Eating in Dubai
Published: February 2013
By Gary Shteyngart
It is nonstop, high energy, and over the top, a land of superlatives and hyperbole—not to mention Lebanese meze, fresh sushi, Pakistani curry, Italian pasta, and drinks atop the tallest building in the world.
“Do You Have the Code?”
It is a ninety-five-degree October day in Dubai. I am standing on the back lawn of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, the one scaled by Tom Cruise in the latest of his Mission: Not Possible movies, facing a dapper African security guard. But, unlike Mr. Cruise, I do not have the code. What I have is heatstroke. The Kenyan sentry appraises the melting man before him. “Oh, no, sir, I can’t let you in,” he says. “You have to be dressy. You have to be,” he takes his time, relishing the word: “eh-le-gant.”
Chastened, I shuffle off to the circular drive filled with Ferraris and Maseratis that separates the world’s tallest tower from the world’s biggest mall. Fashion: Impossible announces a giant Bloomingdale’s poster. The mall gives on to a man-made creek that leads to a fake souk that turns back into a real mall, then twists into a garage and then circles back to become a mall again. Oblivious to the heat, a gaggle of ex-U.S.S.R. girls are sitting on the souk/mall’s restaurant patio smoking shisha pipes. A woman in a black niqab shovels biryani past her veil, while her uncovered daughter makes quick work of an iPad. I stare at the glistening top of the world’s tallest building, which looks like a beautiful steel flower reaching out to the desert skies. Before being stopped by security, I had been trying to get to the At.mosphere restaurant, the world’s highest. All I wanted was some lunch.
“The Confirmation Code Has Been Sent to Your Room, Sir”
Now we’re getting somewhere. I thank the concierge and hang up my bedside phone, which is about the size of my first 1980’s Apple computer. I’m staying in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel, one of the twin Emirates towers, which look like crisp space-age steam irons against the busy Dubai skyline. Gazing out my window, I see an ocher construction site resembling a fresh Zuni fortification. Beyond it, somewhere in the haze, is a coastline. I dash to the shower, put on my blazer, and wait for the At.mosphere confirmation code to be slipped under the door. Success! I read the code aloud in case an unlikely wind sweeps off the Persian Gulf and deposits it in the lunar dust of another construction site. A4DE1, A4DE1, A4DE1.
An hour later, my taxi is stuck on the multi-multilane insanity known as Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s principal thoroughfare. Unless I tell you otherwise, I am writing every word of this while stuck in traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road, lost between dozens of reflective green skyscrapers, with the Indian cabdriver blasting Virgin Radio FM, usually “Like a G6” by Far East Movement, or some other song about expensive planes, trains, and helicopters.
To ascend to the world’s highest restaurant in the world’s tallest building, one goes through the Armani Hotel. The action heats up. After I present my credentials at reception, an elegant Chinese woman with a British accent takes me through the stylishly morose lobby to an elevator that takes us down to a second lobby, where I am handed over to a statuesque Russian with a Russian accent. Many key cards are swiped along the way, into elevators, into turnstiles. And then, finally, I am zooming up at 33 feet per second into the future, as my ears pop and pop some more.
Gentlemen are Expected to Spend at Least 200 Dirhams
I’m not sure if Dubai has its own anthem or coat of arms, but if it does it should definitely include the words minimum spending for gentlemen is AED 200. This is the sign that greets me at the entrance to the At.mosphere Lounge and will follow me around my week in Dubai. At this point, I am ready to eat my 200 dirhams (about $50). Instead, I am offered afternoon tea. The highest high tea in the world, natch.
I have ascended into the bosom of female Dubai expat society, surrounded by Marina Marys and Jumeirah Janes, those wonderful British ladies in flowery dresses who keep the local real-estate market from plummeting into the Arabian Gulf. In the pleasant circular room, I nibble on truffle-and-egg sandwiches and drink down my Laurent-Perrier Brut as the harpist serenades us. Outside the 122nd-floor window: Dubai.
The sun sets bleakly over the sail-like extravagance of the Burj Al Arab, the exceedingly luxurious hotel moored on an artificial island to the north. Closer by, the faces of the ruling sheikhs of the United Arab Emirates drape a small skyscraper, a strange reminder that there are actually people in the country, citizens, I suppose, who are not Indian or Pakistani or Russian or British or German. A thousand airplane warning lights are blinking off a thousand skyscrapers as the sun sets. Gigantic cooling fans are spinning within the incomplete ruins of half-finished buildings. Beyond them a cartography of growing desire: malls, housing estates, artificial lagoons, the endless lunar sands of further construction. A Russian-accented Asian woman named Valeria, surely from one of the Stans, deposits a tray of macarons before me. If you could hear the multilane traffic of Sheikh Zayed Road it would sound something like Henderson the Rain King’s “I want, I want, I want.”
