Brunch is where the seven deadly sins convene to celebrate their birthdays and drink themselves into an alcoholic stupor; lust and pride are dancing around covetousness’s handbag – eyeing up talent on the dance-floor; gluttony is holding their head under a chocolate fountain with their mouth wide open; envy is standing at the mojito bar gossiping to anger about how slutty the dresses of the younger girls who have had boob jobs are, and sloth is slouched in their chair smoking a shisha and finishing off a Wagyu burger. It is the quintessential Dubai experience. But what is it really like… (you now need to start playing the music below for the full effect).
You suck in a deep breath. The brakes seem to have been slammed on the earth’s revolutions; everything is moving in black and white slow motion. A dream? A reality? Somewhere mired between the two? Where am I? You know there must be voices, songs, the sweet clinging and clanging of cutlery but the only noise you can hear is in the jukebox of your mind: Strauss’ opening music to 2001: A Space Odyssey – for it is the only music vast, grandiose and epochal enough to fill the cavernous halls of endless decadence that you have just entered and capture the spirit of a yawning culinary infinity.
As you giddily make your way around, the drums of a gaping universe still beating in your ears, your jaw laboriously drops, dragged downward by a childlike awe you haven’t felt since the days when Santa was still real and magic wasn’t simply a conjuror’s trick. It is the same kind of wonder as that etched onto the face of an archaeologist who has just unearthed a hatching unicorn’s egg.
You are at your first Dubai brunch.
A Colgate-smiled hostess greets you. In one hand she holds a glass of champagne (even though it is only 11am) and in the other she holds a map that looks like it belongs in the hands of Indiana Jones. It is vast and complex, intricate and beguiling, an Aladdin’s cave of alcoves, concealed entrances, atriums and grand halls; it is the cartographic depiction of your gastronomic fate.
For at brunch you do not receive a menu, you receive a hieroglyphic manuscript detailing the mystical and multitudinous locations of the three million different cuisines that are on offer. Often you are given a guide as you descend into the belly of the beast, for if you entered without them, you would never again find the path to freedom, trapped forever in a swirl of bright green macaroons and mojitos. It is dining on a scale that would make a royal wedding reception look like a gathering of tramps apologetically scoffing scraps from beneath a Burger King table.
Every conceivable cuisine is laid out in painstaking perfection for your perusal. Blocks of chocolate sculpted into the shape of Mount Rushmore, ice sculptures of winged horses, pyramids of profiteroles tower high like the result of some wild wager between a chef and an architect. They have everything.
You want blue whale flavoured ice cream? You got it. Got a hankering for an omelette made from pterodactyl eggs? It’s yours. Feel the urge for stuffed Komodo dragon and a vodka and snake sweat chaser? No problem. You lurch from Thai to German, to Italian, to Brazilian, to Chinese, to Indian, to British and then back again. At one point, in a culinary fusion of epic confusion, you have a Frisbee sized plate with sushi, Yorkshire puddings, oysters, tikka masala, bratwurst and dinosaur shaped marshmallows all competing for space as if in some gastronomic gladiatorial battle to the death. If you stayed for a week you still wouldn’t have eaten your way from one side of the megalopolis to the other.
And this is before you come to the alcohol.
Drink stands devoted to different brands of spirits, beers, wine and cocktails are dotted around the sprawling complex like human petrol stations, waiting to tank up alcohol levels in order to ensure that inebriation does not waver on the long walk from the seafood section to the schwarma stand. Mojitos, Caipirinhas, Manhattans, G and Ts, hot Sake, White Russians, Margaritas, Cuba libras, Singapore Slings, Pina Coladas in coconuts and Bloody Mary’s all compete for your attention like ADHD children fuelled on cheap sherbet. Row upon row of ready mixed drinks just lay there waiting to be picked up, like action-starved floozies on the hunt for one-night-stands.
But you’ll remember these ones in the morning.
