I’ve been gorging a lot these past two weeks while ostensibly reviewing restaurants and gastronomic evenings for Foodepedia.co.uk and all that food put me in mind of my favourite restaurants in Dubai.
With all those five-star establishments it’s rare you even have to venture outside of the air-conditioned confines of your hotel to find a fantastic meal (although, of course, you should). Here’re my top five, for every meal of the day…although I wouldn’t recommend doing them all in one day, unless you have a magically expanding stomach, an endless cash flow and one hell of an appetite!
The Brunch: Spectrum On One, Fairmont Dubai
It’s a small world after all, or at least it is at the Fairmont…just without the weird singing puppets. Come with an empty stomach, preferably growling, and walk past the futuristic lobby with its Star Trek-inspired tube lifts and into the dining room, where you’ll be greeted by a moving diorama of Dubai’s multiculturalism. As the waitress walked me around the open restaurant space, I was catapulted back to my student gap year and felt as though I has just re-travelled through Asia and South America within the space of a few minutes.
In one corner there was a Chinese chef delicately rolling duck pancakes; in another a Thai chef was frying slippery plates of peanut-dusted Pad Thai to order; there was a Japanese station where cooks in pristine aprons sliced sashimi and steamed perfect, cloudlike pork buns. Near our huge, circular table there was a man leaning over a wicker covered tandoori oven, levering out searing naan breads and chapatis glistening with ghee to accompany the racks of glistening butter chicken. Even England, France and Mexico were represented with a carvery (that’ll be the UK covered then!) a room of wall-to-wall cheese and a bench dedicated to vats of guacamole and mounds of shredded, pulled pork. It was mind boggling and everywhere you looked there were wide-eyed, plump-stomached expats wandering around and eyeing up the Willy Wonka dessert section, wondering if they could squeeze in another oreo cheesecake or stick of candyfloss before bursting the seams of their summer dresses and linen suits.
Yes it was gluttony, pure and unapologetically simple. But it was gluttony at its most seductive and I, like all who go to and are defeated or exhausted by the food at Spectrum On One, could only accept my fate, roll up my sleeves and join my companions at the trough…and oh, what a trough.
The Lunch: Salero Tapas & Bodega, Kempinski Mall of the Emirates Hotel
Salero has tapped into something rarely done in Dubai. Asian food in every Oriental flavour persuasion, sure, but ballsy, earthy, red-wine infused and garlic-smothered Mediterranean tapas has always been that little bit harder to find. Salero neatly side-stepped the authenticity issue by flying in their very own Spanish chef, staying open to a very Mediterranean three in the morning on weekends and employing mostly Spanish staff.
The dining room is relatively small, but what it lacks in square footage it makes up for in pseudo-Spanish atmosphere. The walls are stacked with wine bottles, gleaming jugs of olive oil, Spanish cookbooks and produce while the cushions and benches are a mix of chocolate, tomato red, burnt orange and green. Wicker baskets hang from the high ceilings like hot air balloon remnants and the enticing smells of onions and paprika red, oil-slicked chorizo waft from the open kitchen. The whole place looks (probably because it is) very clean and new and isn’t quite rough enough around the edges to evoke the essence of a real bodega. As Len from Strictly Come Dancing would say: “I wanted to smell the sawdust and blood.”
There were elements of undiluted rustic-ness though, especially in the form of the hunks of crusty bread that were served with fat wedges of beef tomato, a pile of rock salt and an entire bottle of olive oil. By the time the slate platters of Manchego and wafer thin, punchy Iberico ham, the paper twists of crispy squid and lemon wedges with peppery mayonnaise and the sizzling, shallow terracotta bowls of ox’s cheek in blood red sauce had arrived I was starting to forget what my notion of a ‘real’ bodega was anyway. When I had finished shovelling in delicately steamed clams in white wine and mouthfuls of golden paella, I was practically ready to swear I was in Seville. Olé.
The Light Lunch: TOMO, Raffles Dubai
On the lofty top floor of Raffles, well, almost top – it’s one below the glowing orange beacon that is the Crystal nightclub – and a world away from booze, extravagant lighting and thumping dance beats is the Japanese haven of TOMO. As far removed from the excess and gold-covered décor of the rest of Dubai as you can get, TOMO feels more like the refined surroundings you’d be more likely to find in a Japanese tea house. It’s all dark wood, tatami mats and minimalist Zen. In fact, I almost thought I‘d managed to wander into a tea house scene from Kill Bill I – where Uma Thurman takes on Lucy Liu – and was vaguely waiting for the thunk of the water fountain and snow to start falling.
