The blue motif at the centre of the table reminded us of an ‘evil eye’ charm which we received from Tehran as a gift but had also seen being sold on the streets of Istanbul.
Going through the menu was déjà vu all over again. Like Turkish food, Iranian cuisine is dominated by grilled skewers of lamb and chicken so we felt we knew what we were getting into. I am not sure how the two cultures influenced each other so much because the Ottomans and Pesians didn’t really get along that much throughout history. Anyway, it wasn’t just the Turks the menu seemed to be inspired by. While Lebanese influences were apparent in the appetizers (hummus, tabouleh and mutabel were listed) there was also a chicken boti on the menu which is an Indian/Pakistani boneless chicken tikka.
Thankfully though, most of the menu consisted of authentic Iranian Dishes and we did not order anything that could have interfered with our Iranian experience; well other than the hummus of course. I would have skipped it if I could have had my way but seeing how Mishals eyes lit up upon reading the word hummus, I dared not tell her that it had nothing to do with Persian cuisine.
So the hummus was slightly thinner in consistency compared to the Lebanese kind and had a sharp lemony zing to it. We had ordered the hummus laham (hummus with meat) but it also came with sanober (pine nuts) which would be a completely different kind of hummus at a Lebanese restaurant.
We ordered skewers of lamb and chicken mince kebabs, lamb and chicken tikkas and lamb and chicken yoghurt kebabs. To me, ordering the same things twice seemed like a waste of time but since the only kind of animals Mishal eats are the ones that have feathers on them, as always we had to order the chicken as well.
Compared to Pakistani mince kebabs, these seemed a bit dry to me but they had minimal spices so we could actually taste the meat. It worked great for the lamb but I don’t think you really want to taste the chicken mince unless you are fine with tasting some feathers, chicken fat and maybe a beak as well. Both the lamb and chicken tikkas were also a bit dry to my liking but the yoghurt kebabs made up for that later. Marinated overnight in yoghurt and black pepper, yoghurt kebabs are extremely popular in Southern Iran and we could see why.
The winning dish of the night was the chellow khorosht bamia which was a boneless lamb and okra stew mildly spiced and cooked in a tomato paste. Think of it as a Persian goulash served with white rice. I found the dough (pronounced doug) to be particularly refreshing and highly recommend it. It was a drink made of fresh buttermilk, salt and dried mint.
The plastic covered menu was not too classy and took away from the effect they might have desired to achieve. It might as well have been a food court joint and and no fancy tables with blue motifs were required. The coloured pictures of the food made a lot of sense though, considering that none of the waiters spoke any Arabic. Service was fast but our orders were mixed up twice (despite the coloured pictures). Not bad for a quick meal if you are at Dubai Mall and provides a good insight into the world of Persian kebabs. Not sure if my craving for authentic Persian cuisine has been satisfied though. I think I will keep looking.
It was 2012 and Dubai had just about recovered from the recession. Companies had started hiring and property developers were advertising their projects with newfound fervor and zeal. Tahir Shah had just bid farewell to his corporate job and had set out on his own to answer the most pertinent lunch hour question in Dubai, ‘What do I eat today’?
I didn’t even realise this was such a big problem until Tahir explained it to me. “That precious lunch hour of yours is fleeting in the day. A day filled with stuffy slow elevator rides, parking spot hunting, meetings about meeting, sharing roads with nutjob drivers etc. It’s that one chance you get at a semblance of ‘me time’. Our dignity slips in between the keyboards with the crumbs from the crummy desk-lunch sandwich. This is the time which is supposed to be our breather, to gossip with friends” he said. Despite Dubai being one of the most saturated restaurant markets in the world, there were hardly any places where you could get a healthy meal, really fast.
This was clearly a man on a mission and never had I before seen someone who could spell out Dubai’s lunch hour woes with such precision but he was not just an analyst. He was also a strategist. He had identified a gap in the market and knew exactly where to find the solution. He turned to the one source that he could absolutely trust with his life. The same place where we have all gone to as kids when we were confused, lonely, happy, excited, jubilant, ecstatic or hungry. The one place which had never let any of us down. Tahir went to his mother’s kitchen.
