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Hacktreks 2

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Habeeb Salloum

Stranger than a tale from a Thousand and One Nights, the modern story of Dubai is truly an epic of a released genie going about its work of building a fairytale city. This is especially true when it comes to the cuisine of this fast-evolving urban centre. Spicy and saucy, sweet and tart, is not only how one describes Dubai and its people, but its cuisine as well. Day after day as the city grows, more and more of the foods of the world are creeping into the Dubai kitchen, turning it into a culinary world of a thousand and one delights.

Combining a 21st century aura with the unique charm, mystery and hospitality of traditional Arabia, Dubai's 900,000 inhabitants, a mixture of almost every nationality under the sun, live in a dynamic and expanding ultramodern urban centre, defusing an air of oriental splendour. This eastern lure plus its touristic facilities, oozing with modern comfort and conveniences, have made it a mecca for an ever-increasing number of vacationers from the four corners of the world.

However, this galloping of the city has not overtaken the Dubains’ pride in their heritage, including their ancient culinary world. At the Al Boom Tourist Village Restaurant, where this legacy is preserved at its best, we decided to begin our exploration of Dubai’s food world.

A gigantic eating place, overshadowed by the Al Garhoud Bridge, Al Boom is a modern multi-purpose restaurant offering the traditional of Arabia, dressed in a modern attire. Consisting of numerous structures and sailing dhows for dining, it can accommodate up to 10,000 customers. The only large restaurant serving the national food of the UAE in Dubai, it has a customer ratio of 80% nationals and 20% ex-pats and tourists. An impressive eating place, it oozes with grandeur.

As I entered the office of Al Boom’s Executive Chef, Munib Rushdi, I encountered a man who fully organizes his daily menus, recipes, banquets, weddings and other tasks on computer. I was impressed. Traditional Arabian food has entered cyberspace via Chef Munib. A Palestinian born in Nablus, Palestine, Chef Munib trained in the US and Kuwait where he worked as a cook, then chef.
Cornell University provided him with his academic and professional training in Food and Beverage Management and he is now a member of the Chîne des Rôtisseurs of France. Even though he has been at Al Boom for only one year Chef Munib has left his mark.

He ‘boomed’ with energy as he discussed his culinary creations. His favourite dish is "any food that I newly create. One of my cherished creations is a seafood dish which I call, ‘The Favourite of Ibn Battuta’" The name caught my imagination. Ibn Battuta was one the greatest geographers and travellers in the Middle Ages. His description of countries, peoples and their mores and food overshadowed those of Marco Polo. I am sure that he would have been proud of Chef Munib’s creation of his namesake.

As we toured his enormous kitchen where 43 cooks and 40 stewards are daily at work, we talked about his restaurant and its food, along with his creations. He explained: "The ability to cook is not in the blood. Cooking is fun. If one does not have the ability to create, then a person cannot be a good cook or chef." As for the food served, 50% of the dishes on the menu is ‘local food’ - the most popular being Aysh wa Laham (bread and meat) and Guzee (stuffed lamb) - and 50% international food. The nationals, for the most part, order international food, but for special festive events like weddings, choose local food. For other customers, the preference is seafood dishes - both local and international. In the words of Chef Munib, "Our restaurant caters to every taste." My daughter laughed as we left, "Munib sure makes Al Boom, boom!" Average cost for Ibn Battuta 100 DHS; Dinner - international 70 DHS and local 50 DHS; Lunch 45 DHS.

Goodies in the next door Wafi Centre was our next stop. First established in Lebanon, Goodies later opened a branch in France, then in November 2001 opened another in Dubai where it quickly became successful - today employing some150 workers. A supermarket, deli and restaurant rolled into one, it is a place where one can eat, then shop. As I looked around, I thought to myself, "Goodies is named well since its offerings of goodies are endless." Its restaurant’s Chef Hussein Khaled was trained in Lebanon and prepares, besides Lebanese food, international and vegetarian dishes. This wide variety of food has made Goodies a mecca for a clientele consisting of a mixture of nationalities. Carla Torbey, Catering Coordinator and Public Relations Manager, explained: "Goodies is a special concept. It’s the variety and reasonable prices that make our establishment so unique. You can’t compare Goodies to other restaurants. I think that we have the best food in the city and what makes us special is that customers can see the food before they order. We know that we have something exceptional since our clientele, many of whom discover our restaurant by chance, keep returning." My wife was enthralled with the aisles of succulent foods on display. I had to drag her away but promised her that we would return and dine here. She gleefully responded: "Oh! Goody!". Average cost of meal 50 DHS.

