressed to choose — was the Baja Fish Taco. The tacos are freshly pressed daily in-house, you can really taste and feel the difference. And the Baja sauce is definitely not your average — the mayo has been replaced with tofu so the tacos also appear among the vegan dishes. For the purist, this might be a bit of a surprise; I loved the piquancy and texture and it’s good to know there’s another option for those following a plant-based diet.

. On another is a block of shelves selling local ethical produce, from recyclable bowls and utensils to bags of Bahrain-roasted coffee. (Supplied) 

The fish is black bass, lightly battered and cooked to perfection, and the dish comes with small bowls of chopped tomatoes, guacamole and sweet-chili sauce so you can make up your taco to your own preference — I piled them all on and would recommend you do the same.

For dessert I had San Sebastian Cheesecake. Yet another new experience. The crustless, fluffy bottom with the famous baked top was truly divine, another textural triumph which is highly recommended.

And, on a final note, I couldn’t leave without asking about the name. So, the Chef is Chef Stephen McGowan, the man in charge, and the Whale is because this mammal explores all four corners of the earth, as does the menu.

Farm to table: Lebanese initiative ‘From the Villages’ celebrates local talent 

Updated 20 October 2020

Farm to table: Lebanese initiative ‘From the Villages’ celebrates local talent 

DUBAI: In an act of solidarity with Lebanon’s villagers, farmers and local artisans, a group of innovative Lebanese graduates are operating an online platform that provides a wide array of their homemade products and crafts to those residing mainly in Beirut, as well as other cities across the country. 

At a time when a number of businesses were closing down, “From the Villages” was born from the COVID-19 lockdown in May. It all started through a fateful conversation between a few individuals who wanted to share good quality produce and foods from their southern, fertile village of Deir Mimas with others.

“Because people in their villages don’t find markets to sell (at), we thought why don’t we sell this food online?” the e-platform’s managing partner Hani Touma told Arab News. “By using technology and having a platform, they can sell their products and reach a wider range of customers.” 

The team designed their website and launched a couple of days later, with a few available items. Today, its offerings have expanded and clients can access a variety of 25 product categories, which include herbs, dairies, jams, olives, syrups, distillates, soaps and pottery. An eco-friendly project, all of the products are minimally packaged and locally made by nearly 50 artisans and farmers, living in 20 villages, mostly from the south.  

“We’re working with real household people,” said Touma. “Some of the ladies that we work with are 60, 70 years old and this is their only job. It started as a fun project and now it’s growing. We’re helping a lot of the suppliers and they’re having regular income, although it’s going up and down because of the economic situation in Lebanon.” 

Prior to the spread of COVID-19, Lebanon was already suffering from decades-long mismanagement and a financial crisis, in which citizens couldn’t access their bank savings, unemployment and inflation spiked and the Lebanese Lira devalued exponentially. 

In addition, Lebanon stands far from its full potential when it comes to local agricultural production as it imports more than 80 percent of its food items. The efforts of Touma, his business partner Sari Hawa, along with their tightly knit team of experts, are amongst the latest aiming to cultivate a culture of homegrown food concepts through grassroots initiatives.  

“Now, even the products imported have started to be missing from the supermarkets,” explained Touma. “I think this was why ‘From the Villages’ grew very fast, because people were not able to find some of their food – like jams, for example. They were all imported from outside. But now, you have a local product available directly at your doorstep.”

Following the deadly Beirut port explosion on Aug. 4, the “From the Villages” team suspended operations for a month and is currently slowly picking up again by carrying out deliveries twice per week. “Everything is working against us,” said Touma, “but we’re trying to stay on the ground and fix everything.”