Global village

Global village
Alfresco dining at Al Shami restaurant in Deira, Dubai, Photo Credit: Neeraj Sharma
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There's a world of dining options in Dubai

Amit Dixit
July 03 , 2014
16 Min Read

The range is frightening. From shawarma rolls swiftly thrown together by streetside stalls to experiences like the one offered by Al Mahara, the seafood restaurant at the Burj Al Arab hotel, where your gustatory quest begins with a three-minute simulated submarine voyage, and, somewhere in between, the taut efficiency of the Japanese noodle house and the haze of the Munich brewery, Dubai serves up the world on a plate. No, it is the world, if you'll believe them. In a nod to this somewhat inflated self-perception, the powers-that-be are now building The World, a manmade archipelago of 300 islands, in the shape of the world map. In another place it would be a poor joke. In Dubai, it's chillingly real.

 

Naïvely enough, I set out to eat the Arabic food on offer in Dubai. I was soon waylaid. In a matter of decades, Dubai has morphed from fishing village to global village, and only 20 percent of the population are local Arabs these days. So Arabic food is hardly representative of Dubai's edgy cosmopolitanism.

 

Nevertheless, the Arab feast was first. We made for the Al Shami Restaurant in Deira, Dubai's atmospheric if creaking old quarter. Al Shami turned out to be a crowd-puller that exudes the cosy informality of a neighbourhood joint. Guests can recline in air-conditioned comfort in the restaurant proper or opt for one of the tables that are set out each evening. They can even, if they so choose, park their vehicle on the kerb and waiters will come rushing to take the order. Although April was upon us, it was still a cool night; in the event we chose alfresco.

 

I was blessed with sporting dinner companions — a species in short supply to food writers these days — and we ordered well. Succulent grilled meats tend to dominate the Arab table. Our mixed grill platter of tikka, kabab, sheesh, arayis and reesh was demolished in no time. Grilled hammour, freshly caught from the Persian Gulf, followed. The lamb 'chomps' (the real thing finally, not billy-goat dressed as lamb) were certainly nice, the grilled pigeon a pleasing novelty. A number of vegetarian sides balanced the meal — falafel and hammous, tabouleh and fattoush, mutabal (the baba ghanouj variant of eggplant puree), labneh with zaatar, vine leaves in oil...all Arab staples which we mopped up with some fluffy pita bread. For the sweet-toothed, there was muhalabian (kheer) and 'custured'. I superiorly nursed my avocado juice.

 

That Arab food has nomadic origins is readily apparent. Rough cuts of meat hastily thrown upon an open fire quickly rustled up at day's end, spiced simply with whatever's at hand, the few vegetables grilled and mashed into rustic dips. It is a fair thesis that this same spirit informs the Arab palate to this day, which they bring to the scores of international cuisines now thriving here.

 

I mulled over all this the next morning while puffing contentedly on an orange shisha at the Larosa Café, little realising that I was being had for a sucker. This is a bit of a racket in Dubai. The bowls of sweets and nuts and bottle of mineral water that are so generously, and gratuitously, placed on your table are, alas, chargeable. The cost totted up to double the price of the shisha. After throwing in a service charge (12 percent), I was poorer by 104 dirhams.

 

The humble Iranian meal of chelow kebab (Iran's national dish, fragrant rice — often infused with saffron — topped with succulent strips of kabab) and thick strawberry juice that I had at Al Borz's outlet in the Mall of the Emirates a little later was rather more comforting. That evening, as I rounded off my Turkish meal at the Taj's Topkapi restaurant with some lamb kofta, I couldn't help noticing the close kinship among Turkish, Iranian and the ubiquitous Lebanese foods. Barring subtle variations, these are basically the same cuisine. If I ate another kabab I'd be within kissing distance of our own North West Frontier. And I was, actually, but more on that anon.