On the other side of the Wafi Centre is The Seville Tapas Bar - a pioneer of Spanish cooking in Dubai. Elke Nijhof, Sales and PR Manager, recommends, that the best meal for first-time customers is a variety of tapas.

She explained: "Even though Spanish food is not well-known in Dubai, we get a lot of repeat customers. The unique thing about Seville is if the clients don’t know our food well enough, the waiters suggest meal with a variety of tapas, then, as a main course recommend paella." She continued, "Our restaurant is becoming popular in Dubai and the favourite dishes in demand are calamares fritos (fried squid), choriza (sausage) and paella." I could see why the restaurant is very well-liked in Dubai. In the words of a Syrian friend who once lived in Spain, "Spanish food is a leftover from the Arabs - tapas are the mazzas {appetizers) of the Arab East and paella is baqiya (leftovers), created by the Moors in Spain to replace their beloved banned couscous." As the saying goes, from olé (Arabic wa-Allah) to olives, they are all in Spain’s Arab past. Average order of large portions of tapas - 10 to 20 DHS; average dinners from 80 to 100 DHS.

After a few minutes drive, we were sitting in the Khazana Restaurant, located behind the American Hospital. According to numerous people in Dubai whom I consulted, in the taste of its food, it was the best Indian restaurant in the city. Of course, with some 70% of Dubai’s population being of Indian origin, there are many other Indian food outlets offering meals for less than10 to some 200 DHS.
Waiting for our food, I remembered a culinary experience, the first time that I visited Dubai in the late 1980s. I was searching for a restaurant when the enticing smell of barbecuing fish drew me to a popular Indian eating place where fish was being cooked in a tandoor. Even though the atmosphere was zero, the mouth-watering smell of the cooking fish and fresh baked bread in a tandoor persuaded me to try the fish served with freshly baked bread. The taste was heavenly and I relished every morsel. To top it all off, the price was only five dirhams. Since that time, it has been a meal that has always been imbedded in my memory. In the Indian populated areas in Dubai, like the Karama district near the Khazana Restaurant, there are a good number of tandoors and other eating places where a traveller can enjoy a fine Indian meal from 10 to 20 DHS - sans atmosphere and the surrounding of fine dining. As an example , the Ravi, located in Dubai’s Satawa area, offers a good tandoor meal for 10 DHS.

Now, at the Khazana we were in a different world. A storehouse of culinary treasures, it ranks as one of the city’s finest eating places, serving the top foods of the Indian sub-continent and was voted as Dubai’s best eating place for the year 2001 because of the quality, taste and the reasonable price of its food. Sanjeev Kapoor, Master Chef of India, founded a series of Khazana Restaurants in India - the one in Dubai, which opened in 2001, is his first venture outside the Indian sub-continent. According to Khazana’s Chef Rana, all the restaurant’s staff, including himself were trained under Master Chef Kapoor.

Now, at the Khazana we were in a different world. A storehouse of culinary treasures, it ranks as one of the city’s finest eating places, serving the top foods of the Indian sub-continent and was voted as Dubai’s best eating place for the year 2001 because of the quality, taste and the reasonable price of its food. Sanjeev Kapoor, Master Chef of India, founded a series of Khazana Restaurants in India - the one in Dubai, which opened in 2001, is his first venture outside the Indian sub-continent. According to Khazana’s Chef Rana, all the restaurant’s staff, including himself were trained under Master Chef Kapoor.

