Dubai always leaves me scratching my head. The architecture is extraordinary; amazing feats of design, mind-boggling scale and bewildering ambition. The ruler of Dubai wonders who invented the word impossible, as I read flicking through a book of his thoughts. You whizz down the seven-lane highway (or sit stationary according to the direction and time of day) from hotel with pool and palm trees planted on top of a car park, to an office skyscraper. There are cities within the city. Each one heralding what it is named after; festival or media for example.
Supermarkets sell every ingredient from every corner of the planet. Ex-pat Westerners carouse in bars across the city on any kind of wine or spirit they can conjure.
People come to see if they can make their fortune in a place that come July is too hot to go outside so you are cocooned in vast malls where every brand of clothing nestles with every type of fast food brand.
Rock stars flock here to perform - it was Eric Clapton this week - writers to sell books. The latter being The Emirates Festival of Literature, this year attended by the likes of Jeremy Paxman, Joanne Harris, Nicholas Evans, Darcey Bussell, Richard and Judy, oh, and me.
Then adjacent to the excess are all those contradictions. You can't legally buy alcohol from a liquor store without a licence, and your licence allows you to purchase an amount of booze dependent on your income. You can't share a house with a member of the opposite sex, unless he or she is your wife.
The image of a pig on my book, A History of Food in 100 Recipes, had to be covered with a sticker of an apple. School children are banned from reading Harry Potter, I met a teacher who was reprimanded and given a final warning after an English homework test included the word beer.
Buildings and posters show the image of the ruler of Dubai and whenever he is mentioned in the local press it must be with his full title: His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Each day a story features him visiting some part of Dubai which supports his vision for growth and at which he - supported by his dish-dash wearing cohort of royals - expresses his satisfaction.
As for restaurants, there is always somewhere new and smart, always in a mall or linked to a flash hotel. You can buy alcohol here, but not in smaller establishments, without links to hotels.. So in the main districts there are no Polpos, no neighbourhood curry houses where you can get a beer or a glass of wine.
And so, especially with the Lit Fest up and running, you ask yourself what culture there is in this city. Can you just foist culture on a place that has just risen from the sand.
Well many - but not Jeremy Paxman - would argue yes. There are art galleries, lots of book shops, plenty of restaurants.
I was wondering this as I had dinner at La Serre, a bistro in downtown Dubai. Pure and wood-painted-white in feel with a vast menu of sharing dishes.
It's supposed to evoke a Parisian bistro. But can you really create an authentic place within steel, rather than Parisian brick?
I suppose that every new restaurant in London is a construct, aping this or that culture. Holborn Dining is no more a fabrication that anything here, let's face it.
The menu at La Serre - written first in French, and advertising a large splash of Mediterranean flavour - offered up a tomato, goat's cheese and hazelnut starter. It was staggeringly good. So simple, but the tomatoes were bursting with sweetness. Someone here has their hands on a good supplier.
There was a Yellowtail tuna carpaccio too. Nothing is sustainable here, so don't ask. (I was vexed by the idea of Loch Fyne scallops on the menu, worrying that that was surely a journey too long for a little scallop). But the tuna was light and tasty.
I had a grilled veal chop. It was nicely cooked. Soft inside, charred on the outside, but there was little flavour. Unlike the devil of a pudding in the guise of warm chocolate mousse, which was a heavenly chocolatey experience. I didn't know you could warm up mousse. You can.
There is also an outpost of The Ivy in Dubai. It shelters in the mall of the Jumeirah Emirates Towers. Unlike its Covent Garden brother, this far-flung sister does not teem with actors, luvvies and media types. Actually on my visit it teemed with very few of anybody.
But it didn't really matter. A man on a sax blew out Careless Whisper, Besame Mucho and more to a backing track and we thought it would be amusing to try out some Ivy classics for a taste of home.
The cheese soufflé was unremarkable, not quite cheesey or light enough and slodged with tart tomato sauce. Macaroni cheese was not like mother - or indeed school - would quite make it; a little unseasoned, again not quite cheesey enough.
But the cottage pie was a happy example of the dish, a rounded slice with delicious green beans, not so good cauliflower cheese (yup, not cheesey enough). And the apple crumble was as good as any I have eaten. Sweet, crunchy topping, lovely reddish apples, perfect crème anglaise.
But even better were manager Chris's cocktails. His Sanguinello Amarezza - with campari, limoncello (at last I've discovered something to do with that tall over-sweetened bottle), blood orange and muddled kumquat was every bit as good as the aperitivo you get in London's Quo Vadis.
And his cappuccino martini was filthy, in a very good, sweet, coffee-bean, Bailey's
frothy way. It's stuff like that (and the cheap and plentiful taxis) and the warm nights and glinting extraordinary towers you gaze up at on leaving that makes you like Dubai and helps you deal with those pesky contradictions...