I Want a Drink
I’ve come to Dubai to write a story about food. My friend, the lovely Nouf Al-Qasimi, has joined me on this mission. She is a Yale-educated, Santa Fe–based foodie whose family lives in a gracious, jasmine-scented compound in Abu Dhabi. As with many Abu Dhabians, Nouf’s view of Dubai, the brasher, far more outrageous emirate, can be summarized with an arched eyebrow.
I meet up with Nouf at the bar and restaurant Teatro, in the Towers Rotana Hotel Dubai, another heap of reflective blue glass on Sheikh Zayed Road. Nouf wants to introduce me to Pat, the Indian manager of Teatro, who seems to know all of Dubai, from the highest rulers to the lowest punters. Teatro’s bar, a standard-looking rectangle lost beneath a healthy cloud of old-fashioned smoke, is where Dubai’s populace feels most comfortable. We’re listening to an instrumental version of “Like A Virgin” beneath portraits of Clark Gable. Pat examines my list of Dubai eateries: “No. Bad. Awful. No soul. Okay.” I cheerfully cross off the offending places. “The thing about Dubai,” Pat says, “is it’s all steel and chrome—the heart is elusive.”
We are joined by Nader Sobhan, an old classmate of Nouf’s at Yale. Born in Rome to Bangladeshi parents and speaking perfect American English, Nader is the consummate Dubai resident: a son of three countries who lives in exactly none of them. I am immediately pleased by his short stature and hirsuteness, traits that I happily share.
Nader’s full name means “rare glory,” and he foresees our evening very clearly. Tonight we will skip the towers of the center, the “steel and chrome,” to quote Pat, and head across the Dubai Creek for a glimpse of something real. And so, along with Nader and his Chinese girlfriend, we cram into a taxi and leave behind the heroic skyscrapers and well-groomed malls for a land called Deira.
With its 1980’s architecture in disrepair, Deira reminds me of the New York borough of Queens on an especially humid day. There are Cyrillic signs everywhere advertising MEX, or “fur” in Russian. Our first stop is the Japanese restaurant Kisaku, up on the top floor of the disheveled Al Khaleej Palace Hotel. The quotient of actual Japanese salarymen is high here, the décor is minimal, the food is authentic and superb and although gentlemen will probably spend more than 200 dirhams, there are no signs commanding them to do so.
There’s thinly sliced hammour, the endangered but oh-so-delicious local grouper fish. There’s ika natto, thinly sliced cuttlefish with fermented soybeans, and fatty tuna that looks positively marbled. Along with the NHK channel on the TV and the clink of sake glasses hitting marble, all the classics of a hardworking Japanese bar are present: agedashi tofu, smooth and creamy, capped with prodigious amounts of bonito flake; vinegar-drenched seaweed; a nice, crisp dish of burdock root. Most of all, there’s “tubular fried fish cake,” which defies all interpretation but leaves us in awe of its many clashing textures and its singular wistful note of the sea.
Welcome to the Desert of the Real
Another friend of Nader’s joins us for dinner, and herein we run into an interesting dilemma. Fresh from his long day working for a financial company, his friend is wearing the traditional white kandora. The bars that Nader wants to take us to, however, do not allow men in “national dress.” This seems like the ultimate irony—U.A.E. citizens not allowed to enter a bar in their native land.
And so those of us in Western dress head for the African Garage Club, in the Ramee International Hotel in Nasser Square. Entering the democratic confines of the Garage after spending half the day begging for admittance to the world’s tallest building is like falling from the stratosphere into a small but welcome oasis. Everything here is sweaty and human and real. The theme is vaguely automotive. The clientele sit in hollowed-out cars, and the bar at the back is fitted inside the windows of an ancient bus, perhaps imported from Africa or the subcontinent. There’s a portrait of Jimi Hendrix over the stage, supervising some serious guitar- and drum-driven South African jams. On the dance floor, the women are dancing so hard, they’re practically doing push-ups.
We peel off from the Garage on a highway that sparkles with decorations for the Eid al-Adha holiday, the Feast of the Sacrifice. At night, the Burj Khalifa is as good a skyscraper as it gets, sparkly like tinsel, monumental like the Empire State Building. All alone up there above the malls and the sands, it looks like it could use a friend.
