Whenever I arrive in Dubai there are a few people I call. First is my mother, from the plane. That call is always a bit of a letdown because I feel like I should be exclaiming, "Yes! I've arrived! I'm here, it's wonderful, and I love it!" But instead I'm in the airplane aisle, getting hit in the head by suitcases falling out of overhead bins and elbowed by someone who's convinced that edging in front of me will somehow make the line move faster, and so I end up mumbling one-word sentences: "Hi. Yes. Not bad. No, too noisy. Middle seat. Chicken. Okiloveyoutoo. Bye."
And then, after getting home and washing the economy cabin smell out of my hair, I call Arva, the woman is who is trying to change the Food World in Dubai
. When I called her this time, she asked me if I was OK with meeting on the Old Dubai side of town, in Mirdif. Getting an invite from Arva to meet in Old Dubai is an honor, because Old Dubai is Arva's Domain. It's like if Carrie gave you a tour of the City, if Frodo offered to show you around the Shire, or if the Godfather took you around Sicily. Pick your metaphor.
I met Arva at the metro station, where she was waiting with her car, and we started driving to uptown Mirdif. It took us a while to get there, but eventually we arrived at a little nondescript shopping complex. She led me through labyrinthine alleyways and stopped in front of a large building with a sign that read: Cafe Retro.
Inside it was quiet. There were only two other groups in the cafe and they looked at us in a way that seemed both surprised and territorial, as if their secret hiding spot had been found out. The baristas were in a meditative state behind the bar, grinding and brewing coffee surrounded by shelves holding every single type of coffee pot you could imagine. Adjacent to the cafe was a glass room, carpeted with a mosaic of rugs and furnished with antique tables and leather sofas, kept in perfect condition by the owner. "This place isn't about publicity," Arva said. "It's about passion."
We ordered a cappuccino and camel milk latte, each served with a mini camel milk espresso cookie. Camel milk has wildly variable taste, especially in the UAE where each camel is treated with tremendous care. What a camel eats affects how the milk tastes. The camel that provided me with my latte probably had a high salt diet (they eat it by the handfuls
) and ate a lot of leafy greens (I could taste the iron).
Eventually the manager came out to greet us. Rachid hails from Morocco and manages Cafe Retro under Easternmen & Co, a coffee distribution company. But that's not how he explained it. For Rachid, Cafe Retro is a showroom, a training room, a place where coffee lives out a life from humble green bean beginnings to camel milk latte ends.
There is an enormous roasting room in the back where employees and visitors are trained on the art of coffee roasting
. The main room is a museum of specialty coffee machines with Victoria Arduino, Nuova Simonelli, Bezzera, and Wega from Italy, Reneka from France, and Device Style from Japan. And the bar is an experimentation in coffee cup accompaniments: flaky croissants, crumbly Victoria cake, and camel milk-espresso cookies.
I eventually realized that Arva, in bringing me here, was not just showing me around Old Dubai. She was sharing a secret, a gem she had discovered herself. This wasn't just Carrie showing me around the City, it was Carrie giving me a pair of Manolos. Or Frodo telling me about a ring. Or the Godfather inviting me to his daughter's wedding. Take your pick.
Cafe Retro, Easternmen & Co.
10 Block, Al Barjeel Oasis Complex
+971 (0)4 2847433