The hunt for Dubai's covert cuisine
Putting together galbi at Mannaland
This Dubai Food Festival you voted for your hidden gem restaurants; Frying Pan Adventures and Gulf Photo Plus take you to them
GIVEN THE WHOLE city has gone nutty over nourishment this Dubai Food Festival, running until March 12, it seemed only fitting that perhaps the lesser known, more traditional hotspots got a look in. These are the type of establishments that formed the majority of the #dubaihiddengems list compiled from online votes by the organisers at dubaifoodfestival.com. Over the last few weeks the website put out the call for submissions for residents' favourite dining cubbyholes and a table of 20 was quickly drawn up.
Most 'gems' hailed from the older parts of town - Bur Dubai, Satwa and Deira - which meant handing over to Frying Pan Adventures' expert foodie Arva Ahmed in order to explore a selection. Frying Pan Adventures is a food tour company specialising in escorting guests through the original areas of Dubai and guiding them to the quirky and delicious offerings therein. Arva's encyclopaedic knowledge of the area and culinary methods always means you'll come away with not only a full stomach, but also a mind full of facts.
From the 20 Arva has devised a tour of four eateries that best display a variety of cuisines. These four restaurants make up the Hidden Gems Trail (around Dhs400 including all food, water, guide and transportation) we were lucky to embark upon on Saturday. And if that weren't enough, Dubai's photography institute, Gulf Photo Plus, also got in on the action and provided one of their own specialists to help the snap-happy amongst us improve our skills.
"Everyone from Gulf Photo Plus and me and my sister who run Frying Pan Tours are all old Dubai geeks, so we feel very happy to have chosen restaurants closer to the Creek," Arva said during the excursion. "We like to jump away from the skyscrapers and scour this side of town for the delicious gems."
The Lowdown: Here's how we did on the lip-smacking tour
Standout dish: Galbi
After meeting outside Al Jafiliya metro station, around 15 of us boarded a bus for a quick trip to Satwa, just opposite the Ramada Jumeirah. There was not to be too much walking on this tour as the bus took us to and from each destination. Once off we entered Mannaland Korean restaurant, promptly took off our shoes and were shown to the floor seating and traditional low tables.
Sitting cross-legged on a cushion was a slight challenge to begin with, but ultimately contributed to the dining experience.
Out came the food. First up a collection of small appetisers including the restaurant's famous homemade kimchi, egg rolls, spicy pickled cucumber and bean sprouts. The kimchi was particularly delicious and the bean sprouts flavoured with a bit of chilli provided a decent amuse-bouche. Quick as you like the bigger dishes - galbi and bibimbap - arrived. Galbi consists of beef ribs barbequed at the table, wrapped in lettuce along with onions, chilli and garlic. Dip it in the accompanying ssamjang sauce and you've got yourself a wonderful little treat. All the ingredients mix to form a wonderful umami, spicy, meaty flavour. The bibimbap is a rice dish containing vegetables and topped with an egg, which was a lovely early filler for hungry diners.
Restaurant: Al Ustad Kebab Restaurant
Area: Bur Dubai
Standout dish: Khorak Bahraini chicken
This Dubai institution is all about the atmosphere and kebabs. Established decades ago by Iranian Mohammed Al Ansari, three of his sons continue the successful enterprise to this day. There every night, you won't be able to miss them. Warm, welcoming and full of beans the trio will provide as much entertainment with their impromptu singing or posing for the cameras as the food does enjoyment.
The restaurant's walls are chock full of photos of notorious guests including actors Salman Khan and Anil Kapoor and it is in this environment where the fabled kebabs take on an almost mystical quality drawing customers from all over the city. Cars queue up outside while they wait for their take-out orders and the dining room is constantly heaving.
A plate arrived at our table adorned with Kebab Koobideh (minced mutton and chicken), Joojeh (chicken on the bone), and Khorak Bahraini chicken (chicken with preserved lime or loomi), which stood out decause of its intense sour flavour. The rice with zereshk or barberries and butter was a fantastic accompaniment.
Restaurant: Samad Iraqi Restaurant
Standout dish: Masquof
This place is really all about one dish. Masquof is an Iraqi concoction suitable for any occasion, as long as there are a few of you around to polish it off. Having made light work of the lentil soup to start, a massive fire-roasted ghattan (barbell fish) served with onions, tomatoes, parsley and amba (mango pickle) hit the table. Ripping off a piece of hot flat bread straight from the oven, the trick is to use the bread as a pincer to grab some fish and garnish in a sort of soft taco creation before dipping it in the mango pickle and stuffing it down.
Standout dish: Taro bun
For dessert, it was a very short journey from Samad to the Japanese Bakery Yakitate at Al Ghurair Centre. This wonderful little curiosity shop sells dainty baked goods, both savoury and sweet, all beautifully displayed.
The taro bun is a sweet bun filled with custard and topped with sesame seeds, which finished off the evening's feasting perfectly.
The vibrant ambience of Al Ustad
The hilarious Majid, son of Mohammed Al Ansari, serving customers at Al Ustad
Al Ustad’s kebabs were a hit
Chef preparing the masquof at Samad Iraqi
The buns on display at Yakitate Japanese bakery
Visitors choosing their desserts at Yakitate