Destination Dubai: The making of the world's food capital

Diverse cuisines give us a sneak peek into the cosmopolitan fabric of the Middle East’s most famous city

By Joydeep Sen Gupta; Visuals: Neeraj Murali

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Published: Fri 22 Apr 2022, 9:07 PM

Last updated: Sat 23 Apr 2022, 1:45 PM

Where is the world’s food capital? Well, a couple of decades ago, Paris, undoubtedly, took the cake as the heart of the gastronomic universe.

However, the scale tilted towards London, New York, and Tokyo in the new millennium. Then, a new kid on the block emerged.

Time Out Index dubbed Hong Kong as the most food-crazy city in the world in 2019.

However, that ranking — if there ever is a consensus among connoisseurs and gourmets — is likely to undergo a paradigm shift in a post-Covid world, where Dubai has emerged as the strongest contender for the coveted crown.

The Dubai Municipality's latest data shows that 1,343 new food establishments were launched in the Emirate last year, despite the raging contagion.

Over 20,000 food & beverage (F&B) outlets caters to around 3.49 million residents of the Emirate, of whom over 85 per cent are expatriates belonging to over 200 nationalities.

Dubai is an amazing melting pot and a happy blend of languages, cultures, and cuisines.

Another data point reinforces Dubai’s pre-eminent place under the gastronomic sun. The Emirate’s residents are the third-biggest spenders on F&B worldwide, according to international property consultants, CBRE.

Khaleej Times went on a food trail across the city for a first-hand experience of Dubai’s top billing as the emerging global food capital.

Here’s a snapshot of the city’s pot pourri of culinary delights inspired by its diverse palates.

The food trail

My photographer colleague Neeraj and I chose Bu Qtair Cafeteria near the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel in Jumeirah. For the uninitiated, Bu Qtair means Qatir’s father — Bu in Arabic means father.

There’s a reason to why I chose this tiny seafood restaurant. It reminded me of No Reservations the travel and food show by Anthony Bourdain, the American celebrity chef, author, and travel documentarian, when he visited Dubai in 2010. He had chosen the hidden gem as his favourite place to eat in the emirate.

However, Dame Luck eluded us, as the iconic local restaurant, which opened in the 1980s, was closed due to renovations.

Matar Al Tayer, the Emirati owner, had opened his fish shack to serve the growing expatriate population, who were mostly from South Asia and the wider region in the Middle East. I was told that it still serves only freshly caught fish and shrimps; a secret recipe is used to deliver on the mouthwatering taste.

Our next pit stop — Automatic Restaurant & Grill — too, proved to be a dampener of sorts. The Lebanese restaurant chain, which operates five outlets in Dubai, opened in 1977 and is known for an assortment of mezze and salads which can be paired with grilled meat dishes and kebabs. Unfortunately, the language barrier proved to be a deterrent, as our culinary adventure was lost in translation with the restaurant’s affable staff.

Unfazed, we headed to our next destination, Gérard Café — whose owner Gerard Reymond, 68, had passed away in September 2020 — at Magrudy's Shopping Centre at Jumeirah.

“Reymond had left his native France and came to the UAE in 1978, and the first patisserie opened in 1981,” said Mohamed Jarkas, the Syrian manager, who is associated with the brand for over 30 years.

Now, Gérard Café has over 10 outlets across the UAE. Reymond’s love for Mediterranean conviviality, and good food has made the café a hotspot for coffee aficionados, art lovers and fashionistas.

The café’s relaxed ambience has been a big draw among its patrons. We caught up with Sylvia, an Italian fashion designer, who has been in Dubai for the past six months and has become a regular at the café. “It has good vibes. I love to hang out here. The wide assortment of sweet savouries and coffees are a big draw for me,” said the Italian.

Prakash Puttan, an Indian worker, echoed the brand’s growth “Our clientele has grown by leaps and bounds through the years. We’re doing roaring business since the contagion challenge is a thing of the past,” he said. Puttan has been working with the brand since 1990 — around five years after he came to the UAE.

We turn our focus to Karama, a microcosm of India. We head to Calicut Paragon, which was started by Govindan Panhikeyil and his son, PM Valsan, in Kerala, south India, in 1939. The first branch in Dubai opened in 2005, and now has four other outlets in the city, including Al Nahda.

Patrons to the budget-friendly restaurant are initially treated to a mystery glass of pink water, which traces its origin to Pathimugham, a native medicinal tree of Kerala, and is also known as Indian Rosewood, to work up an appetite.

Though I settled for a working lunch of chicken stew and a porotta (flatbread), the steward recommended that I try out mango fish curry, Malabari biryani, mutton biryani and prawn biryani, a thali (an assortment of dishes) or fish moilee (a curry made with coconut milk) next time I drop by.

We moved next door to Venus, whose forte is Mangalorean vegetarian food, but also serves South Indian, Punjabi, Indian Chinese and tandoori (prepared in a clay oven, or tandoor) dishes.

Initially, Puthige Vasudev Bhat had started the venture in Muscat, Oman, in 1981 and later opened his first outlet at Karama a decade later. Now, he has opened two more branches in Dubai, besides another two in Oman. I order a cup of filter coffee while at the next table, I see two European ladies tucking Mysuru bondas — a typical South Indian snack that has various sweet and spicy versions of it in different regions.

Our next destination, Al Ustad Special Kebab in Bur Dubai, went against the script, as the popular Iranian restaurant was closed in the afternoon because of the holy month of Ramadan.

We decided to call it a day - but not before experiencing a slice of Ireland at Garhoud, The Irish Village.

Opened in 1996 — three years after the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships were held as the Dubai Men’s Open — The Irish Village has all the trappings of historical Irish pubs that are known for their vibrant and friendly atmosphere that makes you feel at home. “The pub can seat over 500, including both indoors and outdoors. It can accommodate over 3,000 people for an event in the sprawling lawn,” said Dennis, the Filipino supervisor.

An exciting new chapter started for The Irish Village in July 2019. It opened another branch on the first floor of the new Studio One hotel at Dubai Studio City, but the original still straddles like a Colossus.

Boom, bust, boom

I had set myself up for the following day for a trip to Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan, a restaurant that’s a window into the People’s Republic of North Korea, the last iron curtain nation in the world. It used to be tucked away in a hidden little corner of Deira — a few metres from the Deira Clocktower — and opened in 2010.

My curiosity piqued after I read a piece on the restaurant in Khaleej Times a few years ago. It had said, “The exterior is nondescript and Spartan, with the red, white, and blue colours of the North Korean flag flying proudly over photographs of some of its more popular dishes. There is a sign promising a ‘pleasant and cooling space with more comfort’ inside, along with private rooms available for those seeking solitude, or Karaoke with their friends, as they dine.”

It was one among the many Pyongyang franchises around the globe, with locations as far afield as Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok.

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Alas! I was denied a once-in-a-lifetime experience as the restaurant appeared to have shut down permanently because of the pandemic. But for every restaurant that shuts down, several more come up with metronomic regularity.

“I’m convinced of the fact that Dubai is a competitive market. However, it’s the quality and price points that determines the success or failure of a restaurant,” said Shubhajit Rakshit, a banker-turned-Indian serial entrepreneur, who has been a Dubai resident for over 15 years.

Rakshit isn’t off the mark in his observation of the discernible market trends in the F&B sector in the city.

Mario Faria, the head of F&B, Le Gourmet, Galeries Lafayette, The Dubai Mall, elaborated on the city’s recognition as the global food capital.

“With the arrival of Michelin Guide to Dubai (and the UAE) our extremely talented home-grown chefs are all set to get rewarded for their dedication, passion, and talent and firmly cement themselves on the world culinary stage,” he added.

Russian expatriate Kirill Mikhaylov, the founder of Ruby Passion for Meat, a new Turkish steakhouse which opened earlier this year in the heart of Jumeirah, echoed Faria.

“Dubai's reputation as the restaurant capital of the world has been further reinforced by the Michelin Guide announcement. This is indeed gratifying because it indicates that our decision to launch our brand (Ruby Passion for Meat) in the city was a wise, and one that is certain to stand us in good stead as we embark on our robust regional expansion plan.

