Little Lahore – Dubai’s new post hangover breakfast joint.

The minimalist menu consisted of some pages on a wooden board. Mishal was a little disappointed because there were no pictures on it. My wife is an environmental engineer and she doesn’t really need to look at pictures to order off a menu but we just couldn’t remember going to a Pakistani or an Indian restaurant where the menu had no pictures of food on it.

Disclaimer: This review will make you hungry and you may put on a couple of pounds just by reading it.

Last week’s brunch stirred up memories of my father’s old country house and all the traditional Pakistani food I sometimes took for granted in my carefree years. One of the problems with having a vivid imagination is that you tend to dream a lot but it is even worse that you often end up remembering every little detail after waking up.

Normal people dream of fantasy worlds with super heroes, fast cars and designer clothes but I mostly dream about food. Yes it is a little weird, thank you but I can’t really help it so I have learnt to accept it; this secret love affair I have with food. So this week, I dreamt of cardamom scented halwa (a dessert made of semolina, butter and almonds) chana (chickpea) masala and piping hot puffed up puris (deep fried flaky bread) straight from the gigantic karrahi (wok) at my father’s old house.

This is Dubai however and though I would love to fly down to Lahore for a quick breakfast at Abbu’s (my dad’s) house, harsh realities of living the dream life of a salary slave dictate that such trips cannot be taken on a whim. So I ended up turning to Zomato, my best online resource for information on food and restaurants in Dubai and performed a search for ‘Halwa Puri’. One of the results that popped up was for ‘Little Lahore’ a restaurant in JLT.

In reality, there is nothing ‘little’ about Lahore or it’s population of 10 million people. It is a bustling metropolis which attracts tens of thousands of people from smaller towns and cities, all adding to it’s vast selection of flavors but there are some dishes that are undeniably Lahori and among the top 3 is the traditional Lahori nashta (breakfast) known as halwa puri.

So my quest for this traditional breakfast (nashta) took us to Little Lahore and I remember we almost had to go back out again to read the name on the sign but decided to stay as soon as we saw some photographs of famous Pakistani folk singers and cultural icons on one of the walls. This was unlike most Pakistani restaurants in Dubai. Many of the new places have adapted their interiors to their changing clientele but you may still find pictures of food on the walls reminiscent of old desi restaurants in Dubai. Little Lahore was different. Clearly somebody had taken the effort to move on with the times. The clean lines and chic design could have been out of Wallflower magazine. Had it not been for a photograph of the Badshahi (King’s) Mosque of Lahore above our heads, we would never have felt this was a Pakistani restaurant.

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Little Lahore – Not you average Desi restaurant interior
The minimalist menu consisted of some pages on a wooden board. Mishal was a little disappointed because there were no pictures on it. My wife is an environmental engineer and she doesn’t really need to look at pictures to order off a menu but we just couldn’t remember going to a Pakistani or an Indian restaurant where the menu had no pictures of food on it. Ok, Ashiana by Vineet and Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar had no pictures on the menu perhaps but restaurants owned by Michelin Starred chefs do not count.

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How’s that for a good looking menu?
There were 2 breakfast combos on the menu. One consisted of halwa (semolina and butter dessert), puri (deep fried bread), chana (chickpeas), aloo bhaji (stewed potato) and lassi (yogurt smoothie). The other came with a paratha (fried flatbread), Pakistani omelet, bhuna keema (pan roasted mince meat), achar (pickled baby mangoes) and lassi. We decided to go for one of each.

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Puffed puris, chickpeas and potatoes at Little Lahore.
The puris (puffed bread) were divine but a typical Lahori might find the chickpeas and potato to be under spiced. We were sure that this was a conscious decision by the chef. Just as the modern interiors were meant to open up Lahori cuisine to a wider audience, the light spices of the Lahori Nashta were meant to make this breakfast appeal to a wider palate. This one change could make halwa puri Dubai’s go to post hangover breakfast meal. If Manakish is what everyone in Dubai craves after a big night out, halwa puri and chana is what they will crave for  the morning after.  Dubai now has an official breakfast and not only is it not McDonalds, it also happens to be vegetarian.

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Paratha with Pakistani omelette and pan roasted mince.
The paratha (fried flatbread) had a crisp external layer which gave way to the soft bread inside. A Pakistani omelette usually has diced tomatoes and onions and some fresh coriander. Thanks to the light spices, I actually tasted the egg and every vegetable in every bite. The mince was once again low on spices but I could taste the ginger it had been roasted with.

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A tall glass of Lassi with a tall building in the background!
The yogurt smoothie (lassi) was available with either salt or sugar and we had one of each. Both variants were equally refreshing and were able to wash all the fried food down effectively.

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Semolina and butter desert (Halwa)
This was not the meal that I dreamt of and it was certainly not the breakfast they served at my father’s old country house. I am not sure if a purist would enjoy this halwa puri or bhuna keema. Strangely though, we were not dissatisfied. My craving for traditional chana puri remains and I may very well have to fly down to Lahore to fulfil it  but if this is a modern take on the traditional Pakistani breakfast, so be it. If little Lahore wants to do for post hangover breakfasts in Dubai what Zater o Zait did to post party 3 am hunger attacks, so be it.

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(Achar) Pickled baby mango.
Little Lahore Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Best Biryani in Dubai. The official top 11. 

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.

Edited 18th March 2018.

View my food journey on Zomato!

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.

11) Gulabo – Damascus Street, Qusais, Dubai – Spicy Chicken Biryani – AED15.

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.

10) Kabab Rolls, Al Barsha (multiple locations) – Meat Biryani – AED36

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.

08) Student Biryani. Barsha (multiple locations) – Mutton Biryani – AED26

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

vineet bhatia dum biryani

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.

Ashiana Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato