It’s easy to underestimate Dubai as a global food capital. So what if expats make up over four-fifths of its population, or if every year, more chefs and acclaimed restaurants follow its siren song, bringing wacky and wonderful gastronomic adventures to the city? After you’ve seen and heard about its pulse and pizzazz, it’s easy to scoff and stop short of stacking it against the New Yorks and Tokyos and the Georgetowns and San Sebastians of the world. That would be sacrilege.
I’m at Nakheel Mall in the heart of Palm Jumeirah, currently in the middle of an extended doom-scroll as our group waits for a table at one of Dubai’s most acclaimed restaurants right now. To be honest, having suffered a major embarrassment with sushi-making and experiencing a bit of a crash after witnessing the breathtaking Museum of the Future in person earlier in the day, I find myself sceptical about this glass that’s always running over with excellence of sustenance. But then, magic happens. That’s been the defining feature of this mad city—to keep sucker-punching the disbelievers—but more on that later. Ever since landing in this fascinating cosmopolis, I’ve only had one thing on my mind—to find out how Dubai really fares as the perennially anointed culinary capital of the world. With the Dubai Food Festival 2022, I got my chance to watch how Dubayy rolls, and what better place to begin than the beginning itself?
Flavours Lebanese Feel Luxurious Middle-Eastern
Sitting on the lower ground level of the Jumeirah Al Qasr hotel, Al Nafoorah is a fetching Lebanese restaurant with a shaded terrace that has a direct view of the Burj Al Arab, and is designed in the fashion of the restaurants lining the Berdawni Riviera in Lebanon. I’m here for their Dubai Restaurant Week Menu, which includes a succulent hot mezzeh with picks such as moajanat moshakala (meat dumplings called sambousek, cheese rolls, dough pockets with spinach and crumbly kibbeh) and lamb makanek (traditional lamb sausages). The cold mezzeh is equally breathtaking, the star of which for me is the enlivening fattoush. The restaurant also offers set menus themed around four cities in Lebanon—Beirut, Byblos, Tripoli and Sidon—one of which I would want to try on my next visit, along with Chef Fouad Ali’s Teta’s tabbouleh.
Flavours Mediterranean Feel Desert Camp
We retreat away from the coast towards Dubai Conservation Reserve to Sonara Desert Camp, which enjoys a dramatic setting in the heart of the burnished desert landscape. Speckling the expanse are private sit-outs for groups and hammocks, and fairy lights ready to twinkle as the sun drops below the dunes in distance. The restaurant, with a performance arena and al fresco seating stretching in the centre of a barebones setup, specialises in Mediterranean cuisine (think lamb chops marinated in kaffir lime, Nile perch served in a banana leaf and chicken shawarma in a cone), and live entertainment. The fire show at the end captivates visitors, concluding the bouquet of attractions leading up to supper.
Flavours Continental Feel Plush Seafront
Still groggy and dressed in my funny yoga PJs that aren’t even broken in properly, I find myself gawking at the fantastical splendour of Atlantis, the Palm the next morning. We’re here for a special breakfast at the Imperial Club lounge. But before that, off we go for some flexing. No, really, for we have an underwater yoga class booked at the hotel’s whimsical but spectacular Lost Chambers Aquarium. As I embark on this strangely calming series of embarrassments, our marine friends look upon our shenanigans with what I suppose is vague amusement. However that may be, nothing beats the satisfaction of having earned your breakfast, for to be at the Imperial Club, you do really have to earn it. An exclusive, chic space with panoramic views of the azure Arabian Gulf and an impressive Continental breakfast spread, this place is peak Dubai.
Flavours French-Mediterranean Feel Chic Brasserie
DIFC, Dubai’s corporate financial centre, is home to a number of top-notch restaurants, including experimental up-and-comers. We’re at Chef Michael Mina’s uber-stylish Mina Brasserie. A renowned international culinary innovator, Mina has cooked for three American presidents and been a business associate of Andre Agassi. Despite my best attempts at behaving, I give into our server Dmitri’s exhortations and get myself the excellent Wagyu Beef Burger. The gourmet burger holds and gives when it’s supposed to, and is made even more pliant by the ogleshield cheese. I’m a big fan of lemon desserts, so when The Lemon—a chunky, but really delicately done lemon sculpted cake with a heady topping of polenta streusel—arrives, I make sure to grab a bigger slice than usual. But the real star of this lunch for me is the Art Menu. Sauvignon Blanc and Chambord come together in an eminently drinkable version of Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, with the Fauvist smudge artfully achieved with refraction via Collins ice, Van Gogh’s Starry Night is adapted as a swirling, cerulean blend of Prosecco, Silvermoon tea and lemongrass.
