We’re in a large box. It rocks slightly whenever something heavy moves past at speed, as if hit by invisible waves. We could’ve been stowaways on the high seas, except that no stowaway is served a four-course dinner, and we are surrounded by sand, not water. One of the big surprises of the Dubai Food Festival—in a city of surprises—is this pop-up restaurant, a lavish setting created inside a shipping container set mere yards from the manic traffic of Sheikh Zayed Road.
For the third year, two weeks that are an ode to edibles have followed the emirate’s flagship tourism event, its wildly popular shopping festival. Aside from extending the festival season, it serves to showcase what might be described as the ‘Dubai food scene’. Evolving for a while now, this scene has become a truly multi-layered experience, thanks to the many combinations of ambience, cuisine and price. You could eat your way around here for a year and never get bored.
The shipping container that, well, contains us, seated at a long table on elegant white chairs, is a festival novelty. For these two weeks, the makeshift restaurant presents a worthy new name on the city’s dining map. We’re being introduced to Caribbean food with a twist, a slap-up meal presented by Ting Irie, which opened in April on Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard. There’s lobster, pulled Jamaican oxtail on a steamed cocobun, lovely rice with eggs and a scooped-out pineapple stuffed with crisp vegetables. Each course is paired with a specially concocted drink, but my vote goes to the simplest one: the refreshing water of a neatly sculpted green coconut, full of succulent ‘meat’ that I try to capture with a fork. This could have been a beach instead of a strip of sand by a highway.
The crowded Kite Beach sees action, too, during the fest. The Etisalat Beach Canteen, a temporary hub (built with, yes, shipping containers) offers a sampler of fun food available around the city, many of them small home-grown brands with a loyal following among the denizens, giving a fresh coat of gloss to that clichéd phrase “melting pot”. The cheese and Oman chips sushi at Moshi is love at first bite. Ultra-fluffy dough, a cross between flatbread and pizza dough, topped by wholesome tidbits is the speciality of Pinza! We stop by at Karak House for a quick cuppa and collect an interesting piece of trivia: Dubai loves karak chai, the strong, sweet, milky tea that’s the staple of roadside eateries in India.
A bell rings again at Bombay Brasserie in the Taj Dubai, where we arrive in delicious anticipation of a ‘mercy of the chef’ lunch. Tiny portions of much-loved Indian street nosh—gol gappa and tamarind water, papri chaat and kathi rolls—are followed by brasserie classics like kababs and tikkas. This is wonderful comfort food. The sight of it being rustled up in the open kitchen, as we sit on bar stools along the counter, makes us want to surrender to such mercy every day.
Yet another kind of ‘Indian experience’ is to be had at the Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar’s creation Rang Mahal, a fine dining restaurant at the JW Marriott Marquis, Business Bay. The first impression is overwhelming. Massive pillars of metal, a supersized woman gazing down at guests from a giant mural and floor-to-ceiling panels of orange-yellow light bring home the bigness of India. The dishes are both familiar and inventive—while we know the meen moilee as a spicy, coconutty curry with pieces of fish dunked in it, here the sea bass is presented as a steak and the curry is a light blend of turmeric and coconut, with mustard-tempered potatoes.
While the Indian influence here is strong, the emirate covers the full spectrum of international cuisines. Peruvian, which is enjoying an ‘it’ moment around the world, is a happy discovery. At the stunningly colourful Garden, also part of the Marquis, we sup on a memorable quinoa salad and the musically named carpassion tiradito (a salmon and passion fruit reduction). Positano, the Italian restaurant in the Marquis, and the hotel’s boutique steakhouse Prime68 draw regulars for their artisanal treatment of these universally popular foods. The Prime dessert platter features a New York cheesecake and espresso martini of sublime quality.
Having scored a lot of firsts in the hospitality sector—the world’s first Armani Hotel, for example—the emirate shows no signs of slowing down. Taste of Italy by Heinz Beck is a unique venture, the first casual dining gourmet restaurant created by the Michelin-starred chef. A German who adopted Italy as his country, Beck has fine dining restaurants in Europe and Japan and one in Dubai itself. With Taste of Italy, on Al Wasl Road, he has put his signature to the heart-warming, home-cooked food for which this European nation is renowned.
Barely a kilometre down the same road is Boxpark, a newish snack-and-shop high street area designed with brightly painted shipping containers (they do get used a lot in this city). It’s modelled on, but much prettier than, the Boxpark pop-up market in Shoreditch, the hipster part of London. This is an energising space without any frenetic activity, a nice spot for walking enthusiasts to punctuate their stroll with a coffee or two.
One question that’s on everyone’s mind when discussing dining in Dubai is: where are the Emirati restaurants? Well, the cuisine is finally coming out of family kitchens and finding its own niche.
In the middle of breakneck modernisation, the city has managed to protect its heritage, as one can see in the beautifully preserved Al Bastakiya quarters in Bur Dubai. A similar ambience is recreated by Al Fanar in Festival City. Its theme is ‘Dubai of the Fifties’, a small town on the Gulf shore inhabited by fisherfolk and pearl traders. It does more than just serve authentic Emirati dishes; it transports guests to the old days with its life-size vignettes and majlis-style seating.
