We hardly went to restaurants as kids. My father’s idea of a big meal out was to prepare a bigger meal at home. He would bring the chefs home and we would watch them as they prepared a Pakistani feast for the same 30 or 40 people that always showed up. Besides the stuffed lamb and the usual partridge masala, there would be a breakfast counter with halwa (sweet dish made of semolina, almonds and cardamom) chana (chickpea) masala and a guy serving piping hot puris (deep fried flaky bread) straight from the gigantic karrahi (wok).
Well, all that happened in Pakistan at my dad’s old country house and it was in another time. Now Mishal and I can barely fit ourselves into our tiny kitchen (or into any of our old jeans for that matter but that is a completely different subject) and honestly I am not sure if I even know 30 or 40 people. Even if I did, the thought of 10 kids tearing down my living room and doing jumping jacks on my sofa is a bit concerning to say the least. Thankfully though, that would never be a problem now because I have discovered a magical place where kids can be kids and adults can be kids too; or they can just remain adults. Nobody would judge them.
As we got out of the elevator and turned the corner towards Flow Kitchen, we were greeted by Spider Man and a Green dude who looked like he was going to get his ass kicked by Spider Man pretty soon. There was also this other dude who looked like he could be the star of his own comic book but I couldn’t quite remember who he was. “Welcome to Flow Kitchen” said the usher standing next to the green dude as I snapped back to reality. “Is this your first time here?” “Yes” I said while the kid in the corner did a Skywalker maneuver with his light sabre. “Mr and Mrs Chaudhry, please follow me” she said and we walked into a large hall which was flooded by the light coming in from the gigantic window that looked into the ocean.
Cheese Room at Flow Kitchen
Cheese room at flow kitchen
Most people seemed like they had either just been to or were about to head out to the beach but there were a couple of people with jackets who seemed just as content and at ease as the guy in yellow flip flops. I without my flip flops and jacket also felt quiet comfortable in the hustle and bustle of what increasingly seemed to resemble a dining room of a Market Hall. There was a cart serving steamed dumplings next to a stand with every possible kind of bread on display.
Pre cut and pre tossed salads are so old school, so there was a cart that had the most beautiful vegetables on display. You would choose what you want and this lady would peel, chop, toss and season your salad before you could say organic. PS Did you know that rock salts come in 5 flavors including charcoal and vanilla?
Some places have totally excluded the breakfast element from their brunches which is quiet sad because brunch is traditionally supposed to be between breakfast and lunch so you should have items from both meals on the menu. Flow Kitchen is as big on breakfast as it is on family. There were sausages, hash browns and beans but the best thing were the eggs. There was a separate stand serving eggs benedict and you could add spinach, chicken, turkey or even roasted pine nuts if you wanted. The yolk was nice and runny just as it should be. There is nothing that offends me more than an overcooked egg.
I am still not a fan of the ‘serve a dish from every country’ doctrine that the brunches seem to have adopted in Dubai but I guess it makes sense if they can make it a part of the theme. A family brunch caters to the whole family so it would only be fair to serve all kinds of cuisine. There is always one dish or type of cuisine that stands out at every brunch. It could be a pasta or a sheesh kebab or even the entire seafood menu. I could not find that one dish at the Ultimate family brunch. The Morrocan lamb tagine was as divine as the Italian margarita pizza and the pesto on the baked salmon was as fine as the wasabi in the soy sauce. This was a foodie’s paradise and I did not want to go back home.
Not everyone in the family enjoys the complications of a sophisticated meal and sometimes all you crave is a good burger with lots of ketchup and some mayonnaise. For those fussy eaters, there was a special kids menu which I would have gladly read out to my seven month old milk junkie had she not been so fascinated with the colorful cakes and gummy bears on display. Despite there being so many kids at the restaurant, it was nothing like my father’s old house. There was no one diving head first off the tables, nobody drawing their parent’s faces on the walls and no one following them around and telling them to behave. The chaos had been allowed to flourish in an organised way albeit confined to the perimeter of the adjoining hall. There were two hours worth of activities which included face painting, balloon twisting, a magic show and arts and crafts. Heck there was even a PlayStation for older kids and for adults who refuse to grow up.
Among the countless dessert options there was a red velvet cake and a decadent chocolate cake that stood out for me but the most popular sweet thing seemed to be the white cupcakes with inverted test tubes stuck on them. The tubes had a raspberry filling which you poured on to the cake. I had to save some room for coconut ice cream (which I had later with warm apple pie) so didn’t really get around to trying it but the theatrics of the tube and the raspberry syrup kept us from slipping into a food coma before we got to the ice cream.
