Dubai: Opulent dining in the world's newest foodie capital
Published 04/04/2016 | 02:30
Mary O'Sullivan eats and drinks her way around the fast-developing foodie destination that is Dubai.
I love travel, but I hate long flights, and find the palaver at airports really irritating. Somehow though, it all went surprisingly well as I hit the ground in Dubai.
The customs men smiled at me, the immigration guys joked with me about my terrible passport photo and the taxi driver who brought me to my sleek hotel in downtown Dubai - the JW Marriott Marquis - was positively beaming.
The lovely Laoise Molloy, assistant director of PR at the hotel, who hails from Skerries, Dublin, immediately shed light on the general air of goodwill; there is now a minister for happiness in the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part.
Dubai loves to be the tallest, the biggest, the best, and there are tons of superlatives in this extraordinary city: the wonderful JW Marriott Marquis is the highest hotel in the world, the gold souq is the biggest in the world and it's home to the heaviest gold ring in the world, the Star of Taiba.
So now Dubai aspires to be the happiest city in the world. Cynics may scoff that it's a typical Dubai attention-grabbing wheeze, but if it makes people nicer, bring it on.
Something that makes most people happy is delicious food, and I was lucky enough to be there for the 2016 Dubai Food Festival. Virtually everything we did was connected in some way with food, and it was all mouthwatering, from the five-star meals in our hotels - we also stayed in the Waldorf Astoria on the Palm - to the street food in Old Dubai; even the camel stew savoured under the stars in the desert was delish.
Our first meal was a fabulous lunch in the Marriott's La Farine restaurant followed by a late afternoon swim in the outdoor pool. Then it was on to a food tour called Naif by Night. Everyone has an image of Dubai as a place of glitz and glamour, with the biggest and newest of everything - and it is that, but there are old areas full of character, and Naif is one of them. Arva Ahmed, the delightful owner of Frying Pan Adventures, guided us around the bustling area, a melting pot of different nationalities, particularly Indians, Iranians and Ethiopians.
The area is teeming with small wholesalers selling everything from sweets to saris to sellotape, and tiny bakeries - where bakers sporting turbans, topis and other woven caps signifying their origins - flung dough around while taking time out to joke with us and pose for photos. Arva filled us in on the history of the area, while street traders on bikes dispensed all sorts of aromatic delicacies in paper bags.
We sipped the local Karak chai - black tea brewed with leaves and mixed with evaporated milk and sugar. Surprisingly addictive. We snacked on parotta - a layered bread filled with eggs and cream cheese - and kachori, a fritter-like cousin of the samosa, stuffed with a spicy lentil paste.
Later we dined at an Indian restaurant called Delhi and ate nihari, a traditional Indian beef dish, simmered for over 12 hours, and drank rosewater cola. Arva then brought us to Ethiopian coffee shops - coffee is supposed to have originated in Ethiopia - where a potent brew is served in tiny thimble-style cups.
As we wove in and out of the darkening streets we passed many mosques - unobtrusive buildings with only piles of prayer mats and shoes outside to indicate the worshipping within. According to Arva, Dubai is a tolerant society and she pointed out a mosque that had as its neighbours both Hindu and Sikh temples. Apparently there's also a minister for tolerance in Dubai.
The next morning Arva had us up early at the fish market in Deira, another of the old neighbourhoods. Fish is a very important part of the Dubai story; right up to the mid-19th century, Dubai, which is built on a creek, was a fishing village and its people subsisted on fishing and diving for pearls. Then the Bani Yas, a small tribe of about 800 people, settled in the area and developed it from a village to a town.
These were enterprising people, one of whom, Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum, decided to entice foreigners by making the area a tax-free haven as far back as 1894. The Maktoums have ruled Dubai ever since - the current ruler is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum - and their plans have become more and more grandiose, resulting in what can only be described as the world's largest playground.
After a breakfast of regag - crispy bread stuffed with eggs, cream cheese and fish sauce - we toured the markets and watched fascinated as women covered head to toe in abayas, and niqabs covering their faces, scrutinised the hundreds of varieties of fish on sale while their companions haggled with the traders about prices. It was the same scenario at the fruit market where the dates and nuts were piled high.
The markets were followed by a trip to the elegant former home of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, the grandfather of the present ruler. It is now a museum depicting the old way of life, including separate reception rooms for men and women - not always a bad thing.
Lunch was a feast prepared by Arva's friend Hussein. It started with ash, an Iranian soup made with seven herbs and five beans, followed by gabgoob (boiled blue crabs) and ghormeh sabzi, an Iranian herb stew. Dessert was luqaimat, fritters drizzled with date syrup and sesame seeds.
Like beached whales at that stage, we dragged ourselves - or rather Alpha Tours ferried us - to the textile souq, also in Deira, and bargained for trousers, then went on to the spice souq, with its heady scents of rose petals, frankincense and nigella seeds, which, according to the prophet Mohammed, can cure everything except death.
Then it was time for the gold souq. I could have spent days wandering around, perusing the dazzling displays of gold jewellery, including the famous Star of Taiba, and enjoying the wheeling and dealing, but the Museum of Dubai in Bur Dubai beckoned.
Housed in the oldest building in Dubai, which dates from 1799, outside it has reconstructed versions of traditional dwellings made of palm branches, and fishing boats, while inside there are audiovisuals explaining the origins of Dubai.
