It’s not that I can’t sing. I’ve done it for most of my life and my ability does transcend genres, artists and even languages. It’s just that my friends and family have not been too receptive to my unique talent. So, the idea of a karaoke brunch didn’t really excite me too much or it had not done so until I experienced the Lucky Voice brunch over the weekend.
Not knowing what to expect, I walked into a huge room with neon lights covering most of the ceiling and quirky pieces like a random bath tub strategically strewn about. There was a DJ booth that looked like an old school tape stereo and also Christmas decorations all around. The moment I saw the tub, I knew I was in the right place. All that singing that I’ve been doing for all these years has usually been in the vicinity of a bath tub.
Not just the décor but the whole concept itself was unlike any karaoke bar or any brunch for that matter. They didn’t just throw you to the mercy of the DJ nor did we have to endure 3 hours of painful singing by people who had no job doing such things. There was a whole talent show on stage and the participants were the guests themselves! Yes, every table had nominated some guests to perform a karaoke battle style dance off. Spread over several rounds, with knockouts based on applause this was by far the most entertaining thing I have ever done at a Brunch!
At the end of the brunch, we were granted free access to one of the private rooms that came with a karaoke machine just so we could shamelessly torture our friends without being embarrassed in public. Don’t get me wrong, a few of us can sing remember? Fortunately, nobody really gave a hoot about who could or could not. The bottom line is that everybody was doing it and nobody seemed to care. If that was not a fabulous moment, I don’t what was. Think of it like the after party before the after party.
Oh yes and they did have food as well. I saw some tacos and wings floating around on a platter somewhere. The cranberry juice, company and the talent show took up most of my time though. I remember singing the few words of lose yourself that I knew while holding a lint roller like a mic.
His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
…………………………………….already, mom’s spaghetti
Which incidentally was the song that the winner of the dance off performed on. Oh, and I also had a beef slider but lets just say that I would be going back only for the karaoke and all that fun!
In the whole cookie cutter scheme of things, how different is your neighborhood Lebanese grill from mine? Does your local curry house serve soft, piping hot, puffed up nans just like mine? It probably does. I bet your Lebanese joint could sprinkle some pine nuts on your Hummus Beiruti if you asked them to, or they probably already do because that’s how it is supposed to be right?
Sure, things could always go wrong. Your meat could end up being a bit more charred than you would have liked or there might be a bit more lemon in your Tabbouleh then you would have wanted but at the end of the day, authentic Lebanese food will always be more or less similar in name, taste and presentation. The same goes for authentic Indian, Pakistani, Thai, Korean, or what have you.
So how do we really know if any one restaurant is better than the other? Well, the décor and the location may play a role but eventually it all boils down to one thing. ‘Service’ is the one factor that may break or make your overall experience. If the quality of service is exceptional, the food (as long as it is acceptable) won’t even matter that much. One day, while looking for a hidden gem waiting to be discovered in the streets of Dubai Marina, I came across such a restaurant.
Kababji restaurant in the Marina is situated at a quiet corner of the promenade. The view is not extraordinary as far as Marina restaurants go but you can catch a glimpse of yachts cruising on the water albeit from a distance. The menu was your standard Lebanese fare; grilled meats, salads and several variations of hummus. One thing that did stand out though was the effort to offer a healthy twist to many of the regular items on the list.
There was a Quinoa Tabbouleh which seemed like an interesting take on the popular Lebanese salad. The grilled veal fillet light and the Kebab light promised to be less than 400 calories each and seemed to be geared towards those who can’t survive without their meats but want to be heart healthy as well. I tried the Kebab light and since it was made of extra lean meat, I found it to be a bit dry (the fat in the meat keeps the kabab moist and juicy). The grilled chicken we ordered was grilled to perfection. Tender and moist on the inside and perfectly charred on the outside.
The food however, as I mentioned before, was secondary. The one thing that has ensured I return to this restaurant was the service. We went at a time when there was just one waiter inside. Hakeem (our waiter) saw us from inside the glass door and rushed outside to help us carry D’s stroller down the steps. He was never intrusive but always attentive. We just had to look up towards him once and there he would be, right next to us awaiting our next request.
I ordered a coffee and cancelled it after 5 minutes because I changed my mind. He agreed with a smile and went back to pass the message to the kitchen. Baby D was not in a particularly good mood and for some reason kept throwing her French fries on the floor while shouting “potato, potato” at the top of her voice. Hakeem pretended as if nothing was wrong while we discussed our order.
Noticing that I had ordered the Spicy version of the Kabab light, Hakeem asked if we would like some fresh chilli paste to go with our order. Once we started eating, he asked us once if the meal was alright or if we needed anything else and then left us in peace to enjoy the meal. D of course had other plans but that is beside the point.
It is quite amazing how one person can transform your entire dining out experience. This could have been a bad day to eat out but thanks to Hakeem, it was anything just.
I have been doing the Tiki Puka Puka way before Prince Harry and his friends went all Polynesian and much before the London club Mahiki opened up in Dubai. So imagine my excitement when not just one club or restaurant but a whole Polynesian themed resort opened up here. Nestled in the centre of the sprawling Dubai Parks and Resorts and sitting right next to the upcoming six flags theme park is this huge clustered resort complete with tropical landscapes, 2 pools and a lazy river.
Our first weekend iftar was supposed to be somewhere else but the AED 150 price tag plus the 2 for 1 offer at http://www.ramadanwithmarriott.com/ was almost too good to be true so in the name of research but mostly because I love to save a buck wherever I can, we headed down to Kalea restaurant at Lapita Hotel to see what a five star 150 AED Iftar buffet looks like.
The resort was made up of not one gigantic structure but a number of huge Polynesian hut styled buildings connected by thick island foliage and walkways. Both the exteriors and the interiors were covered with dark wood and there was an abundant display of island totems standing proud between the straw ceilings and cane walls. This truly looked like a themed destination where you could unplug from the outside world and laze away a whole weekend like it was 1979. I would not mind going back just to check out the resort. Every little detail had been looked into and Kalea, like the rest of the hotel was no exception.
Despite the low price, the restaurant had not really cut corners on the variety of food on display. I did not even bat an eyelid on the absence of seafood. Call me whatever but I will happily trade in the ceviche and sushi for a meat carving station on any day plus I know seafood is always the biggest price factor in a menu and this iftar was price sensitive. With a dedicated Indian corner, Thai corner, Arabic corner, continental dishes, live Saj station and all the salads, desserts and cheeses you could not eat in one day, it was still one of the best value Iftars I have ever been to.
Not everything however was as good as the tasteful interiors or as abundant as the mounds of food on display. There were 2 things that bothered me quite a bit and it would not be right to not mention them. The first batch of the mixed grill was probably done in a hurry to meet the 7 pm start time consequently reducing the lamb tikkas to burnt charcoal; like the ones you can probably find in the deepest throes of a feral abyss. Black as the night itself but I could tell that they once burned bright, these tikkas. I like my meat a little charred but these were beyond redemption. This kind of set the tone for the rest of the night.
The biryani was seriously under spiced. For some restaurants, biryani is almost an afterthought. An unsophisticated dish of rice and chicken hurriedly put together at the last minute just to check another box. To the other hundreds of thousands of die hard biryani fans all over the world, that is nothing less than an insult. Now that I think of it there was nothing spectacular about the rest of the food either. It was just food, a lot of it.
My most memorable food experience that day was at the live saj station where the gentleman in charge of the shawarmas and saj created a spicy cheese and labneh saj without the customary cucumbers and tomatoes, on my insistence. He accommodated me with a smile despite not having any red chili paste at his station. I think he went to the kitchen or pantry and smuggled some in just for me. The result of course was like a gulp of Fiji while gasping for water in the middle of the Atlantic. Not just this particular gentleman, but the entire service staff on duty that day were holding the place together in the absence of a five star chef in the kitchen.
I have always found staff at resorts to be more chatty than staff at hotels. I don’t know if this is done on purpose to create a particular vibe or if it has just always been a coincidence. The staff at Kalea were no different. Almost every person we interacted with that day went out of his or her way to answer our question/crack a joke/comment on something/help us out. Our waitress for the evening, Janice deserves special mention for ensuring there was a glass of diet coke with a lemon wedge in it every time our drinks were about to finish. We did not even have to look at her; there would just be another diet coke sitting on the table as soon we got done with the first one.
The two things at this iftar that we were thankful for were the kids buffet and the desserts section. There was a separate little area for the fussy eaters which our 8 month old loved. Dua couldn’t have enough of the smiley faced potato cutlets while Mishal and I loved the Umm Ali (Arabic bread pudding). The Gulab Jaman (deep fried spongy balls soaked in rose scented syrup) were kept in a hot dish and I created my own dessert by topping them with soft serve ice cream. So what could have been a lacklustre experience ended up being a 900 word review thanks to the awesome staff and lots of sugar. I recommend that you do visit this restaurant for Iftar. The food may not be way up there yet but the value proposition, service excellence, exotic interiors and plenty of sugar may just make it worth your while.
I may well have eaten a couple of thousand shawarmas in my lifetime so 20 or 30 more in the name of research were to do me no harm!
I may well have eaten a couple of thousand shawarmas in my lifetime so 20 or 30 more in the name of research were to do me no harm! I wish this article had space for more than 11 because I was absolutely spoilt for choice between the Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Turkish and even Greek versions of the popular street food. I have listed my favourite 11 but by no means do you have to agree with me! In fact, I would love your comments and suggestions on places that I may have missed out. So without further ado, I present to you, 11 of the top shawarma joints in Dubai.
11) Barasti, Dubai Marina. Power House Wrap – AED 60.
Go ahead, judge me. Mishal did too. “You have lost it” is what she said to me when I told her that Barasti makes one of the best shawarmas in Dubai. “Never mind if it is good or not”, she said. “It’s not even a shawarma!” “Well technically it is a wrap and it has chicken in it” I told her. “That is exactly what a shawarma is” “So it doesn’t have heaps of garlic sauce or a pickle or grilled chicken from a rotating spit but it does have Japanese mayo and cheddar cheese and breaded chicken from a fryer! And who needs French fries in their wrap, not only do they take up space where there could have been more meat, they are not even remotely Arabic.” I think I won that argument; plus shawarma or not, who can argue with the convenience of a greasy wrap after a big night out, without making any additional stops on the way home.