So armed with his mother’s recipes and under her guidance, Tahir Shah set about providing fast gourmet lunches to Dubai’s corporate soldiers. I first discovered Tahir and his ‘Moti ‘Roti’ concept at a pop up in a Media City supermarket. I was intrigued because these guys had the audacity to sell roti (wholemeal flatbread) wraps instead of paratha (fried flour bread) wraps or rolls.
Only a discerning eye would be able to differentiate between the two but paratha rolls are more popular because like all things fried in oil, they are considered to be of a better taste albeit unhealthy. A notion that I disagree with and something that Moti Roti has proved wrong time and again. As long as the filling is good (think lightly spiced free range chicken, simmered in mum’s secret masala) and the bread is freshly made from stone ground wheat, roti rolls outclass paratha rolls in every way possible. If you are not really into bread however, the same filling is served with brown pilau rice or even on a bed of greens.
Since then, Moti Roti has a come a long way. From Dubai street nights to organic farmer’s markets, their pop ups started showing up all over Dubai. The business gradually grew to include a food truck and they have eventually set up a little take away and delivery shop in JLT (Cluster J). Like the food, the growth has been completely organic and as I stepped into their new shop last night, It gave me great pleasure to see that mom’s recipes had come full circle. After setting up pop ups all over Dubai, Moti Roti finally has a place to call home.
I realized while going through their brand new menu, that like her son, Tahir’s mom has also been quiet busy herself. While traditional Pakistani spices and recipes are at the heart of the operation, her ground breaking ‘okra fries’ and her innovative whole wheat, stone baked Punjabi pizzas may once again revolutionise the gourmet fast food market – the 2nd time since she had done it first with her ‘Moti Rotis’ in 2012.
Don’t be fooled by the name. This is not some random bloke selling cabbages and cauliflower at the corner of your street. This is a kitchen factory with a storefront that could humble a department store and a menu that updates faster than Taylor Swift’s boyfriend list. This is a super restaurant if there is ever such a thing; I’m still not sure who Jones is though, neither were any of the 5 waiters I asked – I think it was his day off.
I loved the open concept floor plan and the huge windows which were letting in copious amounts of light. There was so much activity around that it almost felt like an airport departure lounge with some people grabbing a bite before a flight, some picking up last minute duty free and others talking as if they had another 10 hours to kill.
All the cool kids seemed to be having breakfast (despite it being 1 pm). I would have as well if only had I not done the boiled egg ritual that morning. While I curiously tried to decipher the ingredients of what seemed like eggs on toast on the table 3 inches next to mine (I am creepy like that), Mishal seemed to be eyeing a gentleman who was struggling with his eggs benedict. Anyway, upon agreeing to return for breakfast later since it seemed to be the ‘in’ thing to do, Mishal ordered the seared Chilean sea bass with soba noodles and I went for the grilled Atlantic salmon on homemade babaganoush.
I will get to the food in a bit but first I have to tell you of the most spectacular discovery we made that day. The drinks menu was a bit confusing and our poor waiter could not answer any of my questions. First of all, nobody knew what a ‘fever tree’ was. I asked to see someone who would know since it came in 6 flavours and my wife was about to order one but apparently the only person who could answer that question was not available (could have been Jones himself). Mishal being the adventurous soul that she is still went ahead and asked for an elderflower tonic fever tree anyway but settled for a bitter lemon fever tree later since the former was out of stock. (I think Fever Tree is just the name of the brand but somebody please tell the waiters that)
I was fascinated by a drink that was listed in the sparkling organic juice section. Never had I in my life been presented with the opportunity to sample organic cola juice straight from the mountains of Kilimanjaro. Where the cola fruit was plucked out of mother nature’s bosom and flown to this Dubai super factory in a chartered airplane so that it could be lovingly disassembled to separate the juice from the pod. They must be doing huge volumes though, how else could they justify selling something so rare, precious and ‘organic’ for AED21 per 250 ml bottle.
Anyway, now on to the food. I can safely say that my grilled salmon was among the best I have ever had. It is amazing how seafood tastes different when it is fresh (or as fresh as it could possibly be after travelling 12000 odd kms from the Atlantic Ocean to Safa). There was a generous slab of fresh salmon that was grilled to perfection on my plate but I couldn’t help noticing Mishal’s sea bass which was served in a bowl that could also have been used to serve ramen but instead came with the most good looking pan seared sea bass that was covered with sesame seeds and laid on a bed of seaweed and bok choy drenched in yuzu ponzu.