 

Among Dubai's several expat populations, a sizeable group is made up of Filipinos (of which my charming driver Jonathan Miranda was a sterling representative). And they add their own myriad bits to the melting pot. Evolving over centuries, Filipino food today can boast of many complex flavours, bringing the lessons of Chinese, Indian, Malay, Mexican, Spanish and American cooking to the dinner table. Tagpuan, in the Karama Shopping Centre complex (not far from Ponusamy), is reportedly Dubai's best Filipino restaurant. I went for tanghalian (lunch) the next day.

 

There is a homeyness about Tagpuan, not unlike the little Tibetan joints up in our Dharamsala. The low-ceilinged and small dining area is up a flight of stairs. We are seated on plastic chairs at a table that is anything but imposing. The telly is blaring. Jonathan helps me place the order. The tables fill up, mostly with young Filipinos, by the time our first dish arrives — a giant's portion of bulalo, the simple beef broth that is quintessentially Filipino, its flavour emanating from the massive hunk of bone sitting in the middle. First tentative sip, and I know I'm onto a very good thing. The emphasis at Tagpuan, unlike at some of Dubai's more pretentious and pricey establishments, is neither on décor nor service, but on food and food alone.

 

Silogs are popular Filipino breakfasts, but can be had at any time of day. Meat is their mainstay, served with sinangág (garlic rice) and itlog (egg). The tapsilog (from tapa, Filipino-style beef jerky, inspired by Spanish tapas) I'm having is well chosen. The meat, cured and sliced into bite-sized portions and then fried just so, lulls me into wordless contemplation of the pleasures of flesh. I'm sipping a gelatinous syrup of gulaman with bubbles of sago that I have to suck up with a fat straw. The kare-kare (oxtail and tripe in peanut sauce), accompanied by a sharp prawn sauce, which I ordered on a dare, is remarkably pleasant. Many squid rings and fried prawns later, I have no space for the bangus (milkfish), notoriously bony national symbol of the Philippines. Desserts of cassava cake and leche plan (egg custard) make the great meal perfect. I struggle with an awkward sensation, equal parts pleasure and pain, of knowing that I've had my best meal in Dubai. And that it's over.

 

It was close on the heels of this gastrorgy that I headed for a rendezvous with Asha's, the restaurant owned by playback singer Asha Bhosle in the swank 'Pyramids' of the Egyptian-themed Wafi City mall. Which could not have been timed more badly — while my chest swelled with pride at this Indian restaurant assuming pride of place in Dubai's culinary firmament, I was stuffed to the gills. So Asha's offerings remain untested. Here's the dope, however: Asha Bhosle hasn't merely lent her celebrity to this upmarket establishment, she's gotten down and dirty in the kitchens and created its signature dishes. The quirky menu includes Mai's prawn curry (her vegetarian mother used to make it for her father), Muscat gosht (Asha's recreation of a memorable meat curry she had at a roadside joint in Muscat), Varsha's fish biryani (her daughter's recipe, and the first fish biryani Asha ever had) and Asha's prasad ka halwa. For the rest, it's Frontier food with a contemporary twist, concocted by chef Saleem Qureshi. Asha's also marks the ultimate revenge of Bollywood over Hollywood, even if only in the Dubai food stakes.

 

The Planet Hollywood chain, started with such fanfare and endorsed by stars such as Stallone and Arnie, but which now periodically goes bust somewhere in the world, is in Wafi too, and not far from Asha's. Purveyor of American trash, its menu is graced with dishes such as Bonnie and Clyde's seafood pasta, 'Jaws' fish and chips, 'Titanic' hammour and 'Enemy of the State' BBQ combo. Stereotyping is taken to a new low with 'E.T.' nasi goreng, and no punishment can be too severe for partaking of Britney's banana cheesecake.

 

Just upstairs from Planet Hollywood, Seville's almost inspires culinary respect. The Spanish tapas bar overlooks the charming rooftop gardens of Wafi City. Plaster walls, terracotta flooring and exquisite arches recreate Andalusia in Dubai. The illusion lasts but a moment — then the smart Filipina waitress comes forward while an Indian chef peeks out at the diners.