There are so many things I have not described or spoken about like the warm flaky crust of the Moroccon chicken pie or the fresh Irish oysters on ice but I can’t do it because then this review would never end. What I would like to say is that I had not thought of my father’s old house for a long time. Even less of the 30 or 40 familiar faces that kept showing up at all his grand feasts. That changed yesterday. I thought of my family again and any restaurant that can make you do that has got to be special.
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?
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.
After watching Heroes (the TV show), I believed that every human being had a super power. I would ask my friends what their special abilities were and it would make for wonderful evening banter. Those who did not know were of course enlightened by yours truly. I told them to be patient because sooner or later the secret would be revealed. I knew this because that is what I did. I had the ability to identify super heroes and their special gifts. That was my super power.
Dave has some special abilities as well. Besides being the guardian for ‘Devil’s Spit’, a sinful interpretation of barbecue sauce straight from Hell’s Kitchen, he can find special people and identify their super powers. So we are not much different, Dave and I. The only difference is that Dave actually went out and did something about it.
Dave scoured the corners of the Earth to find special people with secret powers and brought them all back to the mystical Land of the River next to Dubai Parks and Resorts. It is there that he set up Famous Dave’s Barbecue restaurant and started to serve racks of lamb and beef short ribs to hungry travellers from far and wide.
OK, so that is not exactly how it happened. Dave did not scour the corners of the globe. All the people with special powers were already in Dubai because of course that is what Dubai is all about. All Dave did had to do was to find them like Professor X and put them to work in the restaurant.
Take Famous Josh for example. When he was in the Philippines, he beat the entire country at chess and was given a 75% scholarship to finish his education because of his special skill. Then there is Famous Miro, also from the Philippines. He was one of the country’s best break dancers and was the lead back up dancer for Mark Herras, a famous singer and celebrity. In short, every single person working on the floor at Famous Dave’s restaurant is already famous for something. How cool is that?
So what happens when you put all these famous people under one roof? Well for one, the service was exceptionally brilliant. Remember my review of Ihop when I spoke about the waiters coming to us like programmed robots and asking if our food was good? That did not happen here. We were left alone to enjoy our food and every time we wanted something, there was a famous guy standing next to us, ready to listen. Since they were all celebrities in their own right, they liked to talk as well but only when we were ready to listen. We got a detailed briefing on the famous sauces and how they were made. My favorite were Dave’s Revenge and Devils Spit while Mishal liked the Texas Pit.
I had a medium-well 7-oz fillet which was a lean cut steak seasoned with coarse salt, black pepper, cayenne and garlic. It had a wonderful crust which gave way to the juiciest bit of meat you can imagine. As if Dave’s selection of sauces weren’t enough, I asked them to make my steak cheesy and was provided with some extra creamy white sauce on the side. The skin-on potato wedges were crispy on the outside but moist and fleshy all the way through. This ladies and gentlemen, was heaven.
Mishal’s Jacked-N-Stacked burger was a grilled chicken breast topped with Monteray Jack cheese, stacked with crispy onion rings and slathered with Dave’s rich and sassy sauce in a soft open bun. The star performers of the night however were the grilled pineapple steaks. I will never be able to look at a pineapple the same way again. For me, the only way to eat a pineapple now would be to season some juicy slices with cayenne pepper and a hint of brown sugar before tossing them on the grill for a touch of sweet heat. The cayenne would start the show with a fiery kick and the caramelised brown sugar would follow to compliment the tart sweetness of the fruit. Try it the next time you get the bbq going and who knows? You might end up being famous too.
As much as I want to live on the edge and eat only at restaurants that use ingredients like magic budwig, raw fish eggs, a force fed goose’s fatty liver or any of the other wonderfully weird things that I can’t make head or tail out of, it is sadly not possible. I enjoy being adventurous once in a while but nothing matches the pleasure derived from sampling different renditions of a dish that you are familiar with.
For some, it may be an old fashioned cheeseburger and for some a bowl of ramen but for me, it is a textured medley of rice, meat and spices; also known as a biryani.
There are numerous different ways of cooking a dish and not all biryanis are created equal. Since I am a bit of an expert on the subject, I have taken it upon myself to list 11 of the most exquisite Biryanis in Dubai.