The crunch of the thin salmon skin was the perfect compliment to it’s creamy flesh and it seemed to be the only thing that held the fish from immediately melting in my mouth. That along with the feta and olive tomato salad ensured that we kept conversation to a minimum while I devoured the fish.
The sea bass however is what we couldn’t stop talking about that evening and the morning after. The nori (seaweed) added a smoky aroma to the dish while the yozu ponzu dressing added a savory, sweet and citrusy zest to it. The cashews seemed to be strategically placed in the bowl to clean the palate and prepare for the next flavor. All this sat atop aromatic soba noodles and every single bite was a melange of different flavors and textures. The sea bass itself might have been from South America but the dish itself was undoubtedly from the land of the rising sun.
For dessert we had the salted caramel tart which was the best way to end the meal because our taste buds kept jumping between sugar and salt. We also had the chocolate cheesecake which reiterated the notion that fresh good quality ingredients are the difference between a good and a supercaligragillisticexpiaidocius meal.
Just like the wheel can not be reinvented, a burger can’t be made to be elitist or aristocratic. It is either a burger or it isn’t. Sure you can stick a toothpick in the middle of the bun and add onion marmalade instead of onion rings but that wont take away from the fact that you would still be better off eating it with your hands and regardless of how you do eat it; things could get messy.
While hunting down the best burgers in Dubai for this article, we ate buns and beef patties every day for a whole month. Not only did we get to try some cool new restaurants but also went back to a place I used to frequent 18 years ago!
11) Johnny Rockets, multiple locations. The Original. AED 39.
It looked like a roadside diner in Jumeirah but this was the only ‘fancy’ burger joint I knew of back in 1998. They have since modified their menu but ‘The Original’ burger remains unchanged. This was the burger that opened my mind up to a world where it was worth waiting for a burger that took longer than 4 minutes to prepare. It was the burger that first demonstrated the affects of a good cheddar on prime beef, it was the burger that made going to a burger joint cool. For me, it was a part of growing up in Dubai and thankfully, it remains just as good now as it was back then.
TIP: Please do order the cherry coke.
10) Five Guys, multiple locations. Cheese Burger AED 42.
Their cheese burger is the most awarded burger in Vegas and it is definitely one of the best in Dubai. You get free peanuts while you wait for your order and there is a sign on the wall that tells you exactly where the potatoes being used on that day were grown.
You have the freedom to add whatever toppings (you must try the mushroom) you want and you essentially end up building your own burger. The size of the meat patty was small but they made up for it by adding 2 instead of 1, so you still get a mouthful in every bite. They used 2 slices of good old fashioned American cheddar (yes it was messy) that did the job well and the skin on spicy french fries were way up there on the potato charts.
09) L’eto Cafe, multiple locations. California Burger. AED 110.
Healthy, basic and world class. This consisted of avocado slices on a thick beef patty placed on a bed of greens resting on a toasted bun. The other half of this ‘open’ burger was layered with tomato salsa which had pomegranate seeds mixed into it. It was like a Sicilian love affair in Tehran, or LA – depending on what side you ate first. We were not in any of those cities though. We were in the only city that could be all of those cities and more; a place that is a melting pot of cultures with a distinct identity of its own. We were in Dubai and this burger was the definitive Dubai Burger.
Excellent quality beef patty in a freshly baked bun with all the bells and whistles you could expect in a winning burger. Definitely one of the best in Dubai and may have been higher on my list only if it were a bit messier! There were moments when I could taste the chilli mayo and then there would be a dry patch with nothing but meat all around. A fried or a pickled jalapeno (it had both kinds) here and there was like an oasis of flavor in a desert of meat. I guess that is how they want to position themselves, as purveyors of squeaky clean gourmet burgers – no drips intended.
7) Sugar Factory, La Mer Beach. Rainbow Sliders 99 AED
These little burgers were so tasty, I was forced to edit this annual list a couple of months before it was up for a refresh. Don’t get me wrong, they were definitely the cutest things on this list but that is not the only reason they are up here. They were punching way above their weight in the taste category as well.