The Jumeirah area has a small cluster of Emirati restaurants, all between one and three years old. Al Barza, near the Mercato Mall, presents contemporary Emirati food in plush surroundings, while Bait 1971 is part of a mixed-crowd, three-storey hangout facing Jumeirah Beach, affording great views of the Arabian Sea. Seven Sands is a fine dining space, elegant and based on a novel idea: highlighting the sub-cuisines of the seven emirates.
A fantastic aspect of the Dubai food scene is the additional entertainment. At Qbara, great though the food is, it doesn’t get our undivided attention—because an incredible trick of light appears to make an entire wall move; it’s nearly impossible to look away. The vintage timber wall is a work of art by itself, and the 3D effect of the illumination is hypnotising.
Our trip ends with a flourish at Pacha Ibiza, the nightclub at Madinat Jumeirah, a luxury resort complex inspired by an old Arabian town. The previous day, we sat here by the water in the afternoon, relishing truffle gnocchi and Niçoise salad at Frioul, a posh French bistro. The desserts here leave one with an unforgiveable greed for more.
The ‘town’ has its own waterways, where a peaceful abra ride comes with the possibility of turtle sighting. This is life closer to nature, as it was for the tribes before the boats and camels gave way to SUVs.
Pacha Ibiza, on the other hand, is the epitome of modern Dubai: achingly glamorous. The vast rooftop bar is straight out of Europe in décor, clientele, mood and music. Downstairs is the dinner show, costumed acrobatics paired with a sumptuous dinner. The strength and fluidity of the artistes, performing a hybrid of dance and gymnastics, are unreal—every leap and bend and swing pushes the boundaries of what the human body is capable of. It’s an extravagant evening, a fitting finale to our stay in a charged-up city.
Dubai International Airport is connected to Delhi and Mumbai by several daily flights, prices starting from Ã¢?¹20,000 on Emirates and Ã¢?¹17,000 on SpiceJet from Delhi; and Ã¢?¹22,000 on Emirates and Ã¢?¹16,700 on Air India Express from Mumbai.
Visas & Currency
The Dubai visa is sent by email, not stamped on the passport. The fees: Ã¢?¹6,300 for a regular tourist visa and Ã¢?¹4,500 for a short-stay (96 hours) visa. More details available at dubaivisa. net. The local currency is Emirati Dirham. AED (or Dh) 1 = Ã¢?¹18 (approx.)
Where to Stay
The cost of staying in Dubai can vary drastically depending on the season—summer, especially during Ramadan, often sees deep discounts. Many upscale business and leisure hotels are located along Sheikh Zayed Road, while Jumeirah has its fair share of luxury hotels, including the near-mythical Burj Al Arab (Dh4,085 for a one-bedroom suite; jumeirah.com) and its neighbour Madinat Jumeirah, a three-hotel plus souk complex based on traditional Arab architecture (from Dh1,350 for an Arabian Deluxe room at Jumeirah Al Qasr; jumeirah.com). We stayed at the world’s tallest hotel, the JW Marriott Marquis Business Bay (from Dh950 for a double; marriott.com), which has great views from its 37th floor lounge. The Oberoi Dubai is a star of the downtown area (from Dh950 for a deluxe city view room; oberoihotels.com). Among decent mid-range hotels, the City Max chain (from Dh295 for a double; citymaxhotels.com) has two strategically located properties in Bur Dubai and in Al Barsha, near Mall of the Emirates.
Where to eat
Within the JW Marriott Marquis Business Bay (marriott.com) is a smorgasbord of choices, a total of 14 restaurants, including one of the top prize winners of Dubai, the grand Indian fine dining restaurant Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar; the Peruvian cuisine Garden; the chic Italian Positano; and the cool American steakhouse Prime68. Elsewhere, Qbara (qbara.ae) in Wafi City is an upscale restaurant serving modernised Arab cuisine. For authentic Emirati fare, the best place is Al Fanar (alfanarrestaurant.com). Taste of Italy by Heinz Beck (tasteofitalybyheinzbeck.com) gets you Michelin-star magic without breaking the bank. The laidback cool and healthy menu of Tom & Serg (tomandserg.com) perfectly fits the status of the Al Quoz industrial district as an upcoming food and culture hub. Pacha Ibiza (pacha.ae), also in Madinat Jumeirah, is for that rocking party night. Ting Irie has the distinction of being the first Jamaican-themed restaurant in Dubai (tingirie.com).
What to see and do
An early morning visit to At the Top (tickets from Dh125; tickets.atthetop.ae), the observation deck of Burj Khalifa, is highly recommended, to take in the 360-degree views minus the crush of bodies. A tour of the Dubai Museum (tickets Dh3; dubaiculture.gov.ae) and the neighbouring heritage quarters of Al Bastakiya (entry free) complete the city experience. For trips outside the city, Arabian Adventures (arabian-adventures.com) has several packages. To round off a culinary holiday, we put on hat and apron at the Scafa culinary school (scafa.ae) and did our best to make something mouthwatering out of a humble vegetable. MasterChef India winner Nikita Gandhi and Chef Luther from Scafa held our hands, guiding our wobbly attempts to get a good result out of Nikita’s original recipe. The session was a success, if I do say so myself; eating our self-made meal at the Scafa dining room was a high point of the Dubai Food Festival.