Smart. Sophisticated. Sensuous… La Petite Maison is all of these things, and has been since it was shipped onto these shores from its birthplace in Nice, five years ago. For 363 days a year (they get New Year’s Day and the one after the annual staff party off) it serves up an array of Dubai’s finest food. It is, frankly, a culinary icon. At least, it was until about a quarter to six, when I wandered in the door.
Full disclosure: I have eaten in LPM many times. Often accompanied by a lady in an LBD. (Quit with the LOL-ing at the back.) I know its layout, staff and menu like the back of my hand. So when I was asked to try out being a waiter for the evening, it seemed like a breeze – a chance to peek behind the curtain like in The Wizard of Oz. But with fewer flying monkeys. And a lot more in the way of burrata.
Our briefing starts at 6.45pm sharp, and is not unlike the ones you see in cop movies, the team assembled in front of the boss, Emmanuel, the head of guest relations, while photos of “targets” (okay, VIPs) are circulated. There’s the politician with the predilection for prawns. The socialite who is very specific as to where she sits. The list – that shall remain anonymous on these pages – is long and impressive and impeccably detailed. Here is a restaurant that knows its clientele, and how to satisfy them effortlessly.
And that effortless thing is fascinating. After the briefing I am introduced to some secret tricks of the LPM trade, like how once a waiter has asked a customer whether they would like still or sparkling water, they subtly rearrange the bottle of oil and salt and pepper on the table into a specific formation – this rearrangement signalling to other staff that the guest has been greeted (which they have to be within 45 seconds of arriving at their table) and asked their water order.
That level of detail is everywhere. And that thing you so often moan about (we know we do), about how waiters so rarely get the ratio right of being available but not intrusive? Let me tell you, that’s an equation that has taken my colleagues this evening a career to finesse. Me? I just sort of shuffle around, like a nervy guy on the edge of a dancefloor, trying to get into the beat and failing.
Famously, the menu at La Petite Maison is what should, in culinary circles, be called a Kylie (though despite my best efforts the phrase as yet hasn’t stuck). Small and perfectly formed, it is a selection of deceptively simple-sounding dishes made from only the very finest ingredients. That’s fine when you’re sitting there looking at it. But when you have to take orders from both the à la carte menu and that particular evening’s specials, the maths soon multiplies.
Each evening at LPM is built around two services, one at 7pm, the other at 9pm. Each of the seven waiters (each of whom looks after 25 covers) has their own “zone”, the restaurant broken down into chunks that should be manageable but that for me could very easily spiral out of control if I let my concentration slip. Think about it: my “zone” has five tables, with a total of 25 people on them. Each of those people order three courses, in each of the two sittings. That’s 150 dishes – plus drinks – that I need to remember. And most days I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.
My instructions are simple – don’t mess up the orders and don’t drop anything – and for the most part, I achieve them. Yes, I get one order confused, the chefs cooking the trout from the specials when it should have been the à la carte iteration – and, yes, I do drop a drink, some sparkling water that thankfully splashes down between, and not on, two very well-heeled ladies and their two handbags. Which each look like they cost more than a car.
I finish my shift at 1am, utterly exhausted by a night of running around and maintaining maximum attentiveness. Make no mistake, this is a tough gig – the average waiter at LPM striding an average of ten to 12 km per day. I walk out the door stiff but happily shattered and liking the restaurant even more than I did before. As Arnie might have had it, I’ll be back.
But I’ll be giving the orders next time, not taking them, if it’s all the same with you.
Prices vary. Open daily noon-3.15pm, 7pm-11.15pm. Gate Village 8, DIFC (04 439 050504 439 0505).
Four to try LPM’s standout dishes
Burrata and tomatoes and basil may sound simple and that’s because, well, it is. But when those three ingredients are of the quality of the ones here – with a little drizzle of top-class olive oil splashed about too – it’s little wonder this is one of La Petitie Maison’s most ordered and adored dishes.
There are many knockout seafood dishes on the LPM’s menu – and our special mention must also go out to the thinly sliced octopus in lemon oil and the yellowtail with pickled peppers – but the crevettes tièdes à l’huile d’olive (hot prawns with olive oil) are at once exquisite and pure comfort food.
Picking a main at La Petite Maison is a precarious business – principally because they are all so strong. Our suggestion? Get a few to share out among you, and start with this sharing plate of duck à l’orange legs, lashed with a sweet and savoury glaze and slow-cooked, but still nice and pink.
Here’s a bold claim we’re prepared to stand by, not least because we have spent years in other restaurants trying and failing to disprove it: LPM has the finest lamb cutlets in the city. They arrive cooked to perfection, all crispy on the outside and unctuous on the inside, and bursting with bright fresh flavour.