Vikram Berry, the restaurant’s Manager, proudly stated: "People come here to enjoy the food because the dishes served are always fresh and consistently good." The dishes favoured by the clientele are: ‘chicken flavored with fenugreek’, Shaam Savera - a cottage cheese spinach dumpling, cooked in butter, cream and tomato sauce, with a honey gravy spooned over it; and the restaurant’s specialty: flambéed Indian desserts, served every evening. For the curious, the restaurant offers much more than curries. Average cost of a meal 75 DHS - drinks extra. From the Khazana, we drove for about 10 minutes to the Jumeirah area where there is a concentration of Lebanese restaurants. In the UAE, Lebanese food is a nomenclature for the foods of all the Fertile Crescent countries which include, besides Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan. The Lebanese were the first outside Arabs to open eating places in Dubai and, hence, set the pace for others. Today, Lebanese food outlets saturate the city. From peoples eateries which offer tasty sandwiches for a few dirhams to 250 DHS for a meal with entertainment at the Mawal Restaurant in the Al Bustan luxury hotel, Lebanese food has become in Dubai a favourite of Arabs and non-Arabs alike. At the lower end of the scale, the Automatic at the Jumeirah Plaza offers succulent shawarma and falafel sandwiches at a cost of 5 DHS and a daily meal for 25 DHS, while a fine Friday buffet costs 30 DHS. You go, you eat, you’re automatically sated. In the same area on Al Diyafah Street, the Istanbouli, a long established moderately priced Lebanese Restaurant, has been a popular eating place for 25 years and offers a daily hot meal with salad for 20 DHS.

Within walking distance of the Istanbouli, a traveller seeking fine Lebanese food will find Al Qasr Restaurant at the Dubai Marine Beach Resort and Spa. Before our visit to this palace of Arab cuisine, many nationals and Arabs from the Greater Syria area had advised us that this was one of the top restaurants serving Lebanese food in Dubai.

Its reputation is chiefly due to Chef Ghassan Haddad, who trained as a cook, then chef in Beirut and has been Al Qasr’s head chef for 8 years. He said that he has been in the cooking business since he was 15 when his parents had registered him for training as a cook in a vocational school. He went on, "More than anything else, I like to prepare salads. However, most of our customers usually prefer mazzas and barbecued meats, but a good number of our Arab clientele always ask for kubbah nayyah (raw meat dish)."

Nadim Maalouf, Director of Food and Beverage for both Al Qasr and the Mexican Alamo Restaurant at the Dubai Marine, continued along with the same theme: "We have a consistency in our food. The taste is always the same and our customers, about 65% Arabs, keep coming back." He explained, "What helps to make our restaurant even more popular is the Arabic entertainment. Every evening an Arabic band with singers and belly dancers entertain the guests who are also served fresh bread with their meals, baked before their eyes." As we left, my daughter asked, "What do you think the customers like most? The belly dancer who excites, or the hot bread that tantalizes the palate?". I dared not answer. Average cost of a full course meal 120 to 150 DHS - without drinks.
From Al Qasr, Nadim took us to visit his other restaurant - the Alamo - another one of the10 eating places in the Dubai Marine Beach Resort and Spa. The Alamo is a trademark restaurant in Dubai. He explained, "What makes the Alamo unique are the large portions of food served and the extremely reasonable prices, as well as the consistency of the food and drinks. When one thinks of good authentic Mexican cuisine in the city, it’s the Alamo." What maintains the integrity of the the restaurant is its Executive Chef Garoda who hails from Bangalore, India. He began working at the Alamo in 1993 and became Executive Chef in 2000. His food has made the restaurant one of the best of all the Mexican eating places in Dubai. The famous adage "Remember the Alamo" is what customers walk away with when recalling Dubai’s Alamo.

The most favoured dishes among the almost 90% European clientele are fakhitas, for which the restaurant is noted, nachos, tacos and burritos. Average cost of a full course meal about 70 DHS.
The following day, we visited the finest Iranian restaurant in town, the Shabestan Restaurant, located in the Intercontinental Hotel in the Deira area of Dubai. It oozed with the splendour of Iran and its culinary history. Hyder Shirazi, who has been a chef for 28 years and who once worked in the palace-kitchen of the former Shah of Iran, has made its food renowned. The foods of the Shah have become the food of the people.

From among the some 15 main dishes prepared in the restaurant, his favourite is a mouth-watering leg of lamb which is extremely popular among the restaurant’s clientele - the majority being Iranians and Arabs. Vying with this dish in popularity are the mixed platter dishes: chicken, fish, meat, shrimps and three types of rice. Also popular, according to Chef Hyder, are Persopolis, a chicken and meat dish, and Ramsar, a mixture of meat and seafood. What makes the Shabestan different from the other Iranian restaurants in Dubai, according to Hyder, is the quality of the food and the way it is presented. "The ambiance of our restaurant is outstanding and our food, linked to the civilizations of Persia, is superb." Mehran Samadpour, Manager of the Shabestan, believes that Chef Hyder, by introducing the royal foods of Persia to the city, has given his best to Dubai’s culinary world. We relished the food of he who had cooked for the Peacock Throne and I felt content. Average cost of a special meal for 4 persons - between 700 and 800 DHS. For one person full course meal costs from 150 to 250 DHS.

The Fish Market, located in the same hotel, is also a popular eating place in Dubai. Chef Poonsak Sumonratakul has been responsible for much of its reputation - offering Thai style seafood.
He said that his mother was his mentor and encouraged him to become a chef. He received his training in Bangkok and has been cooking for 20 years - 4 years at the Fish Market.
Above all others, the dish he loves to prepare is steamed fish, Thai style, with a special sauce and steamed vegetables on the side. However, what the customers demand most are charcoal barbecued fish, steamed fish and sautéed fish with sauce. Most of the clientele are businessmen and Dubai nationals who are repeat customers. "Everyone knows that we are the best fish restaurant in Dubai. We prepare our fish Thai style and only use fresh fish and fresh Thai herbs. We do not mind the cost because we want the best for our customers." The Thai chef has tied the food of the Far East to the palates of Dubai’s multi-racial inhabitants - and with great success. Average cost of a meal 150 DHS. Not too far away from the Intercontinental is the Marriott Hotel’s JW’s Steakhouse which has achieved great success in Dubai, much of this is due to its Chef Juraj who was trained by the Marriott in the USA. The originality of this steakhouse, the first in its line opened outside the US, is that its meat is imported fresh from the US state of Colorado every 21 days. It is then aged at a normal temperature - never frozen - and marinated before use.

According to Kishor Shetly, Assistant Manager of the restaurant, "JW’s truly represents fine and elegant dining. The secret of its success is that after aging and marinating, the meat becomes so tender that one can cut it with a fork. It’s the filet mignon and porterhouse steaks which keep drawing our customers back." The thought of cattle being rounded up in Colorado echoes here in JW’s.
As Blues music played in the background, Kishor stated that as a payback to frequent customers, JW’s will name, after them, tables, glasses and plates. For a second I thought instead of branding cattle, here in JW’s, its their tables and dinnerware which receive the imprint. Average dinner costs about 150 DHS - with trimmings increases up to 200 DHS.

The sister La Cocina Italian Restaurant in the Marriott Hotel is at the top of the many Italian eating places in Dubai. When dining here, customers enter the beauty and charm of authentic rustic Italy. The simplicity of its decor gives no indication of the elegant traditional Italian cuisine served inside. Among the favoured dishes offered by La Cocina are fresh mussels cooked in wine, fresh pasta and the restaurant’s special wooden-oven baked pizzas - definitely the restaurant’s most popular dish. From New York, where pizzas were invented, to Italy where they flourished, and now in Dubai where they are blooming, it’s a journey of gourmet delight. UAE nationals, ex-pats and tourists very much enjoy the food here and the restaurant is always full. Families residing in Dubai often hold anniversary and birthday parties in this Italian culinary oasis.