This is a quaint little hole in the wall sandwiched between the quirky ‘Billo Ice Cream’ and half a dozen hardware stores. What they lack in seating capacity (they actually have two chairs and a table) is made up with good, no nonsense food. Better known for their Karachi Bun Kebabs, I think their Spicy (yeah man!) Chicken Biryani is a force to be reckoned with. Couple that with an AED15 price tag and we have a definite winner.
Kabab Rolls started the whole BBQ roll trend in Dubai (hence the name). It is a lively joint in the streets of Barsha that is quiet popular for its cheap lunch buffet. While I enjoy an occasional Bihari Roll (must try ) from here, I tend to stay away from the buffet. What these guys do really well however, is the biryani.
Like India, Pakistan also has a multitude of subcultures and the local cuisine is influenced by lands as far off as the Persian and the Ottoman Empire. Each of the provinces has it’s own rendering of this dish.
The standout winner here is the Meat Biryani which is made in the traditional Sindhi style of cooking. It is basically a dum biryani with mild spices and saffron but the meat is slightly pre-cooked before being layered with rice (as opposed to the Hyderabadi style where the meat is mostly raw).
09) Gazebo – Bay Avenue, Business Bay (multiple locations) – Gosht Hyderabadi Biryani – AED47.
Not too long ago, believe it or not, Gazebo was my go to place if I craved a good Biryani but as always, unprecedented growth may not be a good thing. Despite somehow losing their mojo along the way, Gazebo still serves one of the best Biryanis in Dubai. That is not a small achievement considering that there are probably a thousand restaurants with just as many different interpretations of the dish but this place could have been a contender for the top spot on this list a couple of years ago.
A true Hyderabadi would never try to please others at the cost of losing his identity. The same goes for their biryani as well. There was a serious dearth of masala and absolutely no chilli powder in Gazebo’s Gosht Hyderabadi biryani. Most of the rice was white and bland, untouched by whatever masala there was. No self-respecting Hyderabadi chef would cut out on the masala or compromise on the heat just to reach out to a wider palate (or even to save a couple of bucks) . Despite that, Gazebo still managed to edge out the 30 odd biryani restaurants that I have visited in the past 3 months while doing my research. I guess I am a sucker for good presentation.
If Billboard could have Elton John and Samantha Fox on the same top 10 chart, I can have a Fast Food type Biryani joint together on the same list as a Michelin Star chef as well. The type of biryani and the classification of the restaurant do not matter. What matters is the quality of the dish.
Student Biryani achieved a bit of a cult status in Karachi before they ventured out to Dubai. Legend is that they used to sell biryani to college kids from a mobile food cart. Word of this supposedly awesome Biryani spread far and wide and people used to come from all over to sample it. Fast forward to today and the company operates multiple restaurants in Karachi, Sharjah, Dubai and Toronto.
I love a good success story and their Biryani is pretty good too. I am a little unsure if it is good enough to spawn an international chain of restaurants. If you want to see the fast food methodology at work in a biryani restaurant, Student Biryani is the place to be. You get served within 10 minutes, the strength of the ‘masala’ (spices) can be controlled easily and they have more combos there than there are banks trying to sell you new credit cards in Dubai.
07) Shahi Mahal, Al Faris Mall, Near Dubai Bowling Centre, Al Quoz – Meat Biryani – AED16
‘Shahi Mahal’ translates to Royal Palace and for a while, I felt I had teleported to Nawab Nizam ud Din’s court in Hyderabad. It was great while it lasted, but then I was asked to pay 16 dirhams for my meal. That didn’t feel regal at all and back I was in Al Quoz.
Yes, tucked away somewhere in the back alleys of Al Quoz is a place which serves authentic Dum Biryani for AED 16 per serving. The aroma, the texture and the flavour of this Biryani are second to none. You can see tender meat sandwiched between layers of fragrant basmati rice as it gets to your table. You can tell that this Biryani was left to cook on low heat for a long time. What you can’t understand is how they manage to be profitable at this price point, especially when you see the quality of ingredients being used. I think I know now why the Mughals went bankrupt.
06) Brit Balti, Al Barsha (multiple locations) – Special Biryani (lamb chicken prawns and omelet) – AED56
The Koh-I-Noor wasn’t the only Indian thing taken back by the British to make their own. The Chicken Tikka Masala was probably invented in Southall but for some it will always be an Indian dish.
