Abu Dhabi Eats
This curious, glamorous, sprawling metropolis does nothing by halves – including the food, writes Tatyana Leonov.
Architectural feats, motor races, culinary delights – whatever you think of – someone in Abu Dhabi has probably won an award for it. With a population of over 2.5 million (and increasing by one baby every two minutes and 48 seconds according to recently released official figures), anyone and everyone in the food scene is trying to keep up, catch up, and make a name for themselves within the desert metropolis.
According to one survey, expatriates account for around 88.5 per cent of the country’s total population. So what does this actually mean when it comes to food? Chefs, restaurateurs, even street stall vendors, all need to cater to the 200 di#erent nationalities that now call the United Arab Emirates home. And Abu Dhabi? This bustling and glitzy city is at the epicentre of the exploding United Arab Emirates gastronomy scene – booming with sophistication and oozing with style.
“More established chefs and restaurateurs are opening up in the UAE,” says Jade George, who oversees the Middle East for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. “There's certainly a market for it considering the purchasing power of the consumer market in Abu Dhabi, and just how into food ! and particularly fine dining ! they are," she said.
There’s not just one superstar chef working in one top-notch restaurant leading the culinary wave. In fact, many of Abu Dhabi’s fine-dining restaurants, mostly located inside ostentatious hotels, are fast gaining recognition on the global stage.
You could trace the emergence of a fine-dining culture back to 2009, when Marco Pierre White opened Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. Some say he was one of the first to see the potential in Abu Dhabi ! a pioneer, paving the way for the culinary explosion that’s taking place today.
In 2010, came Hakkasan, a high-end Chinese restaurant from the well-known Michelin-star stable, which opened at Emirates Palace. Head chef Lee Hua has worked in some of the world’s most famous kitchens, including as executive sous chef at the original Hakkasan Hanway Place in London. On quiet nights you’ll often find him chatting to diners about his latest delectable dish. He believes education equals appreciation.
Another recent venture that opened earlier this year is Catalan, located in the new lavish Rosewood Abu Dhabi hotel. Bringing an authentic Barcelona experience straight to the desert, two-Michelin star chef Antonio Saez even flies in the best Catalonian olive oil to make sure the dishes really do taste genuinely Spanish.
And it doesn’t stop. Residents and travellers alike can’t get enough when it comes to fine dining. After all, the United Arab Emirates is known for doing things the luxe way. The most recent venture is Michelin-starred celebrity chef Gary Rhodes’ first Abu Dhabi restaurant, Rhodes 44, located at The St Regis Hotel. The à-la-carte menu comprises a beguiling blend of European and British classics (Gary’s signature style) fused with Middle Eastern cuisine.
The restaurant scene is booming, and now restaurateurs, chefs and hotel managers are stepping out of the square to attract people to come ! and come back. At the contemporary Arabic restaurant, Mijana, in The Ritz-Carlton, you’ll find Mohammad Daoud. The resident camel milk mixologist, blends camel milk with a range of ingredients, including banana, chocolate, cinnamon, mint and nuts. The interesting concept came about when Mohammad sought to create a special drink before Ramadan: “Because camel milk has a high level of protein and additional nutrients, it’s an excellent beverage to consume during Sohour, the meal taken prior to sunrise for Muslims fasting during Ramadan,” he says.
The drink proved so popular that he’s now making hot camel milk-based beverages, such as cappuccinos and lattes.
If you’re craving something sweet, Giornotte is just a short stroll from Mijana, and the desert bar there is chockers with delicious dessert selections. For more sweets, this time sprinkled with 24-carat gold, Le Café at The Emirates Palace, is the place to go. Your cake selection and hot drink of choice can both come speckled with delicate tiny flakes of gold ! decadent, yet so fabulously fitting in the sumptuous setting.
Just looking for a local meal in a relaxed setting? Cafe Arabia is a quirky, arty space, where diners always seem to stay longer than intended, lounging on the plush sofas talking politics, love and food. Interesting art works (mostly local) are scattered throughout the eatery, and large glass lanterns further enhance the already-kooky-cool ambience. The menu features a decent selection of both Western and Emirati food, but if you find yourself here, go local.
The dips are divine: large, creamy-looking flavoursome portions that are just the right consistency for bread-mopping.
For even larger portions, the mains at Saudi Kitchen are so huge you may opt to share. The lamb madfoon is a must. The slow-cooked meat is tender and melt-inyour- mouth so$. And yes, it is a little touristy, but a visit to Arabian Nights Village, located in the Al Khatim Desert, is an antithesis of the stereotyped dune bashing, belly dancing, and barbeque desert tour most visitors do while visiting the UAE. The village is a purpose-built traditional ‘camp’, and guests can stay in luxe hotel rooms built within reconstructions of tradition palm, mud or sea-dweller houses. The delicious evening dinner experience offers authentic cuisine in a desert setting.
As the sun sets, and you sit back and relax with a freshly brewed traditional tea, perhaps an Iranian sweet or stuffed date, it’s easy to forget that that the hustle and bustle of Abu Dhabi is only an hour away.
For the more adventurous traveller
1. For the morning catch, get up early and head to the Mina fish souk. It’s located at the marina and local freshly caught seafood will often include juicy prawns, shrimp, crabs, clams, tuna and skate. Not into DIY fishmongering? Or cooking? An onsite fish cleaner will scale, gut and filet your fish for you, and a cook will turn it into lunch or dinner – right then and there.
2. Across the road the Mina fruit and vegetable souk is a bustling colourful hive of activity, and a great spot to pick up seasonal, fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as dried figs, dates and other local goods.
3. Pick your own organic internationally certified local produce at Abu Dhabi Organic Farm (book ahead). The farm started off with just a few workers, but because of the public’s increasing interest in embracing a healthy lifestyle, demand for the produce quickly grew, and today the farm has over 120 staff working with over 70 types of fruits, as well as honey, milk, fish and meat.