The 5 multi coloured mini buns were stuffed with a grilled Angus beef patty and melted cheddar. Along with lettuce and tomato, they was smothered in a secret sauce and my personal favorite – caramelized onions. Now the thing with sliders is that there is relatively little room to add stuff so you’ve got to choose your ingredients carefully. The most important ingredient of course, is the meat and I am happy to report that the thick Angus patty in these sliders would receive a rating of ‘fantastic’ from any burger connoisseur.
The secret sauce (whatever it was) seemed to work wonders and the crispy crunch of the caramelised onions provided a great finishing touch.
Click here to read the complete Sugar Factory review. 06) Mooyah, opposite Safa Park. Moohyah Style 39 AED.
Not many people are talking about it and I do not recall this being ranked as one of the best burger joints in Dubai before. Tucked away in the alleys of Jumeirah, this is the one place that took me by surprise. If you still haven’t been, I suggest you visit this little restaurant opposite Safa Park. I promise you will not be disappointed .
They use high quality beef and real American cheddar. The good thing is that the burger is made in front of your eyes and you could have it kept medium or rare. The secret Mooyah sauce kills it with the grilled onions and I suggest you pair it with sweet potato fries.
TIP: Wash your burger down with milk shake.
5) Burger Fuel, multiple locations. Hot Rod. AED 36.
If you are a meat lover who can tell the difference between good and excellent beef, this may be the burger for you. Burger Fuel uses 100% pure grass fed beef ‘smashed’ to order with wholemeal, sugar free, dairy free artisan buns and naturally aged, batch brewed tomato relish. Tempted?
They are also behind one of the most important breakthroughs in cutting edge burger technology known simply as, ‘The Doofer’. It is essentially a cardboard pocket that wraps around your burger so you can enjoy all that messiness without getting your hands dirty. My favourite here is the Hot Rod which is basically some chilli salsa added to the awesome beef patty and tomato relish along with some melted cheddar.
4) The Counter, multiple locations. Build your own AED 49.
Sauces, condiments and fancy pickles (The Counter has enough of those too) can go a long way in deciding the ultimate fate of a burger but the one thing that turns a normal burger into a culinary treat is the meat. The folks behind the ‘The Counter’ say they use hormone and antibiotic free meat. While it is hard to verify something like that, I would like to believe it because you can taste the difference in every bite. Besides, I knew I was in the right place from the moment I laid my eyes on that burger because the meat patty was bigger than the bun and it still looked pretty!
You can build your own burger here by ticking the desired ingredients on a little chart. Customization options include type of bread (or you can just have the burger in a bowl), size of patty (up to one pound), type of cheese (10 options) and every single topping in the world that you could imagine (including a sunny side up egg).
What is fascinating though is that no matter how many toppings or sauces you add, they will figure out a way to make the burger good looking and ‘clean’. I think they reduce the actual quantity of toppings but what that essentially means is that no matter what you do, it is hard to get this burger to be messy. I found that to be a bit offensive but it may work for you if all you wanted to taste was the excellent meat. I personally like a bit of sauce and additional flavor in my burger. On nights that I do want to eat clean, I just go ahead a grab a steak.
TIP: Please order the onion rings. Unlike anywhere else I have seen, they do actually look like onion rings (and taste great too).
3) Elevation Burger. The Elevation Burger. AED 39.
Elevation burger has been quiet the rage since the day they first opened. I think it was party due to the fact that they offered grass fed, free range, organic beef which was of a significantly higher quality then what most people were used to at that time. It was also partly because people could now customize their burgers and make greasy meat towers by adding as many patties as they wished.
Here was a company that cared about the environment, empowered you to choose the toppings you wanted and used premium cuts of freshly ground organic beef; it was a winning formula that still works.
TIP: If you choose to have the Elevation Burger here (highly recommended), please do tell them to dial up the Elevation sauce and don’t forget to add jalapenos for a fiery little kick and caramelized onions for that final finishing crunch.
What were the cattle fed on? How long did it take for the meat to reach from farm to kitchen? How long ago was the meat ground? What are the cuts being used in the burger? These are all questions that might go through the mind of a meat connoisseur as he carefully chews on his Cheddar Shack. If however, you are a burger obliterator like me – the only questions going through your mind would be the reason the burger is so small and whether you should order another.