The Best Meal in Dubai
Nouf’s mother is from Lebanon, a country with a cuisine of such sophistication that it often startles me that every other restaurant in the world does not serve meze. Al Nafoorah, the Lebanese restaurant in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, is just an elevator ride away from me, but it is by far the best meal I will have in Dubai. During the colder (read: still insanely hot) months, it is possible to dine outdoors beneath the lit-up palms. The air is infused with scent. You can smell Al Nafoorah’s tasty hookahs and charcoal grill from a skyscraper away.
My method here is to take a puff of the mint-grape shisha, take a sip of martini (in the Lebanese style this is simply Martini-brand vermouth, served, for some reason, in a margarita glass), eat something completely unexpected, and then listen to Nouf explaining what on earth I just ate. There are the sautéed chicken livers drizzled with pomegranate sauce, the smoothest, tastiest chicken livers I’ve ever had. “The richness of the liver is like a narcotic,” Nouf says, “but the sharpness of the pomegranate keeps you awake.” Muhammara means “reddened,” she explains, as in the gorgeous dip of chili paste, bread crumbs, walnuts, and olive oil that I follow up with puffs of smoke, letting the mint from the shisha hit the back of my scalded palate. Then there are tiny birds—assafir, pan-fried ortolan—again in pomegranate sauce, a little finger snack from heaven, though those who object to swallowing an entire animal in one bite should give it a wide berth. “It’s like you’re eating fried chicken in reverse,” Nouf says, because the crunch comes at the very end. The dishes pile up. A pickle platter bearing turnip, cauliflower, and Armenian bitter melon. Cold minced lamb with raw onion. Freshly sautéed dandelion root with onion and olive oil. All this bounty is scooped up with saj, a paper-thin unleavened bread that makes ordinary pita look stupid. By the end of the meal I am a confirmed mezeholic.
“Do You Have the Code?”
Oh, God, not again. Nouf and I are standing at the edge of Madinat Jumeirah, an enormous resort comprising 80 acres of Arabian-themed insanity. We are trying to get to Pierchic, the resort’s seafood restaurant built at the end of a long pier. The restaurant has not sent me the code. But I do have a room key to the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, a sister hotel, which impresses a man in uniform enough so that we are allowed in; that is to say, we are deemed of the right class. After 30 minutes of walking across innumerable bridges, bumping into a strange Thai statue that I mistake for a waitress and try to reason with, and catching a lift from a buggy driven by a Hindi-speaking man, we arrive at Pierchic.
The restaurant is most perfect in the dark, with the sail of the Burj Al Arab twinkling in the near distance, its helipad perched over the water like an offering plate, tables of well-heeled French and English families floating through the night alongside us. From this vantage point, Dubai after sunset looks interplanetary. We hear the slap of the waves against the pier, and the slap of fish in the water, and order a pan-fried sea bass and an equally pan-fried halibut. These two taste average; the best part of the meal lives under the sea bass, a mash of veal bacon and Savoy cabbage that we pick at for an hour while the worried server hovers over us with the eternal Dubai question: “Is everything to your liking, Mr. Gary?”
Before we arrived at Pierchic, Nouf and I had been to a birthday party at 360° Bar at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, another off-shore establishment in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab. There, we met Texan pilots, French skydiving instructors, and entire platoons of pink-faced, Dockers-wearing U.K. and Commonwealth expats. Between the inhalations of copious amounts of expensive alcohol, the talk, as always, was of Dubai’s ruling family, the most fascinating topic in the Emirates.
“They own four 737’s.”
“They use a C-130 as a station wagon.”
“They go falconing in Pakistan.”
“They have a private island and they stop military air traffic when the crown prince needs a lift home.”
“They see a restaurant they like in London or Paris and they just buy one for Dubai.”
Back on the buggy to the mainland, a drunk Australian in a fedora and pink oxford shirt squeezes in next to me and drapes his arm around my shoulder. Pointing to the approaching skyline of Dubai, he shouts: “I oin this town! I bloody oin it!”
He’s got the code.
Just For the Record
By now the reader may be wondering, Where is the best view of Dubai proper as seen from an establishment jutting out into the Gulf? The answer is: the 101 Bar at the One&Only The Palm resort, which hangs off the crescent of the enormous palm-shaped archipelago of artificial islands. This watering hole and restaurant is built on stilts, giving it a Seychelles kind of feel. It is entirely free of drunken expats, catering instead to a more sedate crowd, including the monied locals who actually “oin” this town. The view of the Dubai Marina lighting up the shoreline like an instant Manhattan is easily the most romantic in the city, unless you’ve brought your own yacht.