Indian/Pakistani Cuisine has made its way into British lives like Donald Trump made his way into the White House. For years it wasn’t taken too seriously and now nobody seems to be able to get rid of it. It is loud, colorful and not everyone seems to agree with it but that doesn’t seem to bother it too much.
Brit Balti is my favourite Desi-Brit restaurant in Dubai (Yes, there are several of those down here). It is appropriately peculiar, incredibly experimental and unapologetically British. The winner here is the Special Biryani. It is not a Dum (layered and cooked on low heat in a sealed clay pot) Biryani but a sort of a stir fry of rice, spices, lamb, chicken and prawns with an omelet added for good measure. Not at all how a purist would want a Biryani to be but good enough to make this one of the best Biryani joints in Dubai.
05) Milas Emirates. Al Nasr The Village, Dubai Mall – Spicy Lamb Biryani – .AED89
This was not the ‘Dum’ Biryani you get at Indian and Pakistani restaurants or the Stir Fry type thing you get at Brit Asian restaurants. This was a creamy lamb gravy layered on top of aromatic rice. It was made of choice lamb meat that had been cooked to perfection in Arabic spices. Its tantalizing flavor had infused deep into the rice and it is the only Emirati Biryani on this list!
04) Dum Pukht, JLT – Mutton Biryani – AED60
I can imagine how unsettling it could be for a ‘Best Biryani in Dubai’ contender, especially if you are a small-time restaurant that can’t seem to sort out its ventilation woes. Even more so if you are competing against Michelin Starred chefs, a Biryani behemoth with outlets as far off as Canada and a restaurant chain that employs more than a couple of hundred people in the UAE. From the looks of it though, Dum Pukht seems unfettered by the competition.
Not the kind of place you go to for an upscale fine dining experience but they have definitely cracked the biryani code. They use a metal handi (pot) instead of a clay vessel but the recipe seems to be the same as it was hundreds of years ago. The distinct scent of freshly ground spices enchants you as the subtle fragrance of basmati rice pulls you in. Sealing in the aroma is the secret to a good Biryani and this restaurant has got that all figured out.
03) Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar, JW Marriot Marquis – Hyderabadi gosht ki (lamb) biryani – AED140.
It is about the value proposition and the presentation but most of all, it is about the experience and good food. The cost of eating a Hyderabadi lamb Biryani here is AED 140 (most expensive on this list) but the opportunity of sampling the wares of one of the world’s biggest chefs is priceless.
Atul Kochar has 2 Michelin Stars and is one of the world’s most famous chefs but you already know that. What you don’t know is that ‘Rang Mahal’ is not the ‘behave like you are about to dine with a Michelin Star Chef but don’t forget to breath’ kind of a place. It is more of a ‘Oh Beehave! But have some fun while you are at it’ kind of place.
Ali, my friend from Hyderabad would have been proud to call this Biryani authentic. A bit of nostalgia kicked in as a familiar fragrance filled the air when it was being served. Saffron had infused every single grain of rice and the meat was ever so tender. The masala (spices) were well balanced and they had made it extra hot on request. Just the way Ali’s mom made it on every Friday.
02) Bhoujan, Motor City Dubai – Hyderabadi Mutton Biryani in Handi – AED50
There may have been a tear in my eye while I carefully chewed on my first bite straight from the clay handi (pot). Tradition (and manners) dictate that I should have waited for it to be served on to my plate but a whiff of the aroma caught me off guard as soon as my server removed the seal.
It was the perfect Dum biryani and the presentation was second only to more expensive restaurants on this list. Excellent value proposition with a generous amount of meat (just as the Nawab would have liked it), a side dish of ‘mirchi ka salan’ (green chilly curry) 3 chutneys and a raita (spiced yoghurt).
As I savored every bite, I realized that I may have finally come across the underdog that could unsettle the heavyweights. I couldn’t stop smiling because I had discovered the gem that would take on some of the biggest names in the culinary world, all from that little shop in Dubai Motor City.
01) Ashiana by Vineet Bhatia, Sheraton Dubai Creek – Dum Biryani with dates – AED108
I smiled as I walked through the Mughal inspired entrance of Ashiana. This was the world of a man who was clearly rooted in tradition so I immediately formed an opinion on how the Biryani would be. A part of me was a bit disappointed though. I had travelled to the other end of Dubai just so I could surround myself with the greatness that is Vineet Bhatia. The forward thinking genius who had helped to transform the way Indian food was perceived in the West and in doing so had become the poster child of contemporary Indian cuisine yet here I was, walking through a Mughal walkway while admiring the Mughal art that adorned it’s walls.