For one of the great purposes, some may even say challenges, of brunch is to get as gloriously drunk as humanly possible. Brunch is what would happen if your id organised a dinner party and was given a free trolley dash around a duty free booze section: a helter skelter of uninhibited, debauched lubrication and satiation. By 3pm, after 4 hours of unlimited, uncensored and unshamed drinking, the landscape is a wasteland of the wasted: women wobble on broken stilettos, scores of sunglasses lay forgotten on tables – as abandoned as the inhibitions of the middle aged women dancing on chairs and tables to live jazz music.
Girls walk out of toilets with party gowns stuffed inelegantly yet seemingly deliberately into the backsides of their underwear; desperate men attempt to steal stray bottles of vodka to ensure the alcohol concentration in their bloodstream doesn’t dip below a 90% proof, everybody’s hair looks like it has been aggressively ruffled by an ogre with the shakes and eyes goggle contentedly around – mostly unable to fix on a point – glazed and drooping. The few people who can still focus are the single men who unsubtly stare at the uneven cleavage of women who have lost the pad and snapped the underwire that was elevating their left boob, though of course the men don’t notice this gravitational differentiation.
Nobody has uttered a coherent sentence for about an hour, with speech becoming less something that is spoken and more a slur dripping from the corner of mouths; everybody tries to listen but then just nod, smile and then carry on drinking or dancing or both. Friends become playfully monstrous versions of themselves, social barriers and niceties not so much broken but blown to smithereens as you watch them try to dive on abras rip their shirts open and beat their chests like the Incredible Hulk, cavort in fountains and steal useless paraphernalia like wooden seagulls or bronze, lamp-shaped ashtrays.
But at the beginning it was all so different.
The people in Dubai often wear better clothes to brunch than they did to their own weddings, with everyone turning up between eleven and midday looking as if they’ve been invited for an Ahlan cover shoot. Men wear expensive shirts and slacks along with designer shades and shoes; their hair is immaculately coiffed and gelled scrupulously into their favoured sculptures like follicular works of art. Women look like the guests of honour from Roman orgies or invitees to the banquets of the Greek Gods. They are adorned with lavishly expensive boutique gowns; their decadent dresses hug as tightly as boa-constrictors around their figures while vertiginous heels push them that little closer to the stars. Their hair is shimmering lustrously and brightly enough to power solar panels as its oh-so-deliberate tousles tumble down exposed shoulders and backs. And frankly, you won’t have seen this much cleavage on display since David Hasselhoff threw a Baywatch staff party and said fold your arms and bend over, with scores of gravity defying chests jutting proudly out like Venetian balconies. Everyone – in their pursuit of a four-hour slice of gluttony – has become, if just for a moment, one of the beautiful people.
But perhaps the funniest, the most contrary, the most ludicrous thing about the whole of brunch is how much of a cultural contradiction it is. These humongous hootenannies are perfectly legal in Dubai, and this is despite there being more haram going on than at a quranic book burning run by un-kosher, gambling pigs with Israeli passports. There are casual hook-ups and promiscuity; there is enough flesh on display to make a rap video look a Disney film; there is pork devoured by the truckload; there is unchecked gourmandising and debauchery, and finally vats of alcohol are voraciously consumed on the level of a Viking stag party. It is as if there has been a split in the Sharia space-time continuum, a black hole opening up and revealing the dimensional opposite to civilised local behaviour – playing out in a piece of gloriously gaudy intergalactic irony.
If you only do one more thing in your life then make it your holy grail to visit a Dubai brunch, because there is really nothing else like it anywhere. Live, if only for three and a half hours, as if you are the spoilt love-child of Zeus and Angelina Jolie living out the fantasies that your parent’s had forbidden. Stuff a lobster down your throat and wash it down with a bucket of champagne, fill your face with chocolate fondants and send them off with a Jaeger-bomb, for this is your moment, your time to take your place on the crumbling ruins of inhibition, moderation and saintliness.
In the words of Alan Partridge: let’s be appalling.