Luckily for me, no one came at me with a Hattori Hanzo sword and instead all I heard was the soft clink of the bead curtain as waitresses glided in with platters of expertly executed sushi adorned with fronds of pickled ginger that looked almost too pretty to eat. That notion lasted all of about five seconds before I was tearing into fatty slabs of yellow fin tuna, California rolls daubed in pearls of fish roe and butter-soft salmon nigiri. TOMO’s head chef, Takahashi, does more than just sushi though. There’s a whole menu dedicated to hot and cold noodles, ramen, tempura, tofu and hot meat and fish dishes. I would recommend the blackened, miso marinated flakes of cod and ordering the Wagyu beef, which comes out smoking and singed on its own hot griddle.
The Afternoon Tea: Sahn Eddar, The Burj Al Arab
You can’t get higher high tea than the tea on offer at The Burj Al Arab hotel. Rising like an ivory and metal fin from the impossibly blue sea, The Burj is the only seven star hotel in the world and has remained Dubai’s defining hotel, despite being nearly 14-years-old, which makes it old hat in Emirates hotel terms. There’s nothing old about the Burj though. It’s a place where the gleaming floors are tiled with a smattering of 24 carat gold, where a fountain isn’t just a fountain – it’s an art installation and where, if you’re the Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, you can order that the multi-level white ceilings are boring and can demand they be repainted all the colours of the turquoise rainbow.
Non-staying guests come to the Burj (by appointment and booking only, naturally) to gawp at the lavish display of opulence on show, to drink in the views of the man-made islands from the top decks and Skyview Bar and to sample a traditional afternoon tea that has been given a distinctly Dubai twist.
While the impressively fake tanned harpist twinkling away in the background, the tea marathon began. A berry-covered shortcake that was a light as air was quickly followed by the sort of sandwiches that put cucumber with the crusts cut off to shame. These little morsels were packed with smoked chicken or tuna and capers wedged in squid ink bread that was mottled like marble but as soft as a marshmallow. There were baskets of golden-brown scones and dollops of clotted cream, miniscule macaroons flavoured with lychee and raspberry, bite-sized carrot cakes and glazed pastries studded with shards of toasted almond – all baked in the onsite, round the clock bakery. There was even a special brand of sparkling date juice on offer if you didn’t fancy a glass of champagne with your tea, although, to be fair, spoiling the sumptuous food with anything other than top of the range tea would be, frankly, sacrilege.
Dinner: Bā, Fairmont the Palm
“Can I prepare you some crisp Peking duck parcels Madam?” Asked the bespectacled, white glove-clad waiter in English flavoured with the touch of a soft Chinese accent. Is there any other answer to that than yes? Crossing the vast, marble atrium of Fairmont the Palm’s entrance lobby will give you a couple of options. You could head towards the Brazilian grill restaurant, Frevo, or to the Seagrill on 25° for a shisha and a fish platter. If you walk through the dark confines of Bā’s lounge bar, down the steps and past the pillars made to look like sculpted, florescent bamboo, you’ll find Bā the restaurant. It might feel like a modern art gallery but the food on the extensive menu is pure, ancient tradition. Spanning the length and breadth of China, Bā serves up spicy kung pao chicken from Szechuan, wok-fried prawns from Shandong and a Xian water banquet’s worth of dumplings and dim sum.
As the sultry tones of Alabama slammer Sabrina – the Bā Lounge’s guest singer – spilt down from the upper floor, there was nothing left to do but order at random from the menu and be taken all the way down to Chinatown. With every rotation of the turning centre of our table a new delight swung within chopstick swiping distance: mysterious baskets filled with perfectly made scallop and lobster dim sum; cashew chicken in a rich, deep gravy; paper-thin spiced spring rolls; baked aubergine in a crispy, battered coat and sticky, sweet sauce and, to my delight, oozing pineapple upside down cakes and coconut crème brûlée with sharp, raspberry sorbet. The Peking duck parcels, incidentally, were the best I’ve had outside of Beijing.
Lead Image: TOMO coconut salad. Credit: TOMO at Raffles Dubai