I could see that Bhatia had tried to stay closer to his Indian side, probably so because he thought that was what the customers wanted. He did add a twist to everything though; take for example the purple beetroot chutney that was served with poppadums while we waited for our Biryani.
This could have been just another very good Dum Biryani but it was not. It did not try to entice me with the aroma and please me with the intimate sensation of a home cooked dish. It took it a step further. This was clearly the work of a nonconformist. The spices and the juicy meat were complimented with the most subtle and sweet taste of dates. Not only was this a great combination but I think it had some symbolism, dates being the national fruit of UAE and Biryani being the unofficial national dish of the sub-continent. In fact it is the dish that still binds together two countries that have been separated by decades of war, mistrust and politics and this Biryani had just added a third to the list.
If you haven’t been to the newly built Outlet Village mall near Riverland yet, I suggest you plan a visit. It has fewer stores and is smaller than the Outlet Mall on Alain Road but still has some decent brands and offers that might make your trip worthwhile. Sacoor brothers had a buy get 1 get 2 offer on all shirts on the day we went! It has a decent selection of new restaurants, some of which I hope to try before long but it also has a PF Chang’s and an Ihop.
As soon as you enter Ihop, there is a sign that says ‘we have sold xxxx gallons of orange juice’. Don’t remember the amount but it seemed like an achievement by any standards especially after reading the fact that their OJ is freshly squeezed (unlike the US where they use Tropicana)
The service was almost a little too good. Three different people asked us if our food was fine at 3 different times during our meal. At one point, I had mushroom sauce dribbling from my mouth and another time I almost shot out a cherry tomato on the guys face but at all 3 times, our mouths were full of food (OK, there were no cherry tomatoes with our meal but you get the point). Word of advice here, please coordinate amongst yourself as to whose responsibility it is to ask the customer if they enjoyed their meal (because 3 times is a bit of an overkill) and maybe ask them once after they are done enjoying the meal…not when they are trying to do it and their mouths are full of food. In fact, if you see me again, don’t ask at all. I promise I will let you know.
We ordered the IHop supreme burger (which was thick beef burger topped with caramelised onions and cheddar cheese) and the mushroom chicken (which was a saute`ed chicken scaloppini in a creamy mushroom sauce.Both our dishes hit the spot and were devoured within 1o minutes (would have been faster had we not been interrupted several times). The scaloppini did not depend on the mushroom sauce for its flavour and tasted good on its own as well. It came with a side of mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli which went well together.. The burger was a bit overdone for my liking and nobody asked me how I wanted it. There was an option to choose a side but they just assumed I wanted french fries. I called the waiter back and asked him if my onion rings and burger were done and for a while he went into hypovolemic shock before running towards the kitchen window while shouting, “cancel french fries table 2”. Anyway, the burger was good and it went well with my onion rings. We washed it all down with never ending jugs of brewed ice tea which I highly recommend.
I wish we had stopped here. I wish we had asked for the bill or even if we absolutely had to have dessert, asked for a pancake (which are pretty good here) and be done with it, but we just had to order something we had not tried before. Hence, the words that follow.
So for dessert, we ordered the banana, peanut butter and chocolate – double dipped brioche French toast. Quiet a mouthful isn’t it? Yes this was one dish. Looked pretty fancy too but essentially it was just 3 pieces of thick bread fried and dipped in a weak vanilla batter with almost no sugar and topped with 5 pieces of diced bananas and the slightest drizzle of peanut butter sauce. All for 60 dirhams; you would be better of buying a McFlurry or six instead. I know the zero sugar almost no flavour thing works with the pancakes because Ihop provides 4 types of free syrup to go with it (and I absolutely love their butter pecan syrup) but a french toast is not a pancake. It is thick (even more so if you use brioche bread) and unless it has some flavour of it’s own, it wont matter how much syrup you smear it with, it just wont work. Also, I think there should have been banana slices between each of the 3 toasts. I don’t think 5 diced pieces were enough especially when the name of the dessert started with the word ‘banana’ and there was absolutely no banana flavour in the bread whatsoever.
So overall, it was an average experience. I would probably still go back there if I am craving a quick pancake but would not in any case ever be ordering the French Toast.