 

Tapas bar fare: the piquillo peppers stuffed with beef, melon carpaccio with Serrano ham, and giant mushroom with cheese were faultless. The only bother being the rubbery squid rings. I was contemplating tying my hair with one, when the entry of the paella de marisco (seafood paella) banished such thoughts. The slow-cooked paella was rich with clams and mussels, and giant prawns in their shells, the eyes intact and staring plaintively.

 

It was on the next afternoon, a magical, windy, rainy afternoon, that I blew into Wagamama and was seated in under a minute. Brainchild of chef Alan Yau, Wagamama kicked off in London in 1992 to much acclaim. It has spread its tentacles around the globe since. The 'naughty child' (that's what the name means) made an entry into Dubai about four years ago. There seem no signs of its popularity waning yet.

 

 

Wagamama's noodle bars are modelled on Japanese ramen shops. Only they are, er, um, not very Japanese. The use of non-traditional ingredients such as coriander, mint, pak choi and peanuts is commonplace, for instance. Orders are taken on electronic pads and transmitted wirelessly straight to the kitchen so your food is cooked as soon as possible. Dishes are brought to the table in any order as soon as they are ready. Smart gimmick, and certainly speedier than the traffic outside.

 

The duck gyoza (deep-fried duck and leek dumplings) was first to arrive. Before I came to grips with my chopsticks though, the yasai katsu curry was there. Slices of sweet potato, aubergine and butternut squash deep-fried in panko breadcrumbs, in a light curry sauce served with Japanese rice. Not even the inauthentic recreation of a legitimate dish, only cutting-edge fusion. But it had good wok hei and, after a long day's work, that's all that matters. A tall glass of raw juice (of carrot, cucumber, tomato, orange and apple) and I was ready to take on the world. Which meant getting myself a real drink for a change.

 

The Bavarian brewery Hofbrauhaus smartly branched out to this oil-fuelled paradise some years ago. At its outlet at the JW Marriott hotel, it's business as usual. I'm having a draught of German weissbeer, served by a promising gentleman who last worked at the Park Sheraton & Towers, Chennai. The maître d' is Vicky, also from India. Not a dirndl-swinging beermaiden in sight. A bit of a halfway house, but I'm not one to complain as I bury myself in the Bayerische schlachtschüessel: the schweinshaxe (knuckle of pork) quite knocks me out with its amplitude; there's pan-fried blood sausage, meatloaf and pork belly, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut besides. The hoppel poppel (Bavarian farmer's omelette) is an amusing diversion.

 

At the end of it I am like a patient etherised upon a table. (Who's Adnan Sami's dietician, please?) As I rush to catch my flight, departing from what has to be the furthest boarding gate in the terminal, I'm suddenly in the grips of starvation panic. I grab a Dunkin' Donut — no, two, gather the supreme réserve Ethiopian coffee off the shelf, the ruzaiz dates, Syrian figs... Dubai is a giant appetiser that leaves you hungry for more.

 

 

The information

 

American

> Planet Hollywood (Wafi City, Umm Hurair, 3244777): Terrible décor and gloomy interiors but large portions of passable grub. The Friday brunch, with its spread of pancakes, omelettes and desserts, is value.

> Dubai also has a Hard Rock Café (Int 5, Sheik Zayed Rd, 3992888). To be transported to a 1950s American diner, head either to Johnny Rockets (Opp. Jumeirah Centre, Jumeira, 3447859) or Oscar's (Mall of the Emirates, 3410900).

 

Arab

> Al Shami Restaurant (Al Muraqabat Street, Deira, 2695558): With an ample menu, alfresco dining and attentive waitstaff, here's where you should head for your Arab staples.

> Automatic (multiple locations: Beach Centre, Jumeira, 3494888; Al Riqqa St, 2277824, and many more): This popular chain has been dishing out excellent Arabic food for the last 25 years. Expect a vast mezze range, generous plates of salad, and main courses of grilled meat, fish and kebabs.