Flavours Contemporary Indian Feel Studio-Style
After my botched attempts at sushi-making followed by a riveting tour of the Museum of the Future, I’m in the middle of a minor bout of ennui. But even I can sense that that’s going to change very quickly. (Remember the magic I spoke of earlier?) At the intimate TresInd Studio in Nakheel Mall, everything—from the crackerjack service and the understated ambience to the superlative dégustation menu—suggests what the millennial prefers to dub badass. The 17 courses (yes, seventeen) play out like a symphony as the ensemble of servers starts appearing, disappearing and reappearing with outrageously good takes on recipes (kebab scarpetta), techniques (curry leaf tempura) and ingredients (artichokes for cafreal and buttermilk for ice cream), instructing us like calm assassins in a parallel-universe Tarantino musical on exactly how many seconds to wait before gobbling the Nasturtium Dolma down, or just how many bites the roomali roti tartlet in front of us should take. The daring and zaniness of this hypnotically immersive experience are down to Chef Himanshu Saini—the next big thing in contemporary Indian fine dining. What might seem like a long list of over-the-top gimmicks on the menu is actually an out-and-out triumph.
Flavours Global Feel Sprawling Food Court
My favourite breakfast all week has to be an açai bowl from a Portuguese restaurant, a shawarma wrap from a Lebanese street food place, and an infused nitro cold brew made with the finest-quality Ethiopian beans, to wash them both down. I even consider getting a bowl of ramen and a pho. All this is possible sitting at the same table—at the Timeout Market in Souk Al-Bahar, Downtown Dubai. To the uninitiated, the concept is: a snazzy food court with terrace seating that has a direct view of the Burj Khalifa and some of Dubai’s highest rated local restaurants including 21Grams (Balkan flavours), Lana Lusa (a Portuguese restaurant that originally started in the Jumeirah area), Reif (for what claims to be Dubai’s best ramen), Vietnamese Foodies (for those craving fresh heartland Vietnamese) and The Lighthouse (for creamy cheesecake). As you make breathless runs up and down the aisles, the proprietors constantly smile at you, aware that it’s incredibly hard to pick.
Flavours Southern European Feel Laidback Rooftop
There’s a place for every occasion at Taj Jumeirah Lakes Towers, the stunning hotel I’m staying at in Dubai. Catch up with friends over drinks and eclectic Singaporean cuisine at Nonya, grab breakfast over country music or geek out over three legendary Brian Lara bats at TJ’s. But at Paros, named after and an interpretation of the Greek island of Paros, the poolside-rooftop bar on the 46th floor, the vibe is something else: 360-degree views of the Marina, Mediterranean grub to die for, a selfie swing for those who swing that way. Here, the only worry in the world is for your tall glass toppling over on days the wind is really strong.
Flavours Japanese Feel Retro Glamour
In a flashy finale, I find myself transported back a century to a modish diner in Osaka. Drum chandeliers, beaded curtains and stained glass panelled windows invoke just the kind of set that Scorsese would direct a yakuza movie set during Japan’s Jazz Age in. Only, he cannot cast Sessue Hayakawa, the Asian country’s first Hollywood superstar who is said to have inspired the retro glamour of this place. The references don’t stop here, for Mimi Kakushi, Dubai’s hottest Japanese fine-dining restaurant, is named after a distinctive bob worn by the fashionable young women of the said era. The twists Chefs Gilles Bosquet and Vladimir Kim put on Japanese classics are electric; the duo has also perfected the concept of omakase, meaning you can leave it up to the chef to serve what they wish to. After a round of hot and cold starters including black cod and prawns gyoza, a selection of sushi and maki rolls, we jump straight to desserts, as hands with phones in them around the table scramble to get a reel-worthy grab of the three-foot-long grazing platter overrun with yuzu cheesecake, mochi and fresh fruits among other choices.
The writer experienced these restaurants at the Dubai Food Festival 2022.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.