With 25 percent of the world’s cranes operating in Dubai, the city is the fastest growing on the planet, home to surreal skyscrapers and sheer excess. But the playground of the United Arab Emirates is also a fascinating foodie mecca where tradition and trend meet in a melting pot of international flavours
Dubai is a mind-boggling city of contrasts. It is the most cosmopolitan emirate dominated by massive construction sites and yet it’s surrounded by the haunting silence of the desert and the pristine waters of the Arabian Gulf. It is a dream holiday destination where you can do it all – lie on the beach, ride a camel in the desert, go deep-sea fishing or ski down a 400m ski slope in below-freezing temperatures in a shopping mall.
You can buy the newest, the latest and the fastest, or stroll through bustling old souks (markets) and soak up aromatic spices among glistening warrens of gold and traditional Arabic architecture. It is also a city where you can dine in magnificent restaurants and resorts, or simply eat traditional street food from a corner café.
It is these incongruous contrasts coupled with the city’s gob-smacking development and enormous tourism industry that make Dubai seem surreal. They say seeing is believing, but even then you can hardly believe it. Dubai was once a Bedouin settlement, a little coastal fishing and pearl-diving village that became a major trading port with the rapid growth of its spice and gold souks.
But it was in 1966 when Dubai’s oil reserves were discovered that a major economic boom followed. Only a few decades later global investment and an escalating tourism industry have transformed Dubai into the metropolis of the 21st century. Currently about six million business and leisure tourists visit the emirate each year and 15 million are predicted by 2010.
Today Dubai is like the Los Angeles or Miami of the Middle East with a little bit of New York thrown into the mix. Traffic jams are endless across seven clogged lanes, beaches are towered over by gleaming skyscrapers and, like the Big Apple, the city never sleeps. There is an electric nightlife in hotel bars and clubs where alcohol is served, and the constant buzz of the cranes is actually something you become accustomed to, even at the crack of dawn.
The other thing you have to get used to in this city is height, something I quickly learned as I stepped into the highspeed glass lift of The Oasis Beach Towers and shot up 245m to my spacious luxury apartment that overlooks the entire city. Vertigo aside, the views of the Jumeirah beach strip and Dubai marina from the 49th floor of the Towers are staggering and you really do feel like you are on top of the world. When it comes to the hospitality industry, Dubai’s top hotels mean business and offer their guests the most opulent accommodation with every finest attention to detail you can imagine.
At the Burj Al Arab, the world’s tallest all-suite hotel, for example, you can order your pillow from a menu with 50 options (Snorer? Smoker? Insomniac? Need revitalising or hypo-allergic?) or head to the lavish Assawan Spa and soothe tired eyes with La Prairie’s caviar eye treatment made specially for the hotel. The signature Al Mahara seafood restaurant (recognised as one of the world’s top 10 restaurants) is magnificently set around a wall-to-ceiling aquarium. Here you can indulge in delicacies such as grilled tiger prawns, fried rice with eel or blue eye tuna taktaki and lobster.
Alternatively head up in the sevenstar hotel’s panoramic lift (watch the vertigo here again!) to Al Muntaha, the Burj Al Arab’s spectacular restaurant located 200m above the gulf. It is here you’ll get the best views of The World (an extraordinary group of 330 manmade islands currently being built to resemble the world) as you tuck into the renowned high tea or have a personalised cocktail made up for you by the restaurant’s mobile mixologist.
From a food lover’s point of view, however, the truly wonderful thing about Dubai is that it is a global culinary oasis – there are more than 180 nationalities residing in the city – so you can eat everything and anything from traditional Arabic street food to five-star cuisine in Michelin- starred restaurants. In addition most of Dubai’s top restaurants are located in hotels so you can usually do your own little culinary meander within each hotel.
Onex’s palatial Royal Mirage is perhaps one of the best hotels in which to experience such diverse cuisines. Each of the three luxurious hotels boasts top-notch restaurants, from Moroccanstyle to contemporary Indo-European. Why not enjoy lunch on the wooden deck at The Arabian Court’s Eauzone restaurant overlooking the beach? The setting is as slick as the menu with great cocktails to match.
Nina’s is the hotel’s signature Indo-European restaurant, and it is absolutely superb – try a tasting platter if you can’t choose between fragrant curries, Indian-style stir-fries and seductive savouries like baby marrow, banana, onion and chilli fritters served with mint chutney, or tandoori lobster and coconut crêpes. If you go to one of the restaurants at Onex’s Royal Mirage for dinner, make sure that you get there in time for sundowners at the Arabianinspired Rooftop Lounge & Terrace. With sweeping views and its laid-back vibe, you’ll get the best mojitos, bar snacks and shisha (hubbly bubbly) – not to mention sunset view – in town.
