Dubai is one of the most innovative and fast-moving cities not only in the Middle East, but in the world. With its skyline lit up with skyscrapers, Dubai is a city on the bucket list for many and, with people from across the globe flocking to this once desert oasis, it comes as no surprise that the cuisine on offer is up there with the best. Samantha Mattocks headed to the United Arab Emirates to uncover more about the city that never sleeps.
Through my role as owner of The Arabian Magazine – all about Arabian horses –I have been a regular visitor to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for many years. However, until now, Dubai had never appealed to me; it is like the Las Vegas of the Middle East, and I have never really ‘got it’.
Having not travelled since 2019, I decided it was time to jump on a plane and go to the Dubai International Arabian Horse Championships. I went with my friend Charlotte, who spent three years living and working in Dubai and who loved the city as much as I was ambivalent about it. Within three short days, Charlotte had converted me to the magic of this city.
Having flown out on Emirates, we landed into the midnight balmy heat of the Middle East, something I had missed, and got a taxi to the ibis One Central at the Dubai World Trade Centre – the location chosen for being close to the showground rather than anything else. From here, it was around 20 minutes from The Palm and 10 from the iconic Burj Khalifa if the traffic was kind. With a fast-running metro close by, and taxis readily available – if expensive – getting around is easy. Next door was Parlour Boutique, a café offering great juices and brunch-style dishes, among other options.
The first day we went to The Dubai Mall, the second largest mall in the world and one that comes complete with its own aquarium; this is Dubai, after all! While lunch in a mall over here may make you think of chains and fast food, The Dubai Mall has some very different offerings. I had done my research before I left and had spotted Günaydin in Souk al Bahar, also known as Downtown Dubai. On the cusp of the Mall, and next to the giant water fountains – I said Dubai was like Vegas – this was a superb alfresco restaurant offering authentic Turkish food. From the Arabic bread that puffs in the oven as it cooks to the mezze, it was all delicious. As well as rocket salad and hummus, we enjoyed marinated chicken thighs and an amazing dish of marinated lamb on smoked aubergine purée. One word of caution: alcohol in Dubai is expensive, much more so than in Abu Dhabi!
That even, we celebrated Charlotte’s birthday by visiting the Brazilian restaurant, Frevo at Fairmont on The Palm. After helping yourself to the buffet, different meats cooked on the barbeque are carved for you at your table, having been cooked in a southern Brazilian churrascaria-style way. This place was as much about the location and experience more than anything else, and it was a fun way to spend an evening and to try different things; chicken hearts, anyone?
One thing I do love is a good Lebanese meal and my research noted Awtar at the Grand Hyatt Dubai, and it did not disappoint! With its tent-style ceiling, and possibly the best belly-dancer we have ever seen, Awtar ticked every box, from the cocktails to the food itself. One standout cold mezze plate for me was ‘moussaka’ – aubergine, tomato, chickpeas, garlic, and cumin, with all the flavours of the traditional dish but without the lamb and sauce. And I simply had to have sawda dajaj – sauteed chicken livers with lemon, my favourite Lebanese dish. The lamb chops with tomato were also delicious, and this was, without doubt, my favourite meal of the trip – not just in terms of flavour, but also ambiance.
Our last day was a very relaxed; weekends in the Middle East have now changed from Friday/Saturday to Saturday/Sunday, so we decided to make the most of the weather and went to Eggspectation at Jumeirah Beach for lunch, something we wouldn’t recommend although we may have just made bad menu choices. Then it was off to The Scene at Pier 7 for sundowners. Owned by Simon Rimmer, The Scene was doing a brisk trade in full Sunday roasts, but we opted to sit and relax, looking out over the water as the sun slowly sank between the skyscrapers.
We stayed by the water for our last dinner, going to the Fish Beach Taverna at Mina Seyahi, which offered tasty Greek-style seafood and was Charlotte’s foodie highlight of the trip. She had Greek salad to start, followed by a very flavoursome grilled octopus, while I had a delightful starter, ege karmasi – sundried tomato, hazelnut, peanut, flaxseed, ezine cheese, and spices; very aromatic and full of unusual flavours. My main was sea bass and lemon cooked in filo pastry – utterly delicious, although it would have been nice had the pastry been crisp!
After our short trip, Charlotte had opened up a whole new side to Dubai for me – one that showed its wide-ranging gastronomy, and all that this vibrant city offers. On every visit, Dubai changes so much, and there is always something new to look at, such as the Museum of the Future in all its architectural glory. I will definitely be back – and I will look at this once desert wasteland very differently.
Emirates flights from London Heathrow cost from £387 return. Find out more at www.visitdubai.com
As written for nourish magazine