One of the charms of the restaurant are the serenading waiters who beautifully sing the great folkloric melodies of Italy. What is unusual, however, is that they are all Philipinos, The funny thing is that the Roman Empire never extended to the Philippines - Caesar would have been proud. Average cost of a meal 75 DHS - without drinks.

A ten minute drive from the Marriott and we were at the Al Bustan Hotel. Soon we were comfortably seated in its Blue Elephant Restaurant, serving the best of Thai food. Its Chef, Yongyuth Khanung Mad, a self taught cook who hails from Bangkok, said that the Blue Elephant cuisine is absolutely the tops. He emphasized, "It’s the best Thai restaurant in the UAE." I’ve been to Bangkok and he could have very well added, it equals the best in Thailand.

Known for its impeccable service, it offers royal Thai cuisine in a detailed recreation of a Thai village where serenity and relaxation prevail amid luscious greenery, exotic flowers and running water, enhanced by authentic Thai music. Along with the fresh ingredients brought from Thailand, the restaurant also imports bundles of delightful orchids to add a mystic aura to the establishment. An indoor restaurant with an outdoor atmosphere, it’s ambience makes it a Thai paradise in Dubai.All the dishes served are authentic, but less spicy than original Thai food. However, spices can be added as desired by the customers. Chef Yongyuth’s favourite dishes and also the darling of his customers are Tum Yum Koond, a prawn soup, chicken satay, lamb massamam and chicken curry. One can say that the ‘spice of life’ in Dubai, is the Blue Elephant. Daily buffet costs 95 DHS.

To end our journey through Dubai’s culinary world, it was fitting that we made the Tagine
Restaurant our last stop. The only restaurant in Dubai which serves Moroccan food, it is located in
the luxurious atmosphere of the Royal Mirage Hotel. A mixture of
Moorish/Andalusian type architecture and genuine Moroccan furniture, set in a
North African atmosphere, Tagine recreates the essence of Morocco. Based on
authentic Moroccan food, the restaurant’s dishes make customers feel that they
are truly dining in Fez or Marrakesh.
The staff of the Tagine Restaurant, all Moroccan, speak Arabic, English, French and German. They have been trained to help the guests choose their meal plan, guiding them so that they can enjoy an
authentic Moroccan repast. For the uninitiated in Moroccan cuisine, the Tagine staff are apt and ready to design a full meal. It’s a well-trained restaurant army whose goal is to conquer the heart of the diner.
According to Naden Coodien, Assistant
Food and Beverage Manager, "If you go to an Italian restaurant, for example, you are usually met by Philipino or Indian staff. The Tagine is the only eating place in Dubai where you are welcomed by Moroccans in a Moroccan restaurant."

Coodien takes pride in the Tagine’s uniqueness, décor and atmosphere and what it has to offer in style and charm. The visual ambiance, the smell of incense and perfumes, the sound of running water, as well as the Moroccan duo who play the muwashshahaat (Andalusian/Moroccan music), are
what create the relaxing aura within. I felt that it was a royal palace where one is served a royal feast.
Chef Umar, who hails from Marrakesh, was hired in July 1999 when the hotel opened. He offers, as the main entrées, tagines and couscous, as well as a tasty harira (soup). The most popular dish which customers enjoy is a tagine of chicken with olives and preserved lemons. I thought of my good friends in Rabat who first introduced me to this dish which I thereafter cherished. I couldn’t believe that thousands of kilometres east, this food had become popular in Dubai.
The menu offered and the style of eating in the restaurant are similar to that of the traditional Moroccan home. In Naden’s words, "Food is to be enjoyed and appreciated in this restaurant." The Tagine has gained such a reputation for fine dining that reservations are mandatory - best to book at least 5 days in advance. Average meal costs 120 to 130 DHS.

After visiting the Tagine, I became convinced that to dine in this restaurant would be truly a breath-taking end to a culinary journey through Dubai - a city of a thousand and one nights offering its cuisine of a thousand and one delights. Habeeb Salloum.

© Habeeb Salloum May 2003

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