Bar review: The Belgian Café at the InterContinental Hotel – Doha, Qatar.
There is nothing quite as depressing in a world of business travel that is already filled with enough morale-sapping routine as solitary drinking in a hotel bar. Eating alone in a good restaurant can often be equally soul-destroying but good food will ultimately always trump bad beer. For every intensely fleeting Lost In Translation encounter or disastrously revelatory but supremely entertaining end of night team-bonding diversion to the hotel bar spirits shelf, there are hundreds upon hundreds of bad beers served by disgruntled and disinterested bartender-cum-night-porters in headache-inducing halogen brightness at 1am. The patently ridiculous decision-making process that repeatedly leads to the same situation cannot even be questioned, it just happens.
In the almost bone dry Sharia-governed Middle East, however, and in the small but ridiculously wealthy Gulf state of Qatar in particular, hotel bars are often the only place the passing visitor can while away an evening in the company of the cause of – and solution to – all of life’s problems. Only in this part of the world will an excited exclamation of “Let’s go to the Marriott this evening!” provoke unbridled enthusiasm. Thus in Qatar the hotel bar evolves from last chance saloon to only saloon, and the contest rages fiercely between 4 and 5 star hotels to entice the infidel with a variety of tackily-themed offerings: tiki bars, jazz clubs, swanky New York cocktail lounges or pseudo-speakeasies all vie for the foreign dollar.
For the hop lover not on the lookout for Polynesian volcano cocktails or a Manhattan (kicking the vermouth on the side), however, life is not so peachy. Kingfisher, Carlsberg, Heineken, San Miguel and *** shudder *** Budweiser cover 99% of the beers available in the hotel bars. No, for the discerning beer enthusiast, there is only one destination: The Belgian Café at the InterContinental in Katara (the new InterContinental, for taxi drivers).
Getting over the initial shock of going into a Belgian bar via a hotel lobby with marble flooring and crystal chandeliers worth more than the GDP of North Wales (what next, concierge and valet parking at The Dubliner?), I suffer another, more concerning, setback when I see the 5 draft offerings upon entering the bar: Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, Leffe Blonde and Leffe Brune. Whilst I had not been expecting free samples of Westvleteren XII served in Ming Dynasty bowls balancing on the naked bosom of May 2015’s Playgirl of the month, a little more variety may have been nice.
I reality-check myself swiftly with a well-deserved autoslap. Leffe Brune or Budweiser, douchebag? Exactly. On to the beer list, or ‘Artisan beers’ as they are advertised: Maredsous 6 and 8; Chimay Bleue and Rouge; the formerly novel but now mildly irritating pink elephants of Delirium are present, as is the ever dependable Kwak in its correct wooden stand; Duvel, La Chouffe and Tripel Karmeliet – the Huey, Dewey and Louie of the Belgian beer world sit side by side in the fridge; and bizarrely no fewer than 5 different varieties of Floris fruit beers, as well as a witbier. All in all, unlikely to be the beers one would select in a cosy wooden-panelled cellar in Ghent, when presented with a telephone book of a beer menu. But here, in the dusty dry desert, with only conglomerate gnat’s urine as alternative, it will do very nicely, dankuwel.
In this context, and having made peace with my own snobbery, it is an absolute delight to get reacquainted with the freshness of a Tripel Karmeliet, a childish joy to play with a Kwak again and even a primal savagery to raise a pint chalice of Leffe Brune aloft, trophy-like, in genuine appreciation of the hard endeavours of the many orders of Belgian monks who have unwittingly saved many a thirsty visitor to Qatar. Amen.
At £8 a pint, and given exorbitant import duties, the draft beer is fairly priced. The 330ml bottles are a touch unattractive at £10, however, with the Delirium even higher at £13. Entering the realm of la-la pricing, Jacob’s Creek wine will set the thirsty punter back an eye-watering £55 a bottle. I could pretentiously dissect the pseudo-Belgian food menu, but I should punt my own backside over the water and into Bahrain for ordering a meat and cheese platter IN A COUNTRY WHERE PORK IS ILLEGAL.
On a Saturday night – the Qatari weekday equivalent of a Western Sunday – the bar is busy but not overcrowded. Four televisions show Premier League football, but without the sound. There is just the right volume of hubbub, enough to convince the solo traveller to have one final fling with a Duvel. Sadly the quite spectacular musical background of obscure 1980s Now compilation rarities is not afforded the importance or respect it deserves, but I can hear it and that is all that matters.
Bar score: 16/20 – in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. The blind drunk, however, will be quickly sentenced to 100 lashes and instant deportation. If you want good beer in Doha, by all means create the world’s first craft brewery using sand and camel hops. But coming to the Belgian Café is the simpler alternative.