Czar Nicholas’s Last Request
I begin the new day with a spicy, meaty breakfast at Ravi Restaurant, in the busy Satwa neighborhood, a stone’s throw but a world away from Dubai’s gleaming downtown. The Pakistani restaurant is a linoleum hole-in-the-wall, crammed with taxi drivers, low-level hotel staff, men in red worsted employee ties. There’s a bag of chopped onions in the refrigerator, along with gallons of Mountain Dew. There are hungry men expertly folding naan like handkerchiefs before dipping them into pools of spice. I eat a lula-style mutton kebab just for the fun of it, but the real star of the show is the nihari stew, on the breakfast menu. It’s the national dish of Pakistan: flaky, tender, just-off-the-bone meat studded with green peppercorns.
Slightly on fire, I stumble back to the Dubai Mall to visit the amazing new aquarium. Watching a tiger shark swim overhead is fun, but nothing beats the world’s smartest otters, who give their trainers high fives and could probably do your taxes if you asked them nicely enough.
The sea animals have rekindled my hunger. It is time for one of my last meals in the emirate. It is time to head back to the Armani Hotel, in the Burj Khalifa next door. But now I know the drill. Now I have all the codes I’ll ever need. Now I am Dubaian, smart as an otter.
I am joining Nader, the Rare Glory, for dinner at Armani/Ristorante. We enter the hushed, circular dining room with its tastefully beige décor. The nightly fountain show outside the artificial Burj Khalifa Lake is still going strong, and Nader points out the various dances being performed by the towering plumes of water: the Arabic Hair Dance, the Swinging Cane Dance.
In deference to local excess, we decide to order nearly all of our dishes off the truffle menu. A part of me wants to write the rest of this article as a Tom Wolfe homage. He was eating! The most! Expensive! Black truffle! In! The world’s! Tallest! Building! But I will restrain myself.
And then something happens that neither Nader nor I expect. The food proves to be as delicious as the view outside. The plump roasted scallops with celeriac and black truffle, the stracciatella cheese with artichoke, Parmesan, and black truffle—all are subject to slow chewing and contemplation. Nader remarks upon the authentic lack of red sauce in the dish of wild-boar pappardelle. My eggy tagliolini with white truffles is al dente to the massimo. We order a toothsome red wine for under $100, which may be the greatest bargain I’ve yet encountered in Dubai. I scan the coast for a gentlemen are expected to spend at least $200 on a bottle of chianti sign, but there is none. All we have in front of us is calm: the oatmeal tablecloth, the golden menus.
For dessert, we are presented with la sfera, which is essentially an edible Fabergé egg, made with vanilla cream, violet crème brûlée, and cassis sorbet. If poor Czar Nicholas II had been granted a last request, this would have been a good choice.
“I didn’t know dessert could be so good with truffle,” the tall Russian hostess exclaims to me as we leave.
“Everything taste good with zeh truffle,” I want to tell her, in my new Dubaian accent, which is neither Russian or American, but filled with rich, truffle-like sibilants.
Give me a few more weeks. I’ll oin this town.
Emirates offers nonstop flights to Dubai (DXB) from a number of U.S. cities. Travelers can also fly direct from Atlanta (ATL) on Delta.
Taxis are safe, ubiquitous, and affordable. Instead of traveling on Sheikh Zayed Road, try the Red Line Metro.
Al Khaleej Palace Hotel Al Makthoum Rd., Deira; alkhaleejpalace.net. $
Towers Rotana Hotel Dubai Sheikh Zayed Rd.; rotana.com. $
Eat and Drink
African Garage Club Ramee International Hotel, Nasser Square, Deira; rameehotels.com.
Armani/Ristorante Armani Hotel; armanihotels.com. $$$$
At.mosphere Lounge Burj Khalifa; burjkhalifa.ae. $$$
Kisaku Japanese Restaurant Al Khaleej Palace Hotel; 971-4/223-1000. $$$$
101 Dining Lounge & Bar One&Only The Palm; oneandonlyresorts.com. $$$
Ravi Restaurant Satwa Rd.; 971-4/331-5353. $
Teatro Towers Rotana Hotel Dubai; rotana.com. $$$$
3600 Bar Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Jumeirah Rd.; jumeirah.com.
Dubai Mall Shopping and aquarium. thedubaimall.com.
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