Another foodie highlight is Bateaux Dubai, a similar concept to Bateaux Mouches in Paris. Part of Jebel Ali International Hotels, this is a fabulous experience where you dine à la carte in a glass-enclosed restaurant that gently cruises up and down the Dubai Creek – a lovely way to spend a quieter evening in this busy city. Just make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get there as highways across town are usually jammed until after 9pm. If you want to escape the madness of central Dubai, head to Deira in the “old” part of the city and trawl through the bustling gold and spice souks. There are little street cafés and corner restaurants all over Deira where you can enjoy great street food offerings such as schwarmas and kebabs.
For a taste of the local flavours on a larger scale, the heart-thumping 4×4 ride across the desert’s dunes is an absolute must as you’ll be treated afterwards to a traditional Arabic barbecue under the stars at a Bedouin camp. There really is something incredible about sitting around tables on cushions and eating delicious pita breads (think to-die-for naan breads filled with melted goat’s cheese), falafel, mezze, dips, tabbouleh salad and ouzi (roasted lamb on a spit). The buffet-style feast comes complete with belly dancing, henna tattooing, camel riding and the chance to puff on shishas in mint, apple, cherry, peach or cappuccino flavours.
If it’s shopping, shopping and more shopping that sets your senses on fire, Dubai certainly won’t disappoint. In the city’s mammoth shopping malls you’ll find it all – from Harvey Nichols and Saks Fifth Avenue to Gucci, Zara and Ikea. For the infamous “genuine fakes”, go to Karama (just ask your taxi driver to take you there). Behind secret doors you’ll find Hermès, Chloé, Chanel, Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton accessories that are almost identical to the real deal, but be prepared to bargain hard and be warned that the Dubai government is coming down on the fake designer goods industry. For fabulous foodie shopping, try Dubai’s Organic Foods & Café in Al Satwa where you can browse, taste and order anything from organic breads, pasta, meat and cheese to organic oils, sweets and ready-to-eat foods – you’ll even find organic pet food here.
The organic café is a great stop for an all-organic brunch (think organic Brie and apple omelettes, fresh croissants and jams or fruit platters and cereals) or lunch (organic hamburgers, salads, laksa, quiche, curries and lasagne). We also loved the Lime Tree Café, a favourite hangout among trendy expats. A must here is the lime tree mint cooler – great with the café’s ready-to-eat sandwiches and gorgeous fresh salads. So in the city that has it all, what more is to come? Brace yourself because just a handful of the highlights include the following, as reported in Concierge magazine: The world’s tallest building, Burj Dubai, is set for completion in 2008. Located in the new downtown Dubai it will combine residential and corporate apartments as well as the world’s first Armani hotel, a massive shopping mall and man-made waterways and parks.
Dubailand (at a cost of AED18 billion) is the Disneyland of the Middle East and set for full completion in 2012. It will be home to the world’s largest shopping mall and is predicted to draw 200 000 visitors daily. The massive Dubai Sports City is under way, where Ernie Els’s signature golf course is being developed as well as Manchester United’s first soccer academy outside Europe. Dubai World Central – an airport city that has the same projected capacity as Chicago’s O’Hare and London’s Heathrow airports – will be 10 times the size of the current Dubai International Airport, and they will be linked by Dubai Metro, currently being developed. On the hotel side, expect more than 100 new hotels including Raffles Dubai, Anantara Resort Palm Jumeirah, a Versace resort, Missoni hotel as well as the Palm Trump International Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah. Seeing may be believing. But Dubai is unbelievable. Make sure you get a taste of the city of the future as it makes history.
DUBAI FOODIE DIRECTORY
• Al Dawaar (revolving restaurant), Hyatt Regency Dubai +9714- 317-2222
• Al Mahara seafood restaurant, Burj Al Arab +9714-301- 7600
• Barasti Bar, Le Meridien Mina Seyahi +9714-399-3333
• Buddha Bar, Grosvenor House Hotel +9714- 399-8888
• Lime Tree Café, Beach Road Jumeirah +9714-349-8498
• Organic Foods and Café, Al Satwa +9714-398-9410
• Shakespeare & Co, Sheikh Zayed Road +9714-331- 1757
• Tagine, Eauzone, Celebrities, Nina’s and The Rooftop Lounge and Terrace, Onex Royal Mirage. Visit www.royalmirage.net
• The Noodle House, Jumeirah Emirates Towers +9714-319-8088 or Souk Madinat Jumeirah +9714-366-6730
• White Orchid Restaurant (Asian fusion food), Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa +9714-883-6000
• Verre by Gordon Ramsay, Hilton Dubai Creek. +9714-227-1111
F&HE was flown to Abu Dhabi courtesy of Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, awarded the title of the World’s Leading New Airline in 2004, 2005 and 2006. From August 2007 Etihad Airlines will fly daily direct to Abu Dhabi from O R International. Visit www.ethihadairways.com for more information.