New York, Paris, Rome are cities that have long been associated with fine dining and the world’s greatest chefs, with food traditions built on centuries of butter and booze. But Dubai? Just 50 years ago, the city didn’t even really exist. Back then, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all you might have found to eat in what is now one of the fastest growing cities in the world might have been a mouthful of sand whipped up by a desert storm.
But, as a recent visit to the Middle Eastern metropolis made clear, that is certainly no longer the case. As the skyscraping city has swiftly risen from the dune dust, so too has emerged a vibrant and diverse dining scene.
Home to 202 different nationalities, and a hub for more than 10 million travellers passing through each year, the destination has drawn influences from around the world and, in turn, has attracted major international chefs to establish a foothold right there.
Spiky haired British chef Gary Rhodes offers Modern British cuisine at luxury hotel Grosvenor House, while Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star, experiments with flavours from the subcontinent at the JW Marriott Marquis in Business Bay. Meanwhile, fiery Frenchman Marco Pierre White has set up shop in Hilton’s Conrad Dubai property, while the iconic black cod miso of Nobu Matsuhisa can be devoured at Atlantis on the Palm.
But to experience all of these cuisines at one table, I set aside an entire Friday for one of Dubai’s infamous brunches at Calabar at The Address Downtown. Although the meal starts at 12pm with service going until 4pm, it can frequently roll through into the evening as diners make a day of what has become a Dubai institution.
I’m surrounded by food, in every direction, and I’m panicking a little. Do I head first for the spice-rich gravy of the butter chicken, the translucent pinks of the sashimi display, the overflowing mezze platter or steaming dim sum? Or just close the door in the room devoted entirely to candy coloured desserts – a veritable shrine to Willy Wonka. There’s no whisper of the overboiled buffets of my childhood – the food is all freshly prepared, much of it to order, with the steaming copper pots refilled frequently. My plate never seems to empty, and neither does my glass.
For nothing disperses the misconception of Dubai as an alcohol-free zone quite like a brunch. Here in the hotels of the emirate, alcohol is perfectly permitted, although drunken behaviour should be kept respectfully in check. The champagne is free-flowing, the cocktails are original creations, and even as I stand innocently waiting for my oysters to be freshly shucked beside a mound of glistening shells, I am handed a frosted vodka shot.
A different kind of excess is on the menu during afternoon high tea, another Dubai tradition, at At.mosphere on the 122nd floor of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. Located just two floors below its popular viewing platform, At the Top, you can get giddy on almost the exact same views across Dubai’s everchanging landscape while gorging on dainty scones, cakes and finger sandwiches washed down with a pot of tea or even a glass of champagne.
Or plunge beneath sea level for a dinner surrounded by teeming shoals of brightly coloured fish as you chow down on their former friends at the lavish Burj Al Arab’s underwater seafood restaurant, Al Mahara. Here, an after dinner cappuccino is dusted with 24-carat gold flakes instead of powdered chocolate.
But it’s not all international flavours. While authentic Emirati cuisine can only be found at Al Fanar in Dubai Festival City, Arabic restaurants are plentiful. XVA café serves up traditional Arabic dishes in an artsy courtyard in Bur Dubai while breakfast is the dish of the day at Bastakiya’s Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding where the focus is on learning about local customs, but the food is still delicious.
In the covered sandstone courtyard, we remove our shoes and sink into a horseshoe of floor cushions as we are served a tiny glass of cardamom-spiced black coffee with a syrupy sweet date. As we sip, our host Nasif, clad in crisp, cool white, discusses local customs, touching on a range of topics as diverse as traditional dress, religion, and women’s rights. He urges us to ask as many questions as possible and invites us to try on the long black abaya to demonstrate its practicality. Meanwhile, we sample the chickpeas, khamir bread, cream cheese and tiny round ligamat donuts accompanied by thick date syrup that are laid out on the giant Persian rug in the centre of the room.
Stuffed with information and carbs, we depart through the cobbled alleyways of Old Dubai, spotting a sign touting camel burgers. It’s tempting, but instead of succumbing to the protein fix, we head for the Deira side of the Creek. Here, between the shaded windtowers, stalls are lined with earthy mounds of spices, herbs and nuts – it’s Dubai’s largest and oldest souk.
For while Dubai as we know it today may be a mere babe among cities, traders have sailed along the city’s saltwater Creek as far back as ancient times, with each new visitor leaving their culinary mark. Besides, butter and booze may have been absent from the emirate’s history for many centuries, but it now has both in abundant supply.