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Dubai for the foodie

September 03, 2023
Next level chaat at Bab Al Khair.


yes rolled, and brows were raised when news hit the town that Michelin had come to Dubai for its inaugural guide to city restaurants. “Oh, more petrol dollars are being thrown to gain international acceptance!” Such cynicism is not unexpected. The oil-rich Gulf nations have long been known to open their coffers to vanity investments ranging from football clubs to Harrods, Gucci and Aston Martin. Adding a few Michelin stars to their backyard is the logical next step.

To be recognised as a global hub, a city must offer the widest gastronomic range.

Whilst modern megapolises jostle to be crowned as the capital of global culinary delights, one is often led to choose between New York, Paris and London. In the last decade, Dubai has moved forward, leaps and bounds, to claim a seat at the table of international cities that offer a wide range of international cuisine.

At first, this claim may seem odd; total population of the UAE is 9 million, of which the locals are only 1.5 million. What indigenous offering could such a country have? But this diversity, this ability to absorb talent from all over the world, is why Dubai, with a relatively small population of three million, is home to food options that delight connoisseurs worldwide.

I have been a resident of Dubai for over ten years now. I have seen a complete transformation in options available for an evening (or an afternoon) out.

To cater to the global jet set, restaurants that thrill the average Joe do not cut the mustard – this crowd private-jets from London to Monaco to Ibiza. Now, Dubai sits firmly in their itinerary. A very particular set of restaurants is required to cater to their tastes. Here, money is not a consideration. In addition to delectable taste, the location has to be a place to see and be seen. It should feature in celebrities’ Instagram posts. Why else would a place such as Subliminal Dubai exist at $1,500 per guest? There is a reason why names such as Zuma, Le Petit Maison, Cipriani’s, Nusret, Nobu et al are present in all top locations.

Nihari, a BnB speciality.

Over the last decade, the Financial Centre (DIFC) area has emerged as the epicentre of all things chic and exclusive. Zuma was the first brand to move to Dubai over a decade ago. Its stupendous success - tables were impossible to find even on a weekday - opened the floodgates to other names. It is impossible to turn a corner in the DIFC and not stumble into another ultra-chic eatery. Despite many such options, getting a table in a busy season is well-nigh a struggle. And the busy season is getting longer and longer.

It is hard to pin a ‘favourite’ badge amongst such joints, but I will point out places where I have had pleasant experiences. For Asian fusion, in addition to Zuma, one could not go wrong with Roka and Clap. To add a Peruvian twist, Coya is the place to try. If views are what you seek, then, in addition to Clap, Sushi Samba offers a majestic view over the Palm. For Italian; Cipriani’s. Il Borro and Scalini’s are the places to visit. Shanghai Me and Hutong represent the very best in Chinese cuisine. A personal favourite of mine is Gaia, with its innovative Greek menu and delightful desserts. The list is merely touching the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’; new openings are announced every few weeks.

Smoked brisket at the Big T.

I will weigh in with my global foodie creds (even if I say so myself) to draw a line in the sand and say: your list of global food hubs is incomplete if Dubai doesn’t feature in it.

But food is not just for the jet-set.

Many aficionados seek pleasure in hole-in-the-wall joints in dark alleys with rickety furniture and surly waiters. The objective is to get that authentic taste unaffected by the glamour of celebrity chefs and beautiful guests.

So, how does Dubai fare in this domain?

Ask no more, as I will put this question to rest. With a large South Asian population, most of whom are below-average earners, Dubai is able to match their demands for an authentic taste of the homeland. Ravi has been rated the number one Pakistani restaurant by none other than the Lonely Planet. Specialists abound, such as Wakha, Charsi Tikka, Saravna Bhavan, Haldiram’s, Student Biryani and Bundu Khan, to name but a few. My favourite experience is having desi nashta with friends on weekends, and BnB remains a solid choice. For a more chat-pata palate, I recommend a short drive to Sharjah for sublime chaat at Bab al Khair or bong paye at Al Bostan.

Nihari, a BnB speciality.

Let’s not stop at desi options; Al Ostadi has been offering world-class Iranian fare for over 40 years in colourful surroundings. Mado, the popular Istanbul chain, has a presence here. For the Levant experience, Falamanki, Aroos Damascus and Mamésh are the best of the breed. If you want to push the envelope, an evening at Zagol (Ethiopian, an acquired taste), eponymously named Bosnia House or Dampa Seafood, for a boodle-fight menu from the Philippines could be worth an effort.

For those late-night drives with friends where cuisine type is less of an issue than a ready availability, Dubai has a plethora of corner snack bar chains. They remain open till late, in many cases 24 hours. Menus are a wide choice ranging from samosas to chop suey to go with your karak chai. Eat & Drink and Filli are popular among such destinations.

The evolution of the food scene in Dubai has been truly remarkable. We even have Dubai food tours, which are growing in popularity. Parts of old Dubai have been converted from traditional Emirati homes to a local cultural experience described via local food. Al Fahidi district is a recommended visit.

Black croissant breakfast.

Whilst the Puritans will pooh-pooh Dubai scene as an upstart, I will weigh in with my global foodie creds (even if I say so myself) to draw a line in the sand and say: your list of global food hubs is incomplete if Dubai doesn’t feature on it. I will add that Abu Dhabi, Doha and Riyadh are also moving fast in the same direction.

I will close with a eulogy for a special place: Pyongyang Okryu-gwan. Though now closed, it was one of the very few North Korean government-owned restaurants worldwide. I went there with my South Korean friends, who confirmed that the food was exceptional. In addition, the waiters, supposedly highly qualified civil servants (read: spies), performed musical set pieces between meals. It was delightfully located in a nondescript street with a decidedly kitsch décor that only added to the mystique. I don’t know why it was closed down, but it was a truly unique offering in the glittering array of Dubai’s gastronomical delights.

Where else could one find such an eclectic offering but Dubai?

The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai. He tweets travelutionary1