> Al Iwan (Burj Al Arab hotel, 3017777): For truly decadent dining, few establishments can beat this restaurant inside one of the fanciest hotels in the world. Shish taouk and hammour are specialities. Don't let all the gold blind you though.

> Al Hadheerah (Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa, 8326699): For a memorable outdoors meal, head out into the dunes. Arabian courtyard setting, rustic furniture and throw rugs. The Arabic buffet comprises live cooking stations, spit roasts, hot and cold mezze. Entertainment ranges from falconry to belly dancing.

 

Filipino

> Tagpuan (Karama Shopping Centre, 3373959): The name means 'meeting place' in Tagalog, and that's what this unpretentious establishment is for young Filipinos. Don't let the small tables and casual atmosphere prejudice you; this is food for the soul.

 

German 

> Der Keller (The Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Umm Suqeim, 4068181): Go before sundown for the lovely seaview. Despite the high prices, this is one of the most popular German restaurants in town.

> Hofbrauhaus (JW Marriott Hotel, Deira, 2624444): For sauerkraut and strudel and the finest German beer on tap. Prepare to be greeted by Indian waitstaff in Bavarian garb.

 

Indian Subcontinent

> Asha's (Pyramids, Wafi City, 3244100): This upmarket restaurant offers specialities from Asha Bhosle's own kitchen.

> Handi (Taj Palace Hotel, Deira, 2232222): This winner of a Time Out food award serves North Indian.

> Karachi Darbar (Karama, 3347272, and other locations): Popular unpretentious eatery, standard Pakistani fare.

> Ravi's (near Satwa R/A, Satwa, 3315353): Popular with Western expats, this 24-hr diner is where you should head for Pakistani curries and biryani. For the more adventurous, there's fried brains. 

 

Persian

> Al Borz (Al Durrah Tower, Trade Centre 1, 3318777, branch at Mall of the Emirates): One of Tehran's best kebab houses has set up shop in Dubai. The moderately priced lunch buffet is an excellent introduction to Iranian cuisine.

 

Spanish

> Seville's (Wafi City, Umm Hurair, 3247300): This Spanish joint does an impressive range of tapas. All to be washed down with some sangria.

 

Japanese

> Wagamama (Hotel Crowne Plaza, Trade Centre 1, 3056060): Just the place for a quick slurp of noodle soup. Of course, for a more leisurely meal, order one dish at a time. Seating on long benches makes for a convivial atmosphere.

 

Russian

> Troyka (Ascot Hotel, Bur Dubai, 3520900): You cannot discount the ample spread of red caviar, fish liver salads, meat platters and unlimited drinks, but what really draws the diners here are the Russian dancing girls. There's a live band each night at 10.30pm, while the Vegas-style cabaret begins at 11.30pm.

dinner cruises

Choose your cruise with care, or like me you'll end up eating paneer tikka and dal makhni. You should be safe with Bateaux Dubai (3371919, www.bateauxdubai.com). This luxurious cruise offers four-course gourmet meals and panoramic views.

And just to whet your appetite, these are some of the other cuisines on offer in Dubailand: Chinese, Cuban, French, Far Eastern, Italian, Korean, Latin American, Mediterranean, Moroccan, Polynesian, Singaporean, Sri Lankan, Thai and Vietnamese.

 

Need to know

> Many of Dubai's best restaurants are located in hotels (as this allows them to serve alcohol). This does not necessarily make them more expensive than standalone eateries. Budget at least 100 dirhams per person for a reasonable meal (1dirham = Rs 11.35). Expect to pay a 10 percent municipality tax and a 10-15 percent service charge.

> Shorts, T-shirts and floaters are frowned upon, particularly inside hotels. Smart casual and national dress is safe.

> Friday Brunch is a Dubai institution. Out & About, a complimentary monthly guide to the UAE, should have you up to date on the latest brunch deals, and much more. The serious food enthusiast can pick up Posh Nosh: Cheap Eats and Star Bars (75dhs), a smart, eccentric and lavishly photographed guide to Dubai's best eating (and drinking) establishments. The Good Food Guide (10dhs) is reliable too.

 



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