"The city's discerning audience, made of different nationalities and palates, is what makes the UAE's F&B sector so exciting and constantly evolving. We’re glad to be a part of it and look forward to making it into the guide one day," he added.

Hits and misses

For every restaurant that we visited during the food trail - such as the nine-month-old Nepali restaurant Gorkha Palace in Al Quoz to UZB Avenue in Al Barsha (below), we missed out on Sultan Dubai Falafel for Palestinian-style falafels in Deira; Sind Punjab that has been serving succulent chicken tikkas in the lanes of Meena Bazaar since 1977; and Rangoli in Karama for delicious Indian street food.

There were others we would have loved to experience too. Hor Al Anz Bakery for its fresh cheese and zaatar bread; Al Habasha, an authentic Ethiopian restaurant in Abu Hail; Foul Abo Al Abbas in Karama for fava bean favourites, Spice Souk cafeteria in Deira that serves egg rolls with Oman Chips; Shiraz Nights, known for its spicy chicken shawarmas at Baniyas Road; and Sadaf in Deira — the oldest Iranian restaurant in the city which is famous for its savouries.

The visit to Bawabat Baghdad, an Iraqi restaurant in Jumeirah, known for Masgouf, the national dish of the nation that's made from bottom feeder wild carp, proved to be a non-starter as well because it is closed on Thursdays.

Similarly, Orfali Bros Bistro, a restaurant located in a new development in Jumeirah, and founded by three food-loving brothers — Mohammad, Wassim and Omar — from Syria, was closed due to renovation work.

However, I have been given to understand that the menu is an account of the art, travel, cultures, and personal experiences that have impacted the brothers’ lives. Every dish tells a story. My craving for Shish Barak à la Gyoza, a Levantine dish inspired by the Asian staple, needs to wait another day.

I also missed out on a trip to exciting Filipino eateries, such as Hot Palayok Restaurant, Dampa Seafood Restaurant, Halo Halo and Max’s Restaurant.

However, we did visit Kando, a 100-seater Iranian restaurant at Baniyas Road that opened over two years ago, and serves a stewed lamb’s neck dish that traces its origin to Mashhad.

Emirati food, which is the bedrock of the young nation’s culinary culture, offers wide options such as Al Fanar, Arabian Tea House, Logma, Aseelah, Al Jalboot, Hum Yum, Seven Sands, Al Mashowa and Local Awi.

In a paean to the UAE’s tolerance initiatives, and the signing of the historic Abraham Accords with Israel on September 15, 2020, only two days later, Armani Hotel Dubai gave a whole new dimension to their fine dining experience amid its burgeoning range of culinary options. It opened Armani/Kaf, a kosher-certified 40-seater restaurant, on the ground floor of the luxury hotel (Kosher means fit or acceptable, and refers to the kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws).

Photo: Armani Hotel Dubai
Photo: Armani Hotel Dubai

Besides, South African Elli Kriel, who moved to Dubai in 2013, runs Elli’s Kosher Kitchen with her husband Ross, a Jewish community leader.

And no round-up about Dubai’s vibrant culinary landscape is complete without a tribute to the late Jaffer Bhai Mansuri’s eponymous restaurant, which has received a badge of recommendation from Restaurant Guru, a metasearch-based restaurant and food review website that operates in around 80 countries.

Popularly dubbed the 'King of Biryanis', Jafferbhai’s has remained the go-to place for a platter of Bombay-style biryani since it opened its first outlet at Naif Road in 1984, and has evolved as one of the most-loved dining spots for Mughlai and Indian cuisine in the UAE.

Coming soon: First Michelin-starred restaurant

A Dubai edition of the guide is likely to be launched in June, which will further reinforce the emirate’s contention as the global food capital.

Michelin, the French tyre company, has been publishing a series of guidebooks since 1904. It is restaurants, not individual chefs, that are awarded up to three Michelin stars.

The stars are defined under the following categories:

  • One Michelin Star: A very good restaurant in its category
  • Two Michelin Stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour
  • Three Michelin Stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey

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