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Yes, it has a plethora of luxury hotels with high-end restaurants and celebrity chefs, but if you know where to go, eating out in Dubai can be a much more local affair.
Tonight, I’m taking you to Ravi’s,’ said Ranjit Singh, a Singaporean-born Indian friend who happened to be passing through Dubai a few days after I’d moved there.
I was excited. At that point, my only culinary excursions had consisted of food-court fodder at one of the mammoth shopping malls for which the city is known. Registering with embassies, applying for driving licences and looking for somewhere to live had taken precedence over tantalising my taste buds; I was ready for something special.
As Ranjit directed the taxi, I dreamt of white tablecloths, knowledgeable sommeliers and an array of finely balanced subcontinental delicacies presented with the precision learned at grand European culinary schools. Imagine my surprise as we pulled up at a concrete box lit by fluorescent strip bulbs filled to the brim with Pakistanis chowing down on food hailing from their homeland.
This was not the Dubai I’d been expecting. The city has a firm reputation for luxury hotels furnished with high-calibre chefs of international acclaim, ready to feed and water the newly minted locals and high-flying business types attracted by such wealth.
Gordon Ramsay was the first celebrity chef to set up shop in the city with his much-lauded (and now closed) Verre. Gary Rhodes wasn’t far behind and now has two establishments serving his particular brand of British cuisine: Rhodes Mezzanine at Grosvenor House and Rhodes Twenty10 at Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa. And, not to be left out, Marco Pierre White has also had some success with Wheeler’s of St James’s, a seafood restaurant modelled on the 19th-century London haunt of the same name, in the Dubai International Financial Centre’s (DIFC) Gate Village.
And it’s not just a British invasion. Gallic gourmand Pierre Gagnaire has brought his elevated cuisine in the form of Reflets at the InterContinental Dubai Festival City, while Sanjeev Kapoor, the chef behind the eponymous Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor at the Melia Hotel, and Michelin-starred Vineet Bhatia of Indego by Vineet at Grosvenor House, bring the subcontinent to fine diners. A handful of high-end franchises have also made the move, including Nobu (Palm Jumeirah), Zuma and La Petite Maison (both located at Gate Village, DIFC).
However, as soon as I was presented with a creamy dhal, perfectly spiced chicken tikka and a lamb curry with chunks of slow-cooked meat that fell from the bone at Ravi’s (+971 4331 5353), it didn’t matter that the chair I was sitting on was hard or that the table was leaning dangerously. Personal comfort was soon forgotten as I revelled in the festival of flavours dancing across my palate. Suffice it to say, during my three years in Dubai, Ravi’s became a regular haunt, as did a number of the other establishments of a similar ilk scattered through the older districts of the city.
Before Dubai hit the big time thanks to the UAE’s oil wealth and some clever international marketing by the ruling Al Maktoum family, the city was little more than a trading port with strong links across the Gulf, and down to the subcontinent (the UAE’s first official currency was the Indian rupee) and the horn of Africa. Infrastructure was sparse, with traditionally built homes and businesses lining the mouth of Dubai creek in the area known as Bur Dubai and Satwa to the south-west and Deira to the north-east. These are the areas well worth a visit if you’re looking for something more than the shiny and new.
Tucked away in Bastakiya, Bur Dubai, the XVA Café serves a variety of Arab-inspired dishes, while Satwa’s Al Dhiyafa Road boasts a collection of local eateries. Al Mallah (+971 4398 4723) is a favourite for fresh-cooked manakish (flatbread) with zaatar (thyme) and cheese, and, if you’re game, you can try a flavoured camel-milk milkshake too. In Deira, nestled between the spice and gold souks, you’ll find vendors selling Iraqi and Persian food, with stands offering shish and meat and rice stews garnished with pomegranate as well as thirst-quenching fresh juices.
If you’re looking for something to drink with more of a kick, however, you’ll need to head back to the hotels. Barasti at the Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort, with its beachside location and laid-back vibe, is a long-time favourite with expats and visitors alike. If you’re in the market for something more special, head for a cocktail at Skyview Bar in the iconic Burj al Arab – it’s a well-deserved treat after a day spent hunting for humble local cuisine. Trust me – it’s where Ranjit took me after Ravi’s.
Emirates flies direct to Dubai from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow.
September to March is the best time to visit. The summer months are best avoided because of extreme temperatures.
Burj al Arab (pictured, left): fantastic views of the Gulf in one of the world’s most iconic buildings. jumeirah.com
Grosvenor House: close to the Marina and home to some of Dubai’s best restaurants and bars. starwoodhotels.com
Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa: a spacious property located on the Gulf. starwoodhotels.com
This feature was published in the autumn 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.