Hakeem’s Kababji Grill.

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

Malvina Reynolds.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Kababji Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Jones the grocer and his factory.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

PS That cola juice….

Yasir Chaudhry.

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Jones The Grocer Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato