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The Dubai food scene is at full boil. Here’s a taste

The emirate now boasts some 13,000 establishments — more per capita than New York City — and some are nabbing global laurels

By Seth Sherwood

In mid-September, on an artificial, palm tree-shaped island in the Arabian Gulf, an avant-garde dinner service — “performance” is a better word — kicked off around 6 pm in a dimly lit restaurant on the roof of Dubai’s Nakheel Mall. Outside, the twilight call to prayer echoed off skyscrapers, construction sites and neighbourhoods filled with low white villas.

Inside, electro music pulsed as servers initiated the nearly 20-course, Dh695 meal with postmodern panipuri, crispy pastry cups filled with palm hearts.

A succession of theatrical props and neo-Indian dishes followed: Cinnamon bark stuck with nuggets of baked crab. A glass teapot of mushroom broth to be poured over mushroom noodles. With great ceremony, servers deposited grilled pineapple, tomato broth and other dishes. Then the lights went out and Fly Me to the Moon filled the room. By the time the last course — white chocolate ice cream with Emirati honey — had been consumed, Frank Sinatra’s voice was fading away.

No, this wasn’t a scene from The Menu — the new movie that stars Ralph Fiennes as an exacting chef whose dinners are rife with drama — but rather the enactment of the nearly nightly experience at the new Tresind Studio restaurant.

Anyone wanting to clap for the director of this spectacle, a 36-year-old Indian chef named Himanshu Saini, had to hold their applause. At that moment, he was bound for Madrid to attend the Best Chef Awards ceremony, where he would be honoured as one of the top 100 cooks on the planet.

After years of simmering, the Dubai food scene is at full boil. The emirate now boasts about 13,000 establishments — more per capita than New York City — and local talents like Saini are nabbing global laurels.

This year, three top gastronomic guides released their first editions for Dubai. The cascade began in February when the World’s 50 Best Restaurants unveiled its list for the Middle East and North Africa. Dubai snagged 16 slots, more than any other city, including the top honour, for the Japanese-influenced 3 Fils restaurant. Then, in June, France’s Gault & Millau held a gala for the release of its UAE guide. A week later, the Michelin guide hosted its own ceremony to shower its stars on Dubai.

“Things have evolved so much,” said Gwendal Poullennec, the international director of Michelin guides, whose undercover inspectors began scouring Dubai in 2017. “There’s been a real explosion in the culinary scene.”

Credit goes partly to the emirate’s luxury hotels, which have long jockeyed to sign deals with Western and Asian boldface chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Heinz Beck, Bjorn Frantzen, Nobu Matsuhisa. And many top 2022 gastronomic prizes were claimed by hotel kitchens serving Continental cuisine: Stay by Yannick Alléno, Massimo Bottura’s Torno Subito, Ossiano at Atlantis, The Palm.

But the more impressive story is the surge of excellent homegrown establishments, like 3 Fils and Tresind Studio, whose chefs and owners actually carry an Emirati passport or residency card.

“When I arrived in 2009, we didn’t have homegrown restaurants. There were only chain restaurants, franchises and high-end restaurants in hotels,” recalled Stasha Toncev, who relocated from Serbia to work at the Armani Hotel and today runs her own “Balkan bistro,” 21 Grams. “Now there’s a huge difference.”

With such a dizzying array of dining options now available in Dubai, figuring out where to eat can be an overwhelming task for visitors eager to check out the new culinary scene. Here’s a guide to some of the most notable additions.

The flavour mall

Any epicurean exploration must begin at the Dubai International Financial Centre, or DIFC, a corporate complex that has blossomed over the last decade from a buttoned-down business centre into a dining hub.

Besides housing banks, investment firms and property developers, the centre houses restaurants by two pioneers who changed how and where Dubai eats: Omar Shihab and Izu Ani.

“We have double the number of restaurants here that we had three years ago,” said Shihab, the Jordanian-Emirati managing director of Boca, a Mediterranean restaurant that opened in the DIFC in 2014. “It’s crazy.”

The source of Boca’s local renown lay on the table before him: a menu of sustainable dishes — a phrase not commonly associated with a consumerist desert metropolis that offers year-round indoor skiing and an annual festival devoted to shopping.

Some menu staples, which range from Dh50 to Dh150, feature Emirati ingredients, such as the “Garden in the Desert” salad, with local beetroot, desert plants, hydroponic tomatoes and edible flowers. Others are attempts to reduce food waste, like bread made from old sourdough loaves and tomato-skin powder.

The most innovative item on the menu isn’t something to eat but a QR code link to Boca’s carbon-emissions report, which Shihab ordered last year in his role as the restaurant’s chief sustainability officer.

The green wave is now spreading to places like Lowe, a chic restaurant in a desert compound that serves healthy global dishes — tangy tartare of Japanese pumpkin, leaf-wrapped fish with tomato jelly — and periodically hosts “Waste Not” dinners for Dh150. Composed of leftover food, these zero-waste banquets exemplify a new Dubai adage: One man’s trash is another man’s multicourse tasting menu.

Even newer, the recently revamped Teible restaurant features dishes concocted mainly from Emirati ingredients — no easy feat in a parched landscape. To wit: a Dh450 set menu rife with shellfish from Fujairah, tomatoes from…

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