One highlight for me was a homage to the camel. In the old days, the Bedouins depended on the camel for everything, including meat, milk, clothing, transport and even fuel (they burned the dung to cook with). Camels can go without water for weeks, even months - a vital talent when water is in short supply.
Bastakia, a perfectly preserved warren of lanes, once an enclave of the wealthy, was next. The lanes are lined with galleries and restaurants, housed in the former homes of the rich merchants, with their wind towers - useful in times when there was no air conditioning.
Dinner back at the Marriott was what's known as a dine-around; each course was served in a different restaurant, each award-winning. We had Italian appetisers in Positano, salmon marinated in papaya in the Peruvian-themed Garden while our main course was served in Rang Mahal, headed up by the world-famous Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar. Hard to believe we managed dessert, a combination of chocolate layer cake, brownie and chocolate tart. It was called Valrhona Journey in Chocolate, evincing a sigh from my dining companion: "I'm on a chocolate journey and I'm not coming back."
You could never be hungry in the JW Marriott Marquis - its restaurants include a cafe at the top of the hotel open 24/7, where you can enjoy the views while having excellent coffee, pastries and fruit, all complimentary.
Our eating jag wasn't over. The next day it was on to the Palm, and the uber-luxurious Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah, complete with marble halls and crystal chandeliers. You know you're in the lap of luxury when your bedroom comes with stunning sea views, towelling-lined silk robes and Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries.
On arrival we went straight to the terrace and enjoyed the soft lapping of the sea as we contemplated the hotel's famous Sunday brunch. It was a hedonistic feast, with every kind of food imaginable. As we got up to go to the buffet, our hostess Coryanne Draper explained the Dubai brunch strategy, the essence of which is that the meal is a marathon and one starts with the lighter elements, like seafood. I had prawns, crayfish, salmon and then moved on to steak and much more - who can resist truffle mash? - finishing up with chocolate marquise and meringues, just two of 25 different desserts on offer.
We had the sense to drag ourselves away from the table finally and work off some of the pounds in a swim in the sea - bliss. Afterwards we repaired to a cabana by the pool for a few drinks, while all around guests smoked the shisha waterpipe - apparently the Bedouins claimed it aided digestion.
We took our lead from the Bedouins the next day and headed into the desert. Much of Dubai was desert up to 10 years ago, so we didn't have far to travel, about 75km.
Led by the environmentally aware Platinum Heritage group we piled into old army jeeps and enjoyed a bumpy ride through the dunes, our guide pointing out the flora and fauna of the area - including the deer-like oryx, with their big beautiful eyes.
We also enjoyed a talk about the Bedouins and how they used the falcon for hunting. Then, of course, there was more food, this time camel stew - tender and tasty. Afterwards we relaxed under the inky sky, before going back to the Waldorf Astoria and its many comforts.
I had had a hectic food, sun, sea and fun-filled four days and it was only on my last day that I embarked on those most touristy of things, shopping in the Dubai Mall and climbing to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
Everything about the Burj Khalifa is impressive: its design, based on a desert flower, the views, the extremely fast, vertigo-inducing lift that brings you to the viewing deck on the 124th floor (the floors above are apartments owned by some of the wealthiest people in the world) - even the fact that the soap in the toilets is Molton Brown.
Dubai is all can-do attitude - and you have to love it. It's hard to believe that less than 10 years ago there was only desert and sand where many of its extraordinary, shiny skyscrapers now stand. Dubai sees its future in tourism, and while it achieved its target of 10 million visitors in 2010, as always in Dubai, they're aiming higher: 20 million by 2020 - and it's looking good for them.
A five-star destination in Dubai, the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai is the world's tallest hotel. It features over 1,600 guest rooms and suites spread out across two towers, six restaurants, nightclubs, bars, a pool and a spa. See jwmarriottmarquisdubailife.com.
The Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah boasts a private, 200-metre long soft-sanded beach, six restaurants and lounges and elegant sea-facing guest rooms and suites. The hotel also hosts the Waldorf Astoria Spa, three pools, including one for children. See www.waldorfastoria.com
For desert safaris see platinum-heritage.com. For a foodie tour of Dubai from Frying Pan Adventures, see fryingpanadventures.com. For tours of the city, visit alphatoursdubai.com. For more information visit visitdubai.com.
Take Three: Top attractions
As you might expect, it can be hot in Dubai, after all it's essentially a desert area and so in August it can soar to 43 degrees. However, the temperature was lovely in March, and apparently December, January and February are similar, all usually around 25 degrees - so these are probably the ideal months to visit unless you want to sizzle. And of course, the sea there is wonderful for cooling off.
The Dubai Mall
It's only the second biggest shopping mall in the world, but with 1,200 shops it's pretty substantial and one could spend days there, enjoying the designer labels and stuffing oneself at the cafes and sweetshops. There are tons of attractions here too, including the sharks and crocodiles at the Dubai Aquarium (pictured) and Underwater Zoo and a dinosaur Diplodocus Longus, which was discovered in the US in 2008 and shipped over.
A little boat called an abra brings people across the creek for less than €1 and as you cross you can take in the dhows, or old merchant ships, that are still in use, lined up on the quayside against the backdrop of modern skyscrapers. The short boat journey takes you across to the souqs - where you can buy spices, nuts, dates, gold, pashminas and camel milk chocolate.
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