10) Shawermania, JLT. Burger Shawarma – AED 20.
Hardcore shawarma fans and purists might put a bounty on my head for this but that is a risk I am willing to take. I believe in constant innovation. The only thing constant in life is change. If we can’t try new things, we just cannot improve or innovate. The guys at Shawermanaia have ditched the pita and saj for the burger bun. It is a strange combination that works. Your first impression is as if you just bit into a nice old Philly steak sandwich. As you explore further, there is an explosion of Arabic spices and garlic. You suddenly find yourself teleported to the land of falcons, sand dunes, camels and belly dancers.
9) IKEA. Chicken Shawarma
Klippan loveseat: check. Stockholm rug: check. Chicken Shawarma: check. This is probably the only Swedish shawarma on the list and like everything else Swedish, it gets the job done. They don’t cut back on the chicken or pretend that the French fries are made of meat like one pathetic (and famous) shawarma chain I don’t want to name. It has garlic paste, pickles, a few fries and chicken (lots of it). I never knew simplicity could taste so good.
Doesn’t matter how good your Tahina is or how much garlic you smother on the bread, if your meat is not of a high quality, it will show. The folks at Automatic know this. I would be upset if they didn’t because they have been in Dubai longer than I have! Expect perfectly charred strips of succulent lamb, creamy tahini sauce, coriander, some fries and slightly toasted pita! Mmmm mm mm. 😉
7) Filful, Box Park. Chicken Shawarma – AED 12.
Go for the place, stay for the taste. This is a hipster café/Beiruti street food joint and upscale Boxpark eatery with creative interiors all rolled into one. If you haven’t been or don’t like shawarmas, please do visit for an authentic Lebanese street food experience. It is the next best thing after hopping on a plane to Beirut.
6) Aroos Damascus, Muraqabat Street Deira, Shawarma meat or chicken – 6 AED.
More than half of you would not have heard of this place and unless you are brave enough to cross the bridge and land on Muraqqabat street near the Dubai clock tower most of you will never be able eat here either. I pity you all. You have not really had an authentic Dubai experience if you have not eaten at this Syrian restaurant in old Dubai. You will understand what I mean once you see the number of cars outside, or the 80 waiters doing laps between the cars, the kitchen and the 400 tables inside.
Tip: Take the metro to Salah al Din Station and just walk for 3 minutes if the weather permits.
5) YaSalam, JLT. Superfood Shawarma – 25 AED
The harmless looking pita bread that blankets the meat and pickles you hold in your hand carries 266 calories per 100 grams. Go ahead, google it. To put into perspective, you burn a 100 calories by brisk walking for 20 minutes. For times like this when some smart ass makes you feel fat and miserable and all you want to do is eat healthy even if it is just for a day or 2; read on. Lean chicken breast, quinoa, slices of beetroot and avocado, sundried tomato and balsamic dressing all wrapped in a brown multi grain bread. I burned some calories just by thinking about it.
Craving a late night shawarma? Do not fear if Zaroob is near or if you don’t mind travelling down to the World Trade Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road. Yes this place is open 24 hours and they really do make a killer shawarma. Authentic Lebanese flavors await, regardless of the time. Another high end joint from the new wave of ‘cool’ Arabic restaurants. Attracts families, office types and a younger crowd, the latter mostly after the midnight hour as they stuff their mouths with pocket sized meat delights before heading home to crash.
3) Operation Falafel, JBR. Chicken Shawarma in Saj bread – AED 20.
These guys take their falafels seriously and they also make one of the best chicken shawarmas in Dubai. The Saj bread somehow enhances the flavor of the garlic paste but there is less of it so it shines through without ever overpowering the rest of the ingredients. This results in a well rounded and balanced shawarma. This is posh street food, if there could be such a thing. Expect to see a cooler crowd than many of the other joints because of the location.
When you do go here next, please do order the traditional pizza. I know this article is about shawarmas but Zaatar w Zeit have adopted the Pizza as their own and it has now become more Lebanese than Italian. I know it has a super thin crust and heaps of mozzarella but I haven’t quite been able to figure out what makes this pizza as good as it is. Oh yes, and now the Shawarma. So if this Lebanese joint can make Sicilian street food it’s own, imagine what it would have done with Beiruti street food? PS It is also open 24 hours.
1) Al Mallah, Satwa. Lamb Shawarma -AED 7.
Nostalgia wins again! This used to be our go to place for shawarmas in college and not much has changed since then. Yes a lot of fancy joints have opened up since then and I also have a little more money to ‘live it up’ but the Al Mallah lamb shawarma still has no equal. Succulent lamb meat, a liberal dash of creamy tahini and fresh coriander with mint; a formula that has worked wonders for 20 or so years and continues to do so.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.