The bun is kind of funny (did I mention small), the patty is disproportionate, there are no fancy ingredients and the condiments are pretty basic but none of that matters. Shake Shack is not too big on looks or side shows but they do one thing better than almost every other burger joint in Dubai; they deliver the burger you dream of at night. Each bite of this burger is smooth and buttery and as you chew on your food, you develop an attachment to it. You wish the moment could be frozen in time and that you could be with each other forever, you and your burger. You want to keep chewing and wish there was a way to extend the moment but before you know it, it slides down your throat leaving only a memory that will stay with you forever.
TIP: Order 2 burgers at a time so you don’t have to queue again for the 2nd.
01) Black Tap, Madinat Jumeirah. Mexico City Burger. AED 95.
My friend G says that everything tastes good after a couple of Stellas so some may consider it unfair to rank a licenced venue alongside a roadside diner but I disagree because all I had at Black Tap was a burger, sweet potato fries and a shake. If you saw me singing along to the music, it was A) the sugar rush and B) because I had not heard Stephen Tyler telling people to walk that way since 1999.
I had decided to not take any pictures for this article simply because I forgot to or didn’t have my camera at a couple of the restaurants I visited. SO to be fair to everyone, I decided to get one picture each from their websites, Instagram feeds or other websites (with credits of course). That was working fine until I went to Black Tap. Once in a while, there comes along a burger joint that just makes you throw all your rules out of the window.
Black Tap serves slurpable works of art in a milkshake glass that would not be too out of place at Art Dubai. There were a couple that could easily have given the Abraaj art finalists a pretty hard time but this article is not about the restaurant, the art or about the milkshakes. Neither is it about Stephen Tyler. It is about the burger and that is precisely what has landed Black Tap the number 1 spot on this list. In my opinion, the Mexico City burger from Black Tap is the best burger in Dubai.
I have no doubt that the quality of meat at The Counter, Elevation, Shake Shack and Black Tap is very close to each other if not similar. What sets them apart is the winning combination of sauce, cheese, bread and pickles. How much is too much? Reduce it and it may be too little. The trick is to excite your taste buds to the point where they take over your senses and imprint on the brain and for that the burger needs to stand out but it also needs to have a familiar taste; so it can gently stroke the fuzzy memories you associate with a great burger. The folks at Black Tap have got that all figured out.
The Mexico City burger comes with a prime beef patty, pickled jalapenos, chipotle mayo and crunchy onion rings and everything goes well together but that is just half of what makes this a great burger. The only ingredients on the bun are the cheese, jalapenos, meat and the sauce. Everything else, like the crisp lettuce, gherkin and the gigantic onion ring are provided on the side. So you eat what you want when you want it. It is the kind of control that is unprecedented in the burger world. You end up controlling the crunch, the smoothness and the flavor because you can bite into different ingredients at different times. It also means that nobody can force you to eat vegetables every time you go out for a burger.
TIP: Please call in ahead unless you do not mind waiting for up to 60 minutes for a table.
So what if you don’t have a six pack? At least you have got a deodorant! Think fly boarding in the shadow of the Burj al Arab and parachute jumps at Zero Gravity. Think winking at the valet as you toss him keys to your Lamborghini. Think 28000 AED bottles of champagne in plush lounges and then think of them again as your yacht races through the water. Think of all the beautiful people around you and then of all the hearts you would have to break that night. Now cut to you and your deodorant, then wake up.
This is Dubai, of course you have to wake up in the end because there ain’t no Axe effect here! Let me rephrase that. The Axe Effect might well be here but this is just as much as you could do in an Axe TV commercial if it was shot or aired in the UAE. Ok, you don’t really have to wake up in the end but you do have to keep it civil. No peep holes, no innuendos and no man walking out of an elevator with ‘that look’ on his face as the 5 women that follow him fix their makeup and hair. We keep it clean baby.
That does not mean whatsoever that the ‘Axe effect’ does not exist. You know; man sprays on some deodorant and women find themselves inexplicably drawn towards him. There are countless variations worldwide but the gist of it all is ‘involuntary seduction’. This ‘effect’ draws women in flocks to any man who sprays himself with Axe deodorant. Historically, this has been one of the most successful marketing claims worldwide. It has been running for well over 15 years but I’m not sure if the Unilever guys (company that owns the AXE brand) had the knowledge that we do now when they first aired the campaign.
According to a leading British newspaper, scientists can now prove that men who are not blessed with good looks can significantly make up for their lack of appeal by using perfumed deodorants. The article also stated that the effects are the same for a wide range of deodorants and are only applicable to less masculine men. So basically if you are a scrawny and unassuming man, one spray of a deodorant could transform you into someone who is chased by hordes of beautiful young women in seconds, just like in the TV commercial.
While the sales of deodorants will now skyrocket further, I think the potential outcome of this breakthrough discovery could be devastating for a number of other industries. I fear gyms will now be empty, luxury car sales would go down and clinics and parlours offering grooming and aesthetic services for men could go bankrupt. You see men are lazy by nature and if Sigmuend Freud is to be believed, every single thing that men do, is to attract women towards them. So imagine if they knew that they could achieve that by the pushing of a button and did not need to have a defined jawline or six pack abs. Do you think they would attempt to do it in any other way?
“Bass emanating from Blue Marlin pulsated down my spine after bouncing off the rock island across the water. That felt pretty Balearic to me!”
If you are looking to party on a Friday afternoon, maybe Blue Marlin (just 300 steps away) would be a better destination. If however, you want to kick back, listen to some tropical house between conversation, enjoy the sunset while sipping on sangria and get to know some of the people on the table next to yours (and on the table next to that) La Cala is the place to be at.
Dubai has so many water front restaurants, bars and clubs that I sometimes have a little trouble telling one apart from the other. While there may be another explanation for my selective amnesia but one of the reasons all the Nikkis, Nasimis and Edens look similar is because they strive to be so. (Eden has now closed down to make room for a new joint called El Chiringuito but it still looks like Eden) They are all targeting the same clientele and they all want to be perceived as the ultimate luxury beach destination. La Cala does not want to play that game.
If we list the facts, nothing seems to be going for La Cala on paper. It is far from civilisation, cramped for space and a bit limited on the menu. All of this nevertheless, is what gives this place its unique charm. Beach clubs are so 2010, unless of course they are in another city and you can make a daycation out of it. Well La Cala is technically in another city but it is still not more than 20 minutes away from Dubai which makes it a perfect destination and even more so because they have their own discount code for Careem.
It is also as I mentioned earlier, quiet small. I never thought I would use this word to describe a beach club in Dubai but its size makes La Cala incredibly ‘cute’. When everything is so grand and glamorous around you, it is such a refreshing change to be at a venue that is so intimate and personal. Where the tables are almost intruding into each other’s space and you have no option but to say hello to the strangers next to you.
The last brunch I went to had so many items on the menu that I had barely gone through half before getting tired. Of the half that I did try, some left a lasting impression while others were just forgettable. At La Cala’s brunch, almost everything on the carefully curated menu left a mark. Standout winner for me was the sashimi with wasabi and ginger. Some of the starters also stirred up nostalgia. I remembered the sun setting over the Greek Island of Mykonos as I nibbled on some pita and burrata (I know it’s Italian, but still!) The feast was marketed as a Balearic Brunch but it kept bringing back memories of Mykonos and Santorini. The only time I felt a bit like being back in Ibiza was while strolling down the jetty. Bass emanating from Blue Marlin pulsated down my spine after bouncing off the rock island across the water. That felt pretty Balearic to me!
It could easily have been the fried tomato on my plate or perhaps the Greek Salad that led my mind to associate this venue with the Aegean Islands but I think it was the venue itself that made me feel that way. Spread over 3 levels, La Cala is actually built on a hill which is such a Greek thing to do, plus the intimate vibe and personal touch was definitely more Mykonos than Ibiza. So I wont be surprised if they start calling this the Aegean Brunch one day!
As the sun began to set, the rustic Aegean charm of La Cala gave way to a festive feeling that is so distinctive of Dubai and its brunches. As it got closer to the end, almost everyone was either dancing or bobbing their heads to the music, cameras were flashing and selfies were being uploaded and there were unquestionably no more strangers around.