When Dubai’s first celebrity chef restaurant landed in 2001 – Gordon Ramsay’s Verre – it marked the awakening of the city’s culinary ambitions. Since then, Dubai has welcomed a raft of big name chefs and international restaurant brands, creating an incredibly diverse and multicultural dining scene. But you’ll also discover a burgeoning scene of homegrown concepts, influenced by traditional Emirati cuisine and the flavours of the 200 plus nationalities that call Dubai home. In fact, last year’s Dubai Food Festival paid homage to its homegrown heroes, a testament to the growing number of culinary entrepreneurs in the city.
Chef Reif Othman is one of them. The former head chef of Zuma has recently opened Play on the 36th floor of the H Hotel. With spectacular skyline views from floor-to-ceiling windows and a chocolate brown and gold interior, the space oozes class. Serving ‘Mediterrasian’, a blend of Asian and Mediterranean flavours, everything is cooked beautifully and presented imaginatively, from the Wagyu chorizo croquettes to the miso-marinated black cod.
In the same hotel, OKKU is an uber-chic restaurant, bar and nightclub rolled into one that is many a local’s go-to spot for modern Japanese cuisine. The menu features sushi and sashimi, plus small sharing plates – don’t miss the wasabi tiger shrimp – and mains like miso lobster onigarayaki and citrus-soy lamb. The ‘Disco Sushi’ Friday brunch is especially fun.
With floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the beach at JBR, chef Rabah Samra’s contemporary Emirati food at Seven Sands has to work hard to compete with the views. Luckily, it more than delivers with fresh interpretations of traditional dishes such as bezar prawns and fish fouga cooked in aromatic rice. The staff can guide you through the menu, making Seven Sands a top spot to experience a cuisine you may not be that familiar with.
Silvena Rowe is another Dubai-based chef who’s producing modern Middle Eastern cuisine with plenty of flair. Omnia by Silvena, her flagship venue on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, is a design-led brasserie serving a wide selection of salads, soups, meats and seafood flavoured with Arabic spices and marinades, as well as raw and gluten-free recipes. It doesn’t have an alcohol license, but the creative mocktails will soon make you forget all about wine.
Emirati entrepreneur Hessa Al Qassim has opted for Scandinavian design and a modern Mediterranean menu at Culinary Boutique, a restaurant-cum-gourmet cooking school on Jumeirah Beach Road. Dishes like truffle ravioli and Wagyu carpaccio impress, while the cooking classes range from the art of Emirati cuisine to mastering Peruvian ceviches.
Al Fanar, meanwhile, is a local favourite whose décor harks back to the Dubai of old. Modelled on a pearl merchant’s home, the restaurant along the Canal Walk in Festival City serves up traditional Emirati cuisine such as machboos (a rice dish similar to biriyani), maleh (salt-cured fish) and grilled meats and fish. Bu Qtair is another much-loved dining institution. For over two decades, the no-frills eatery served the catch of the day from a humble portacabin in Jumeirah, although it has recently moved to a simple restaurant in the nearby fishing harbour. The menu remains the same – simple fried fish and a spicy fish curry made with coconut, turmeric, coriander and sardines served with rice and paratha.
An initiative by Marriott hotels to help budding entrepreneurs open new restaurants has produced two fantastic homegrown concepts. At The Croft at Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel, top British chef Darren Velvick – a protégé of Gordon Ramsay – serves easily the city’s best casual British cuisine with an emphasis on local and organic ingredients. And like all good gastro-pubs, there’s a fine selection of gin and craft beers too.
Peruvian chef Edgar Hurtado is in charge of the other successful start-up, Garden at JW Marriott Marquis. Overflowing with plants and colourful Peruvian artwork, the décor is hip and modern, while the menu features world-class ceviches, meat and seafood mains, and half-a-dozen different Pisco cocktails. The informed, friendly service is among the best in the city.
Sharing concepts are popular in Dubai and BOCA, which serves tasty tapas from Spain, Italy and France, does it well. Located in DIFC, there’s a trendy bar, dining room and outdoor terrace, but we love the cellar with its communal table and walls of wine. Head down here for the eight-dish tasting menu (including the signature black rice with scallops and clams) paired with eight wines, starting with a Spanish sherry and ending with a French brandy.
And finally, The Farm is a tranquil restaurant located in the exclusive Al Barari estate about 15 minutes’ drive from Downtown. The brainchild of the local Zaal family, the restaurant and outdoor terrace overlook lush gardens and a small lake and serves modern Mediterranean and Thai cuisine. Make a day of it and book an indulgent treatment at the estate’s zen-like spa.